On Monday evening July 31, and all day Tuesday August 1, the Jewish world observes this year’s onset of the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av, called simply by that name in Hebrew: ט’ באב – Tisha B’Av, the great Fast Day of mourning for what was destroyed and will never be again.
What shall we do with Tisha B’Av, we Jews who live in a time when Israel has been re-established, as flawed as any nation state but still: Jerusalem is rebuilt? There are those who assert that to observe the day of mourning as it was done for two millennia of Exile is wrong, for it ignores the historic change in our own day, in which we have seen the end of forced Exile and the rise of chosen Diaspora. And there are those who insist that we should continue to observe Tisha B’Av as we always have, as a day of Yizkor for all our people who were massacred in the Babylonian destruction, the Roman dispersal, the Crusades, the pogroms, the blood libels…
Our tradition contains this teaching: “When one human being is killed, an entire world – of potential, of offspring, of impact – dies with that person. When a human life is saved, a world is saved.” (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 37a) When Jewish people continue the practice of mourning those long dead and lost, we keep alive the practice of empathy for any human life lost, even those who die in such numbers that the Western mind turns away, numbed. Jews who keep place for mourning fluent in our hearts can demand that we never succumb to such numbness.
There are losses which are in the natural way of things. And there are losses which leave an irreparable hole behind them. Our tradition offers us not only intellectual opportunities for coping with such devastating loss when it happens to us, but also emotional outlets. Such as Tisha B’Av, and the Book of Lamentations we traditionally read on that day.
The empty chair at the Seder table. The end of a certain melody in the room. The hand one reaches for, the hug the body leans in for, before memory corrects for death. The dried up lake, the torn down house, the missing tree.
This is how death
came to the old tree:
in a cold bolt, a single
thrust from a cloud,
in a tearing away of bark
and limbs, a piercing
of much that was necessary.
We had no choice then
but to cut it down–a pine
of great height, that knew much
about weather and small life.
It had been here longer
than any of us. And now
there is a hole in the sky.
Jane Flanders, “Testimony”
We are an optimistic people, teaching our children to believe in a perfectible world and, as Anne Frank put it, goodness in the heart of every human being. Optimism has served us well or we would not still exist. But the mystics reminds us that optimism cannot be used to shut out the unpleasant which is also a part of life, or our lives and souls will not be whole. Tisha B’Av offers us space for the sadness that comes to every life. It offers us the chance to maintain Jewish fluency in dealing with mourning – a useful corrective to the Western emphasis on winning, and on the kind of happiness that is falsely and corrosively held up on too many social media sites, a pathetically useless shield against the inevitability of pain.
At a funeral, we take time to weep, and then, in natural time, move forward. On Tisha B’Av, our people mourns as a people – the more honestly, the more likely we will move forward as a people. Individual Jews (and those who love them) who need a space where it’s okay to be silent, to be sad, to cry, are welcome to explore the personal along with the communal. The embrace of our people and its emotional depth is sufficient for both.
Tisha B’Av challenges us to grapple with that which is not happy, not easy, and not comfortable, and to consider trying on the statement I am responsible in some part for the evil of the world. It’s a powerful evocation of everything that’s wrong with our society right now, with the extra sadness that comes with realizing how many generations we have suffered the same human mistakes, the same evil. We as a community of human beings are part of this. And we as a community can do better.
It is a well known truth that people do not act upon a situation unless they feel that they “own” it in some way. Jewish tradition teaches that we were put upon this earth to own it in precisely this way: it touches us, it affects us, we are not separate from it. Coming to terms with this ownership, this responsibility, opens us not only to guilt over what is wrong, but hope that we can influence and nurture what is right.
And so at the end of Tisha B’Av we will see the Jewish antidote to despair: when contemplating the world and all its hurt, keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep looking for mitzvot to do to raise up the world and us in it. Although the holes will remain, consolation will come. It will.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.