-Joseph, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo
From 2009 to 2017, Sarah Hurwitz served as a White House speechwriter, first as a senior speechwriter for President Barack Obama and then as head speechwriter for First Lady Michelle Obama. Prior to serving in the Obama Administration, Sarah was chief speechwriter for Hillary Clinton on her 2008 presidential campaign. Sarah is the author of Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life – in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There), 2020 finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.
When the Old Walls Crumble
The late summer holiday of Tisha B’Av, which literally means the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, is a day of mourning that commemorates the loss of the First and Second Temples, both of which are said to have been destroyed on this day. This holiday is also associated with the First Crusade, the expulsions of Jews from England and Spain, major events during the Holocaust, and other tragic moments in Jewish history, all of which also occurred on or near the ninth of Av. Jews have traditionally marked Tisha B’Av with a daylong fast and somber prayer services.
Some commentators regard Tisha B’Av not just as a historical commemoration but in more spiritual terms. The Temple was, after all, Jews’ main conduit to God. Post-destruction, especially the first time around, when they had not yet developed synagogues for worship outside the Temple, their distress at feeling cut off from the Divine must have been acute. Rabbi Alan Lew described Tisha B’Av as “the beginning of Teshuvah, the point of turning toward this process by turning toward a recognition of our estrangement from God, from ourselves, and from others.” It is the moment, he writes, “when the walls come tumbling down.”
I do not love this moment of recognition when I dredge of memories of all the times over the past year that I’ve been impatient, unkind, selfish, callous, ungenerous…honestly, it’s a long list, and just typing it is dispiriting. So I have certainly built my share of defensive, self-justifying walls: “Whatever, he deserved it,” “I just didn’t have to time help her,” “It wasn’t my fault, I was tired/stressed/busy,” “If I acknowledge this truth about myself, I’ll have to make some serious life changes, and that would be scary, so let’s not go there.”
I’ve found that meaningful soul accounting requires some amount of demolition, or at least the courage to stop frantically trying to hold up so many walls and to step back and let them fall of their own accord. And it can be uncomfortable, even painful, to come face-to-face with what is on the other side – truths I’ve been hiding from, transgressions I’d like to forget I committed.
But I find it heartening that the destruction of the Second Temple, horrific as it was, led to an era of renewal when Jews left behind their sacrifice-based practices and transitioned to the kind of Judaism we’re still practicing today, two thousand years later. Without this transition, Judaism likely would not have survived and flourished as it did.
We too must let our old walls crumble.
Excerpted from Here All Along by Sarah Hurwitz. Copyright © 2019 by Sarah Hurwitz. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, A Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.