September 16, 2019

A Time to Mourn, a Time to Love

With its important historical and customary markers, the Jewish calendar helps us touch our past while in the present, taps into a spectrum of emotions: guilt, grief, anger, liberation, rebirth, gratitude, rededication, joy and love.

After a celebration of the gift of Torah on Shavuot comes a particularly sad period: the Three Weeks, culminating with Tisha b’Av, the ninth of Av (eve of Saturday, Aug. 10), which is the day we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples. We also mourn other historical calamities in the Jewish community: the defeat of the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome; the declaration by Pope Urban II of the First Crusade; expulsion from England: the Inquisition and expulsion from Spain and Portugal; and Britain and Russia’s declaration of war on Germany, beginning World War I, which leads to World War II and the Holocaust.

Using midrashic commentary, the sages connect the destruction of the Temples to one of our most egregious acts in the Torah. Arriving at the land God had promised, 12 tribal leaders scout it out. Two return with a positive report while 10, because of their fear, report it is impossible to conquer, a land populated by giants and therefore, everyone should return to Egypt. God, incensed at their cowardice, lack of faith and outpouring of tears, condemns the people to wander 40 years in the desert until that generation dies. God decries, “You have wept without cause; therefore, I will set this day aside for a weeping throughout the generations to come.” God’s prophetic words align all these events, becoming an annual cathartic outpouring of grief.

“With the fires consuming Jerusalem and Israelites exiled to other lands, the sages, with Torah in hand, faced a challenging choice: mourn the end of Judaism or re-create its future.”

Although much of this destruction was an expression of anti-Semitism, the Talmud teaches it was our own sinful behavior that brought down God’s house and opened the door to our punishment and suffering. “HaShem has afflicted Zion for her abundant transgressions. … Adonai has delivered me into the hands of those I cannot withstand. … .” The sages say it is sinat chinam, “baseless hatred” toward one another, that was the foundational cause. As we grieve, we contemplate such destructive behavior and whether it exists in the corners of our community today or in our own hearts. It becomes an opportunity not only for communal grief but deep self-evaluation.

You might ask, “Why remember the Temple and the sacrificial cult anyway? It is so primitive, and killing animals is disgusting” (a sentiment many of my students express).  

As with all things ancient, our ancestors lived in a certain reality. As farmers and shepherds, their most precious possessions were the animals that brought sustenance and parnasah (income). In a world where sacrifices were common rituals and understood to be gifts to the gods, Judaism set limits on our cult. Unlike other religions that sacrificed children and virgins, Torah commands only animals can be offered, whose sweet smell would rise from the altar to the heavens. The word in Hebrew for sacrifice is “korbon,” which means to draw near, so this was the ancient Israelites’ way to be close to God. The Temple was believed to be the only place for this activity, so once the Second Temple was destroyed, this ancient cult could no longer continue.

With the fires consuming Jerusalem and Israelites exiled to other lands, the sages, with Torah in hand, faced a challenging choice: mourn the end of Judaism or re-create its future. With love and hope, like the phoenix rising from the ashes, our sages resurrected a religion based on study, prayer and spiritual practice. Yet, they made sure we remembered our horrific past and hopefully not repeat our mistakes.

During the Three Weeks, our readings are focused on the destruction. No joyous celebrations using music — particularly weddings — are permitted. Tisha b’Av in particular is meant to be a “weighty” day. Customs include wearing black garments; a 24-hour fast; deprivation of luxuriating in baths and oils; no wearing of leather shoes; abstaining from sex; and reading Eicha (poetic literature about the Destruction) and tractate Gittin. The synagogue service, like in a house of mourning, is dimly lit with everyone seated on the floor, our rituals magnifying the intensity of our loss and grief.

Yet, as in all dark moments, light does emerge. It often is in our pain that we discover possibilities for healing. I call this Jewish gravity: What goes down must come up; when we fall low, ultimately, we will rise. The brilliance of our cycle of holy days is the constant reminder that it is never too late — change always is possible. Love can heal sorrow and grief. During today’s time of such great divide in our nation, when even friends and families are pitted against one another because of political leanings, compassion and love can go a long way.

Life is a paradox, filled with challenge and pain, but Judaism teaches hope always prevails. Six days after intense mourning, we celebrate an unexpected and most joyful day: Tu b’Av (15th of Av), whose focus is “love,” kindling a moment to reach out to another. The custom used to be that young women dressed in white would dance in the vineyards and young men would seek prospective mates. During the darkest days in our calendar, bright light (literally during the full moon) shines and hope is rebirthed. This day is an opportunity to rediscover deep connections to those we cherish, or even connect with our own soul’s passion.

Going from black to white, we transition to renewal and the month of Elul (“Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li”), whose acronym means “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” With God as the focus, we reestablish our relationship. The period of shivah, mourning, ends and the following Seven Weeks of Comfort begin. Reading the words of the prophet Isaiah consoles us: “Take comfort, for our iniquity has been forgiven.” During this period of teshuvah (return), we begin to assess and repair our relationships with family, friends and God, culminating in the High Holy Days. We journey from brokenness to wholeness.


Eva Robbins is a rabbi, cantor, artist and the author of “Spiritual Surgery, Journey of Healing Mind, Body and Spirit.” Learn more here.