If you could start all over again – would you?
Pitch a tent in remote and virgin territory, grow your own crops, create your own infrastructure, build your own community... in short, dream your own utopia into existence.
I’m snuggled on the sofa surrounded by the creature comforts of modern life (a laptop, a cup of tea, homemade chocolate chip biscuits) when I’m watching the new Channel Four series ‘Eden’ on my computer. This is the exact premise: 23 strangers who volunteered to live on a distant Scottish coast for a year. They are given rudimentary supplies and tools and it’s up to them to build a new and self-sufficient mini-civilisation.
It’s a reality show, of course, and although the participants are not driven to compete against each other (the format is collaborative rather than competitive), the Utopian veneer starts cracking up soon enough.
As a rabbi who is also a cultural anthropologist, my trained eye can instantly spot where they’re already going wrong: their meetings are unstructured, they haven’t mapped group dynamics, they’ve allowed certain individuals to drift away from their common purpose and they have failed to acknowledge diversity of opinion within their ranks. These are rookie mistakes of any community-building exercise and although the recruits were recruited for their practical skills (one is a shepherdess, there’s a survivalist, a chef, a doctor, a plumber, a veterinarian...) what they lack are the instruments of intentional community. Their surroundings are both idyllic and harsh and it’s only a matter of time before real conflict erupts. The lines between utopian dreams and dystopian nightmares can be very blurry.
Still, the premise is an enticing one. Who of us wouldn’t want to get away from it all?
There’s been no shortage of global bad news lately and I can imagine many of us suffering from information overload. We may feel that we are trapped on a sinister merry-go-round from which we cannot disembark.
Fortunately, our Jewish tradition does hand us the keys to unlock a different potential. In the height of summer, we commemorate Tisha b’Av, the Ninth of the month of Av, in which we commemorate the destruction of both the first and second Temple and a whole host of other tragedies that have befallen our people. Tisha b’Av is not one of our most likeable festivals, if we can call it that. There’s a 25 hour fast, like Yom Kippur, during the hottest time of year. There’s the chanting of Eichah (the Book of Lamentations) and kinnot (dirges) as we re-enact the violence and disaster that have afflicted our ancestors. It seems contrived at best and downright depressing at worst.
During Tisha b’Av we, to put it in popular slang ‘go there’. We go into the shadowy places, into the crevices of the soul, we embrace the horrors in the heart of darkness. The Book of Lamentations makes for disturbing reading that feels gratingly contemporary.
Tisha b’Av has a dual function.
In the best of times, it reminds us of our privilege, it prompts us to give thanks for our blessings. ‘Ashreinu’ – how happy our lot – that we do not suffer so! We taste the ashes in our mouths to balance the sweetness on our lips when life has given us so much. In the worst of times, it reminds us that our destiny trumps our fate and prompts us to raise hope when there seems so little of it. The rabbinic tradition teaches that the Messiah is born on Tisha b’Av, an eschatological echo of ‘the darkness before the dawn’. There is power in coming together as a community, to vocalise what many of us intuit but what we find hard to articulate: the pain and hurt of our unredeemed world. There is transformation in ritualising our tears and despair, to create a safe space for the depth of our emotion and a framework for our darkest fears. If Tisha b’Av recreates a heart of darkness, it also sows the seeds of Eden restored.
Tisha b’Av allows us to imagine both the worst and best of human nature.
Not unlike a reality TV show, it’s performance art, ritual theatre – set within meaningful boundaries. Our 23 contestants of ‘Eden’ know that no matter how dire their experiment turns out, they will be helicoptered out of their location after their year. Redemption will come. For our tortured world, we do not have such sureties, but Tisha b’Av allows us to face our hopes as well as our fears and to do a practice-run of our salvation when it would be our instinct to default to nihilism instead.
“Hashiveinu Adonai eleicha v’nashuvah chadesh yameinu kekedem” – “Turn Yourself to us, Eternal, and we shall return to You. Renew our days as of old” (Lam. 5:12).
There is not a singular more hopeful and comforting verse in our Biblical canon. Tisha b’Av teaches us that we can be the workers of Redemption, that we shall not despair even when we do mourn and that the world can be Eden once again. I do not need to escape into the wilderness to learn those lessons; the great and holy task of all of us is to lead exemplary lives of justice and kindness that make it so. Ken yehi ratzon, may that be God’s will.
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Image credit: Folkert Gorter