Making Meaning at Middlebury from the “Balagan Kadosh” (Holy Mess)

Tisha B’Av was coming.

It was the beginning of July, on a fresh, hot morning in the Middlebury College Hillel. Tisha B’Av, the fast day in the Jewish calendar that commemorates the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and various other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, fell on a Sunday in the middle of August—nearly at the end of our Hebrew immersion program. For the ten of us—barely a minyan (quorum)!—gathered to pray on Shabbat morning, it seemed a long way away. Seven weeks of studying, eating meals, doing yoga and choir and soccer—all in Hebrew—loomed ahead of us. But Tisha B’Av was an important day, and we knew we needed to start planning it now.

The question was how. The several of us who gathered on Friday nights and Saturday mornings to celebrate Shabbat hailed from a wide variety of Jewish backgrounds and belief systems. A surprising (or not so surprising) number of us, myself included, had converted. Others had committed to an observant lifestyle after being raised in a secular household. Several would be attending rabbinical school in the fall, or aspired to do so in the future. We were Ashkenazic and Sephardic, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox. We were tenuously, yet powerfully, united by the joy we found in Judaism and the determination to make our Jewish practice at Middlebury meaningful. Of course, they say that if you put two Jews together, you’ll get three opinions. We were, at least, ten Jews, with what often seemed like an inestimable number of opinions!

As the summer progressed, the long, sunny days interrupted occasionally by an explosive thunderstorm (Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech haOlam, sheKocho uGevurato Malei Olam/Blessed are you, Lord, our G-d ruler of the universe, whose power and might fill the world), we prayed, fought, laughed, and learned our way to becoming a community. Ever person contributed what they could, and more—reading the Torah, leading a service, hiding challah when it got scarce so we would be sure to have some to say a blessing over later. At my home shul (synagogue) in Boston, I regularly led Kabbalat Shabbat, Friday night Maariv, and Musaf, and gladly offered my services at Middlebury. However, I was used to being surrounded by people who knew what they were doing and on whom I could easily fall back if I couldn’t lead one week, or if I messed up a tune. This was not the case at Middlebury. We were a community of learners, not experienced rabbis. If we wanted something done, we had to do it ourselves, and first, we had to learn how. To that end, I spent hours recording tunes for others to practice, and singing harmonies with my friend Emma that we wanted to bring to Friday night davenning (prayer). However, I was by no means the teacher and everyone else my student. Emma taught me new tunes for Kabbalat Shabbat and took over “Ashrei,” on Saturday mornings, the words to which I had simply never learned. Given the smallness of our number, I was forced to develop new skills I had never needed before, such as being a Gabbai during the Torah reading, making sure every word of the holy text was pronounced correctly. This need was nowhere felt as keenly as when the grandfather of one of our members suddenly passed away. Leah wanted to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for him, which would require us davenning (praying) Maariv every evening. The group asked if I would lead this service, and I agreed. There was no one else. Despite never having led this particular service before, I brushed up on my tunes with some help from the Internet, and charged ahead. I had only led a few times, however, when other people started asking if I would teach them how to be the shliach tsibbur (service leader). Such was the nature of this messy, magical space we had created.

There was holiness in the mess—kedusha in the balagan. Inherent in this holiness was of course beauty, but also danger. The danger of making yourself vulnerable when admitting you didn’t know something that everyone else seemed to. The danger of actually making an error that would desecrate Shabbat or the Torah itself. And perhaps most profoundly, the danger of splintering our fragile community into a million little pieces. Every decision we made necessitated a heated conversation. How to situate the mehitza when there were gender nonconforming folks? What would happen if a woman led Maariv? Would we count the Torah as a tenth person in a minyan? These conversations tested the limits of our patience (not to mention our Hebrew abilities) and forced us to critically engage with our own identities and beliefs. What were we willing to compromise? What was non-negotiable? What was a learning experience, and what was simply unacceptable?

With these questions still stewing in our minds, we entered the last week of the program, the week leading up to Tisha B’Av. After seven weeks, we were far from a perfect community. There had been anger and hurt feelings and times where we seemed more balagon than kedusha. Up until the last minute, we were arguing about what time to say the Shema on the day of Tisha B’Av. But as we entered the holy day, twenty-four hours of fasting and intense mourning, a sense of peace fell among the group. We sat on the floor in a circle and studied the word “Eicha,” a cry of lament roughly translated as “How?”, which begins the book of Lamentations, read on Tisha B’Av. How, indeed, had all of these terrible things happened to the Jewish people? One tradition teaches that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam—baseless hatred of Jews for other Jews. And indeed, in some moments over the summer, it was easy to imagine how indignation and frustration could lead to hatred. Yet Rav Kook taught, “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam” (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324). What could this be, baseless love? Perhaps it was giving of all of yourself, all of your skills and knowledge, to build a community. Perhaps it was listening and learning from your neighbor instead of judging their practices. Perhaps it was exercising radical compassion even when you deeply and fervently disagreed with someone’s position. If I am right—and I suspect I may be—my Middlebury Jewish community went a long way towards practicing ahavat chinam this summer. May we take what we have learned and continue to rebuild ourselves and our world with love.

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