A joyous Tisha B’Av insight

I have always felt that one of the most powerful and moving passages we say on Tisha B’Av is from the famous Kinnah (lamentation), Eli Tzion – “Lament, Zion and her cities, like a woman in her birth pains, like a young woman mourning the husband of her youth.”

I was thinking a lot about those lines recently while we were in New York for the birth and Brit of our new grandson – Jamie, Zev Aryeh. Many know the superlative, unique joy of holding a newborn baby grandchild, and I wish that joy for everyone who has not yet experienced it.

For the two weeks we were in New York, we were so happy, celebrating this marvel. And I was conscious of how incongruous it is to feel this during the period of the Three Weeks, our annual national period of sorrow and mourning for the Temple and for Jerusalem, leading up to Tisha B’Av. Thinking about these lines from the Kinnah, I came to realize they are teaching us a very deep lesson about how we approach Tisha B’Av, especially this year.

Let me start with a question. We mourn the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, and the exile and persecution of our people almost 2,000 years ago. Why don’t we just get over it? Maimonides teaches us (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Evel 13:11) that excessive mourning is not good, not normal, not healthy. We have a structure and a process of mourning that takes us through stages of grief – the first week, the first month, the first year, Yartzeit – and with each stage we gradually ease and heal. This is normal. Sitting Shiva every year for 2,000 years is abnormal, wrong. Why do we do it?

One answer, suggested by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (The Great Partnership, page 242), is based on asking the same question about our patriarch Yaakov. When his sons came to him with the story that a wild beast had killed his favorite son, Yosef, the Torah tells us (Bereishit 37:35), “He refused to be comforted.” Why did Yaakov engage in excessive mourning? Rabbi Sacks answers, based on the Medrash: “Jacob refused to be comforted because he refused to give up hope that Joseph was still alive – as, indeed he was.”

And, adds Rabbi Sacks: “Hope is not without cost…It carries with it a considerable cost. Those who hope refuse to be comforted.”

But that cost is worthwhile if, in fact, it leads to regaining what we lost, overcoming what we faced, benefiting from what we suffered. Our hope for the complete redemption of Israel is the reason for our current sorrow on Tisha B’Av. Without that hope, we would long ago have unburdened ourselves of that sorrow.

We are living in a very special time – we must recognize it and not take it for granted. For almost 2,000 years no Jew has experienced what we are experiencing. We are seeing the redemption at hand. We already see the fulfillment of the prophecies of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the flowering of Israel, and the beginnings of the ingathering of the exile. It’s happening.

Our tears, this Tisha B’Av, are different than they have been for the last 2,000 years, because this year our tears are an expression of seeing the benefit of our refusal to be comforted.

The Kinnah describes mourning for Zion with two haunting metaphors, but they are very different from each other and they speak to different eras of history and different experiences. “Like a young woman mourning the husband of her youth,” is truly tragic. She will never be the same. He will never return. For almost 2,000 years that was our perception of what happened to Jerusalem and Israel.

“Like a woman in her birth pains,” is so different – not in the severity of her pain, but in the duration, the result. A woman may suffer terribly in childbirth. But – with God’s help (though sadly there are exceptions) – it ends in birth, it ends in life, it ends in joy.

That’s what I realized about Tisha B’Av, thinking about these two metaphors, sitting in the hospital waiting for my grandson to be born.

This past Shabbat was actually the ninth of Av. The Fast and mourning is pushed off till Saturday night and Sunday in honour of Shabbat. But this year in particular, our calendar has a deeper message. Rabbi Dani Staum points out (Laws of Love, www.jewishlinknj.com), “This year we have a Tisha B’Av of the future – a Tisha B’Av when we eat meat, drink wine, and sing Zemirot in a state of Shabbat joy.”

May this past Shabbat be a precursor of what Tisha B’Av becomes in the near future – the result of our years of tears of hope, with the full and joyous redemption of Israel.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Whitman is the spiritual leader of the ADATH (Adath Israel Poale Zedek Anshei Ozeroff Synagogue) in Hampstead, Quebec since August, 2001. He is also a Sessional Lecturer at McGill University Faculty of Law, and creator if its Talmudic Law Moot Court Competition. Rabbi Whitman serves on the boards of Auberge Shalom…pour femmes, Cote St. Luc / Hampstead / Snowdon Eruv, Westmount Eruv, Rabbinical Council Conversion Program, and (former Executive Board Member) Rabbinical Council of America. He is past president of the Rabbinical Council of Montreal and past president of the Greater Montreal Board of Rabbis. Rabbi Whitman served for fourteen years as the spiritual leader of Young Israel of New Haven, Connecticut, USA. During that time, he worked at Yale University Hillel and taught at Yale University Law School.
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