Thinking about the upcoming observance of Tisha b’Av, I was struck by a bit of irony. (At least, I think it’s irony, though I’ve been a little paranoid ever since I heard a song mocking Alanis Morissette’s use of the word “ironic.” I comfort myself that I’m unlikely to make it so big that people spoof my mistakes on YouTube.)
We hear so much about sinat chinam as the reason the second Beis Hamikdash was destroyed (Yoma 9b), and we are so often exhorted to repair rifts in our community so as to hasten the coming of Mashiach and the building of the third Beis Hamikdash – yet on Tisha b’Av itself, we do the opposite. We are instructed to be antisocial, to create distance between ourselves and our fellow Jews: we eat the seudat hamafsekes alone, without chit-chat, and we refrain from even greeting each other for the entire day. It’s an extraordinarily isolating day, and it seems like that isolation represents deepening rifts rather than their reparation.
Every year, I have to remind myself not to say “hello” to a passing acquaintance, to not say “good morning” or “good night” to loved ones. The whole experience feels awkward and unfriendly. Think about how much more natural, and connected, we feel when we share a smile and a hearty “How are you?” (The kind where we mean it and stick around for the answer, of course.) Wouldn’t that be more in keeping with the goal of rebuilding our sense of unity and community? Wouldn’t that be a more constructive approach, if we truly long for the Beis Hamikdash and want it back?
On one level, the explanation is obvious: on Tisha b’Av itself, our focus is on mourning, not building. The work on ahavat chinam can be done on the other 364 days of the year, but for this one day, we retreat within ourselves to wallow in our grief. How can a person immersed in mourning smile and say “hello” to another person? Or, perhaps, even register that the other person is there? Maybe the very awkwardness we feel at not greeting each other is actually a chisaron, a lack; maybe if we truly felt ourselves to be in mourning, ignoring others on Tisha b’Av would feel natural, and friendly chit-chat would feel awkward and artificial.
So perhaps there are simply two separate things going on: on Tisha b’Av itself, we are broken, shattered by grief (or we strive to be); and then, perhaps inspired by that sense of loss, we spend the rest of the year building our relationships and curing the ills that brought about the loss in the first place.
Thinking about it more, however, it occurred to me that maybe there is some element of building even in the brokenness of Tisha b’Av itself. And I got there, naturally, from two sources: the laws of Shabbos, and a song by Chicago. (Chicago is the name of a band, for those who didn’t grow up in the ‘80s.)
We are prohibited from doing melacha on Shabbos – but what is melacha? We translate it as “work,” but of course that’s not the whole story. It’s creative, constructive work that is forbidden – the activities performed in the construction of the Mishkan. How, then, did destructive acts like mochek (erasing) and even soter (demolishing) get on the list of melachot? Because sometimes, those destructive acts are part of a larger constructive process. Sometimes we erase in order to write, because we’ve made a mistake and must remove it before we can redo. Sometimes we must break something down in order to build.
Maybe when we isolate ourselves on Tisha b’Av, immersing ourselves in a sense of being shattered with grief, we are simultaneously shattering, temporarily, our relationships with other people – and maybe, alongside the element of the mourning itself, this break constitutes a step towards creating better connections with others. Maybe we need that space in order to build. Maybe sometimes, when we simply go through the motions of our days and our interactions, we miss the chance to take stock, to rewind, to erase and improve. So for one day, we step back; we step inside ourselves, away from others. We ignore each other and wallow in our own grief – not to shatter the relationships for good, but as a step towards rebuilding them.
Like the immortal words of Chicago: “Everybody needs a little time away.”
I’m often intrigued to see how easily a break in routine can make the routine less, well, routine. After even a short trip, my house looks different and it can be hard to wrap my head back around schedules and doing Stuff; maybe I even approach the Stuff differently. I remember being surprised that it was harder to baby-proof the house for my second kid than for the first – because there had been a gap in which I fell out of baby-proofing mode, and I had to work to think of what needed to be done. I had to start from scratch. And when I haven’t seen a friend for a while, there’s a shift. We’re starting fresh; everything we talked about, and the manner of our conversation, has been interrupted and maybe it’s even faded, so that we have to build anew. The new interaction might be better or worse or just different – or maybe it will be exactly the same, once we find our groove again. But there is a space before any of that happens – and in that space is opportunity.
When we force a little time away – “just for the day” (sorry; the song is in my head now) – we create an opportunity to actively determine what we want the relationship to look like when we come back together.
After a day of reminding myself not to greet anyone, finally saying “hi, how are you” feels like a breath of fresh air, and I want to make the most of it. I want to mean it, and I want the other person to mean it too. Maybe we’ll even stick around long enough for the answer.
Maybe we’ll even stick around long enough to build what may have been broken.
The Beis Hamikdash itself had to be shattered to create the opportunity for us to find our problems and erase them, to demolish cracked foundations with the ultimate goal of rebuilding. Maybe, through turning inward and having a broken day, we can pick up the pieces and rebuild both our communal ahava and our national Temple.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.