We have a crisis, a crisis with the way we respond to crisis. The moment a traumatic headline drops or another gloomy news story breaks, we all cower in our corners, mumbling something about thoughts and prayers or offering a barrage of phrases that no longer carry any weight or meaning: Mistakes were made, unprecedented challenges, trust the experts, no comment. Our canned responses all muddle together into a colorless tide of partisan platitudes, as we all grasp in vain to find meaning and purpose within communal crisis.
Once again, the Talmud rushes to the rescue: In contrast to our contemporary chaos, Tractate Taanit offers a new vision for how we respond to communal crisis and find meaning in our lives—even in those moments when we feel most existentially threatened.
The crisis at the heart of Tractate Taanit is rain, or, more precisely, the lack thereof. In the agricultural universe of biblical Judaism, rain was the source of prosperity, crops, and communal abundance. There are prayers for rain inserted into the silent Shemonah Esrei, the heart of the daily prayers Jews recite thrice daily. In the Shema, recited twice a day, the very presence or absence of God, is described in terms of precipitation. Nowadays, in our modern nonagrarian society, this emphasis can seem somewhat otherworldly or even anachronistic. Praying for rain? Why not check the five-day forecast? But, of course, rain is about far more than just rain.
It is, to put it crudely, about our hopes and dreams, our desires and what happens when they go unmet. God, the Talmud describes, holds the key to rain. The image of God holding a key should give pause: It presupposes a room—a room we want to enter, a door we see in front of us, but without a key we remain outsiders. Anything worth achieving in this world can be seen in a similar fashion—as a room we want to enter obstructed by a door that needs a key to be unlocked. Finding a suitable spouse to build a family, finding a career to build a profession, finding inspiration to build meaning in your life are all rooms we so desperately want to enter.
And I have found that there are chiefly two sorts of angst that obstruct our entrances.
Some know exactly what they want to become—doctor, lawyer, teacher, accountant—but need to figure out how to complete the process. They know the door and they are trying to find the key. Others, however, are skilled and smart, but have no idea where they should channel their talents. They have a key, but need to figure out which door their gifts unlock.
Finding satisfaction in life requires alignment between the right keys and the right doors—only then can the desired room be entered. And it is precisely this alignment that the key of rain represents. The Talmud is explicit: Rain represents our livelihood. And Tractate Taanit is about the communal exercise to discover alignment between our doors and keys.
How, then, should we respond when our lives are misaligned? When the community faces the trauma of drought—be it a drought of rain, a drought of livelihood, a drought of satisfaction, or a drought of the divine presence in our lives?
Tractate Taanit, which literally means fast days, provides an elaborate answer, the Talmudic approach to crisis management. Firstly, as the name of the tractate suggests, there is a communal fast, which Julia Watts Belser, in her essential work on this tractate, Power, Ethics, and Ecology in Jewish Late Antiquity, imagines as forging “a connection between the vulnerability of the body and the desiccated land, fashioning the body into an instrument for crying out to God.” Fasting, however, is just the starting point. During times of communal crisis, the community quite literally is turned inside out. The ark, which houses Torah scrolls, is removed from its insular resting place inside the sanctuary and brought out into the city streets. Ashes are placed on top of the Torah scroll. When one rabbi saw this, the Talmud recounts, he began to tremble with awe from the enormity of the scene: our Torah, the object that usually centers our life, cast into the periphery, reflecting a community bereft, unmoored, and quite literally inside out, covered in ashes.
There is a pageantry of sorts that marks the Talmudic response to crisis. As the crisis worsens, the spectacle of the communal response—more fasting, more prayer, more trumpets—deepens. Don’t confuse, however, the communal displays described in this tractate with the rallies we have become so used to seeing in Washington. At the center of political rallies is the pressure we place on the powerful, at the heart of Talmudic rallies is the importance we place on the powerless. In one moving Talmudic tale, a fire ravaged through a major city but spared the town of the great rabbi, Rav Huna. It was not in Rav Huna’s merit, however, that the city was saved, but rather the small act of kindness of an anonymous woman who lent out her oven to provide warmth to her neighbors. When crisis turns a city inside out, the source of power and divine merit is revealed to be inside out as well.
