Of all the words in the Hebrew language, which one is most well-known and recognized? Chances are most people would say “shalom.” Shalom is a multi-purpose word, one that means hello, goodbye and peace. At the root of the word Shalom is the notion of wholeness, which is a state of being. To say that a person is “shaleim” is to imply that they are whole, not only in the physical sense but also spiritually.
Prof. Jacob Neusner once suggested that a fundamental idea in Judaism is that everything has its place in the world. In that context, he noted that Shalom is not a merely greeting or a reference to peace, as in the absence of conflict. Shalom reflects a vision of a world of completeness, a world in which everything is in its proper place.
Building on Neusner’s comment, my teacher, Rabbi Harold Kushner, suggested that if the word Shalom describes a world of wholeness, of everything in its proper place, then the opposite of Shalom is not war. Rather, it is “galut,” or exile. As Kushner writes, Galut is not exclusively a geographical concept, as in being on the wrong train or in the wrong location. It is also a psychological concept, as in not being where you’re supposed to be, spiritually, to fulfill God’s plan for the world.
The idea of Galut, of exile, plays an important role in the commemoration of Tisha B’Av. A day of solemn reflection that comes on the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av (hence its name), Tisha B’Av asks us to remember the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel not once but on two occasions- in 586 B.C.E. when the Babylonians conquered the ancient nation state of Judah and destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and again in 70 C.E. when the Roman Empire conquered Judea and destroyed the Second Temple. In both historical periods, the Jewish people were defeated militarily and exiled physically from Israel. Through fasting, prayer and the reading of the Book of Eicha (Lamentatons), we reflect on the causes of those defeats, the loss of national sovereignty and the consequence of exile from our land.
Realistically, nobody living in the 21st century maintains a sense of personal loss over the destruction of an ancient structure, no matter how important a role it may have played in our history. Nor can we live with regrets over the course of ancient history. The physical exile of the Jewish people from Israel and our banishment to other lands in antiquity isn’t a reason to mourn.
Thus, Tisha B’Av must be more than a historical remembrance of the destruction of two Temples and the imposition of physical exile. It should be embraced as a daylong meditation on spiritual, not geographical, exile, and the reality that people are not where they are supposed to be in this world to fulfill our Divinely inspired purpose.
What does it mean to say that people are not where they are supposed to be in this world? We look at what is happening in the world today, and we see that the world is a less whole place, a place lacking Shalom, because there are spaces between people who should be close to one another. Racial hatred, lack of compassion for immigrants and asylum seekers, hatred and disdain for people because of their sexual orientation or gender identification, and religious intolerance are all examples of how we are in spiritual exile. Where there should be wholeness, Shalom, there is fragmentation and distance, Galut.
So let Tisha B’Av be a time to reflect on the imperative of ending exile and bringing Shalom by making space in this world for all people. Let us move from saying “I have what I need” and “I am content” to creating a community and a world where there is space for everyone to be where and who they are meant to be.
This Tisha B’Av, join me as we read the Book of Eicha. Each of the five chapters will be accompanied by a story of displacement, disenfranchisement and spiritual exile in our world today, along with music. The evening begins at 9:30 PM and should last about 90 minutes.
May our commemoration of Tisha B’Av bring Shalom to our lives and to our world.