Of all the emotions we feel, the one that we humans are most averse to sorrow. We love being happy, love being in love. We’re OK with being calm or just merely satisfied, we choose to be frightened by scary movies, we’re even open to anger. But sorrow? We avoid it like the plague.
And the plague that we’re living through now has created an awful lot of sorrow. We’ve been isolated from one another, making it hard to find consolation. No hugging, no crying on a friend’s shoulder. Instead, loved ones have died alone in the hospital with only a masked stranger for company. We held too many funerals on Zoom, each of us sitting in our own home, weeping alone.
It has been incredibly painful.
It seems counter-intuitive to choose to observe a “holiday” that asks us to spend more than 24 hours in sorrow. Deep sorrow. Especially in the middle of summer, the time of vacations and travel, family gatherings and outdoor sports. And especially in the middle of this summer.
But that’s exactly what the Jewish holiday Tisha B’Av wants us to do. Even this year, while we are still dealing with the pandemic.
The holiday’s name translates to the date – the 9th day of the month of Av.
It marks the saddest and most traumatic episodes in Jewish history, beginning with the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE.
But that wasn’t all. Over the next two thousand years, terrible things continued to happen to the Jewish community in mid-summer, most recently the invasion of the Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazis on this date.
Tisha B’Av is a day of intense communal mourning. Jews are expected to fast from sunset to sunset, no food or drink. No showers or perfume or lotions, no makeup, no leather shoes or belts, no soft chairs or pillows, nothing that creates comfort or joy. In essence, it is a day to submerge ourselves in sorrow.
The question arises: What are we mourning for? The loss of the two ancient Temples in Jerusalem? Judaism has come a long way from two millennia ago, when it was a religion that focused on a priestly class who performed sacrifices and stood as intermediaries between God and humans. I’m happier with things the way they are.
Are we mourning the expulsions from 11 different countries over the centuries? Spain, England, France, and the rest of them long ago decided to let Jews back in.
The Warsaw ghetto? In the midst of an orgy of mass killing and destruction, during which six million Jews were murdered, there’s no reason to concentrate all our sorrow on that day’s events. Commemorating Kristallnacht in November is more appropriate, as is Yom HaShoah in the spring.
Perhaps we set aside a day to experience sorrow because there is value in allowing ourselves to feel pain. There is a saying among the Jewish sages that one must experience descent for the sake of ascent. That is, sometimes we have to hit rock bottom in order to rise up again.
But even that is not enough. Because each ascent requires yet another descent. Up and down; two steps forward and three steps back. If the spiritual journey were a staircase, we’d never get to the top.
This dialectical understanding of spirituality emphasizes that there is something important about being in the low place. Perhaps more important than being in the peak moments. Out of our lowly moments, we can grow deeper, do work that otherwise we wouldn’t do, and develop humility and perhaps a bit more empathy.
Laura Adkins, a writer at The Forward, put it this way: “On Tisha B’Av, our tradition offers us a clear path toward experiencing something transcendent… Our job is simply to feel sad and be still in our sadness. We lament the tragedies of Jewish history, the harsh realities of today, and our own limiting behaviors – like being unkind to one another – simultaneously.”
The way out is up. And the way up is accepting that we can’t right the wrongs of the past. But we can begin to undo the wrongs of the present, and work to prevent wrongs in the future. Adkins pointed out that one of the simplest wrongs of today is being unkind to one another. Working on that one takes us a long way.
Because other wrongs are bigger and harder. Baseless hatred. Gun violence. Homophobia. Antisemitism. Prejudice against black and brown people, against everyone who looks different or sounds different.
There are so many things that are wrong in our world. To face these things we need just one: Hope.
Like sorrow, hope is an emotion. Unlike sorrow, it can lift us up, take us to places we never imagined, allow us to achieve great things.
I’m just one person, neither famous nor powerful. But that doesn’t let me off the hook. There is a beautiful passage in Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of the Sages, which says, “Rabbi Tarfon taught: It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either.”
It is the act of engaging in the work that matters. Each of us can do our part, knowing that others will come after us and take up the work with glad hands.
On January 6th of this year, when insurrectionists attacked the Capital building in Washington DC, Representative Andy Kim was in the building. He was wearing a brand new blue suit that he had just bought off the rack at a J. Crew store.
He bought it for President Biden’s inaugural, but was so excited at the news that two Democrats from Georgia had just been declared the winners in the state’s two Senate races, that he wore it to celebrate. But like so many others, he unexpectedly found himself hiding with a staff member while a violent mob attacked the building.
When it was over, he emerged from his office to see the destruction in the building’s famous rotunda. “There was trash and debris everywhere, broken furniture and broken flags, coats and gloves, cigarette butts and car keys. Trump flags and random bits of food. There was some body armor,” Kim said in an interview. “This was probably the worst condition that room has ever been in. It broke my heart—I almost started crying.”
Instead of going home to his family, he found a trash bag and knelt down on the floor, cleaning up the mess into the early hours of the morning.
He wore the suit just one more time, on Jan. 13th, when he went to the House floor to vote for Trump’s second impeachment. “The suit still had dust on the knees from Jan 6th. I wore it so I would have no doubt about the truth of what happened,” he said.
When he got home on the 13th, he almost threw it away, but instead put it in the back of his closet.
He took it out exactly six months later, on July 6, when the Smithsonian National Museum of American History asked if he would donate it.
I will admit that I had tears in my eyes when I listened to him on the radio that day. He said simply, “When something is broken, you fix it.” He is looking forward to the day when he can take his sons, now 3 and 5 years old, to the museum to see the suit behind glass, a piece of our nation’s history.
Sorrow is real, and it can hold us down, keep us still when we should act. By spending one day away from the rest of the world purposely experiencing sorrow, we can sink down and allow it to wash over us and through us.
And the next day? We must rise up, renewed, hopeful, resilient, and ready to do the work that awaits. May we be so blessed.