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Eytan Saenger

Reflecting on Forced Mourning and the Relevant Messages of Tisha B’Av

Tisha Ba'av, Credit:(Adobe Stock images)
Tisha Ba'av, Credit:(Adobe Stock images)

Imagine being told that you lost a treasure that promises to fulfill all your dreams, yet you never had the chance to see it for yourself, and you’re unsure if it’s truly what you desired. Tisha B’av, which commences Wednesday night, is analogous for me to this experience, with the Beit Hamikdash or Second Temple being the “lost treasure” because while I certainly know its value I don’t feel a strong connection to it. I have always had difficulty with Tisha B’av and the preceding nine days and three weeks of mourning. My struggle comes less from the specific laws and imposed restrictions and guidelines which, for better or for worse, are very much common in Judaism. Rather, my struggle emerges from the apparent “forced mourning” of this period. 

Mourning is inherently a personal phenomenon that each person experiences in their way. Yes, the mourning process is encompassed by both physical and mental actions, but ultimately one’s feelings and emotions drive one’s mourning. Often, an emotion that is forced is not genuine in the slightest.  For many of us today, myself certainly included, there is little to no personal connection to the temple and its destruction which is the focus of this mourning period. Yes its loss may be very sad from a historic and religious perspective and many Jews may yearn for a third temple, but that sorrow is a distant feeling that we need to stretch to grab.  If I don’t feel sad, then the practices of mourning are to a great extent empty of meaning.  

House of Shiva, credit: (Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo)

This is certainly why some synagogues and especially many summer camps, including the one I currently work at, put the focus of the day on the Holocaust or other sorrow-evoking Jewish events to create a day that the campers and staff can more easily connect to. I am not fully certain whether this is the right move or not. 

It is hard-pressed these days to find an event for Tisha Ba’Av which fails to mention the concept of sinat chinam, or baseless hatred, which our sages attribute as the cause for the temple’s destruction, similar to the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students. This could also be a questionable move but I feel this decision is of much merit. While the actual concept we are mourning is the physical destruction of the temple, the temple did not self-destruct and if there is a potential human in action which in any way prompted this event, we should certainly reflect on it. Our introspection on baseless hatred can hopefully lead to an embrace of others which can lead to building up future metaphorical and physical temples.   There is a profound idea in the Talmud that every generation in which the temple is still not rebuilt it is as if it has been destroyed all over again and we are therefore no better than the generation of the destruction until we fix ourselves. 

The terminology of “baseless hatred” troubles me as well because it appears to imply that there is a reasonable or based hatred that is somewhat acceptable. That is why I believe we must focus on the reflexive positive value rather than the negative one which led to the destruction. What is this opposite or reflexive value of “baseless hatred”? Is it “baseless love”, if there is such a thing, “baseless kindness”, “baseless openness to others” or maybe something different altogether? 

This question is crucial to our takeaways from the message repeated so often during this period.  Circumventing “baseless hatred” alone would not be enough but it is imperative to strive to pursue the reflexive value which I believe is a confluence of love, kindness, and openness. 

Among the Jewish holidays or laws where there is a variety of practices, Tisha Baav and the nine days are certainly up there among the ones with the most different practices. But even those of us that only take on a few of the mourning laws are reminded of the destruction and messages from our mere acknowledgment of this sad period on our calendars.  

Jews at the western wall on the ninth of AV (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I still do not believe I have a good solution to my struggle with this “forced mourning”, and would certainly appreciate any suggestions or ideas,  but do think that there could be some benefit in having time set aside to focus on the many tragedies we as a people have endured. Life is meant to be a mostly joyful experience which certainly has setbacks and tragedies but the focus should be on the positive and optimism. Pushing our people’s many sad events including ones seemingly not chronologically connected to this period into a singular period of mourning could very much be healthy for us.

This period which asks us to make many additional sacrifices ranging from refraining from eating to the kind of music we can listen to is both challenging and even problematic at times. But it serves as a reminder not only of the tragic historical events which took place but also of our continued physiological and sociological failures, which we have the responsibility to change. 

We live at a time where these so-called failures or societal missteps are unfortunately glaringly present in the various communities we find ourselves in, possibly more than ever. Whether it be a hyper-partisan United States, a deeply divided world Jewry or an Israel dealing with serious internal conflicts, the baseless hatred and disunion which was present during the end of the second temple period is showing its ugly face. The complexities of this mourning period are hugely important but pale in comparison to the seriousness of focusing on the message of pursuing a baseless embrace of others. If being forced to take on some mourning practices and restrict ourselves is necessary to prompt ourselves and those around us to improve the world around us then so be it. Learning from our interpersonal mistakes of the past and changing our ways for the good can prevent future damage and destruction and hopefully lead to the building up of a better world.

May everyone have an easy and meaningful Tisha Baav.

About the Author
Eytan Saenger is a first-year student at Binghamton University. He previously spent a year at Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem, and graduated SAR High School in Riverdale, NY where he is from. Eytan has had a podcast, written articles, and interviewed people related to politics and Judaism and has a weekly parsha insights chat. He has also previously interned for the American Jewish Committee(AJC) and done various political work.
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