The communal response to crisis in the Talmudic reading does not serve a political purpose. It cultivates an interiority where every member of the community is asked to reflect and consider how they can contribute toward a solution. Crisis displaces power. It is in these moments that the Talmud reminds that no one—not the powerful and not the powerless—should continue about their day, assuming someone else is either to blame or will save the community from its predicament. “When the community is suffering,” explains the Talmud, “a person may not say, ‘I will go to my home and I will eat and drink and I will be at peace.’” No. Suffering itself is a communal practice that everyone—the powerless, the powerful, even God—participates in. When a community is misaligned, everyone must feel askew.
And communal action can engender stubbornness. We want lives of prosperity, we want lives of satisfaction, we want the downpour of rain that gives us a tangible sense of God’s alignment in our lives. Like the legend of Choni, who during a drought drew a circle around himself and refused to leave until God provided sustenance to His people. “I swear by Your great name,” Choni threatens God, “that I will not budge from here until you have mercy upon your children.” Communal action requires a conviction to a certain ideal of what our lives should be like, a conviction that we insist upon through prayer until we are answered.
This sort of rigid insistence is awe inspiring, but when you fixate too much on the state of the world, you run the risk of fixating also on the people in it and how you think they should behave. The Talmud warns us against that, too, telling us not to allow ourselves to harden our hearts, even when the going gets tough.
“A person should always be soft like a reed and should not be stiff like a cedar,” the Talmud says. In a tractate filled with demands on the divine there is a passage tucked deep inside that reminds that we must remain flexible in the way that we approach one another.
It’s such a crucial point that the Talmud doesn’t just deliver it in passing. Instead, we receive a deeply moving story, my favorite in the entire Talmud.
A rabbi was returning home after a long study session in yeshiva. He felt good, prideful even. He bumped into someone exceedingly ugly and said, “Wow! You are so ugly—is everyone in your hometown this homely?” It is a shocking statement for the Talmud to place inside the mouth of a rabbinic sage. Unless, like me, you’ve ever been disappointed or felt judged by a mentor, a leader, or someone you’ve looked up to. I know I have. This ugly person is naturally offended. “Go tell that to the craftsman who made me,” he responds, a reference to the Creator. Realizing how offensive his statement was, the rabbi tries to apologize. The unattractive man won’t hear it. The rabbi’s rigid conception of a certain form of beauty provokes a rigidity in his interlocutor for a certain form of rabbinic decency. A rigid conception of beauty and a rigid conception of politeness. They are now both stuck. The stalemate persists until they approach the communal boundaries and the students of the rabbi come out to greet him. They beg the unattractive man to forgive their teacher. He finally bends and forgives him. At that moment the rabbi first publicly taught that we must be flexible like a reed and not stiff like cedar. “And it is for this reason,” the Talmud concludes, “that we use the flexible reed as a quill to write our Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot.”
There’s always some point in our lives we feel ugly. Maybe it was when you got braces, or when your hair started turning white, when you started going bald, when you got passed over for a promotion, when you got left out from a social gathering, when you felt religiously inadequate. Whispers of ugliness can even come from those we love. Sometimes we can even whisper it into our own ear. But just as we cover the ark in ashes when we experience communal crisis, we need to preserve the flexibility of the very Torah scrolls it protects when we are mired in personal crisis. It is not just our Torah that needs to be written with a reed—our own holy lives need such quills. Like the biblical matriarch Leah, who is described as having soft eyes (Gen. 29:17), we need to look at ourselves and others with a measure of flexibility. As a community, we storm the heavens when rain does not materialize; as individuals we must learn to see the subtle dew of divinity in each of our lives. During the throes of crisis, even when the world seems so ugly, we can still discover the beauty of our personal and communal stories.
הדרן עלך מסכת תענית והדרן עלן