Friday, July 25, 2008

In the Mood for Tisha B'Av?

Sunday was the seventeenth of Taamuz and next Shabbat is the first of Av. Which means one thing: Tisha B’Av is approaching. On Tisha B’Av, Jerusalem was lost and the Temple was destroyed. It is the day we were exiled from our homeland and the day the Diaspora began. It is the saddest day of the year and we need to start preparing for it now.

Of all the Jewish days on the calendar, Tisha B’Av is the most difficult to observe. Nobody has trouble relating to the festive holidays. All year we look forward to Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot. Everybody loves Chanukah and Purim. Even when it comes to Yom Kippur, as hard as it may be for us to face the challenge of personal growth, we still manage to experience the holiness of the day by giving repentance our best shot. Tisha B’Av, however, is another story. On Tisha B’Av you can’t satisfy yourself by going through the motions. There are no motions. There are only tears. Either you have them or you don’t.

On Tisha B’Av there is no Shofar to blow, no Seder to lead, and no Menorah to light. It does not call for any external action at all. What it calls for is emotion. Fasting and mourning are simultaneously the means to inspire somber reflection and the natural reaction to the burning issues of the day. Tisha B’Av demands consciousness of our national history, empathy for our national pain, and sharing our national aspirations. Tisha B’Av is aimed directly at our hearts, and that is why it is such a challenge.

There is a popular misconception that observing Tisha B’Av is only for Jews who are passionate about Judaism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such mistaken thinking is the result of an ignorance of how mitzvot operate. Jewish identity is by no means a required prerequisite for the observance of Tisha B’Av. Quite the opposite. The observance of Tisha B’Av itself generates Jewish identity.

It is not expected that people will naturally feel joy on the holidays or grief on Tisha B’Av. If it came to us naturally, there would be no mitzvah. Our job is to make the effort to inspire these feelings within. By focusing on the tragedies of our history, by empathizing with the suffering of our people, and by recognizing that Divine intervention is our only hope, we connect with our past, we unite with our people, and we awaken our souls. That is the mitzvah of Tisha B’Av.

The Talmud tells us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. A breakdown of community is something G-d does not tolerate. So He left. After functioning as a sanctuary for G-d’s Presence for 420 years, the Temple became no more than an empty building.

Having been destroyed spiritually, it was only a matter of time before it was destroyed physically. It stands to reason that as long as hatred exists among Jews, the Divine Presence will not return to Jerusalem.

But it is not the mere eradication of hate that we are after. Love is our goal. How can we uproot the evil of hate, replace it with love, and put an end to our exile? Tisha B’Av is the answer.

It is very easy to talk about love, unity, and identity, but how do you know if it is real? We convince ourselves that we have fulfilled the mitzvah of loving our fellow Jews, but have we? The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Do we share the joys of our brothers and sisters? Do we feel their pain? Do we feel for the nation as a whole? Such feelings do not materialize by themselves; they need to be cultivated and developed. It is for this reason that we have Tisha B’Av. On Tisha B’Av we move beyond self-centeredness into other-centeredness. We deepen our relationship with our fellow Jews by allowing the suppressed love and concern within our souls to break through to the surface.

Today we have been over-saturated with tragedy and our hearts have hardened. We have lost our sensitivity and we have forgotten how to cry. Tisha B’Av restores our hearts back to the warm, empathetic Jewish heart that it was designed to be. By mourning the tragedies of our history right down to the present day, we teach our hearts to feel again. The sadness of Tisha B’Av is not a depression that breaks you; it is a compassionate sadness that fixes and heals.

On Tisha B'Av, we mourn our distance from G-d, we cleanse any residue of hate from our hearts, and we forge a more meaningful relationship with our people, our land, and our G-d. Every Jew needs Tisha B’Av. But in order the have a successful Tisha B’Av, one cannot wait until the ninth of Av. Preparations must begin weeks in advance.

The inner work of Tisha B’Av is too important and too difficult for just one day. The mourning period therefore begins three weeks earlier on the seventeenth of Tammuz. The mourning starts on a low level, easily accessible to all. Slowly, as we enter the month of Av, the mourning intensifies until the climax is reached on the fast of Tisha B’Av.

There are no shortcuts. It is difficult to experience a meaningful Tisha B’Av if the earlier stages are skipped. But if one prepares properly during the “Three Weeks,” learning the lessons of our painful history, observing the mourning practices of the period and slowly increasing consciousness of the sad state of the Jewish world, then Tisha B’Av will be what it was meant to be. A day on which the core of our Jewish identity is revealed in all of its beauty. There is no other day like it.