There’s nothing like the taste of ashes to remind us that Tisha B’Av, the toughest day of the entire year, is upon us.
This year, that taste didn’t come from the Seudat HaMafseket, the “Final Meal” before the fast (which consists of an egg dipped in ash) since Shabbat precluded that ceremony. Instead, the ash that flew into my mouth came from the fire that broke out 100’ away from my childhood home, nearly burning it down, in the sober weeks leading up to this day. Thank Heaven, our property was miraculously spared, but more than 15 homes of our neighbors burned to the ground.
The three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av), and of course the fast itself, are the lowest spiritual ebb of the entire year. Bad stuff tends to happen to the Jewish people during this span of time. Tisha B’Av is the day on which we mourn every tragedy that ever befell us, from ancient to modern times. Think Holocaust Remembrance Day on steroids.
It is eerie how many tragedies happened on the 9th of Av over the centuries. A full chronology is beyond the scope of this piece, but here is a taste of the calamities:
- Both Jewish Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed: First Temple by Babylonians in 586 BCE, Second Temple destroyed by Romans in 70 CE; Jews expelled from Israel in both cases.
- Bar Kochba Revolt crushed by Romans in 132 CE, Jews of Betar butchered. Temple mount plowed under, Romans rename Judea “Palestine” to minimize Jewish identification with our land.
- First Crusade in 1096: Mobs of Christians killed Jews in Germany, France, and England on the way to the Holy Land.
- Jews expelled from England in 1290 CE.
- Ferdinand & Isabella command that all Spanish Jews convert to Christianity, leave, or die. Many Jews flee Spain, 1492 CE.
And that short list barely scratches the surface.
As an empathetic person, I dread this day all year. I am endlessly pained and distraught when I read kinnot (dirges), or delve into the cruelty of the Crusades or the terrors of the Inquisition. I’ve spoken with other Yidden who reserve this day, and this day alone, to learn about the Holocaust because it’s just too difficult a subject to approach the rest of the year. What’s worse, I’ve met those who have confided that getting in too deep on this day makes them question why they’re Jewish at all – there is that much pain to deal with, which has heaped up over the course of our people’s collective historical experience, for millennia.
So here’s my question:
How can we observe Tisha B’Av in such a way that we do not become overwhelmed by tragedy and depression, or feel that this fast day is, overall, a damaging experience?
On a personal note, my birthday often falls like a leaf into the inferno of this day of mourning. I’ve heard Jews complain when their birthday falls on Pesach, because they’re stuck with chocolate matzah cake. I’d like them to step into my shoes: Wake up on your big day hungry and thirsty; you’re not able to greet your family or have them greet you. No cake or ice cream. No singing, no gifts. No joy. Just sitting on the floor reading gut-wrenching tales of persecution, murder, and anti-Semitism. Happy Birthday.
(One consolation is that the Mashiach is supposed to be born on Tisha B’Av, bearing the promise that one day, this day of fasting will transform into a day of feasting in the time to come…but that hope doesn’t do much to soften the pain of one’s birthday, in the here and now, being eclipsed by a globe of grief.)
How can we mindfully approach the horror of this day?
For the first time this year, while sitting on the floor at shul reading Eichah (Lamentations), I noticed a tiny letter in the word tav’u (sunk), on verse 2:9.
טָבְעוּ בָאָרֶץ שְׁעָרֶיהָ, אִבַּד וְשִׁבַּר בְּרִיחֶיהָ; מַלְכָּהּ וְשָׂרֶיהָ בַגּוֹיִם, אֵין תּוֹרָה–גַּם-נְבִיאֶיהָ, לֹא-מָצְאוּ חָזוֹן מֵיְהוָה.
“Her gates are sunk into the ground; He hath destroyed and broken her bars; her king and her princes are among the nations, instruction is no more; yea, her prophets find no vision from the LORD.”
I looked it up, and this tiny Tet carries a lot of meaning. But I’ll only share a few concepts here:
The Minchat Shai (Yedidiah Solomon ben Abraham Norzi, c.1560–1626, Italy) explains that the small Tet of tav’u alludes to the Tet of Tisha B’Av, the day on which both Temples were destroyed. In other words, as each Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent, and the value of Tet is 9, this is a clear allusion to the 9th day of Av.
