Why do we mourn on Tisha B’Av? Why do we have a three-week period in the summer to focus on the calamities that have befallen our nation over the course of history? Many suggestions have been offered in understanding this practice – allow me to add another, perhaps a little different from the classic interpretations.
In the days and weeks that followed the terrible tragedy that took place in my home town several weeks ago, I continuously found myself sharing the observation that, as tragic as the events in the Emanuel AME Church were, the response was so powerfully positive. Even today, I continue to be so taken by the unity displayed by the people of Charleston, a unity that extends beyond our city across the country. Of course, it should never have to come at such a great and grave expense, but the feeling of strength and togetherness we felt – and still feel – was, and is, palpable.
As I thought how we might have found the strength to come together in the face of such a heinous act of violence, I found myself turning to our tradition.
Tractate Taanis (20a) has a number of references to the beginning of the book of Eichah that are decidedly different in tone from most other sources. Rav Yehudah quotes two instances in which he suggests the specific language of the text is meant as a hidden blessing, a silver lining around the generally negative outlook of Yirmiyahu’s prophesies of lament.
Rav Yehudah explains that when Yerushalayim is referred to as a Niddah (Eichah 1:17) it means to comfort us: Yerushalayim will ultimately be restored and welcome back the Jewish nation. He also mentions the opening verse of the Megillah where the text refers to our Holy City as becoming like a widow. The specific usage of the phrasing ‘like a widow’ means that it is not truly a widow but “like a woman whose husband has gone overseas with every intention of returning to her.”
The Talmud’s words call these messages of blessing? Why use this terminology to describe these sorrowful texts?
In the section of the Tochachah (Devarim 28:47) we are told, what is the reason that all this evil would befall us? What is the cause for so many of the tragedies we’ve endured throughout our people’s history? The Torah tells us – Tachas Asher Lo Avadta Es Hashem Elokecha B’Simchah U’V’Tuv Leivav, since you did not serve G-d with joy and good spirit. On face value, does this mean we always have to be happy? What if something goes wrong – can I not be upset about it? Moreover, aren’t there times, Tisha B’av being the primary example, that we are supposed to be upset?
I believe that the answers to our questions lie in the nature of the deep Jewish perspective on mourning and suffering.
We as Jews take our mourning very seriously. Shlomo HaMelech famously says in Koheles (7:2) that it is better to go to a house of mourning then to go elsewhere. We have a detailed setup for the grieving process of a loved one and a similar structure to our annual national mourning of the Beis HaMikdash. These time-tested systems are ones many have found extremely cathartic. But that is only one side of the coin.
As much as these parameters are set up to help us concretize and formalize our difficult moments, they are also meant in a way to limit them. They are here to allow us to focus on our suffering, give it the time that is necessary to work through it and move forward. I would suggest that in order for us to celebrate the Torah and Mitzvos the rest of the time, we need these moments of reflection so that we are not constantly steeped in anguish. We cannot survive if we are saddened and depressed all of the time. We need to deal with our grief and our rich tradition gives us the ability and format to do so, but it also serves to allow us to exist and prosper in the world beyond those dark times and shine the light throughout the rest of our lives.
I return to the book of Koheles, where, I believe, we find the formula for this idea. When the Megillah tells us that there is a time for everything under the heavens and lists several dyads as examples, in some instances it begins with the positive element and concludes with the negative and in some it is the opposite order. When the text (Koheles 3:4) refers to crying and mourning it lists them first in order that we understand that in order to laugh, to really laugh, at some point we have to cry; in order to dance with full feeling and fervor we have to know how and when to mourn as well. In order to access our full range of emotion we have to embrace both our moments of gladness and those of sorrow.
Which brings me back to Charleston. When the news initially broke, social media outlets were at first ripe with the hash tag #PrayforCharleston, emphasizing the difficult time we all were having and the moments of sadness we had to go through. Once we were able to spend time on the loss, only then did we move to the messages of #CharlestonUnited and #CharlestonStrong. These will be the lasting messages to come of the atrocity that took place – messages of peace and harmony – but we needed to grieve properly in order to fully arrive there.
I had the opportunity to be among the approximately 12,000 people who showed up for Clementa Pinckney’s funeral. I was among the more than half who were stationed outside for lack of room, but this did not take away from my experience. While volunteers of the Red Cross and CERT walked the crowds offering free bottles of water in the sweltering southern heat, words of comfort were exchanged from all segments of the community. People came out, and have been coming to vigils, memorials, and tributes because they feel they have to in order to move on.
So, let us take a page from the Charleston community. Let us remember that, as Tisha B’Av approaches, there is a time and necessity for sadness and grief. But let us also recognize that this is the moment of HaZorim B’Dimah – planting with tears – so that we can arrive at the ultimate destination of B’Rinah Yiktzoru – harvest in joy – true gladness in the time of our ultimate redemption.