I always dreaded Tisha B’Av.
Compared with most Jewish holidays filled with food and joy, Tisha B’Av always felt burdensome in its insistence that we mourn. I never found it in myself to mourn a building I could barely picture. But maybe we could grasp a more personal, intimate loss, one that might even serve us.
This insistence on mourning comes in stark contrast to our society’s value for the pursuit of happiness. We earnestly pursue clarity and contentment, spending countless hours in therapy, at social gatherings, at work, and on self-help sites. But do we ever designate time to commemorate what we have lost? Maybe we do ourselves a kindness by momentarily allowing ourselves to acknowledge loss in order to rebuild.
In Jewish tradition, God is often likened to a husband, and the Jewish people to His wife. The Torah is our marriage contract, and the Temple our home. When we lost our Home on Tisha B’Av, we lost our shared home with our loved one. (To be clear, we didn’t divorce God on this day; we simply went long-distance.)
On Tisha B’Av we mourn the loss of a Home that could have been. A Home that was destroyed because of petty hatred. I never saw this particular Home, but I have homes in my personal life I can mourn. Relationships that could have become homes but withered, faded friendships, bright minds that have been darkened by cynical political posts, forgotten passions. All these people, intimacies, and pursuits had a purpose in their time, and releasing them creates a space for new relationships and memories.
Following the first coronavirus wave, I was so upset and resentful with the news and the chaos around me. I thirsted desperately for connection and community. I went up to Tzfat to learn in seminary with other earnest, searching souls. I assailed the rebbetzins and teachers with a mountain of triggering Jewish texts about women and sexuality – texts that divorced me from God years ago.
Yet the teachers met my deliberate anger not with indifference or defensiveness, but with kindness. While having once related to God through fear and obscure laws, I discovered another facet of Jewish practice I had never allowed myself to see. Within the cobblestone walls of the Beit Midrash the rabbi turned to me and, as if peering directly into my Jewish soul, said “I feel a responsibility for you”. I discovered genuine care for my fate as a Jew and human being, from the patient rabbis, generous locals, and warm fellow students.
On the night of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, I was overwhelmed by this newfound Jewish warmth I had thirsted for my whole life. I snuck into the silent and dark Beit Midrash and found a set of Tefillin. At 4:13 AM, my heart throbbing wildly with the fear of being found out, I took this strap that had once symbolized inaccessible, unrelatable masculinity and taught myself to wrap it around my left hand. I wrapped and re-wrapped it around my finger over and over again while whispering the customary verse “I Betroth you to me… and I Betroth you to me forever” (Hosea 2:19). As I gazed down at my finger, I visualized my past relationships as well as my future home. Those lost intimate connections were no longer a memory I angrily buried, but a precious lesson I could build upon. Those people taught me how to forgive, receive, and love. I channeled those memories and skills towards God, and chose to forgive Him. I forgave the rabbis and their texts. In that moment, an object I once perceived as symbolic of exclusionary masculinity became the means through which I brought God closer to me as a Jewish woman. The wrapping of my finger became an intimate act of both surrender and acquisition; I let go of well-rehearsed anger, and made space for a home.
Slowly, through letting go and emulating love and kindness from my own past, I cautiously became kind to God. I came to Tzfat on a crusade of self-victimization and resentment, and left with empowering compassion in my heart. It serves us better to let go in order to receive and build.
I am here to comfort you and tell you it is ok to mourn every now and then during a designated time. It helps to momentarily let go of our endless pursuit of happiness and face a painful memory from the past, even for just one day out of the year.
In this light, it makes sense that Tu B’Av, the Jewish holiday of love, is right around the corner from Tisha B’Av. We must first cherish and let go of homes that could never be, in order to build homes that must be. We must surrender unhelpful thoughts, social media apps, friends, and relationships that separate us from ourselves and others, in order to have the space to truly, sustainably build and give.
I pray that we will all choose wisely between homes to surrender and homes to reinforce in our personal lives, communities, and beyond.