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