I was a bit late to Beit Knesset, synagogue, last Thursday morning, on the Ninth of Av. By the time I arrived, it was already full of men and women praying quietly. A Jerusalem community known for singing and loud, lively davening, on this day, everyone was solemn, contemplative. Some sat glumly on the floor. Some stood. Some broke the silence by sniffling in tears.
On the ninth, or Tisha of the month of Av, we mourn the destruction of Jerusalem, the exile of Divine Presence, tragedies that befell the Jewish People, hatred between brothers, and the fact that we haven’t yet figured out how to make things good in the world.
I realized almost immediately what was so weird about what I was seeing: Modern people aren’t supposed to be sad. We hide sadness, or try to make it go away. Even at funerals, we wear sunglasses and hide from others seeing our being sad.
In private, too, sadness is not really allowed. If a friend of mine is sad, my upbringing says, “Fix it.” Convince them to “live life with a smile,” and to “look on the bright side.”
But nobody was wearing sunglasses at shul on Tisha B’Av, and nobody was trying to fix anything. Observing the customs of Tisha B’Av, we did not even say hello to one another. Nobody showered, brushed their teeth, or wore deodorant. Like we were disobeying, one by one, the most basic rules of social etiquette. Keeping tradition, we sat the morning on the floor reading Kinot, poems of mourning.
And then, we reached afternoon. Something magical happens when Tisha B’Av reaches the afternoon. We get up off the floor. Stretch. Put on Tefillin. We go home. Eventually, we begin to cook for the end of the fast.
It begins with Tu B’Av, kind of a national matchmaking day- there’s room for relationship when people are not ashamed of having sadness, and are open to holding others’ sadness, too. Two weeks later begins a month of hard work to improve ourselves in Elul, then comes crowning God King on Rosh Hashanah, saying an integrity-filled sorry on Yom Kippur, and leaving the stability of concrete, to live in comfy little houses of straw on Sukkot, in order to celebrate our vulnerability, and to appreciate That which sustains us.
I think about our collective trek towards confronting, and hopefully reversing the effects of climate change, and I wonder what it would be like were we to make space for mourning the destruction we’ve caused the world.
Could we enter our own whirlwind adventure of fixing and celebration? Could we have a Tu B’Av, where our honesty allows us to recognize the potential for Peoples to complement, and not compete with one another? An Elul, where we wake up at the crack of dawn every morning to search our every action and vow to change those that aren’t okay? A Rosh Hashanah, where we acknowledge our awe of the forces in the world that are more powerful than we are, a Yom Kippur where we look to those forces and to one other and sincerely apologize for thinking we were so above it all? Could we culminate with a Sukkot, where we dance and sing to modest living spaces and interdependence with Nature, where it is so obvious that there’s plenty of room for everybody when nobody feels the need to control everything?
I wonder, because in all of the discourse surrounding climate change, we are not allowed to be negative. What began with doom-laden predictions, has now evolved, in order to avoid being paralyzing, into a discussion on the opportunities embedded in responding to climate change. Along the way, we skipped feeling sad for those suffering because of climate change, and for the fact that we were the ones who caused it. If the president is now going to talk about climate change, he best focus on green jobs; how climate change is the economic opportunity of our lifetimes. I find myself routinely looking at scathing environmentalist documents and shaking my head saying, “Don’t you know? Being critical never works with the environment. It offends people, and people don’t like to be offended.”
Now, I pray for green jobs, and believe us entitled to a healthy economy. And I think it’s obnoxious to offend people. But like the Rabbis say, if we don’t mourn destruction, we won’t really live rebuilding. If we don’t acknowledge our mistakes, understand them, accept our own culpability in the greed which broke our economy’s back and our ecosystem’s balance, if we don’t look plainly at the faces across the world that suffer because of our unwillingness to make changes in our daily lives, will we chase green jobs with the same passion as if we did? Will we rush to work at those green jobs with the same energy, dedication and pride? Will we be willing to say that if our economy is abusive of other Peoples or generations, then we don’t want that economy? On the most basic level, will we be as willing to share?
Tisha B’Av challenges us to be real. If there’s more than just a bright side, we can’t just look for the bright side. If we do, we won’t know it when it hits us.
I hope we can accept the challenge to be sad over our actions. I hope we have the strength to admit we were wrong. I hope that we mourn the weakness of denying vulnerability, and then dance to the integrity in embracing it. I hope that we drink to interdependence. That we are entirely overcome and enchanted with the weight, the pain, and the perfect, seamless joy of life when we lift our glass, take a deep breath, and quietly say, “L’Chaim.”
Based on the teachings of Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, from Tisha B’Av in Nachlaot, Jerusalem. Read more from Rav Aaron at www.ravaaron.wordpress.com.