Transforming Mourning into the Morning
We are in the period of the Three Weeks and, moreover, the Nine Days culminating with Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av) begins this week. It’s difficult therefore to not think about the destruction of the First and Second Holy Temples in Jerusalem, the ongoing Exile of the Jewish people (parts one and two), and our collective mourning over the unfathomable spiritual, ritual, and experiential daily loss that has grinded on and on and on for long over two millennia now. But we must at least attempt to fathom the loss if we are to bring back the spiritual light and all the blessings that God wishes to bountifully bestow upon all of us, both Jew and Gentile.
From morning until evening during these Three Weeks, we are supposed to be mindful of a certain level of increasing mourning to effect a positive inner transformation; the restrictive rituals are rife with reproach if we are proscribing pleasure as a mere custom to dispense with as soon as allowed. If we don’t know or have an inkling of the loss, how can we be motivated sufficiently to isolate the causes of the loss and then take the necessary steps with meaning and purpose to reverse the process of Exile and help bring about a new day, our own personal redemption along with the community in which we live and love? In short, how can our mourning bring the morning?
The most common explanation for the destruction of the second Holy Temple in Jerusalem is sinat chinam or causeless hatred. The solution we are told is to practice and live a life filled with causeless love. While that would certainly go a long way toward the redemption of all, sadly it is unlikely alone to suffice. In fact, the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 119b), provides many reasons for the destruction of Jerusalem and other sections of the Talmud mention yet additional explanations. For our purposes, let’s focus on one of the reasons cited in Shabbat: “Ulla said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because they had no shame for each other; as [the verse] states:They should have been ashamed, for they committed an abomination; yet they are not at all ashamed etc. (from the Prophet Jeremiah 6:15—Artscroll’s commentary on this, “In the previous two verses the prophet castigates the leaders of the people for taking bribes, for not criticizing the people or each other, and even worse, for assuring them that all was well. So mired in corruption were they that even when some were caught committing a crime, they did not have the decency to show shame for their actions [Rashi, Metzudos to verse]; nor did the others feel shame for not having done anything to halt the wrongdoing of their colleagues [Maharsha]”).
In the Mishna (literally, repetition or, to study and review) a/k/a the Oral Torah which was eventually written down over 1,500 years ago, there is a section called Avotor Fathers but it is commonly known as Pirkei Avot or Ethics of [the] Fathers. In Pirkei Avot 1:18 it is written, “Rabban ben Gamliel says: The world endures on three things – justice, truth, and peace, as it is said: You shall adjudicate the verdict of truth and peace at your gates (from the Prophet Zechariah 8:16). Obviously, when something rests on three items or values, if you take away any one, the entire edifice collapses. Each of the three is absolutely essential for individuals and society to flourish or even just survive.
With this partial background on how destruction came upon us and the entire world diminished, now it’s time to tap into our emotions and perhaps get motivated to the extent we need. Let’s try to make this year the last year we need to mourn and instead we will then welcome the morning light of a better world, an everlasting world of primarily positive spiritual energy emitted by each one of us.
Do you have a child? Do you have more than one child? If you don’t have any children or any children yet, do you have a niece or a nephew with whom you feel close? Do you have a special relationship with any child? Think about that person deeply and lovingly before you read on. Focus on just one or two of that child’s particularly praiseworthy and/or adorable qualities and picture his or her face intensely. Take ninety, or at least thirty, seconds right now on reestablishing your bond of love and care before reading on.
Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) states in Mesillat Yesharim/The Way of the Upright, in Chapter 19 (The Elements of Piety):
“Now, the essence of love of Hashem is that a person literally craves and desires to be close to [Hashem], blessed be He, and pursues His holiness as a result of this craving—just as a person will pursue that which he covets intensely. One’s desire for Hashem’s holiness should be so intense that, for him, merely mentioning the Name of [Hashem], blessed be He, and relating His praises, and being involved in study of the words of His Torah and His Divinity, blessed is He, will be a source of tangible delight and pleasure. This is like someone who loves the wife of his youth or his only child with intense love, for whom even mere conversation about them is a source of satisfaction and pleasure.”
For sure, anyone who has ever had children knows of this intense love. For once we had our firstborn and before God perhaps blessed us with any additional children, that firstborn was our only child.
The opposite is equally true: as the love for an only child is the most intense love, so is the loss the most intense loss. In such a situation, how can this ever-present suffering, this ever-present pain somehow be put perhaps to a constructive use, if possible?
