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Mourning and hoping

07/13/2020 06:37:57 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin


This upcoming week, we enter into the month of Av.  Here in the midst of the hottest time in the summer, when the land is dry and the sun is strong, we encounter a month most commonly understood as a month of mourning and sadness.  

The three weeks from the 17th of Tammuz, when it is said that the walls of Jerusalem were breached, to Tisha B’Av, the day the 2nd and the 1st Temples were destroyed are called “bein hameitzarim”, between the narrow places, the days of mourning and distress.  

For those who choose, this time begins with a fast and ends with a fast, and is filled with an intensive mourning where people refrain from doing many activities which remind them of the joys of life.  Some don’t listen to music or play musical instruments, no weddings are held, we refrain from getting haircuts or shaving and there is even a tradition of not saying shehecheyanu or doing an act for the first time which would require that this blessing is said.  While in Adar, for Purim we are told “Mishe nichas Adar marbim b’simcha --when the month of Adar arrives, we increase our joy”, here are told the opposite:As it says so clearly in the Talmud “When [the month of] Av begins, we lessen our joy”(Talmud Ta’anit 26b).

In many liberal communities, the commemoration of Tisha B’Av is often overlooked, but the day is more important than it may seem.  It is the profound philosophical challenge of mourning for and crying for an event which happened thousands of years ago.  It is a time to connect the sadness of our Jewish history with the sadness and destruction which we might find in our own lives.  It is a belief that the Jewish calendar and our world simply needs more joy and less suffering.  

Especially now, as we make our way through a worldwide pandemic, taking the time to reflect on sadness and suffering can help us hold onto the strength that we need to move forward.

Like so much in Judaism, the process of Shiva, the act of Teshuva, the mourning of these days is not meant as an all or nothing proposition.  We are allowed to experience the realities of our daily lives, while still finding a way to remember what was lost.  We are not asked to give up on everything to mourn.

A wonderful passage in the Talmud (Bava Batra 60B) explains this well:

The Rabbis taught in a beraita: When the Second Temple was destroyed many Jews became ascetics who abstained from eating meat or drinking wine (as an expression of mourning). Rabbi Yehoshua said to them, “My sons, why don’t you eat meat or drink wine?” They said to him, “When the Temple stood they sacrificed meat on the altar, and now it is destroyed! They used to pour wine on the altar, and now it is destroyed! Should we now drink wine?” 

He said to them, “If that is the case, we shouldn’t eat bread, for they used to offer meal offerings (minachot) and they are destroyed.” They replied, “It is possible to subsist on fruit.” “But we should not eat fruit either, for the first fruit offerings (bikurim) are no more,” Rabbi Yehoshua countered. “We can eat other types of fruit.” “But,” Rabbi Yehoshua retorted, “We should not drink water, for the water libation (nisukh mayim) is no more.” 

The ascetics were silent. Rabbi Yehoshua said to them, “Come and let me explain. It is not possible not to mourn the Temple at all for the decree of destruction has been issued; but it is also not possible to mourn excessively, for we are not to issue a decree upon the public if the majority cannot comply with it. As it is written: You are suffering under a curse, yet you go on defrauding Me – the whole nation of you. Thus the sages said [mourn in this way]: When someone is plastering his house, leave a small area unplastered … [and] when someone prepares a meal, leave out some small part.” How much? Rav Pappa replied, “A piece of fried fish.”

What is the lesson of this text?  Mourning, sadness for the loss of something that we may have no direct connection with cannot be forced on people.  We need to find a way to make the history, the pain, the tears something that is both meaningful for us, but is also something that needs to be seen in relation to all good and the rest of our lives.  Can we really cry, as we are commanded to for the loss of the Temple?  Or even more, in our diverse and multicultural world, can we even justify mourning for such a singularly Jewish event which took place so long ago?

The answer to these questions asks us to look beyond the day itself and instead observe the placement of Tisha B’Av and these three weeks in the calendar, in the cycle of personal and communal celebrations and gatherings throughout the year.  We have to remember that Tisha B’av is not only a day of sadness, it is a day of beginnings and the start of those important weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  After all with destruction comes opportunity.  Opportunity to reflect, to grow and to change.  With loss comes the opportunity to start anew.  In fact the Kabbalists say that during these three weeks there is more light available in the world that we can grab from as work to improve ourselves and our relationships.  Not just light, but love is felt and ready during this month to be utilized in all that we do.  

All of this light, this love reaches its most holy on the 9th of av, on Tisha B Av.  On this day, when the Temples were destroyed, we also are told that the Messiah will be born.  On this day of the most profound loss and sadness, the symbol of the greatest hope and joy will appear.  Redemption in the face of destruction.  This is why, when we say the special blessing announcing the new month, we say Menachem Av, the “comforter of Av”, recognizing the hope inherent in this time.

It is during these three weeks, including the day of Tisha B Av, that the process of Teshuva of turning really begins.  

Bein Hametzarim, the weeks of narrowness.  It’s hot, we are trying to fit as much as possible into these precious days of summer.  We are still social distancing, and try our best to stay healthy and safe amid the pandemic. But this is the time to try to hold onto the light.  To grab hold to all that is good, or as the rabbis said all of the extra light and hope that we get during these three weeks.

And when we gather together to mourn in a few weeks for Tisha B'Av, and when we begin the journey into Teshuva during Elul, we will be able to use this light, to channel it to make the Teshuva the turning, the changing even more powerful.   As one of my teachers once told me, these weeks are kind of like bending a garden hose filled with water--the narrowing makes the flow stronger.  Surrounded by the life giving water, we take some of this life away, we begin to prepare for mourning--bein hametzarim, between these narrow weeks.  And what does this do?  If done right, this can channel our energies and our determination to change ourselves and to bring healing, and strength the flow of these healing powers.  Through narrowing, we gain the strength to grow. 

Rabbi Alan Lew, Zichrono Livracha wrote an incredible book, which I highly recommend, outlining the journey of the High Holidays, called This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared.  He says it well:

This concentration of ritual -- this dance that begins on Tisha B'Av and ends on Sukkot, that begins with the mournful collapse of a house and ends with the joyful collapse of a house, this intentional spasm that awakens us and carries us through death and back to life again -- stands for the journey the soul is always on.

The soul is always on.  Teshuva, the turning back to our true selves, is a journey that does not only occur once a year.  Let us grab hold to this opportunity, and let us do what we can to hold on to light which we receive in every moment.

Thu, January 28 2021 15 Shevat 5781