Life is bittersweet.
As Jews, we understand this at our core. Our genetic blueprint is primed to understand this paradox. We understand historical, collective, and personal waves of delicious triumphs, blended with harsh and acerbic defeats.
But still, isn’t this paradox hard to understand, hard to embrace?
The sweet. Our relationship with the Divine. Our miraculous triumphs over enemies. Our inherent humanity, consciousness, and inspiring resilience. Our support and dedication to each other, no matter where we are. Our fragrant traditions.
And the bitter. Two thousand years of exile from our ancestral home. The divisions, persecutions, pogroms, the Holocaust, the anti-Semitism. The losses.
Although it’s important to focus on the sweet, for in the sweet lies so many of our secrets to success, there is a day that is set aside to remember the bitter.
On Tisha B’Av we commemorate both the destructions of the first and second Temples in addition to many other moments of Jewish suffering.
The Temples represented a divine presence amongst us. There, we felt God in every nook and cranny of our existence. Their destruction led to our circuitous exile and the increasing alienation from our spiritual source.
In essence, we had been barred from our Divine home. It was devastating.
Our relationship with God is not the same after the destruction of our Temples. Instead of His presence being so self-evident, we now have to search for him. We have to find Him. It takes more effort.
He is there, always, as He was before. But now we don’t always see and feel him. We have to work on it.
What happened to cause this monumental change?
Many years ago, our unfounded hatred towards each other produced an estrangement from God.
We stumbled. Our nation’s internal politics became very nasty, unfortunately, like today. We disliked each other. We divided, instead of united. We didn’t have compassion and love for our fellow humans.
And so now, we must honor Tisha B’Av.
On Tisha B’Av, we don’t “do”. We fast, we sit, we cry. We cry for the mistakes, the injustices, the alienation.
We experience the world as a broken place. A place where sometimes we have to work very hard to feel God’s presence. A place where we face the consequences of our past. And we sit in this “being” mode for 24 hours, far removed from “doing”.
It sounds so bitter.
But by grieving collectively, no matter what our beliefs are, we feel supported, we feel comradery, we feel each other’s pain, and in that alone, one can find sweetness. And perhaps, by examining, and feeling brokenness for a defined time, there is much potential to stir the soul, to remember, and move on, hopefully with a newfound awareness.
It makes sense; brokenness and suffering are spaces not to be wallowed in. If we wallow and cling to them our journey stops – our collective and personal voyage towards sweetness is halted.
So, after 24 hours, we end our grieving, and we begin our “doing,” repairing what is still fragmented, and incomplete.
If you scratched the surface of every person in a room, you would find that there was some suffering. Many people would be smiling and engaging in lively conversations while inside having very deep pain and fear. This is part of the human experience that we have learned well how to hide from one another.
And we could remain a bystander, apathetic, or indifferent to this suffering. Or we could act and do.
Often, acting from compassion can alleviate rifts and suffering and alter ourselves and others. Opening our hearts to our fellows, loving unconditionally, and performing acts of service, “just because”. Engaging in productive conversations with the “left”, engaging in productive conversations with the “right”, and engaging in productive conversations with everyone in between. These actions are the antidote to detesting unconditionally, which if you recall, was the reason for the destruction, we now must mend.
When you volunteer at a soup kitchen, when you embrace a lonely relative, when you dialogue and work together with those on the opposite political spectrum, you are turning bitter into sweet. It could be one private gesture to a family member; it could be a sweeping policy enacted for a non-profit. No matter, they are all acts of compassion and unconditional love.
In such acts, we are laboring. We are finding God and making Him a home again.
We are finding purpose in our lives.
It’s more difficult than before, but because of that, when we find Him it’s all the more rewarding.
We are doing, as a result of being.
And we are changing the bitter into sweet.