A Time to Laugh and a Time To Weep: Meaningful Melancholy on the 9th of Av
There is a time to laugh and a time to weep. Most people think this simple yet insightful truism comes from a song written by Pete Seeger entitled Turn, Turn, Turn which made it to #1 in the Billboard charts in 1966. However, the lyrics actually written by King Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-4),
A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven:
A time for being born and a time for dying, A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;
A time for slaying and a time for healing, A time for tearing down and a time for building up;
A time for weeping and a time for laughing, A time for crying and a time for dancing;
This outlook reflects the range of emotions we are lead through when we observe the holidays of the Jewish calendar. There are joyous holidays like Purim and Simhat Torah, and then there are sad days like the 9th of Av. We are entering the period leading up to the 9th of Av, the day in the calendar which commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple at two distinct times in our history, in 586 BCE and 70 CE. Our Rabbis tell us that already nine days before, when the month of Av begins we decrease our joy. We do not listen to live music, celebrate weddings and engagements, and we do not make major purchases which will bring us joy. The question is why is there a time for crying as well as a time for laughing? Why should we commemorate sad days? Why not just remember the good happy times? I know families who do not do funerals after someone passes away. They say that the person would have wanted us to be happy and not sad, so let’s just celebrate their life instead of mourning it. And so they have a short commemoration and then go out and see a show. But the reality is that the sadness we feel when we lose someone close to us is a reflection of the closeness we had with them and how much they meant to us. The crying is a demonstration of the closeness that existed and the feeling of loss because the connection will only now live on in our memories.
The feeling of pain over a loss applies not just to our relationships with people who are close to us, but also to the relationship we have with other Jews, with the world and with the Almighty. We block out 9 days in the calendar in the middle of the summer, when most people are having fun, to turn inward and reflect on what the destruction of Jerusalem means to us, and to mourn over what was lost. So what has been lost? Some people say that today Jerusalem is rebuilt, so why mourn over it? Even though Jerusalem is booming, and construction continues, but we are still missing our Temple. Why is destruction of the Temple so significant that we go to such great lengths to mourn over its loss? The Torah tells us that the rebuilding of the Temple will happen as part of the actualization of our Messianic ideal. That ideal is the vision of a world where we are in harmony with ourselves, as a Jewish people and as a world community. This is what we are seeking to rebuild with the Temple. We are seeking to rebuild the Jewish people and the world and ourselves,
We need to rebuild the Jewish people, and so we mourn because we do not have a world where the Jewish people are unified in purpose and love for each other. We yearn for the ideal of a community where everyone would get along, where there would be no bickering and gossip, no discord or fighting. Imagine what we could accomplish if we all were working for the same goals, yet understood that there were different paths towards that goal?
We need to fix the world, and so we mourn for a world which has suffering and hardship. The Messianic ideal is the dream of a world where there are no longer wars and hatred between peoples around the world, and where society is not plagued by crime and exploitation, famine and disease. Imagine if all the resources poured into defense budgets, 1.8 trillion dollars annually around the globe, were spent on feeding the hungry and curing disease.
Most importantly, we need to fix ourselves, and so we mourn over the Temple in Jerusalem as a place where we could go and feel a deeper connection to the Almighty. Nahmanides says that in the Temple a person could re-experience an aspect of what the Jewish people experienced at Mount Sinai. Imagine if we had a place to go when we felt down and disconnected which could re-inspire and elevate us, where we could more readily access our closeness to G-d and feel more connected to our true selves, our inner soul. We mourn or our disconnection from ourselves and from the Almighty.
The story is told of Napleon who was visiting a synagogue and the day he was there happened to be on Tisha B’av. He asked why the Jews were sitting on the floor. He was told that they were mourning because their Temple was destroyed. Thinking they were reacting to a recent event, he asked, when was it destroyed. He was told 1700 years ago. Upon hearing this, he said that now he understood how this people has survived. Napoleon saw how deeply ingrained the remembrance of Jerusalem was for us as a people.
The Rabbi tell us (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 30b) that “Whoever mourns for Jerusalem will merit sharing in her joy.” The ability to feel the gravity of our loss is the first step in trying to retrieve what is missing in our lives, in the Jewish community and in the world. The nine days leading up to Tisha B’av are a time to reflect on how we can come closer to the Almighty, on how to dispel needless animosity towards others, and how we can contribute to mend the world.