Judah Found No Rest

Dreams and Visions in the Wake of Tisha b’Av

Summer time, and the living is easy …” Carefree vacations, long summer days, and outdoor concerts. Alas, that’s not what my Jewish calendar says. There, I discover we are bein ham’tsarim, “in narrow places,” hemmed in, trapped! Bein ham’tsarim comes from Lamentations 1:3: “Judah found no rest; her pursuers overtook her in all the narrow places.” It is the period from the 17th of Tammuz, when the Temple walls were breached, to the ninth of Av, when the Temple was destroyed, not quite a time of mourning, but of seriousness, certainly, leading up to what is a mourning day, Tisha b’Av, the ninth of the month of Av itself.

Rom,_Titusbogen,_Triumphzug_wiki_Dnalor 01Destruction of the Temple

The narrative of Tisha b’Av centers on the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, then by the Romans in 70 CE. The Roman siege of Jerusalem implied the end of Jewish sovereignty in ancient Israel as well as the official onset of the Jewish diaspora. Traditionally, Jews around the world sit on floors or low benches, read from the Book of Lamentations and fast to commemorate historical destruction and other tragic events from throughout Jewish history.
The current attitude of the Reform movement toward Tisha b’Av is ambivalent, mirroring the movement’s historic-
al position that a fast day marking the end of the temple era is inconsistent with contemporary Judaism. For the founders of the movement, the destruction of the temple, however disastrous in its time, also sparked a new commitment, since it ended the temple cult and signaled an evolution of the Jewish People to the higher purpose of spreading God’s word throughout the world. Nonetheless, this period of bein ham’tsarim should turn us inward. The Temple was destroyed, say our sages, because of sins our ancestors committed. We prepare for Tisha b’Av best by admitting our own tendency to fall short of absolute virtue.

The prophet Joel

One of the biblical texts which vividly portray human dependence upon God is the Book of Joel. Hardly anyone reads the prophet Joel nowadays. In part, it is simply too painful. His opening vision of a plague is devastating. Then too, he reverses both Micah (4:3) and Isaiah (2:4) who promise a future when, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not take up sword against nation; They shall never again know war.” Joel turns it around. His idea of consolation is that Israel will prepare specifically for war; “They shall beat their plowshares into swords and their pruning hooks into spears” (4:10).
But there is another side to Joel. I learned it years ago, listening to Reform Jewish teenagers singing a melody by the popular composer Debbie Friedman: “Your old shall dream dreams, and your youth shall see visions” (Joel 3:1). At the time, so many years back, I identified with the youth who would see visions. Older now, I settle for the first part of the verse, dreams. But I admit it: dreams fall short of visions. Dreamers are not visionaries.

Gift of the holy spirit

Visionaries see promise beyond our present that the old dismiss as just a dream. Joel calls their visions chezyonot (singular: chizayon). A chizayon, says the Midrash, is one of ten names by which the gift of the holy spirit is known.
The reason this comes to mind is that Tisha b’av is preceded by Shabbat Chazon, “The Sabbath of Vision.” Chazon and chizayon are similar names for the same thing: “vision” – but a chazon is negative; a chizayon need not be. “Chazon denotes divine censure” says the medieval commentator Redak. It designates our failures, our sins, our historical nadirs. Shabbat Chazon, then, is not a happy Sabbath. It gets its name from its Haftarah reading, Isaiah 1:1, where the prophet envisions, “Your land will be desolate; your cities burned!”
Some commentators think chazon here refers not just to the haftarah, but to all of Isaiah, whose final verse (66:24) predicts maggot-infested corpses lying in the fields; “a horror to all flesh.” Traditionally, we follow 66:24 by rereading verse 66:23 (“All flesh will come to worship Me”) so as not to end on such a note of terror.

Youthful promise

Why does Isaiah see a terrifying chazon while Joel, living in no better time, and prone to seeing the worst anyway, sees a hopeful chizayon? The answer is that Joel himself does not see the chizayon. He can’t. By his own testimony, he can at best dream dreams. Only the youth get chezyonot. Our future always lies with youthful promise. So I ask: in the councils of power, our Federations, synagogues, and governing boards of institutions, where is the voice of our 20- and 30-year olds?
Truth is: usually, nowhere – partly by their own choice, but a choice conditioned by our failure to invite them in. We, the older generation, tend to look for every new chazon. The history we know best has prepared us for disasters around every corner. We even thrive on the threat of a chazon every so often. We raise money on it, galvanize the community around it. What we are not very good at – us elders, I mean – is trumpeting the promise of a chizayon, precisely what the next generation would bring.

Light of redemption

The Talmud rules that if the preparation day prior to Tisha b’Av falls on Shabbat, instead of limiting our joy then, “We may eat and drink all we need, even as much as a banquet of King Solomon” (Ta’anit 29b). A kabbalistic tradition extends the teaching to say that Shabbat releases the light of redemption, so when Shabbat and Tisha b’Av intertwine, even the sacred light hidden away in the tragic memory of Tisha b’Av can be freed. This report contains an important lesson: Even our deepest day of mourning has the promise of redemption. But redemption requires a chizayon of what might be, not just a chazon of what we think always was. We need a chizayon of tomorrow’s promise, not just a chazon that relives yesterday’s suspicions.
Even in a week devoted to fasting for our past, it is no mistake to imagine a glorious future – a future that comes soon, not in some far-off messianic era. That imagination is unlikely to come from a generation that has mostly known trauma. We need desperately to empower a new generation, unspoiled, unjaded, capable not just of passing dreams but of realizable and promising visions. Our forefathers knew about this need. The seven Haftarah readings that follow the mournful liturgy of Tisha b’Av are a rising crescendo of faith in a better time to come, culminating in the promise of Rosh Hashanah: the hope that God’s purposes will someday be realized worldwide. ■

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City


Photo Credit: Dnalor 01

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