Devarim: Turning

“You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and set off on your journey…” (Devarim 1:7)

The year has all but reached its peak;
summer’s fullness starts to ebb:
we see the downturn and decline
and then we start to turn.

The walls come down and suddenly
we grasp how far we’ve moved,
away from God and from ourselves
and then we start to turn.

We turn towards the darkness
acknowledging the truth,
we look into the emptiness
and then we start to turn.

The cycle comes around once more,
and standing on the edge
we hesitate and stumble
and then we start to turn.


In his book entitled This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: the Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, Rabbi Alan Lew* describes the cycle of Jewish rituals observed every year between mid-summer and mid-Autumn, each one “constituting a passage on this ancient journey of transformation.” He starts with Tisha b’Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem; through Elul, the month of introspection when the shofar’s wake-up call is heard; Rosh HaShanah, the Day of Remembrance, when the shofar is blown one hundred times; the Ten Days of Repentance which are fraught with meaning and dread; Yom Kippur when we rehearse our own death and the gates clang shut; and finally Sukkot – a joyous coda to the journey when we build and inhabit a very transient house. “On this journey,” says Rabbi Lew, “our soul will awaken to itself. We will venture from innocence to sin and back to innocence again. This is a journey from denial to awareness, from self-deception to judgment…This is the journey the soul takes to transform itself and to evolve, the journey from boredom and staleness – from deadness to renewal. It is on the course of this journey that we confront our shadow and come to embrace it…
It is this concatenation of ritual – this dance that begins on Tisha B’Av and ends on Sukkot, that begins with the mournful collapse of a house and ends with the joyful collapse of a house… – [which] stands for the journey the soul is always on.”
Rabbi Lew notes that Tisha B’Av is primarily associated with the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem, which was the earthly locus where Israel felt its connection to the Divine Presence in a palpable way. So this day is largely about the loss of this connection and the calamity that comes in the wake of this loss, although many other catastrophes occurred around this time. He adds that Tisha B’Av always coincides with the beginning of the reading of the book of Devarim. Devarim is mostly a re-telling of the events and laws that were set out earlier in the Torah. The first story to be re-told is of the calamitous refusal of the Children of Israel to go up and take the Promised Land following the spies’ report. The people become estranged from God and are condemned to wander for 40 years in the desert before the opportunity to inherit the land recurs. Now they stand again on the brink of that opportunity as Moses re-tells them that story. Rabbi Lew says, “Now they are being given a second chance. Forty years before, they stood on exactly the same spot…and now it is time to see whether they have learned anything, if they can move past this experience and get on with their lives. Or if they failed to learn, will this same calamity continue to replicate itself until they do?…”
So Rabbi Lew teaches that Tisha B’Av and the three weeks preceding it can be regarded as a cursed time, or as a reminder that catastrophes will keep recurring in our lives until we learn what we need to learn from them. Tisha B’Av comes exactly seven weeks before Rosh HaShanah, beginning the process that culminates on Yom Kippur. So Tisha B’Av, says Rabbi Lew, “is the moment of turning, the moment when we turn away from denial and begin to face exile and alienation as they manifest in our own lives – in our alienation and estrangement from God, in our alienation from ourselves and from others. Teshuvah – returning, repentance – is the essential gesture of the High Holiday season.” He quotes the Rambam who teaches that Teshuvah is only complete when we find ourselves in exactly the same position we were in when we went wrong – when the state of estrangement and alienation began – and we choose to behave differently, to act in a way that is conducive to repentance and reconciliation.
Rabbi Lew points out that sometimes a Parasha will convey its essential meaning by repeating a particular word-root a significant number of times, often seven. In this Parasha, always read in the week of Tisha B’Av, the word that is repeated seven times is the root of “lifnot – to turn.” One of the unmistakable suggestions of its usage here, says Rabbi Lew, is that the people have reached a significant turning point. Once again they stand on the threshold and they have to decide how to proceed. He says the calendar of the sacred year presents us with a succession of turning points, and the number seven, the number associated with creation and light, is always connected with them. Seven weeks before Pesach, we turn towards the process of purification which will culminate on Pesach itself by reading Parashat Shekalim. Pesach itself is a turning point of liberation. Seven weeks later we celebrate Shavuot – and Revelation. And here, seven weeks before Rosh HaShanah, we observe Tisha B’Av, the beginning of Teshuvah, the turning back from estrangement. Rabbi Lew notes that Tisha B’Av always falls in the height of summer, and six days later on 15th Av, summer reaches its zenith and starts to decline. He links this with the ongoing cycle of decline followed by renewal. He says, “The time between Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, this great seven-week time of turning, is the time between the destruction of Jerusalem, – the crumbling of the walls of the Great Temple – and our own moral and spiritual reconstruction. The year has been building itself up and now it begins to let go – the natural cycle of the cosmos, the rise and fall, the impermanence and the continuity, all express themselves in this turning. The walls come down and suddenly we can see, suddenly we recognize the nature of our estrangement from God, and this recognition is the beginning of our reconciliation.”

Rabbi Alan Lew died in 2009 aged 65. He was a poet and the author of several books. Before joining the Conservative rabbinate he spent 10 years studying Zen Buddhism, and later pioneered the use of meditation to enhance Jewish spirituality. He was the founder of Makor Or, the first Jewish Meditation Center associated with a synagogue. He was also a social justice activist who protested executions at San Quentin penitentiary and argued for the homeless and poor at City Hall.

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