Friday, July 10, 2009

Surviving and Transforming Crisis

Yesterday, the seventeenth of Tammuz on the Jewish calendar, was a day of fasting. According to Jewish tradition, on this date in the year 70 CE the Roman siege of Jerusalem breached the city walls. Three weeks later, on the ninth of Av, the city fell and the Temple was destroyed, ending one thousand years of Jewish sovereignty or autonomy in the land of Israel. Thus the three weeks between the seventeenth of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av are, by Jewish tradition, a time of mourning.

It was, therefore, a most appropriate day to learn more about how our tradition has responded to tragedy and crisis. The morning’s speaker was Melila Hellner-Eshed, who teaches Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University and the Conservative movement’s Jerusalem rabbinical seminary. Her topic was “Strategies for Surviving and Transforming Crisis from Midrash, Zohar and Hasidism.”

We began by learning, in hevruta groups, from texts that she selected for us. I was blessed with wonderful study partners: Yitz Miller, a rabbi from Santa Cruz, and Pat Fisher, a retired professor of public health from Chapel Hill, North Carolina (where her husband, Frank, is the retired Hillel director.) We spent almost three hours at our study table. Since the session was about surviving and transforming crises, we took some time at the outset to share our own personal crises. Pat opened, telling us how she survived the death of a child, a son who made aliyah at eighteen and died a year later in the first Lebanon war. From that moment, our learning was completely transformed, from intellectual exercise to deep nourishment for the head, the heart, and the spirit. We were no longer rabbis and laypeople studying abstract texts; we were companions supporting each other as we listened to words from our tradition.

We wrestled with the despair of Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”) sat in the dark with the prophet Micah, yearning for God’s light, experienced loss through the poetry of Zelda, Yehuda Amichai and Emily Dickinson, and struggled with a passage from the Zohar concerning the difficulty of finding words in time of anguish.

The most moving texts of all were the sermons of Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, delivered to a desperate congregation in the Warsaw Ghetto in the years leading up to its destruction. These are, literally, words of inspiration, of Torah, from out of the depths of hell. The reader senses that Rabbi Shapira knows very well that he and his entire community are doomed, and yet he never forgets his mission, which is to keep their souls alive, by Torah’s light, even when their bodies cannot go on. On September 13, 1941, he declared, “We can feel only a bone-crushing sensation throughout our body. The universe is blacked out for us. Day and night have ceased to exist.” And yet he urges his listeners to continue to cry out, to raise their voices, for as long as they continue to yearn for God, their souls remain uncrushed.

I am going to end this post with two poems that Melila used to conclude her session. The first, by Dalia Ravikovich, merges the poet’s personal domestic crisis with the tragedies of our shared national history, including this day, the 17th of Tammuz. The second, by Polish poet Leopold Staff, captures, magnificently, the amazement—to the point of disbelief—one often feels upon coming out at the other end of a crisis. His astonishment of having crossed to the other side of crisis is, I suspect, an emotion familiar to many of us.

Shabbat shalom to all!

History of the Individual

I told you nine words

You said so and so

You said: You have a child,

you have time and you have poetry.

The window bars were engraved into my skin

You wouldn’t believe I got through it.

I didn’t really have to

stand it, humanly speaking.

On the tenth of Tevet siege was laid

On the seventeenth of Tammuz a breach

Was made in the walls of the city

On the ninth of Av the temple was destroyed.

In all these I was alone.

-Dalia Ravikovich

The Bridge

I didn’t believe,

Standing on the bank of a river

Which was wide and swift,

That I would cross that bridge

Plaited from thin, fragile reeds

Fastened with bast.

I walked delicately as a butterfly

And heavily as an elephant,

I walked surely as a dancer

And wavered like a blind man.

I didn’t believe that I would cross that bridge,

And now that I am standing on the other side,

I don’t believe I crossed it.

-Leopold Staff

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