Finding comfort in narrow spaces
Thanks to some painful second-degree burns sustained while making a stir fry, I recently lost the cunning in my right hand. I nursed the wounds for three weeks until the bulky bandages that put me on cooking hiatus came off on a Friday morning, enabling me to bake challah for Shabbat.
My family was delighted and the timing was not lost on me. Tisha b’Av (the Ninth of Av), the day we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem — twice, by two different enemies — was right around the corner. Challah is entwined with our memories of it. We separate a portion of dough before we shape the loaves, burning it as a modern-day sacrifice. But what I was thinking about is how we braid the strands as a symbol of Jewish unity.
We know that our immorality and idolatry led to the downfall of the First Temple, but it was our baseless hatred that helped bring down the Second Temple. We slandered, held grudges, and refused to give one another the benefit of the doubt. We forgot that unity had once been our strength, the prerequisite for receiving the Torah. We were so busy fighting among ourselves that we failed to notice the enemies marching at the gates of Jerusalem until it was too late.
Free love is the antidote, the idea on which the key to the Third Temple hangs. It seems within reach, but it has been thousands of years since the destruction and we are still waiting for God to give us the go-ahead to rebuild. All of this is on my mind while I stroll through the aisles in Marshalls, one of my favorite stores. The shelves are stacked high with plaques touting pithy wisdom about positivity and kindness, about love and changing the world. It seems a lot of us are in search of meaning and eager to hang it on our living room walls.
But there is no need to look for answers in the home décor department. It can all be distilled into one line of Torah: To love your neighbor as yourself. The concept is so powerful the Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva declared it our national Jewish tagline. Still, we do not have an internal switch that controls our emotions, and it is impossible for us to feel one thing or stop feeling another on demand. Just ask two children in the thick of sibling rivalry, or two adults in the throes of an argument over a parking spot.
We are in that narrow place between walls — a liminal passageway between the Kotel (the Western Wall), the remnant of the Second Temple, and the future walls of the Third. It is often dark in here. Our outside enemies continue to rear their heads, increasingly emboldened. There are rifts among us, too, places where we are broken inside. Between Israel and the diaspora. Between our religious denominations and within them. The space where oneness resides keeps constricting as we drift farther away from free love, seized by communal amnesia about what can go wrong when we, as Jews, lose our faith in one another.
As we approach Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort that follows Tisha b’Av, I find solace in the poem “Between Walls,” by William Carlos Williams. The poet leads our eye to the narrow place between the back wings of a hospital where “nothing/will grow lie/cinders/in which shine/the broken/pieces of a green/bottle.” There is hope and light in the green shards that shimmer in the sun — even in their brokenness, even though their beauty appears where we would never expect to find it.
Therein lies the spirit of free love, inspiring us to look past our differences, to value one another, although we disagree. Even where we are broken, the potential for unity is there. If we have the will and the patience, we can gently coax it out. And if we give it enough air to breathe, it will draw us back together as one people.
Meanwhile, the skin on my fingers is healing nicely. It gives me faith that we will, too, that we will once again entwine like the strands of a braided challah, ready to return to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem as soon as we get the call.