During my youth, the Three Weeks and particularly the Nine Days were a time of somber tension. I would retreat into the serene walls of whichever yeshiva I was attending, and try to stay safe and focused. Somehow, the season was one of both dread, and of spirituality. I used to think about Yitzchak Avinu, our Patriarch, about whom the descriptive terms “pachad” – dread, and “gevura” – spiritual strength, are used. This interval of time came every summer, every year, and seemed to bring with it the dread of all the woe which has befallen our people, and the remnants of resilience with which we have faced our fears and our immense challenges.
Our history points to so many tragedies which occurred during this time: world wars, expulsions, pogroms. Our Sages regard these days as ones requiring extra caution. We watch our step and we watch our surroundings. This is the anniversary period of losing the right to enter the Promised Land and ending our desert wandering. This is the time when our Batei Mikdash – the first and then the second Sacred Temples in Jerusalem, were desecrated and demolished. It is a time of dread.
Our Halachic tradition highlights the many mourning-like rituals associated with the month of Av. We refrain from many customary comforts. We avoid many public events. We prepare, in essence, for Tisha B’Av by gradually moving towards a state of mind, or at least a range of behaviors, which seek to capture the “old grief” of the centuries. By definition, mourning is defined as the objective actions and rituals with which we mark death and loss. Grieving is defined as the personal and subjective experience which flows from the rituals of mourning. Our great Sages have termed the observances of Av “old mourning”, and observance of personal loss “new mourning.”
For those among our nation who have known grief first hand, “new grief”, who have mourned a personal loss, most of the mourning practices associated with these days of Av are familiar. It is possible to get into the “mindset” of that “old grief” by trying to approximate what we personally had felt when someone dear to us passed away. We then can try to grasp the concept of losing the Mikdash, of being lost in exile, of the collective loss of a way of life which could only have been lived in the Holy Land in an era long gone, by using our personal grief as a model, as a metaphor. So, it goes like this: losing the Mikdash in Jerusalem some two millennia ago is supposed to feel like that empty lonesomeness which comes with the death of a loved one. It’s supposed to feel sad. It is meant to feel stunned and unreal, a bitter reality hard to integrate and hard to accept.
Not having a central shrine, a Mikdash, is supposed to leave us uncomfortable with happy thoughts. Anhedonia. Nothing feels good. Seeking solitude and avoiding others. No music, no parties, no fun and games. Our tradition prompts us to achieve or approximate during Av a grief-analog through adopting some of the practices of mourners. For some of us, this does, in fact, bring on a mood of solemn withdrawal. For some of us, it brings about a cognitive awareness that this time period requires restrictions of our customary comforts. For some of us, it brings about a more ritualistic array of behaviors to enact or to avoid. But for many of us, the challenge is to take this season beyond its emotional, intellectual and functional effects and to bring about something spiritual. We at times feel that arousal of the soul at the Kosel. At times, we feel it during the fervent prayers of the High Holy Days. There are moments when we feel that surge of the soul – that spiritual revival – such as when we cuddle a newborn baby, or attend the chupa of someone whom we love, or visit the grave of one whom we revered. The numinous encounter, that moment of intense transcendent yearning, might be a rare subjective phenomenon, but it occurs when one encounters sacred antiquity, or mortality, or immortality, or is in the pure and sanctified presence of people who keep a sense of the Divine in focus always.
Yet when Av, when Tisha b’Av, stares us in the face amidst our thirst and hunger and discomfort, when we are directed to find that grief-via-analog through practices of partial mourning, it is a struggle to reach that emotional state, that cognitive sense, and that spiritual enlightenment. Yes, we augment our prayers with the elegies known as Kinos or Kinot. For those who explore them and reflect on them, there can come a sense of what the paetan or poet intended as he chose phrases to represent pain, suffering, and loss. Yes, many have the custom of visiting a cemetery after the Kinos, which can be an encounter with the past and with the ages, and with sadness. We do not embrace or even greet those who are part of our lives, which subdues the exuberance which marks much of our routine social life, and which pushes us into a virtual solitude. In my minyan, I have led for decades a “Making Tisha B’Av More Meaningful” program, where we deepen the impact and feel of select Kinos through disclosing relevant, instructional personal experiences or insights to accent the saga depicted by each paetan. And of course, there is the objective discomfort – unfed, unshaven, unbathed, unseated, altered garments and shoes – all of those behaviors push one into a restless malaise, wishing the fast would end and that we could be back in our routine.
And that, my friends, my fellow Jews, brothers and sisters, captures the heart of both new grief, the mourning of personal loss, and the essence of old grief, the recalling of historical loss. Beyond whatever emotional, cognitive and functional aspects of Hilchos Tisha B’Av and beyond whatever spiritual attainment which we might imbibe, it is the restless agitation which truly marks the experience of grieving – the pulsating inner awareness that I wish I did not have to go through this. I wish that this was not happening. If only my lost one would come back to me. If only I was not alone and bereft. And transposing that agony of the spirit to the old grief, the grief over the destruction of the Mikdash, we want to feel that powerful pounding perplexity within our deepest parts and places: I wish this had not happened to us. If only we were back in our homeland within the rebuilt Holy City. If only we were no longer alone in pockets of exile scattered across the globe. If only He were fully back in our collective and personal lives again. If only the “Galus HaShechina” – the veritable exile of the Divine Presence which was once sensed within the holy places – was over and done, which will only happen when our own Galus has ended.
May this be our final restless Tisha B’Av and our final interval of mourning for the Mikdash in Yerushalayim. And may we reach a degree of grief in the process, for all those who grieve over these losses will merit the joy and ecstasy of Geulah and redemption. May Chodesh Av begin to feel like Menachem Av.