FRIDAY, July 13th

This Friday marks the beginning of the month of Av, when, according to the Mishnah (Taanit 4:6), we must begin reducing simcha (joy) in anticipation of Tisha B’av, when we mourn the destruction of the Temple as well as many other calamities that have befallen our people on this day throughout history.  Over the centuries, the Mishnah’s vague instruction to reduce simcha has become codified in a whole series of restricted activities that mirror the practices of those in deep mourning. Some of these restrictions include abstaining from wine and meat, dancing, bathing and even wearing freshly laundered clothes.

For many of us in this day and age, these observances can feel superficial, and divorced from any genuine sadness over the destruction of the temple.  However, if we can find a way to enter into them with full kavanah, they possess a deep spiritual power.  The Talmud (Taanit 30b) states “Whoever mourns for Jerusalem will merit to see her joy, and whoever does not mourn for Jerusalem will not see her joy.”  We can read this statement as a simple tit-for-tat: God will reward those who mourn the destruction of Jerusalem by allowing them to witness the joy of redemption and God punishes those who fail to mourn by not allowing them to witness that joy.  However, another way to read it not as a description of reward and punishment, but of the natural consequences that flow from our actions.

Many of us resist feelings we perceive as “negative,” including and especially sorrow and grief.  This is perfectly understandable—these feelings can be very painful.  When we are confronted by something that provokes those painful feelings in us, whether that’s the destruction of the temple or any other manifestation of the world’s deep brokenness, we employ any number of strategies to avoid those feelings.  We try to avoid paying attention to what is in front of us, or we cultivate an attitude of cynicism and nonchalance, or we numb ourselves with food, alcohol, drugs, TV, social media, and any number of other distractions.  The problem with this is that in trying to avoid certain feelings we come to numb all of our feelings and make it harder to access not only our capacity for grief, but our capacity for joy as well.  Moreover, by avoiding looking at sadness and suffering squarely in the face, we hobble our ability to respond with appropriate compassion and action to combat it.

Thus, if we fail to mourn for Jerusalem, perhaps it’s not that we will be not be present at her rebuilding, but that even if we are present, we will find ourselves numbed to the joy of the day and incapable of participating in it.

Tish`a B’Av and the days leading up to it invite us to enter into sorrow, so that we can also open ourselves up to the experience of joy. I invite us to approach the mourning practices of this season not as a burden, but as an opportunity to feel and express emotions and thoughts which normally we keep hidden.  If we are able to do this, we will emerge on the other side of this fast more awake to both the sorrow and the joy of our world, and with greater strength for the work of serving God and our fellow human beings.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein