Slake The Bitterness

FOR MY NEXT TRICK, I will attempt to adapt 1st-century Judaism for 21st-century Americans.

Fig. 1.

Yesterday, the 17th of Tammuz, marked the 1,941st anniversary of the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls by the Romans (and the 2,597th anniversary of the same action by the Babylonians). For traditional Jews, 17 Tammuz begins the annual semi-mourning period of the Three Weeks, which culiminate in a commemoration of the Temple’s destruction on the 9th of Av, colloquially known as Tisha B’Av (this year, August 9).

For untraditional Jews, it’s a time of wondering why traditional Jews are so upset over something that happened so many years ago — and deprived us of nothing more than the old-time religion of animal sacrifice. But let’s look past the sheen of nationalist memory and peer into the realm of psychological function.

As a memorial of the Temple’s destruction, and with it the social and spiritual heart of the ancient Jewish world, Tisha B’Av is the saddest day of the Jewish year. So much so that the rabbis ascribed to it everything bad that ever befell Jews anywhere. The Midrash, or biblical backstory, relates it to chapter 13 of the Book of Numbers, when the Israelite spies returned from scoping out the Promised Land. Their report was less than favorable, causing the people to cry in dismay. G?d, knowing the spies were mistaken, told the people, “Since you cried today without cause, I shall give you cause to cry on this day every year.” (My paraphrase; that sort of God-concept is alien to my own.) And so we do, every year, with fasting and sighing and tears. There’s even a special Tisha B’Av prayerbook filled with sad songs and martyrs to put you in the right mood.

It’s not easy for anybody, but it’s hardest of all for those unfamiliar with it. So my radical take: If you can’t muster any mourning for the Temple’s destruction and the Jewish exile, at least take advantage of the opportunity to explore the day’s uncomfortable emotions.

Take your sadness and own it. Wallow in your bitterness, in despair, in futility. Take out your tattered dreams and missed chances and mourn over them. Wail against the disconnection, the fragmentation of modern life, the entropy, the erosion of human beings by their hard circumstances. Grab the helplessness and wring out the last drop of sorrow. “Pound your fists against the posts and still insist you see the ghosts.” Wrap it all into a cracked package of hacking sobs … and as the afternoon shadows lengthen, let your heart ease into the knowledge that it’s this way for everybody — and that life is not only this way.

The Midrash says that only those who truly mourn on Tisha B’Av can truly celebrate on Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year). Maybe that’s another way of saying that without seeing the depths, you can’t appreciate the heights. Or even know they’re there.

Good luck. And we’ll see you on the other side.

5 comments for “Slake The Bitterness

  1. Alana
    2011.07.20 at 0951

    lovely, lovely.

    Evelyn and I are reading a book about time travel, thinking about the idea of “If one thing changes, everything changes”. So many interlinked moments, cause on effect on effect on effect, banging into others and affecting still others. What if the temple hadn’t fallen? What if Christ hadn’t been crucified but instead laughed out of town? What if Rome hadn’t fallen? What if Martin Luther couldn’t find his hammer the morning he put that note on the church door? Or he’d caught food poisoning the night before and decided it was a sign that defying the Pope was a bad idea? What if Henry VIII’s first wife had given him a bouncing healthy son? What if Hitler’s mother had been cured by a dedicated doctor who happened to be Jewish? What if our own families had never fled Europe?

    Any of these being any different would deeply affect our lives here – perhaps even whether we exist as ourselves at all. The long, long debate between G/d/s will, free will, destiny baffles me – where one ends and another begins, if at all. No matter what hand G/d may have had in these chains of events, I deeply agree that we need to take time to really mourn our losses, to truly feel the anger, regret, shame, to resolve when appropriate “this will never happen again on my watch”. True mourning doesn’t occur without reflection on the worth of what has been lost. On the flip side, I don’t think that true gratitude can exist without the knowledge that everything is impermanent. Mourning and commemorative celebration are important, and worth a deep immersion once a year, but in a way they are imaginary, because they are in the past. Yes, we learn from our successes and failures (and sometimes don’t know which is which till much later on). But the meat of the coin, what really matters, is what we choose today. Holding on too hard to the past leaves us stuck with anger that can never be expunged, desire for revenge, nostalgia for an idealized life that never existed, fear of repeated pain, a false nationalism, jingoism, or tribalism that actually holds us back when we could move forward (I’m thinking in terms of the vengefulness that sparked and fueled the first two world wars, and other conflicts that go back hundreds and thousands of years). So yes, clench your fist in rage and loss, then open it and let the anger go, blow it a kiss as it flies away, and turn your hand and heart to the work of today, foundation of all our tomorrows.

    • 2011.07.20 at 1000

      …today, foundation of all our tomorrows.

      Very nice, but especially this. Thank you!

  2. Jack Gabriel
    2011.08.09 at 0542

    Hi Neal,
    I just participated in a beautiful multi-congregational Tisha B’Av Service in SF and I came home to find your deep and lovingly explicated blog. I’m sorry I didn’t see it before so I could have shared with the folks in the City.
    Your take on owning sadness really resonated with me. May we live to see our sadnesses transformed and our hearts opened to delight, hope and happiness.

    With Blessings,

    Rabbi Jack/Ya’acov

  3. 2011.08.09 at 0544

    That’s a beautiful piece of writing, Neal. And it got me to wondering,
    since the greeting on Yom Kippur is “may you have a good fast,” maybe an appropriate greeting for Tisha B’Av would be, “May you have a good cry.” Arguably, something everyone needs every now and again.

    Thanks for setting out your take on this day.

    • 2011.08.10 at 0826

      I like this a lot: “have a good cry.” I’d like to live in a world where we aren’t afraid to say that to one another.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *