“When the month of Av begins, we reduce our joy” (Ta’anit 26b)
Most years, with the start of the 9 days of mourning, our daily routine changes drastically. At the height of the summer vacation, we generally stay home and reduce our outings. This year, apart from not eating meat or drinking wine, the general atmosphere in our homes will probably not change dramatically, since most of us have been staying home since the outbreak of COVID-19. The social, professional and financial uncertainty that characterizes our lives, and our concern for those who are ill, hospitalized or have lost relatives, have significantly affected our emotional state.
The month of Av is known as Menachem Av, meaning a month of comfort. Perhaps specifically this year, the mourning experience of Av can teach us some lessons in resilience and bring us some nechama (comfort) during these challenging times.
Our Sages said: “Whoever mourns for Jerusalem merits and sees her joy.” (Ta’anit 30b). This promise does not relate to the future but rather is written in the present tense: “zoche ve’roeh” – merits and sees. Apparently, there is something in the mourning experience that can affect our lives in the present moment. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, in his work Kedushat HaLevi, shares a wonderful insight explaining that the word zocheh (merits) is phonetically related to the term for purification (“hizdakechut”). He suggests that the experience of mourning is tormenting yet purifying experience.
In our times, one of the biggest enemies of society is apathy. Our daily routine eroded our emotions and sensitivities. We used to wrap ourselves in a thick cloak of indifference and cynicism. We would do anything possible to escape from any feelings of pain or vulnerability, since these emotions are often being judged as signs of weakness. We have many distractions to help us numb our pain – endless work, social media, or any other addictive behavioral pattern or substance.
However, when we use these tricks to escape from our pain, we also lose the ability to feel true joy. When a comatose patient begins to wake up and feel pain, it is a joyful moment for their family, as it signifies that they are on the road to recovery. There is a common saying that “the only way out is through”. Feeling pain and having the courage to cry gives us an opportunity for resilience and self-growth. This is the special opportunity of the month of Av, when we encounter our collective pain by reflecting on the national tragedies of our history, which should inspire us to emotional introspection.
“The gates of tears were not locked” (Brachot 32b). Authentic tears can melt away the layers of apathy and cynicism that we wrap ourselves in, and open the locked gates within our hearts. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch said that just as sweat is an indication of a physical workout, tears are the signs of our soul’s workout, since “tears are the sweat of the soul.” (Commentary to Bereshit 37:35)
The experience of mourning can be purifying, cathartic, and a time for introspection. It can remind us of what we should be striving for, and thereby fill us with hope for a brighter future. This is the reason why we break a glass at every Jewish wedding and say “Mazal Tov!”, for only then does our joy incorporate our pain and become authentic and everlasting. True and authentic joy cannot be attained without acknowledging the pain and broken hearts that we have overcome. Celebrations are often shallow and superficial experiences, but Jewish tradition believes in Simchat Olam – everlasting joy.
Proving that pain is the birthplace of love and joy, it is no wonder that the happy festival of Tu B’Av follows immediately after Tisha B’Av. The joy that stems from the purifying mourning process should lead us safely toward one of the happiest days of the year, as the Mishna tells us: “There were no days of joy in Israel greater than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur.” (Mishna Ta’anit 4:8).
The Jewish community around the world is going through challenging times, suffering many casualties, and facing horrendous social and financial uncertainties. It is impossible to estimate the ripple effects of the pandemic, but it is reasonable to assume that the resultant financial crisis and recession will hugely affect the Jewish community. Without minimizing these excruciating challenges, we should utilize them to change the way we cope with pain and insecurity. As we are all forced to live through the pain, we must try to find sources of true and authentic joy in our lives that are not dependent on external factors such as money, possessions, jobs and other material assets. At the end of the day, we should look to find happiness and contentment from the most important assets in our lives – our families, our values, our traditions, and ourselves.
“Whoever mourns…merits”. Whoever has the courage to experience vulnerability and pain also experiences true joy, through the unlocking of all our inner emotional gates.
With the help of God, may we all emerge from this crisis stronger, more resilient and – most importantly – more open to recognizing our feelings of pain, vulnerability and uncertainty, and more empathetic to the suffering of others.
In prayer for peace, health and speedy recovery for the people of Israel and the whole world.