Rethinking Tisha B’Av
When I heard her compliment, I said to myself, incredulously: “Me?! If she really knew me, she wouldn’t have said that.”
And just like that — I became a grasshopper.
According to the midrash, the spies returned from checking out the Land of Israel on the 9th of Av. Standing in front of the nation, they argued against entering the land because “we are like grasshoppers in their eyes” — in the eyes of the giants who inhabited the land at the time.
So began the tragic karma of the Ninth of Av, and so begin many tragedies. We become grasshoppers. We believe that we are small, insignificant, powerless, and meaningless.
Tisha B’Av is not a day in the Jewish calendar.
Tisha B’Av is not a moment in Jewish history.
Tisha B’Av is an outlook on life. I am really not that special. I am really not worth that much. I am not as good as people think. I am a grasshopper.
In the famous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, the Talmud goes deeper, explaining in psychological terms how and why someone becomes a grasshopper (“kamtza” in Aramaic is a grasshopper!).
The villain of the story is Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulus, a figure who appears only a handful of times in the whole Talmud. Though Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulus speaks many times throughout the story, all of his remarks bear the same underlying message: “What will people say?” “Mah yomru?”
A person becomes a grasshopper in one’s own eyes when he or she is not living one’s own life －living a life of “mah yomru?” “What will other people think or say?” The spies returned from the land and said: “We will be like grasshoppers in their eyes.” It’s all about what other people think, say, and perceive.
What is the remedy for Tisha B’Av?
Rav Kook writes that the Jewish people suffered from excessive fear and anxiety during the past 2,000 years. We were afraid of everything: threats both external and internal, real hazards and imagined potential fears. Our mantra became: “It’s a slippery slope.” Even when there was no danger, we would conceive of a scenario that would lead to danger.
He asserts that this approach to life is toxic to personal and spiritual growth. Our anxiety is poisoning us.
The antidote? According to Rav Kook, the tikkun for excessive fear is excessive courage, or in his words: “excessive chutzpah.”
She had said something very kind and complimentary to me and I couldn’t hear it. I was so caught up in my script of being small, not good enough, not worthy.
Have you ever felt uncomfortable while receiving praise?
Have you ever brushed off a compliment with “Nah, it was nothing”?
Humility is, of course, one of the most praiseworthy qualities. But true humility means knowing yourself deeply: your flaws as well as your strengths. Part of self-knowledge is knowing that we are truly amazing, that we have a piece of God inside ourselves, and that we are uniquely needed and composed to offer this beautiful and broken world something special. When we brush off or deny our intrinsic and infinite worth, we are denying our own Godliness.
The 9th of Av is a good time to proclaim our un-grasshopper-ness. To look into the mirror and see some of our goodness. It’s a time to find our excessive chutzpah. And it is time to look into our collective mirror and not be afraid to perceive our national greatness. The spies and Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulus only saw our smallness, which ultimately led to Tisha B’Av, a night of “b’chiah l’dorot,” of generations of crying.
In the midst of the sadness of the 9th of Av, let’s give ourselves some true and sincere compliments. Let’s see our virtues and worth. And then let’s say: “Yes — I am that. Yes — we are that.”
Let’s find our excessive chutzpah. Let the tikkun begin.