The First Time I Ever Cried on Tisha B’Av
by CJ Srulollowitz
Tisha B’Av is right around the corner and the days and weeks leading up to it are structured by Halachah to evoke a certain sense of pain, sorrow, and yearning for better times. This is a difficult task for most of us. In 21st century America, it’s hard to “get in the mood” for Tisha B’Av. We live, more or less, in comfort. Some of us live in great luxury.
I imagine it was easier to be mournful in Nazi Germany, or in Stalanist Russia, or during the time of pogroms, or the Crusades, or the Spanish Inquisition. Yes, then Jews could sit on the floor and cry out to G-d to redeem us and bring us to a better place and time.
But today? You must be joking.
It is difficult to legislate emotion. Therefore, the halachic strategy (as a good friend of mine terms it) legislates behavior, which, through proper analysis and understanding elicits, one hopes, the requisite emotion.
Many of us have gone without shaving and bathing these past nine days. We have shut off our radios and iPods. We have curtailed certain joyous activities. But while these behaviors may make us uncomfortable, we are still far from grief-stricken. I doubt that many of us feel truly despondent over the lack of a Temple in our midst. We go through the motions of mourning, but the emotional component—which is the point of it all—remains elusive.
One Tisha B’Av, I was sitting on the floor in shul, the lights dimmed, and I thought, Why am I here? Why are any of us here? Because a building was destroyed? What does that have to do with me? How does that affect me?
I acknowledge its tragic place in Jewish history. I am willing to go through the routine of recognizing the catastrophe. Yes, I want to feel badly about it, but try as I might I can’t conjure up any real sense of pain, loss and longing.
I decided to focus instead on something sad that had recently occurred in my own life. That year I had discovered that a friend of the family had married a non-Jew. I was devastated. How could this have happened? Here was someone who had a Jewish education, a strong connection to Judaism—strong enough to question why other Jewish friends had forsaken Torah—yet, who ran off and did the same thing.
It dawned on me that this was the great tragedy of Tisha B’Av. I wasn’t just mourning the destruction of the Temple; I was also mourning the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple, the real destruction which continues to this day—the fallout of that terrible time, the consequences of our people being uprooted from the Holy Land. Our people were exiled. They moved from place to place. Life became increasingly difficult. Jews dropped off. Without the Temple, the Jewish people became unmoored, lost in a harsh and hateful gentile world.
My friend was destroyed by these aftershocks. This betrayal would not have happened in a properly functioning Jewish society. The temptations of the outside world would have been muted rather than amplified. The greatness of Torah and the Jewish Nation would be blatant. But instead my friend struggled, and ultimately rejected this lifestyle. My friend’s departure from Torah marked the end of a long series of events that began not at birth or at high school graduation, but centuries earlier, when our ancestors were forced to leave their homeland, when G-d estranged Himself from His people.
And then I cried.
First I cried for those Jews who were no longer sitting on the floor on Tisha B’Av, those Jews who got up, dusted themselves off, and abandoned their faith for the pleasures and freedoms of this world. Next, I cried for those Jews who never knew to sit on the floor, whose grandparents threw their tefillin overboard—literally or figuratively—on their way to Ellis Island, whose connection to Judaism is so tenuous it will take the Messiah to bring them back.
Then I cried for those of us who remain—the frum Jews. Are we really living the way G-d intended us to? Are we lost in the triumphalism of our own success? Are we concerned over those who are left behind? I cried for those of us who have the talent and resources to do something to stop the outflow of young Jews from their heritage, and promote the inflow of baalei teshuvah back to their heritage—but haven’t done enough.
Finally, I cried for myself. What if I had grown up down the street from the Temple in Holy Jerusalem, living in a Torah society framed and legislated by the Word of G-d, instead of in a foreign land, where temptation “crouches at the door”? Would I not be a holier person? Would I not be a more complete person? Would I not indeed be a happier person?
This Tisha B’Av while you are sitting on the floor in shul or at home, think of all the people who are not there to join you—your neighbors, your colleagues at work. Ask yourself where their Yiddishkeit has gone. It no doubt went up in the same flames that burned the stones of the Bais Hamikdash.
[CJ Srullowitz, a financial advisor by profession, lives in New York City. ]