I love spicy food. I love salsa, jalapeños, hot wings, and jambalaya. I love curry, spicy noodles, paella, and chili. On Passover, my friends and I used to see who could pile the most horseradish on his Matzah without crying. I just can’t get enough of the heat. And yet, every time I scarf down a plateful of Kung Pao chicken, somewhere in the back of my mind I know that in two hours I’ll inevitably be lying on the couch rubbing an upset, full belly. And I’ll vow never to do it again.
It often seems that life presents us with the same pitfalls time and time again. Yesterday, on Shabbat morning, we found the Israelites standing for a second time overlooking the Promised Land. Moses recounts their previous experience in this place. Forty years earlier, the previous generation had stood in the same location, about to cross the Jordan River, and they balked. Fear of the unknown overcame them and they failed to seize the opportunity. God, in frustration, banished the Israelites to wander in the desert for 40 years. It is easy to imagine why Moses chooses to retell this particular story now. It is a sort of remembering, an acknowledgement of past failure, in hope that the Israelites will this time fulfill their destiny.
Today, Jews all over the world observe Tisha B’Av, a fast day remembering the many failures and tragedies of Jewish history: the destruction of the First and Second ancient Temples in Jerusalem, the unsuccessful Bar Kokhba revolt, and countless expulsions, massacres, and pogroms. Tisha B’Av also marks the informal beginning to the High Holiday season. A full seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah, this day of remembering—of acknowledging—sets the tone for this time of deepest self-reflection. On Tisha B’Av, we collectively and as individuals revisit that business which is as yet unresolved, that tripping wire upon which we continually stumble, those destructive tendencies that we again and again habituate, that border to which we always return but are seemingly never able to cross.
Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, taught that true teshuvah—true repentance—has occurred only when a person finds him or herself in the exact same situation in which he erred, but this time chooses to behave differently. Similarly, Tisha B’Av represents not only remembrance and destruction, but also the opportunity to begin rebuilding. Today, as we turn towards the High Holidays, let us all strive to acknowledge and take ownership of our own shortcomings, of our own destructive tendencies, in order that we may begin the work of reconciliation. Otherwise, we’ll continue to find ourselves lying on the couch, rubbing our full bellies.