The First Time I Ever Cried on Tisha B’Av

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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. ]

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14 Responses

  1. Moshe Schorr says:

    Raymond asks; “But what I wonder is, why is it that when Jews do not have some connection to traditional, Orthodox Judaism, that they end up being all the way on the other extreme, belonging to various ideologies and groups that are so obviously destructive to our Jewish people? It is no accident that Karl Marx, for example, was Jewish. Even more bizarre are those cases I have heard where Jews convert to islamofascism itself!

    So again, what accounts for this phenomenon? Why can’t Jews who have no connection to their Jewish roots, simply be neutral members of society, just like it is in the gentile world? Why can’t Jews just be normal once in a while?”

    The question may contain the answer! (It often does). “Normal” for a Jew is _not_ to be “neutral members of society”. Normal for a Jew is to rise to the greatest heights, or, G-d forbid, to sink to the lowest depths.

  2. Raymond says:

    Tzippi, I am not even sure I understand the problem to begin with. See, let’s take the Talmud, for example. It consists overwhelmingly of people arguing. But are they enemies of each other? Of course not. They are engaged in healthy disagreement, healthy because each person involved is dedicated to finding the truth about things, and healthy because their disagreements did not lead them to hate and become enemies with each other.

    There are modern, completely secular examples of this as well. Back in the 1980’s, President Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill disagreed with each other on almost all political matters, yet were the best of friends when not politicking. Same with Supreme Courst Justice Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg: they regularly eat lunch together in friendship.

    This is how I see the ideal setup among Jews as well. We may have our disagreements, but such disagreements are for the sake of finding the truth, and through it all, we have a special love for our Jewish people that breeds loyalty to one another. So when I hear about cases where radical leftist Jews engage in activities that put our fellow Jews and our Jewish State of Israel in greater danger, I am mystified. It is as if they are cutting their own throats.

  3. tzippi says:

    Raymond, you are asking the $64 (adjusted for inflation) question. Every speech and program this Tisha B’Av and every one that I remember, and if G’d forbid we’re still here next year, the one(s) to come addresses this: The Temple was destroyed because of the atmosphere of baseless hatred and all it engendered; how are we to fix the problem?

  4. Raymond says:

    Tzippi, what you say makes a lot of sense to me, as I resonate to such a logical approach rather than the usual mystical one I have heard.

    But then that leads me to ask, why is it that we Jews are so divided amongst us? One would think that with literaly billions of people in the world wanting us dead, that we would have sufficient enough reason to be united. Do not get me wrong; I do NOT relish the idea of being unified to the point where all of us agree on every single issue; for that would turn us into a mindless cult, and mindless cults do tremendous damage, mostly to themselves.

    But what I wonder is, why is it that when Jews do not have some connection to traditional, Orthodox Judaism, that they end up being all the way on the other extreme, belonging to various ideologies and groups that are so obviously destructive to our Jewish people? It is no accident that Karl Marx, for example, was Jewish. Even more bizarre are those cases I have heard where Jews convert to islamofascism itself!

    So again, what accounts for this phenomenon? Why can’t Jews who have no connection to their Jewish roots, simply be neutral members of society, just like it is in the gentile world? Why can’t Jews just be normal once in a while?

  5. tzippi says:

    Raymond, I don’t think this Bais Hamikdash will be built of our own initiative. If it is to be everlasting there will have to be an unimaginable degree of unity. Not just that, but I am sure there are differences of opinion, nuance only, but differences in understanding how to build it based on what we’re able to glean. We will need someone of Mashiach’s stature, or a great, clear prophet to direct us.

  6. Raymond says:

    So the only reason why we do not take measures to rebuild our Holy Temple in Jerusalem is because we are afraid of islamofascist reaction? Whose country is Israel anyway, ours or theirs? They do not seem to have any fear about their Kaaba Stone in Mecca.

  7. Ori says:

    Raymond: So instead of sitting on the floor forever mourning the destruction of the Holy Temple, why not take concrete action, and re-build the Temple?

    Ori: The Israeli government could destroy or move the Dome of the Rock. For the last 42 years policy has been not to do so. I doubt if you polled the IDF soldiers who would die policing the territories following such as action they’d support a different policy.

  8. Dovid says:

    “Are we lost in the triumphalism of our own success?”

    Well said.

    Every seven years, when all the ads are out about the worldwide siyum hashas celebrations, I get uncomfortable. I fnid something very distasteful about the grand, public events, bu I also feel guilty for feeling that way. I tell myself, shouldn’t we be proud? Isn’t this something to get excited about?

    The answer is in what you said – “triumphalism.” I feel that Klal Yisrael has too many major problems on our hands to be triumphant. Pride – yes, but triumphalism – no.

  9. cvmay says:

    Moshe, I respectfully disagree with your analysis.

    Many of us are crying and crying and crying, while emotional paralysis sets in. There is no action plan to rectify, change or bring the pleasantness of Torah to the masses. Watching the movie “Inspire” on Tisha B’av focusing on simple steps of Kiruv, following in the ways of Reb Noah zt”l can/will shower our brothers and sisters with baseless LOVE.(& help them return home)

  10. Yehoshua Mandelcorn says:

    “The Bais HaMikdash represented the physical revelation of the shchina, revelation of G-D’s divine presence in this world, that’s sorely missing.”

    For someone who is actually dead after a year the emotions fade and those who remain move on.
    Yaacov mourned for Yosef the 22 years he was gone because Yosef was actually alive.
    The fact that we keep Tisha B’av after more than 1900 years is proof that what we are mourning is actually alive.
    Perhaps the process of Restoration has begun: We now have a Jewish State. Millions of Jews have returned to the Land. Recently the economy in Israel has become much stronger.

  11. Raymond says:

    For too many centuries, Jews lamented being exiled from their Jewish land of Israel. Then some Chassidim as well as followers of the Vilna Gaon trickled back in to Israel, followed a century later by secular Jews. Now that we have our Jewish State of Israel back, religious Jews consider it a source of pride to move to and live in Israel.

    Well, why can’t the same thing be done about the Holy Jewish Temple in Jerusalem? Religious Jews would answer that we have to wait for the Messiah, but they said the same thing in regard to Israel all those many centuries, and now we have Israel back. So instead of sitting on the floor forever mourning the destruction of the Holy Temple, why not take concrete action, and re-build the Temple? There is an entire Yeshiva (Ateret Cohanim) in Israel devoted to learning the laws of how to rebuild and maintain the Temple, so it is not like our people lack the knowledge to accomplish this task.

    G-d helps those who help themselves.

  12. Moishe says:

    Did you actually cry? for a fellow Jew? If you really did, I’m impressed. You’re way ahead than most.

    our greatest tragedy is that honestly most of us just don’t really care enough…to care.

    The Bais HaMikdash represented the physical revelation of the shchina, revelation of G-D’s divine presence in this world, that’s sorely missing.

    But, most of us don’t care enough to cry.

  13. Yossie Abramson says:

    lulei d’mistafina it’s something to think about.

  14. Joel Rich says:

    Rabbi JB Soloveitchik held that the Torah does legislate emotions (e.g. one who buries a parent erev pesach still conducts the seder joyfully)

    I agree with crying for oneself, but the more important point (as we know tisha bav has both elements of fasting and of repentatnce) is to focus on what each of us could be doing to end our own and our people’s physical and spiritual exile .

    She-nir’eh et nehamat Yerushalayim u-binyanah bi-mherah ve-yamenu

    KT