It’s not what you’re thinking. There’s no joyous family gathering nor tons of delicious food.
It’s a fast day.
It’s a time to mourn.
It’s the saddest day of the Jewish year.
And no, it’s not Yom Kippur (which, while serious, is meant to be uplifting).
It’s called Tisha B’Av, and this Saturday night through Sunday (the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av) Jews around the world will be marking this day.
Tisha B’Av is a day that Jewish tradition marks as a time to remember and mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, the ancient epicenters of Jewish life. The Temples were destroyed first in 586 BCE and then again in 70 CE. Since then, Tisha B’Av has become a most inauspicious day marking other large-scale tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people; the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and again from Spain in 1492, the start of WWI, whose unresolved ending built up to WWII and the Holocaust, and the list goes on.
Over time, Tisha B’Av has become a symbolic container holding centuries of Jewish history’s darkest moments, and it is traditionally observed by fasting and reading from the book of Lamentations (a biblical book composed after the destruction of the First Temple) while sitting on the floor like mourners.
Tisha B’Av comes at the height of summer – just when we’re well-practiced in the art of leisure, sitting by our friends’ rooftop pools (I’ve learned that these are good friends to have in DC), or spending time at the beach. In the midst of all this fun – who wants to pause for a day of mourning, let alone fasting?
As a kid, I dreaded this day. I was at Jewish summer camp when this “holiday” arrived, and with it came a day without swimming, field trips, games, or really anything other than watching Holocaust movies and talking about the never ending cycle of anti-semitism. On top of this, I was not provided any time or space for emotional preparation or reflection. After Tisha B’Av, we’d resume business as usual, so it never quite made sense to me as a summer holiday.
Furthermore, Tisha B’Av is about commemorating events that are long gone (the Holocaust itself actually has its own memorial day), so it can be hard to feel a genuine sense of loss around them.
And yet, I think it’s because – rather than in spite of – this emotional disconnect that Tisha B’Av is so vital for each of us to commemorate today. Tisha B’Av is about accepting that significant loss and grief can disrupt our lives and the lives of those around us – no matter what else is going on. It tells us that despite how utterly terrible grief feels, the only way out of it is through it. Unfortunately, we live in a society that doesn’t like to see people grieve. Oftentimes, people, even our closest friends, don’t know how to respond to our deepest sorrow and pain. They may try to keep it light or remind us that we’re going to be okay, even though we are not ready for a positive mood change just yet.
In this vein, the author of Lamentations comes to tell us that expressions of grief are an essential and healthy part of the healing process.
“I cry…tears fall from my eyes: far from me is any comforter who might revive my spirit.”
The very first word of the book, Eicha (which is the Hebrew name of the book), is a question, “How?” as in, “How could this have happened?!” Sometimes, before we get to make meaning out of our loss or figure out what’s next, we can only sit in the shock that has befallen us. We should take time to let our minds consider the unanswerable questions, rather than ask someone for the answers. Reading Lamentations along with other people, which is how Jewish communities read it, may be just what we need to resensitize ourselves to expressions of grief as well as all the anger and fear that can come with it. In this act, we give ourselves permission to feel distraught and/ to support those around us who are in pain as well.
In addition to asking us to tune into our individualized expressions of grief, Tisha B’Av is a day for grieving major communal losses. While the ancient Temples in Jerusalem were sites for religious devotion, their destruction came via warfare. This brought about the loss of many lives and led to the dispersion of the Jewish people as refugees around the world. Ultimately, it marked the end of their sovereignty and way of life as they knew it then.
But even more than this, the rabbis of Jewish tradition say that the Temples were destroyed because of both external military defeat and a breakdown of internal values that led people to distrust and disrespect one another. Although an external enemy physically destroyed the edifices of Jewish life, they were only able to do so because of a community structure that was already tearing at the seams.
During a major societal breakdown – such as the destruction of these ancient Temples or the political division of a country like America – it’s not clear how constructive responses will fill the void or when healing will begin. Communal losses are scary, yet we, like those of the past who ultimately reimagined a new Jewish way of life without the Temples, can find the courage to embrace the fears that come with major losses. If we permanently desensitize ourselves to painful feelings because we are tired, frightened, or overwhelmed, we’ll never be able to eventually move forward.
Imagine what it might look like then, for communities, or even a whole society, to set aside a day to bravely mourn the loss of its values and shared commitments. Although we do have Memorial Day in America, this is not usually a day spent in serious introspection about how a people can unite for a greater social good.
By the end of Lamentations, we pray for renewal and change,
“Renew our days as of old!”
Even if we are feeling utterly hopeless in the moment, we pay homage to the fact that we have before, and one day, we will feel hope again. We set aside a day to grieve the patterns of major life-shattering events, together, and see what responses we can generate with time.
This year, I propose that we reclaim Tisha B’Av for what it can be.
We can read and discuss ancient and modern-day Lamentations with family and friends, such as: Lamentations for the earth, Lamentations for the breakup of immigrant families, or Lamentations for acts of gun violence. We can also join an organized Jewish communal event for a reading, a prayer service or even a protest to mark this day for our losses, our sadness, and our righteous anger.
Although it may take some commitment to pause from our regular summer weekend plans, we can at least try to courageously lean into the pain of this holiday. If we can, we just may become more open, honest, and ready to take on the pain of our lives, and the pain of our world.
About the author: Rabbi Ilana Zietman is GatherDC’s Community Rabbi. She loves meeting new people and creating real and meaningful connections with them. When Rabbi Ilana isn’t officially Gathering, she can be found cooking in her kitchen, practicing yoga, going on hikes, desperately searching for good pizza in DC (seriously, help her find some!) and watching a lot of tv.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.