Numerical value of the Aleph-Bet
Alternatively, the Midrash says that this little Tet teaches us that the gates (originally crafted by King David himself, as Rashi points out) were too well made to have ever been destroyed by the enemy. Therefore, the gates chose to sink down into the ground as a way to yield up the city, since G!d decreed it was time for Jerusalem to be destroyed.
I personally see the tiny Tet as a visual metaphor not only for the sinking gates, but also for how we observe the sorrows of 9th of Av. At night, we sink down to the ground, like mourners, and read the book of Eichah seated on the floor. And like mourners, we are supposed to spend the first half of the next day on low chairs. Like the sinking gates, we lower ourselves physically, and emotionally (meaning we reduce our joy) on this day.
But my question stands: If you are anything like me, reading all the kinnot, and reviewing all the tragedies that befell the Jewish people over our entire history can be daunting at best and crippling at worst. How to connect to the day without losing oneself in grief?
A Good Name
When I was in university, I had the privilege of taking a class with Elie Wiesel z”l. It was a transformative experience. One day, I asked him, “Professor Wiesel, how can we possibly approach remembering those who perished in the Holocaust? What can I do to remember the Six Million?”
He looked at me with those piercing, yet warm, dark brown eyes for a moment. Then, he answered me in his soft, accented voice:
“Remember one name. Live your life while remembering one name.”
With this wisdom in mind, allow me to introduce you to another unusual Tet, a big one in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on the word Tov (good):
Tov shem mishemen tov – “A good name is better than fine oil”
This play on words (shem means name, shemen – oil) is telling us something quite powerful. The Rokeach (Elazar Rokeach, c.1665-1742) writes that the Tet here is large to emphasize that a good name has a whole lot of good. Your good name—your upstanding reputation—is better than all material wealth, even fine oil.
There’s a Yiddish saying, Gelt is keylechdik; amol iz es do, amol is es dort: “Money is round; it rolls away.” Our material comforts come and go; they should have no bearing on our character. Another wonderful Yiddish phrase on this subject: Gelt farloren, gor nisht farloren; mut farloren, alts farloren, “Money lost, nothing lost; courage lost, everything lost.” This large Tet is telling us to remember to build a good rep with courageous deeds of kindness – that is more important than how much money one has in the bank.
Tet à Tet
But back to Tisha B’Av. Rav Dovid Tevele (17th- or early 18th-century Hamburg) connects the large Tet in Kohelet to our small Tet in Eichah. (Many thanks to Jen Taylor Friedman for originally publicizing this connection on her blog.)
What is the connection between the little Tet and the big Tet? I suggest that they are linked in the way Professor Wiesel taught me. Remember the good name of the person you are mourning.
On Tisha B’Av, it is true: we must sink down in mourning. We feel small and vulnerable and helpless—perhaps even abandoned by G!d to the whims of our enemies. But the antidote to becoming waterlogged with grief is to focus on a single thing – a name of a single Jew, our fellow human being.
This Tisha B’Av, rather than going down the rabbit hole of deep depression and intense emotional pain that I usually experience, I choose to read a single Holocaust survivor’s testimony: that of Genya Finkelstein. I will remember the name of her mother, Raizel Bulba, who was shot and murdered by German and Ukrainian villagers along with her husband and three sons. Genya alone survived the Shoah out of her entire extended family.
Raizel Bulba, Genya’s mother, 1934.
It is crucial to have a day on which to mourn, to allow oneself to feel the depression, akin to hopelessness, that strikes us all at varying points in our lives. That we needn’t face all this alone is the wisdom of this holiday – we all sink down as a community, we mourn as a community. We remind each other that G!d has not abandoned us completely, because if that were true, we would not still be here.
The names of those lost to terrorism, to Nazi evil, to cruel blood libels, to pogroms, to the destruction of Jerusalem by so many armies – we read these names together. Not alone.
And while, as an empath, a researcher, and a historian, this day is a usually a torturous trial by fire for me, if I mourn mindfully, then I emerge from the 9th day of Av a little more emotionally resilient. I emerge more knowledgeable of Jewish history. I resolve to be more tolerant of the ideological differences between myself and others.
I emerge with more gratitude than before for what I possess, and for the life I am blessed to live as a free and educated Jewish woman in the United States of America.
And I emerge bearing the name of a fallen Jewish sister of mine, Raizel Bulba, who I will never forget.