Perhaps one answer is contained in the book of the Prophet Zechariah, yes the same Zechariah who was cited above in Pirkei Avot. Chapter 12 in Zechariah is an important chapter that outlines part of what will happen at the End of Days. This chapter of only fourteen verses is cited so you will have the entire context and receive the full impact of the prophet’s words but please give all your attention to the tenth verse (which is highlighted in bold):
1The prophecy of the word of HASHEM concerning Israel: The word of HASHEM, Who stretches the heavens and lays the foundations of the earth, and Who fashions the spirit of man within him: 2Behold! I am making Jerusalem a cup of poison for all the peoples all around; and also Judah will take part in the siege of Jerusalem. 3It shall be on that day that I will make Jerusalem a burdensome stone for all the peoples, all whose bearers become lacerated; and all the nations of the world will gather against it. 4On that day—the word of HASHEM—I will strike every horse with confusion and its rider with madness. But I will open My eyes to the House of Judah, while I strike every horse of the peoples with blindness. 5Then the captains of Judah will say in their hearts, “The inhabitants of Jerusalem are a source of strength for me [in their prayers] to HASHEM, Master of Legions, their God!” 6On that day I will make the captains of Judah like a stove [with] fire [burning] wood and like a fiery torch [burning] sheaf, and they will consume on the right and on the left all the peoples all around; and Jerusalem will again settle in its place, in Jerusalem. 7HASHEM will save the tents of Judah first, so that the splendor of the House of David and the splendor of the inhabitants of Jerusalem should not overwhelm Judah. 8On that day HASHEM will protect the inhabitants of Jerusalem; on that day even the weakest among them will be like David, and the House of David will be like Divine Beings, like an angel of HASHEM before them. 9It shall be on that day that I will seek to destroy all the nations that come upon Jerusalem. 10I will pour out upon the House of David and upon the inhabitant of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplications. They will look toward Me because of those whom they have stabbed; they will mourn over him as one mourns over an only [child], and be embittered over him like the embitterment over a [deceased] firstborn. 11On that day the mourning will become intense in Jerusalem, like the mourning of Hadadrimmon [and the mourning] at the Valley of Megiddon. 12The land will mourn, each of the families by itself: the family of the House of David by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan by itself and their wives by themselves; 13the family of the house of Levi by itself and their wives by themselves; the family of Shimei by itself and their wives by themselves; 14all the families who remain, each of the families by itself and their wives by themselves.
The prophet of God Himself clearly states that the greatest possible mourning is the loss of an only child and this intensity, this emotion, is part and parcel of the redemption of Jerusalem, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the Jewish people, and the entire world.
Imagining such a loss is impossible for anyone who has not had such a calamity fall upon himself but how about this for a thought experiment during these Three Weeks and the upcoming Nine Days: What if you were not able to meet, see, or communicate in any way whatsoever for Nine (or even three) Years your beloved only child, your beloved firstborn, your beloved niece or nephew, or any child with whom you have a particularly special relationship? God forbid you ever even try to imagine your child no longer with you at all forever but try contemplating the agony of absolutely zero contact of any kind for “just” nine (or even three) entire years. Most likely, if you intensely tried to focus on that thought for merely ninety or even only thirty seconds it would be unimaginably, unfathomably, and inconceivably painful, such would be the loss.
But you should indeed try and tap into this experience. Because the loss of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and all its symbolism and ramifications was, is, and remains unbearably horrific. We still have loss of children, ongoing injustice, lack of shame, sinat chinam (causeless hatred), and more, all because we haven’t yet internalized that the loss is personally catastrophic.
We still haven’t taken it seriously enough. We are not even remotely emotional enough. We must reverse the torpor of our all-too-casual attitude that each day is basically fine. It isn’t. When the Jews were slaves in Egypt, most of them accepted their lot in life and didn’t even contemplate what freedom might mean for their lives personally or collectively. In our day, we have become used to our daily experiences and we too are now slaves to our quotidian routines, perhaps even smugly satisfied that we already live a sufficiently elevated life. We must stop intellectually rationalizing that everything is basically fine or good enough and that much of the required improvements will be left to when Mashiach (the Messiah) arrives.
The opportunity embedded in the Three Weeks and the Nine Days is to recognize it’s not only permissible but necessary to become emotionally affected by what was lost and what could be regained, if we but put in the real effort to learn everything we can about the meaning, purpose, and actuality of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem; the impact of this insight will be amplified exponentially when we can sincerely imagine the Holy Temple in Jerusalem being served in the proper manner by Kohanim (Priests) truly dedicated to the daily service of God, by Levites truly dedicated to assisting the Kohanim properly, and by all visitors who wish to connect with God in the most complete and intimate manner possible.
Deep down you know life could be much much better, both spiritually and even on the level of the mundane. Throwing up your hands and telling yourself there is nothing you can do except flee from the moral turpitude of our time is not a serious life plan for success.
Think of missing your loved one as discussed above and use the power of that emotion by relating it to the loss of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem; then harness all this motivating energy and take steps to begin the process of transforming yourself into the person you need to become to help bring back the world as God always intended, a world filled with and permeated by justice, truth, and peace.
After you’ve accomplished these praiseworthy goals, you will be better prepared to help end the Exile and bring about the morning light, which is what the second half of Tisha B’Av is all about. But if you don’t put in the work, the emotional work, you are going through the laws, customs, and rituals of the Three Weeks and the Nine Days in an ineffective manner. Do it right. Do it right now.
Three times a day in our prayers, we beseech God for the restoration of Justice: “Restore our judges as in earliest times and our advisers as at first; remove from us sorrow and groan; and reign over us—You, HASHEM, alone—with kindness and compassion, and justify us through judgment. Blessed are You, HASHEM, the King Who loves righteousness and judgment.”
The restoration of Justice will remove from us sorrow and groan. As the Prophet Isaiah says (1:27): “Zion will be redeemed through justice, and those who return to her through righteousness.”
Let’s all tap into our most powerful emotions, promote justice whenever and wherever we can, become more righteous than we are now, inculcate to ourselves and everyone around us the true meaning of the loss of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and transform our mourning into the morning.
This essay was written in the memory of Ariel Yitzchak ben Meir a”h, may his neshama have an aliya in shamayim. He was the only child of Mark and Ellen Newman in Great Neck, NY and was taken from them on September 10, 2014/Elul 15, 5774 when he was 18 years old. www.arielschecklist.com