Tonight marks the beginning of Tisha B'Av, the 9th day of the month of Av. It is a day of fasting and lament, in which we recall the darkest days of Jewish history, including the destruction of both 1st
and 2nd Temples, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the sin of the spies, who brought fear to the wandering Israelites instead of hope and promise.
It is instructive that following Tisha B'Av we read parshat Va'etchanan, in which we chant our daily mantra - Shma Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad - the very essence of hope and promise. I say the Shma twice a day, morning and night, always among my last words before drifting off to sleep. Ancient words of surrender, of connection, and of faith.
Saying the Shma does not always however have that affect on people, as I recently learned after leading a Ma'ariv service at the Jewish Renewal Kallah.
For a long time I had wanted to lead a congregation in its recitation of the Shma as I did at Kallah. I asked everyone to begin saying the words very, very quietly, attending to the words being spoken by his/her neighbor. They were to slowly get louder and louder, listening to each other, until together everyone's voices reached a crescendo, at which point their voices would subside, like an ocean's ebb and flow, until the last person's voice trailed off.
It worked beautifully, just the way I had heard it in my mind.
It devestated at least two members of the kahal.
The next day two women approached me at separate times to tell me about their experience.
Both had had the same experience, a powerful one which they never wanted to repeat again.
While chanting the Shma rthe night before, they found themselves in a death camp, slowly walking with others to the gas chamber, chanting, no shouting the words of the Shma together with everyone else. The shouts got louder and louder, until their voices were heard no more.
I lstened, and understood that I could never again lead the recitation of the Shma in that way.
Tonight and tomorrow, I will recall the unalterable destruction perpetrated throughout history on my people. It will serve for me as the starting point for the next seven weeks in preparation for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. And I will begin by remembering that the six words of the Shma have had power for others throughout history that is far beyond anything that I might ever contemplate.
Mark Novak is a "free-range" rabbi who lives in Washington DC and works, well, just about everywhere. In 2012 he founded Minyan Oneg Shabbat, home to MOSH (Minyan Oneg Shabbat), MindfulMOSH (Jewish mindfulness gathering), and