For as long as I can remember, “winning,” has been a goal of mine. Board games. Athletics. Test scores. My enjoyment of these topics usually depended on if I was winning or not. In professional life too, I find myself looking at things through the lens of winning. Did we reach our campaign goals? Did we hit the milestone in time? Did they agree to partner with us?
From a Jewish perspective, I see it as a form of winning when considering the desire to have an optimal connection to God. Learning Torah and praying each day. Extra credit if we make our learning at a fixed time, or pray with a minyan and at sunrise in the morning. Daily mitzvot. Holiday mitzvot. My subconscious gravitates to winning automatically.
With the above in mind, Tisha b’Av has added significance to me because at this time of year, “winning” with this day’s observance translates into intense mourning over millennia of pain and persecution. Beyond that though, Tisha b’Av can be summarized into another word; losing. For every Tisha b’Av that comes in its current form, it’s another year where we endure the consequences of not fulfilling our mandate as a nation. One could argue that worse than losing, Tisha b’Av also acts like a bully (facilitated by the attribute of justice, Satan, etc.) that forces us to relive the horrors of history. Furthermore, in addition to remembering all the hardships of the past, threats are always present, and it’s possible that new tragedies can happen (God forbid). So in my head on the eve of Tisha b’Av 5778, I ask whether we can change the approach of how we relate to this day? Can we “win” against Tisha B’Av?
(NCSY JOLT participants at the execution wall in Auschwitz-Birkenau).
Around two and a half years ago, a Rav of mine, Rabbi Yehoshua Gerzi, shared the following when speaking at shul Friday night:
“…My friends, it all boils down to this; in life, we must ask ourselves, would we rather be right or be happy? I know people that have been in fights for 20-30 years and endured misery because they thought and felt they were right and the other person was wrong. However, when we focus on being happy, it creates a space to move past conflicts that come up and to carry on with each other.”
Since that Friday night, I’ve heard Rabbi Gerzi repeat this message numerous times. I started sharing the idea with friends and family and received positive feedback. I have also found this play out with my children almost daily. As our sages have pointed out, young children always want to be happy. They don’t know from being right, and they don’t hold grudges. However, if they’re not happy, they’ll kick, scream, and whine until they become happy again. They focus on what makes them happy from moment to moment. Tantrums can turn into smiles and laughter just minutes later after happy contentment returns.
To me, prioritizing happiness over being right has become a form of winning. And it reflects daily in my attitude and approach. How bothered do I let myself become when a neighbor or passerby leaves trash on my property? When someone cuts in front of me in line as if I wasn’t there? When people blast their horn when I didn’t put my foot on the gas pedal exactly when the light turns green? Regarding friends and family, how do we react when our spouse forgot to do what we asked or didn’t tell us something important until the last minute? What if our siblings or cousins, or longtime friends don’t call us yet get offended that we never call them?!
Back to Tisha b’Av, we learn that baseless hatred (sinat chinam) was and is the primary factor in preventing the Holy Temple from being rebuilt. Perhaps we can review the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza as two people wronging each other in the effort of being right rather than prioritizing being happy. In Tehillim, we’re told to serve Hashem with yirah (awe) and with simcha (happiness), but we don’t find a plea to serve Hashem by being right. Can it be that this paradigm of focusing on being happy will solve all our problems en masse? Not quite. Day-to-day life is complicated. Context matters, and we can’t stop at viewing this in concept a vacuum.
(NCSY JOLT participants at gas chamber in Auschwitz-Birkenau).
In Ariela Davis’s recent article, Rifts for a Reason: When We’re Too Hurt to Forgive, she articulates the complexities involved when people commit wrongs to another. Wrongs without apologies. Wrongs that create long-term pain and hurt. Acknowledging a wronged person’s pain, such as a Holocaust survivor, is necessary and justified. It’s not the time to advocate an approach to such a victim that can be interpreted as “forgive and forget.” However, choosing happiness over being right is something we all need to process and reflect on internally, at our level and with our specific circumstances. It’s not a universal standard. It comes down to individual choice in balancing the need to be right in a general sense, i.e., our direction in life and sticking up for our moral compass, while not letting that need dictate every interpersonal relationship and reaction we have. It’s a profound decision we all make throughout our lives when things affect us by accident or on purpose.
It’s Tisha b’Av 5778. We’re about to experience losing again. However, even on Tisha b’Av, we do share words of comfort later in the day. In the end, we know that we “win” as a people and the world joins together for the ultimate sanctification of Hashem. The question that remains is how can we practically find ways to expedite the wait to the best of our ability?
I bless us all to find practices that help us make happiness a bigger priority than being right. As Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, “Always wear a smile. The gift of life will then be yours to give.”
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.