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Jul 15 2013

Why I’m Grateful for the Saddest Day of the Jewish Year

By at 5:02 pm

bricksTisha B’av starts tonight. I won’t say that this is my favorite Jewish holiday, but it is, perhaps, the one I am most grateful for.

In case you’ve forgotten, Tisha B’av is the saddest day of the Jewish year, a day of fasting and mourning. It commemorates the destruction of both temples, as well as number of other tragedies that have befallen our people over the centuries.

This is not an easy holiday for me to relate to, for many reasons. I am a Jew living in America in a time of relative safety and security. My generation has never known a time when the State of Israel didn’t exist, and few of us have experienced overt and personal anti-Semitism. While the shadow of the Holocaust and the other tragedies of our history follow us throughout our lives, they rarely impact our daily functioning in a meaningful way. We have never fled for our lives. Compared to those who came before us, we have so little to mourn. 

In addition, we live in the age of happiness. Happiness has become the goal of our lives, and if we aren’t happy for any extended period of time (say, longer than five minutes), then it is our responsibility to either suck it up and be grateful for our blessings or take active steps (exercise, therapy, self-help books, whatever) to make ourselves happy. Unless we have some very clear reason for our discontent (death of a family member is acceptable, having a life-threatening disease barely registers–we must keep up that positive attitude!), we have no right to be unhappy.

Yet as any elder will tell you, and as so many of us know deep down in that place that we rarely share with others in a meaningful way, life is HARD. I’m not talking about “too many things to do in not enough time” or “my kid hates swim lessons” hard. I’m talking about the hard that goes way beyond any clear description or possible solution. Each of us, no matter how blessed our lives may be at any particular moment, has suffered intolerable losses, terrible confusion, deep longing, and intense sadness. It may be true that this is the human condition, and that we are not alone (as so many of us feel so much of the time), but that knowledge doesn’t help when we are neck-deep in our own pain.

In my experience, nothing helps but being in it and holding on to whatever strand of hope or faith we can grab to keep our heads above water until the tide recedes. If we’re lucky, we have a friend nearby willing to hold our hand as the waves slap us in the face over and over again.

On paper, I have everything: a wonderful husband, two happy, healthy children, a safe home, enough to eat, meaningful work, and supportive family and friends. According to society, I should be happy. And I am.

Just not all the time.

I also have much to mourn; relationships lost, dreams unrealized, beloved family members I will never see again. It is tempting to dismiss these as minor calamities, as they are nothing in comparison to the death of a child, destruction of a Temple, the violence of a terrorist attack, the horrifying damage of Mother Nature’s power. But the human experience is too complex for the either/or mentality that is so pervasive in a culture that is desperate to simplify an overwhelming existence. My life, our lives, are most fully lived in the messiness of both/and; I can be both deeply happy and tremendously sad, I can be both grateful for that which I have and mourn that which I have lost, that which will never be.

There is so little room in our culture for the pain of everyday banalities.

I’m not sure how I will acknowledge Tisha B’av this year. Perhaps, after I drop my children at daycare, I will go for a quiet walk or spend a few minutes with my journal. Whatever happens, I am grateful for the wisdom of the Jewish tradition that reminds me to create time and space for the pain and sadness within the gratitude I feel for a life well lived. I’ll find my way back to happiness later.

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