Reflections from the Floor, with Ashes

by Rivka Cylich


I know Ascent as a place of buoyancy and light, smiles and laughter, warmth and heart. Which is why I couldn't imagine spending Tisha B'Av, the Jewish day of national mourning and sorrow, at Ascent. I felt that it would be just such a…misfit.

But time doesn't stop, even in Safed. And so as the 8th of Av gradually sunk behind the Meron Mountains in a haze of color, guests and staff were sitting shoeless on the cold stone dining room floor eating boiled eggs and ashes as hundreds of generations had done before us.

As we made our way down the deserted city center of Safed to the synagogue in the Saraiya Community Center for the commemorative reading of "Lamentations", we could all sense the absence of Safed's characteristic charm and a darker melancholy reality taking its place. And while the "Lamentations" was read with its haunting melodies of mourning and grief we slowly felt the same transition take place within us.

Returning to the lounge room, everyone semi-awkwardly took their places on the cold floor, propped up with pillows and the like. We were all a bit confused about what to do next. After all, isn't Tisha B'Av a two thousand year ancient old tradition? What does an absent ancient Temple have to do with us?

After an extended unnerving silence somebody piped up and voiced these very same sentiments, which we soon discovered we all shared. "How can we be expected to grieve the loss of something we never had to begin with?"

Granted we can go through the motions, eat the eggs and the ashes, wear the shoes and grace the carpet, but are we really required to feel worse than after last week's mishap when we dented the Mazda 7?

"I don't know about you", somebody added, "but I find it easier to connect to more recent tragedies that have affected our people, like the holocaust…."
"Or the Intifada."
"Last year's Lebanon war."

In other words, the bitter taste of exile.

"What about our personal exiles", another added with a point that really hit home for all of us, "that daily struggle with uncertainty and doubt; the search for spirituality and truth and all worldliness which challenges it".

That's it. That's what it is. The absence of the Temple translated into the lack of revelation and the concealment of the Greater Goodness. Whereas in Temple-time G-d's presence was obvious to all, we constantly struggle to uncover His omnipresence in our daily lives.

And that's when it hit us. That the stone floor we were sitting on was as cold and hard as we felt inside. That the ashes we ate are as charred and burnt out as our wills to keep searching. And that the absence of the Temple is what we suffer with every day in the actuality of G-dly concealment.

And so our dialogue continued late into the night while we shared the painful reality of our personal exiles. As we did the familiar refrain from the end of Eicha ("Book of Lamentations 5:21") weighted with years of repetition each Tisha B'Av night and day resonated deep within us: "Restore us to You, O L-rd, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old."


[Rivka Cylich, of Melbourne, Australia was the dorm-counselor of the Ascent 2007 English-language summer program.]


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