A number of years ago, friends of mine told their young son that he needed to behave especially well, as his parents weren’t eating and drinking today. They were fasting, they explained, to commemorate that the Bet HaMikdash was destroyed. That evening, as they sat down to break their fast- their son looked at them, confused- “Why are you eating? Was the Bet Hamikdash built again?!”
This story highlights a crucial question that we face each year after Tisha B’av- as we transition into Shabbat Nachamu. Why do we stop mourning? If nothing has practically changed at the end of Tisha B’av- then from where does the nechama, the consolation, come? Following Yom Kippur, after we spend a day in tefilla cleansing ourselves, and we are told that “Yom Kippur itself is mechaper”, it is understandable for us to feel a sense of relief. But after Tisha B’av, everything is still the same- we mourned the lack of Bet Hamikdash, and that lack still remains. In what way is there nechama?
They key to answering this question is to gain a better understanding of the Jewish concept of “nechama” in Jewish thought. Rav Elchanan Adler, Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, points out that although the classic understanding of the word “nechama” is “consolation”, in a number of places in the Torah the word means something else entirely. At the end of Parshat Bereishit as well as in the aftermath of the Sin of the Golden calf, the Torah uses the word “vayinachem”- and in those contexts, it refers to a situation where Hashem “reconsiders” a decision He has made, whereby He seems to “change His mind.”
How can the same word be used to mean “consolation” and “reconsideration”? Rabbi Adler suggests that this double usage helps us gain a better understanding of the very idea of nechama and consolation. In Rabbi Adler’s words- “The essence of consolation is the ability to shift perspective — to look at the same reality and to ‘reconsider,’ to see it in a different light. While from an earlier perspective, a tragedy might be viewed in stark ‘black and white’ terms—as senseless and meaningless — nechama allows for shades of gray, leading one to perceive a silver lining within the depth of the suffering. While a painful void and gnawing questions still remain, the spirit of nechama begins to uncover Divine grace, permitting people to discern the hidden hand of Providence underlying the apparent madness, and encouraging them to use the painful experience as an impetus to move forward creatively. In short, nechama connotes the ability to reconsider. Although externally nothing may have changed, and things may, on occasion, even seem worse, internally, a transformation has taken place in the meaning that one assigns to this harsh reality.” (YU Torah-To-Go 5773 “Tisha B’av: Hope in the Face of Sorrow”)
The Jewish concept of “nechama” thus refers to our ability to reshape our view of what has occurred, and to search for, and appreciate, the silver lining in what has happened. This is not meant to take away from the sadness and mourning- the pain and grief is still there. However, at some point, “nechama” is borne out of our ability to reconsider our perspective, and to recognize any positive aspects that may exist in what has occurred.
Despite the tremendous destruction and devastation that the Churban Bet Hamikdash represents, if we look closely, those silver linings begin to emerge. A well-known Medrash points out that there is consolation in the fact that G-d chose to take out His anger on the sticks and stones of the Bet Hamikdash as opposed to Jewish people. The Gemara at the end of Makkos records the story of Rebbe Akiva laughing as he watches foxes walk through the ruins of the Bet Hamidash, in contrast to the crying of his peers- because he realizes that if the prophecy of destruction come true; so, too, will the prophecy of redemption. Others point out that simply the fact that after 2,000 years, we are still mourning the Bet Hamikdash’s destruction is itself a silver lining- as it signifies our everlasting dedication to Zion and Yerushalayim.
We can now come to a better understanding of the famous Gemara Taanis 30a that proclaims that “one who mourns over Yerushalayim merits and sees its happiness”. Some commentaries point out that the gemara does not speak in the future tense- it does not say that such a person “will merit to see its happiness”- but rather in the present tense, “merits and sees its happiness.” The clear implication is that, when one who goes through the process of mourning over the Bet Hamikdash, from that mourning itself can sprout the roots of redemption, such that the person immediately begins to experience the happiness of Yerushalayim. He only needs to look through the proper glasses. It is also no coincidence, then, that the Medrash declares that Tisha B’av is the birthday of Mashiach — because the dawn of our redemption rises out of the ashes of our destruction.
This ability to shift perspective- to first mourn a tragedy properly and fully, but then to re-consider the tragedy and search for the silver linings as a source of comfort- is fundamental to the Jewish identity and Jewish history. Throughout the generations, from the initial Egyptian Exile across the ages to the recent Holocaust, we have encountered more than our fair share of horrors and calamities — and, yet, what has defined us is our ability to rise back up, stronger and more determined. We do not forget the catastrophes that have befallen us- we continue to commemorate them each year- but then we move on and grow.
The skill and ability to shift perspectives is an important skill for us to teach our children as well. Children in general tend to experience things one-dimensionally, and in extremes — something is either great, or it is horrible. The ability to experience nuanced emotions — to recognize that something can be tragic but can also contain aspects of hope and optimism — requires a certain amount of maturity and must be taught. As our children experience the challenges of life- both big and small- it is imperative that we give them the space to mourn and process the disappointment that comes their way, but that we then teach them the tools to search for the silver linings and positive elements that grow out of those challenges. Perhaps we can even teach them that it is okay to “hold” both emotions — sorrow and optimism, grief and hope — at the same time. Because that is part of being human- experiencing conflicting emotions and learning how to navigate within them.
As Tisha Bav transitions into Shabbat Nachamu, we as a nation shift our perspective; as the sadness of the destruction gives way to the rays of hope emerging from amongst the despair. We remember that, as important as it is to mourn, it is also important to search for the silver linings, to find the sparks of positivity emerging from the tragedies. This is an important skill that we must cultivate within ourselves — and that we must teach and nurture within our children as well- as we all make our way through the vicissitudes of life.
Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom!