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Dealing with tragedy: The Secret of Tachanun

If one were to rank our daily prayers from most beloved to least – something we should never do – but if we were to, without a doubt Tachanun would come in at dead last. Tachanun, for the uninitiated, is a prayer said after the weekday Amidah, the Shemone Esrei, at both the morning and afternoon services. People seem to despise Tachanun and I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps it’s because on Mondays and Thursdays we say a longer version of this prayer, of Tachanun and people are itching to get to work. Maybe it’s the fact that we omit this prayer on some special occasions and therefore people assume the prayer is really not that important. Maybe they’re intimidated by all the details of Tachanun, because you see, in addition  to there being different versions of this prayer – one for Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday and one for Mondays and Thursdays, there are also a whole bunch of things you have to do while saying this prayer: The first part is said with your head resting on your arm – in the morning, on your right arm, in the afternoon, on your left arm. Then you sit up for the second part of this prayer, and then you stand for the final part of this prayer. It’s so confusing that one man who was in mourning told me he did not want to lead the services for one reason – he was afraid of Tachanun. Too many details. Dr. Michael Kidorf has a theory that when we skip Tachanun there is always a larger crowd in attendance, and he has been subtly suggesting that we permanently omit Tachanun so that we get a bigger crowd in shul. All in all, no one seems to like this prayer.

Except me.

Not only do I like it, I love it. Tachanun is a beautiful prayer. It really is. It is the most evocative part of our daily liturgy – it conveys a sense of brokenness and absolute dependence on G-d that no other prayer conveys. “My soul is utterly confused, until when, G-d? Until when?” or, “I am worn out from sighing, I have soaked my bed in tears.” The dark and haunting poetry is magnificent, I encourage you to take a moment to read it. But today, I’d like to focus not on the text, not on the words, but on the actions that go along with Tachanun.

As I mentioned a moment ago, one of the unique features of this prayer is that we rest our head on our arm. There are many symbolic actions we perform during the services, but most are straight-forward. When we bow, we are showing submission. When we stand up, we are showing respect. What is the symbolism of this action? Where does resting one’s head on our arm come from in our tradition and what does it mean?

Today we finished the book of Bamidbar, and this idea of resting one’s head, otherwise known as Nefilat Apayim is learned specifically from this book. A number of times in the desert, when Moshe is confronted with a difficult situation, he falls flat on his face in prayer – nefilat apayim. Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv shares a beautiful understanding of the symbolic nature of this action. But before I tell you what he says, it’s important to know who Rav Levi Yitzchak was.

Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv was a Chassidic rabbi who lived in Eastern Europe in the early 19th century. What he was most well-known for was being the quintessential optimist. Where others would see evil, he would see righteousness, where others would despair, he would find hope.

One emblematic story that is told about this great rabbi, has him walking through the streets of Berditchiv one morning and seeing a number of people pointing at someone. He sees them laughing and snickering. He comes closer and he sees a Jewish man, a wagon driver, wearing a talis and wearing tefillin, while he’s greasing the wheels of his wagon – not exactly a clean job. Clearly this man was in a rush and didn’t have time to pray before work and so he decided to pray while he worked. The little crowd gathered around this man are mocking his sacrilegious behavior. “This is how a person davens – pheh!”

Rav Levi Yitzchak takes in the scene, he lifts his eyes up to the Heavens, and says, “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, look at your holy children! Even while they work, they still pray!”

You see, an optimist, like Rav Levi Yitzchak, does not get taken down by the evils of the world. The optimist reminds him or herself that things are better today than they ever were; that things are really not that bad. Life expectancy has steadily increased over the years. So many terrible diseases have been cured. Literacy, which was once the exception in many countries, is now the norm across the globe. Dizzying advancements making our lives more and more comfortable. Life is good. And as a religious optimist, like Rav Levi Yitzchak, it’s even sunnier. Yes, it’s true people are suffering, but is it not for a good cause? Kol man d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid. Yes, it’s true bad things seem to be happening, but I have faith in G-d –gam zu l’tovah, everything is for the good.

A person with such a sunny disposition, with such endless optimism, and boundless faith, as great as it, they have one problem – and that is prayer. How do you pray for G-d to change something if ‘everything is for the good?’ How do you truly feel the pain of a friend who is going through hardship with a mindset that ‘illness is part of life’ that ‘in the grand scheme of things, is not that bad.’ Where and how does the optimist find the sympathy needed to empathize with a friend? Where and how does the optimist find the sense of neediness and utter dependence that is necessary for prayer? The optimist, though she may feel self-conscious sharing this with others is probably thinking, “G-d, keep up the good work.”

Says Rav Levi Yitzchak (last piece in Chukas), that’s where Tachanun comes in. He explains that the optimists optimism stems from seeing the big picture; when your view is that of all of history; the eras of peace side by side with those of war, the progression of civilization side by side with its regression. When you look at all the healthy people in the world side by side with all those who are ill, when you look at your own life and all the blessings side by side with all that you’re missing, then life is good! History is for the most part marching in a pretty good direction. That’s the big picture.

But what Tachanun demands of us is to put our head down for a moment, to not see that big picture, to zoom in. Tachanun demands of us to ignore the good of the world, and to focus on what’s broken, to see not the people who are ill, but the individual who is ill, the individual who is lonely, the individual who is broken, and to ignore the big picture.

Tachanun demands of us to just feel their agony and nothing else. Putting our head down, blocking out the big picture, zooming in, allows us to feel the raw pain and deep sorrow of the world. And that is a powerful and all-important exercise for an optimist; to train oneself for a few moments every day to not see the fullness of the cup, and only to focus on what’s missing. To not see the joy and all the good that we experience, but only the bad and only the pain. Min hameitzar – in that small, constricted place, we turn to G-d and we pray that He heals, that He saves, and that He brings us salvation.

