A meaningful fast

This past week was intense for me, in more ways that I can quite put together. Even though this post is likely to be too long, I don’t think I’ll be able to fully express why, but I’ll give it a go…

We had a very busy weekend last weekend, which resulted in the unusual experience for me of an entire weekend passing without connecting to the online world. As a result, I didn’t learn of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial until Monday morning, when I heard it on the news that woke me up to start the day. Like many, I simply couldn’t believe the verdict. And I started reading all I could find, and listening to commentators and panel discussions on the radio, trying to understand how this happened.  Here are a few examples:

When I heard that the phenomenal Stevie Wonder wouldn’t perform in Florida until the Stand Your Ground laws are repealed, I thought, “That’s right, we shouldn’t go to Florida, especially with our racially blended family.” (My in laws all live in Florida, so we visit there about once a year, and we are going down for our nephew’s Bar Mitzvah this fall.)

And, it was with these thoughts of sadness for our society and for my kids, and my patients, and all of us, that I approached the fast day of Tisha B’Av – the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av – a day that commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples, along with many other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history. Most people are familiar with Yom Kippur, a day of complete fasting (not even water is consumed) from before sunset of the evening before, and not ending until after dark of the day itself. Less familiar is Tisha B’Av, the only other day of complete fasting for a similar 25 hour period. Many Jews know nothing of this day in the calendar, despite the fact that the prayer service of the evening beginning the fast is hauntingly beautiful, with the recitation of the book of Lamentations (Eicha in Hebrew). The trope, or musical motif, used to chant Eicha is unique, and very singable, so I find myself humming it in the week or so before the fast, and often for several days afterwards.

I have observed the fast for several years, and I’m always nonplussed when I hear people wishing one another an “easy fast” or a “meaningful fast”. Why should a fast, especially one which is specifically focussed on remembering tragic loss and destruction, be easy? And, how does fasting lend meaning to the day? Isn’t it just uncomfortable? These have been my thoughts about the Jewish fast days, both Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av.

But, while I have fasted in past years, I have never attended all three prayer services of the day. I love the evening service, in which Eicha is chanted in a darkened room, by the light of candles or flashlights, and seated on the floor. The drama of the service is as appealing to me as the melody of the chant. But, this year, I decided that I would get up early the next morning, and attend the morning service, which I had never done before. I wasn’t completely sure that I was going to fast all day, as the temperature last week in DC and Baltimore was hitting the 90’s. On Tisha B’Av, unlike Yom Kippur, one can go to work, and I knew that day was going to be a long one for me. So, I figured I would play it by ear.

And all day, my thoughts were circling around Trayvon Martin, and how impossible it is to make sense of senseless loss of life at the age of 17. Worries for my sons as they grow into young men with brown skin (they don’t consider that their skin is “black”, they’re “brown”) who might appear threatening to someone of lighter complexion in the future.

And, the end of the day came, and I found I wasn’t even hungry – I had fasted all day, and went to the evening services that bring the fast to a conclusion, and I realized that it had been an easy fast, and a meaningful one.

That was Tuesday, and I had a stressful day on Wednesday, with an overbooked clinic, and needing to tie up loose ends at work and at home before leaving for Los Angeles for the weekend to attend the wedding of my best friend’s daughter. I packed in a hurry, and lightly, only bringing one dress with me. I hoped I might have a chance to buy a second dress in LA – my own mother-of-the-bride dress for my own daughter’s wedding coming up in three weeks (yikes!). (And, yes, I did find a dress – more on that in another post). I wasn’t expecting to be able to go to Shabbat services while in LA, as the weekend was centered for me around my friend’s celebration, and I wanted to help her out as much as I could. But, as it happened, there is a Chabad synagogue in Pasadena within walking distance of the hotel we were staying at, and, although there was a brunch for the wedding party and guests, I decided that I would go to services instead. I’ve heard about Chabad centers, and how welcoming they are, but I had never actually attended services at one. So, there was an element of curiosity that prompted me even more to take this opportunity.

I got the directions from the hotel concierge, and set out for the 20 minute walk, on a lovely sunny day. I got to the building which stands at the corner of a large intersection, and had “Chabad of Pasadena” prominently on the side. I tried the door on the corner – locked. I walked further, to the other end of the building, and tried that door – also locked. And I laughed at myself thinking, “Well, I tried, and it was at least a nice walk.”

