When I was a kid, and my brother and I used to play with the neighborhood children in Stuyvesant Town—kickball, or dodgeball, or running bases—there used to be a bit of an unspoken rule about when you could get a do-over. Another try to go back in time and do it better. A do-over was sometimes afforded to the younger kids so we could get another chance at bat after striking out too fast or if there were interference and some grownup or a truck got in the way. So you call a do-over. Did you have this as a kid?
Wouldn’t it be amazing to have adult do-overs today? I mean, if we were making the rules right now, wouldn’t we include this one? An interview where we flopped, a relationship that we betrayed and wish we hadn’t. A thing we said or a thing we forgot to say. Just to go back and get a do-over.
This week in our liturgical calendar, in our historical narrative, we get the makings of a do-over. We are in a time in our Jewish year called Bein Hametzarim—which means: between the straits, between the tight constricting places. Bein Hametzarim is a three week long period during which Jerusalem was conquered and the Holy Temple there was destroyed. This three week period begins with the 17th day of the month of Tammuz, which was just a few days ago. That is the day that the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Roman army. Three weeks after that is the 9th of Av, or Tisha B’av, the day we commemorate the destruction of the Temple itself.
During Bein Hametzarim, we re-enact our grief, our loss, our fear. We perform our emotions on and with our bodies. Traditionally, we don’t listen to music or have parties. We don’t cut our hair and on the first day and the last day, we fast, denying ourselves food and water. We try to embody this loss, lest it become less real to us and we forget the implications of our exile, of our vulnerability, of our shaky place in this world as a wandering people who know the pain of watching as our walls are breached before our very eyes.
Now it’s interesting that we didn’t evolve a tradition in which we only mark the day the Temple was destroyed—which was, of course, the pinnacle of this pain. We don’t observe the lead up to Chanukah or Purim or Yom HaShoah. So why commemorate so powerfully and restrictively and seriously the tactical lead up to this? Unless it is the lead up that is the lesson.
Imagine what was going on in those 21 days. We saw the walls breached, we watched the Roman army then come into our land and our homes, take up space where we had once felt safe, threaten and hurt people we loved and who were our neighbors. It didn’t happen all at once. They must have looked at one another and raised a worried glance.
What’s happening here? Who are they after? Why? Are the children okay? How long before the walls come down? They’re not going to destroy the Temple, right? Should we stay and fight? Should we run?
As their infrastructure weakened and people were hurt, in the days leading up to what was a terrible destruction, when their walls were breached, what did they do? We are gifted with a tradition that has wisely preserved this three weeks of lead up time as an important time to pay attention to, for it is perhaps in that period that we might find ourselves afforded a do-over.
There are moments in history, and they are sometimes very hard to discern, when we might notice that our walls are being breached.
We’ve spoken here some about children being put in cages and then left afraid, sick, hungry, and alone. Are these not our walls being breached?
When one of these camp facilities for children asylum seekers puts out a wanted ad for a high paid doctor who only needs two years of experience, and who is “philosophically committed to the objectives of this facility,” a chilling phrase indicating that this doctor would need to demonstrate loyalty to the facility, not the children…our walls are being breached.
When a teenaged US citizen is asked to show his papers and then his legitimate papers are declared a forgery and he is held in detention for 23 days, away from his parents…our walls are being breached.
When 9 people have now died in or after being in these camps, our walls are being breached.
When new “tender care” camps for newborns and toddlers quietly pop up with no fanfare and no parents, but rooms full of asylum seeking babies without legal assistance…are our walls not being breached?
If Tisha B’Av just appeared out of nowhere as a day to remember the destruction of the Temple, maybe it would become too easy to forget that it never starts there. At the very least, it begins when our walls are breached. We re-enact it with our bodies because this story is imprinted on the soul of every Jewish community…and because if you want a do-over, if you want a chance to do things differently and change the outcome, then we need to make different choices when our walls are being breached.
So why reenact what once was when reality lays us bare just as it is? Because while our tradition tells us about this time—Bein Hametzarim—the Psalmist answers: min hameitzar, karati Yah, anani vamerchav Yah—from the depths of the tight places, I cry out to God. And God answers me with a divine expansiveness.
This moment in our calendar neither begins nor ends with destruction. Immediately following the 9th of Av, we enter into Shabbat Nachamu—a Shabbat of comfort. Of wholeness. Of safety. In fact, seven shabbats of comfort follow the day when we remember the destruction. Seven steps up, seven ascensions, seven victories for healing and peace and love. The story doesn’t end with destruction…it never has, it never will. Ya know what also happened this week? A neighborhood full of people showed up at the home of a dad and his young son who were trapped in their car for hours with officers standing outside it, trying to spirit them away from their family and home to deport them. And these 35 people in Nashville, TN, made a human chain of their bodies, to help this dad and son get safely into their home, just so they could have some time to call a lawyer and seek some help. A chain of bodies protecting one another as the walls are breached.
We read on this Shabbat from the prophet Jeremiah. It is the moment that God calls him to service, to help the people repair what is broken in their society. God taps Jeremiah and says: Before I created you in the womb, I had chosen you; before you were even born, I had made you holy. And Jeremiah protests— I’m only a kid, I can’t do this, and God, responds— of course you can. Al tirah…ki itcha Ani…do not be afraid, for I am with you.
It’s not just Jeremiah who is tapped. It is all of us and each of us, tapped for prophethood, if only we will respond. We read these words on this day during this time so we don’t miss the message. We are chosen to stand up and call out what we see, when what we see is wrong, to work hard to end unjust policies and to reintroduce compassion into our system, so this time around, we might prevent the destruction of what we call holy.
God, we pray, min hameitzar, from these narrow places, hear our cry, give us the clarity to see when our walls are being breached, to join with one another, and to protect our holy places, and all who dwell among us. Amen.
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