And that makes Tachanun a perfect model for this time of year. (There was recently an article in Tablet Magazine describing Jews in the early 20th century, who would, so to speak, vacation from their Judaism in the summer. The writer describes the decadence and frivolity that would take place at the upstate bungalow colonies.) There’s something almost incongruent between the rules and structures of Judaism and the free-spirit that summertime evokes. And to make things even more dissonant, during these hot summer days, we observe the fast of Tisha B’av, the Nine Days of mourning that lead up to it, and the Three Weeks – all completely out of sync with what’s going on around us!

But I think Tachanun, whether you say the prayer or not, provides a model of how to engages in these days of mourning. Tachanun acknowledges that there is a lot of good, there is a lot to be happy about, to celebrate, but sometimes we have to force ourselves to constrict our vision. Sometimes, the Jewish calendar asks of us not to pretend that we do not live a wonderful life, but to focus on what’s missing. Because when we pause to reflect, there is a lot that’s missing:

We’re missing a Temple, a place where we can feel G-d’s Presence, where our connection to G-d is not as fleeting as a cloud, something we seem to be endlessly chasing and never reaching.

We’re missing justice; the “less than-picturesque-model” of family in our Jewish communities, and across the globe, the poor, the underprivileged, all those who are not given the help, respect, and love they deserve.

We’re missing direction; in our personal lives, in our religious lives, in the world over. Too often, we feel like our communities and our country is like a ship without a sail.

We’re missing wholeness and togetherness; we all feel like we’re all over the place, being pulled in so many directions, talking to so many people, and yet, connected to none.

If we want to experience these Nine Days leading up to Tisha B’av properly, especially for the optimists among us, it’s important that we learn the secret of Tachanun; that we take a moment on each of these days, a short break from our busy lives to reflect on all that is missing in our lives and in the world. And in that small limited space, to turn to G-d and to pray that He save us. Min hameitzar karasi Kah, from the constricted place I call to you, O, G-d, anani bamerchav Kah, G-d, you answered me with expansiveness.


A few weeks ago, I was giving a class on Shabbos afternoon to a group of women, the topic was Pirkei Avot. This was the Shabbos after a terrible tragedy took place in Norfolk, VA. A young rabbi, father of four, a counselor in a local day camp, was tragically swept away by a riptide. They were searching for him that Shabbos, but it did not look likely that he would still be alive. After the class, a woman asked me how do we deal with this tragedy. How do we go home to our kids? How do we go on?

I was very touched by how this woman really felt the pain of this young family, how this family’s loss weighed so heavily on her even though she never met them. I also had a feeling that this woman is not a Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv-type, I had a feeling she is someone who often feels weighed down by the tragedies of the world, by the disasters that the news broadcasts to us 24/7, by the illness, and sadness, and disorder.

She’s certainly not an optimist but she too needs Tachanun. Because you see, after we put our head down, we pick our head up. After we hunch over, we sit straight. And then we rise. And that too is a crucial lesson.

Because you see, we cannot and must not live in a state of Tachanun. We cannot walk around with our heads down and shoulders hunched. That is not the posture of a Jew! There are only nine days of mourning, that leaves 356 days for joy! We are not defined by Holocausts and Yahrtzeits. We are defined by survival, by rebuilding and by growth, by the State of Israel and by Shabbos. That’s who we are. We may walk though the shadow of death from time to time, but even there, we see G-d, we see light and we find joy.

Our Sages, in constructing our daily routine and our yearly calendar, incorporated Tachanun and Tisha B’av. It is important for us to learn how to zoom in, feel pain, and beg G-d for change. But they also asked of us, to brush ourselves off, to stand up and to stand tall.

I want to conclude by reading to you a poem. Our dear member, Ayala Weinberg, recently lost her mother, Rebbetzin Munk, a survivor and a very special lady. While going through some of her pictures, Ayala found a poem that she had never seen before. This poem, as the title made clear, was composed in Auschwitz. I want to share it with you. It’s in Hebrew and I will do my best to translate it:

“Rachok, rachok, b’eretz r’choka. Far, far, in a faraway land,

Al admas Polania v’Germanya, on Polish and German soil.

K’asirim anu m’valim hayamim, like prisoners the days wear us down.

Ul’af echad lo yecholim lichtov michtavim, barred – from communicating to the world.

Anu chayim tachat mishmor, s’vivoveinu chayalim, we live under watch, surrounded by guards.

Ach anu mei’hem lo m’fachadim, ki anu ma’aminim. But we do not fear them, because we believe!

Al pi hashira, al pi hamanginah, [and so] with song and with music,

Ponim el acheinu b’vakasha, we turn to our brethren with a request.

Al na tivku…, do not cry. Ham’shichu l’ha’amin…, continue to believe.

… b’karov nih’yeh b’artzeinu hak’dosha, soon we will be in our holy land. Birushalayim hab’nuyah, and Jerusalem will be rebuilt.”

Even in Auschwitz, even in the most Tisha B’av-like experience that our people have ever endured, we can pick our heads up and see a bigger picture

May we learn how to balance the sorrows and joys of life, to be zorei’ah b’dimah b’rina. May we incorporate the secret of Tachanun; to know when to put our head down to see the pain and experience the loss in our own lives and those around us, and when and how to stand up, like Rebbetzin Munk despite our circumstances, to hold our head high and see the big picture and dream for a better tomorrow. May we experience the fulfillment of the optimistic and hope-filled dream of our faith speedily in our days.

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