What Pebbles Can I Move?

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, July 30, 2020

Dear Solelniks,

As you read these words the pages of our Jewish calendar have passed Tisha B’Av. While this date is not observed formally in many liberal Jewish communities, it has significance in Jewish history and in our Jewish year cycle. According to historical memory, Tisha B’Av marks the destruction of both ancient Temples in Jerusalem, and in modern times liberal Jews understand this day as a time to remember the many tragedies that Jews have suffered throughout history, and as a day to reflect on the suffering that continues to occur in our world.

In the cycle of the Jewish year, Tisha B’Av also marks a turning point in our liturgical year. Beginning with the words of Isaiah, Nachamu, Nachamu Ami – Comfort, comfort my people. This Haftarah is the first of the Shivta d’Nechemta or seven haftarot of consolation, read on every Shabbat until Rosh Hashanah. We may find the theological response of these Haftarot to be less than comforting for us in modern times. For the Jews living in ancient Babylonia after the destruction of Jerusalem, the words of Isaiah were both comforting and explanatory, embodying a theology that explained the destruction of the Temples as punishment for failure to keep the terms of the covenant with God.

Despite this, the seven weeks between Tisha B’Av and Rosh HaShana are an important opportunity in our Jewish calendar and the rhythm of our Jewish lives for preparation. Aside from a literal reading of all that is in Isaiah, the themes of repentance and reconciliation ring true to us in our own lives today, perhaps even more this year when we are literally alone, and feel sad, worried and uncertain about the future in this pandemic time.

Tisha B’Av is the beginning of Teshuvah, the process of turning that we hope to complete on Yom Kippur, the process of returning to ourselves and to God. Tisha B’Av represents those moments when terrible experiences have found us far from other people, and perhaps also far from God; when the gap between what we knew and what we are experiencing seems wide and difficult to navigate.

There is immense rabbinic wisdom of these passages in the time we are living in. Against the backdrop of history, the selection of these seven haftarot by the rabbis insists that we are not powerless in the face of suffering.

The disciples of a rabbi came to ask him to explain what teshuvah (repentance) is. He tried to describe his ideas, but they said they did not understand. So the rabbi told them to go find the biggest boulder in the fields outside the village and to bring it to him. With great effort they managed to lift the boulder and bring it to him. Then he asked them to find three large rocks and bring them to him. With less effort they were able to bring the rocks to the rabbi. Then he asked them to bring him hundreds of pebbles. Once they did, the rabbi said “Now put them back where you found them.”

You may have heard this story told with a little boy opening a feather pillow in the town square and being unable to gather up all of the feathers. The boy learns that with gossip or other hurts, we are so careless with others’ feelings that we cannot take back our mean words or the hurts we have caused. However, I like the metaphor of the pebbles because it opens us up to the possibility that we are able to gather them up and move them.

As Rabbi Rachel Cowan (z”l) taught, “When we are hurt or depressed or feel that we have strayed far from the path we would like to be on, we can’t imagine how to take big, transformative actions. But we do have the energy to take small steps. We can pick up pebbles and look at them carefully and put them down somewhere else, out of our way. Many of us sit in the shadow of that boulder. We know where it came from, but we can’t move it back. It blocks us. It cuts us off. We stagger in the aftermath of the death of someone we loved; we wonder if we can keep up our courage, our will to go on, in the face of illness or accident, the loss of a job or relationship, the throb of depression.” -(Rabbi Rachel Cowan, Yom Kippur 5752)

From a spiritual point of view, we need to ask, what can I do here and now, in the present-tense reality of my own experience? Forgiveness it has been said, means giving up our hopes for a better past. It is only here and now, in this moment, in this place, in the present, that we can act.

What pebbles can I move? How can we help ourselves and others to feel whole? For seven weeks, in ascending order of comfort, we are lifted up, and reawakened to the possibilities of the new year ahead. These seven weeks are really the beginning of our preparations for the New Year, as we are reminded by Isaiah ” Fear not, for I am with you; Be not frightened, for I am your God; I strengthen you and I help you” (Isaiah 41:10)

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

Filed under: Rabbi's Message

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