I started heading back, and watched a man cross the street perpendicular to the one I was on and continue on past the first corner door that I had tried. I reached the corner, and looked down the street in the direction the man was walking, but he had disappeared. So, I rounded the corner, and saw that there was an entrance into a courtyard on the other side of the building, opposite from the streetside with its locked doors. I entered the courtyard, and saw the open entrance to the building, so I walked in.

The man I had seen was ritually washing his hands at the sinks that were just inside the door, and I looked around, suddenly feeling very self-conscious. There were four or five men seated at the head of a horseshoe arrangement of tables, studying Talmud. The man I had followed finished washing his hands, and turned and greeted me, saying “Don’t worry, you’re in the right place. Services will start soon.” So I sat down at the end of one of the tables, and listened to the discussion. It was interesting, because the rabbi who was leading the discussion was talking about Tisha B’Av, and he happened to mention a quote that I had just learned about on Tisha B’Av, that Rabbi Akiva laughed instead of crying with his colleagues on Tisha B’Av, because if the world is so broken now, it can only get better in the future, and that is cause for joy. So, I got really pulled into the teaching, but all the while I was wishing I had packed another dress, or at least thought to bring a sweater or shawl, because my shoulders were bare. So, I was trying to make myself as small and unseen as possible.

The teaching ended, and several of the men came up and greeted me. One gentleman, with bushy beard and black hat and suit, and tsitsis hanging down from his waist, assured me that the women would be coming soon, but that they usually were delayed at home on Shabbos morning. He pointed me the women’s side of the sanctuary, divided visually from the men’s side by a tall, curtained mechitzah, a divider in Orthodox synagogues that separates the genders. I’ve struggled with the idea of the mehitzah, because I think it’s a bit preposterous to think that men are incapable of focusing their prayers if their eyes are tempted to look at a woman, but, on that particular morning, I was so grateful for that divider! I gathered a prayer book and a Chumash (the Torah or Bible), and settled down to read the Torah portion of the day.

The prayers started, and shortly into the service, one young woman joined me. She greeted me warmly, and asked if I minded if she sat down next to me. We exchanged names, and I told her I was visiting from DC. And I confided in her that I felt apologetic about my dress, as I had only brought this one, and I usually dress more modesty for the synagogue. She was very sweet, and told me not to worry. Then a friend of hers came in and sat behind us. We all exchanged greetings, and introductions, and the newcomer commented on the warmth of the room. My new friend, Miriam, whispered in my ear “Do you want me to ask her if you can borrow her shawl?” And, with that, I was provided with a covering for my indecently bare shoulders.

The service itself was familiar, and certainly had the enthusiastic participation that Chabad is known for. The rabbi gave a sermon which seemed particularly appropriate for me and my experience there, for he talked at length about how women and men differ in their closeness to Hashem, the Divine. I’m still not sure I buy the argument, but it was fascinating, nonetheless.

Many of the congregants invited me to stay for kiddush, which was a full luncheon, but I felt I needed to get back to my friend, and the wedding preparations, so I returned the shawl to the kind woman who had lent it to me, and I walked back to the hotel.

I was so glad that I had gone to services – it felt like it was meant to be, on so many levels. It was good for me to venture into this community on my own, even with my concern about my inappropriate dress, and to feel welcomed so genuinely and with no trace of judgement on the part of anyone there. There were so many smiles, and such a sense of the joy of the Sabbath.

And, I think that taking that time for myself was very helpful in focusing me on the real purpose of the weekend – my friend’s daughter’s celebration, and the joy of all her family in this momentous life event. The wedding itself was amazing, as the family is Russian Orthodox, and the bride’s father, my friend’s husband, and also a long-time friend, was the officiating priest. So, my weekend was bracketed by two very different religious services, both with specific costumes, surroundings and symbols, and props – it gave my personal experience of the wedding all the greater richness and depth.

So, Todah Raba/Thank You, to Chabad of Pasadena – I am so grateful to you for your warm welcome on this Shabbat after the most mournful day in the Jewish year. You enhanced the meaning of this week to me. May your community go from strength to strength, and grow in number. I hope I may have another opportunity to daven (pray) with you again.

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