Why is it so hard for us to mourn? Why do we do our best to ignore the mourning period on the Jewish calendar?
In Israel, we usually know a special day on the Jewish calendar is coming for a good few weeks before it arrives.
In the Rami Levi supermarket where I live, the sukkah decorations are barely stored away when the candles, oil and wicks for Chanukah are put on display. The Pesach cleaning supplies come out almost together with the last of the Purim hamentashen. The Yom Haaztmaut barbecue grills are on sale the second the matza is gone. And very quickly after that, the entire front of the store is filled with shelves of pasta, cheese and blintzes or crepes for Shavuot.
Even if you are not yet ready to face them, our Jewish holidays have a way of making us prepare for them and get in the proper mood.
As a people, I think, we generally embrace our annual holidays. We may complain somewhat about the financial cost of being a Jew and the physical exertion that some of our special days entail, but our holidays most often add tremendous meaning to our lives. They structure our year, bring our families together, connect us to our Creator, and fill us with nostalgia and memories.
And then there is Tisha B’Av.
Built into our calendar every summer is a three-week mourning period that stretches from the 17th day of Tammuz to the 9th day of Av. The time period that began with the breeching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Roman army.
There is no need for any Rami Levi display this time of year. Jewish law and custom set the tone and the mood and remind us what is around the corner.
During the “three weeks,” there are laws that dictate the observance of mourning practices that increase in severity as time goes on. No weddings, live music or haircuts for the entire time period. No eating meat, drinking wine, swimming, or doing laundry during the last nine days (for Ashkenazim, at least).
And this Sunday, it will all culminate with the fast of Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, our holy Temple, in Jerusalem so many years ago.
Over 2,000 years later, we continue to mark the day that the First Temple, and then the Second, were each burned to the ground. We fast, sit on the floor, remove our leather shoes, and abstain from routine activities, such as bathing, intimacy, and even greeting one another.
But as opposed to our other Jewish days, including Yom Kippur, no one seems to embrace the lead up to this one.
It often feels that as a people, we struggle to connect with these three weeks of mourning. We may go through the motions, but the spirit of mourning is hard to come by.
More, we may not really be interested in feeling it.
Sparkly ads for restaurants serving a “special 9 days menu,” for acapella music, and for special “9 days” sales on non-clothing items seem to proliferate from year to year.
Why is it so hard for us to mourn if we have what to mourn for?
Is it because these days fall smack in the middle of summer weather and vacation time? Would it be easier for us if the three weeks fell in the dead of winter?
Is it because it is hard to connect to the loss of something we never experienced to begin with? But, then again, none of us really left Egypt either, and we do the Pesach seder pretty well.
Is it because with the modern State of Israel, these days have lost their relevance, or at least their resonance? Do we think that because we have returned and are strong, that these practices are outdated and no longer apply?
Is it simply because mourning is just no fun?
Or is it something deeper?
To mourn is to acknowledge that we are missing something. To mourn means to be acutely aware of what we once had and to think deeply about what is really important to us, what we want, what we lack, and how we can get it back.
To mourn for the loss of the Temple and the exile is to admit that Jews remain incredibly vulnerable, especially in the Diaspora. It is to confront rising anti-Semitism and acts of violence against Jews around the world.
To mourn for the loss of the Temple also means facing the fact that Jewish life in Israel still has a lot of challenges and problems to be worked through. That the corruption, poverty, infighting, and security threats leave us with much to hope and pray for.
To mourn for the loss of the Temple and pray for its return means wanting to live a God-centric life where His presence, or absence, is felt palpably. A life in which our wants and desires are not what guide us, but in which we strive to answer to a higher calling.
To mourn is to admit that our lives, personal and collective, are sadly incomplete; that, as any mourner knows, all the joy and satisfaction cannot totally distract us from the gaping void that we feel within us.
We do our best to ignore all this until we can no longer. My mind can wander from the loss of the Temple, but I can’t ignore the cold-blooded murder of a wide-eyed, innocent 18-year-old boy, five minutes from my home. And when the pain of one evokes the other, I am reminded of how both are somehow rooted in the pervasive reality of “siluk Shechina,” of Divine disengagement; and that yes, we still have what to mourn for.
It happened that there was a woman who lived in the same neighborhood as Rabban Gamliel. She had a young son who died, and she would cry for him at night. Rabban Gamliel would hear her voice, and he would be reminded of the Temple’s destruction, and he would cry together with her until his eyelashes fell out.” (Eicha Rabba 1:24)
And we cry too. We cry for Dvir Sorek, for his parents, for our country, for our nation, for God and His Temple and for the pain that we experience over and over again.
And we mourn.
In “Out of the Whirlwind,” Rav Soloveitchik writes:
Mourning, if observed with restraint and in compliance with the Halakhah, enhances the status of man. It is an experience of great dignity, it is a sacrificial act enlightening the sufferer as to the meaning of life as well as the destiny of mankind. This axiological critical analysis enriches his personality. It purges him of the ugly and contemptible in life.
We should not be afraid of mourning and of the emotions it stirs within us. We must mourn and we must cry, as we strive to live our lives with awareness, responsibility, meaning, and vision.
May we find nobility in mourning, and even more in salvation.
בבניין ירושלים ננוחם