A time to weep

Permission to grieve: The mourning of Tisha B’Av

In Short

It is uncomfortable to confront loss. Tisha B'Av gives us the tools to do so in a way that is profound but not everlasting

It can be awkward. Intimidating. And incredibly difficult to attend a shiva house.

Whether the mourner is a friend or family, member of the community or student, when I walk through the door, the air is noticeably heavier. Our eyes connect and Jewish law guides me not to greet normally as I sit and join in their sadness. As someone who appreciates the natural cadence of human interactions, the clumsy silence that often pervades the visit adds an uneasiness to the pain. I want to offer comfort, but I know that I am not here to fix; I’m here to sit, to share, to be. As the time to depart arrives, I echo the same words as others, connecting them to the broader mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Considering the experience of someone grappling with loss conjures up the traditional words of Jeremiah recited on Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year: “Let him sit alone, and be silent…” There are three key elements in this short phrase: sitting, being alone and in silence. Jewish law instructs the mourner to move from their regular seat to a lower chair or the floor, to stay within one primary place of dwelling and to refrain from frivolous conversations that can distract. This presents a stark contrast to some of my non-Jewish friends that would go to a pub or bar following a funeral and drink together.

So, how do we express our emotions in healthy and appropriate ways without burying them or being buried by them? One response has been termed by contemporary psychologists as “toxic positivity” — the avoidance of negative emotions. Unfortunately, this tendency to dismiss natural sadness can hinder personal growth and compassion, leading to heightened stress and strained relationships. One alternative was coined by Viktor Frankl as “tragic optimism,” searching for meaning not in the event, incident or sadness itself, but in how it is processed. By embracing emotions and learning from them, individuals can gain insight, wisdom and the ability to move forward.

No day in the year signifies this more than Tisha B’Av. It commemorates the first time the Jewish people were forbidden from entering the Land of Israel and the destruction of the First and Second Temples (586 BCE and 70 CE), as well as other horrendous tragedies throughout history, from the Spanish Inquisition (1492) and  World War I (1914) to the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka (1942). On this day, we are not visiting a mourner, but we become the mourner as we are united in grief.

I have often struggled with this day. My natural tendency is to quickly jump in and offer solutions rather than sympathy, to try and fix whatever may seem damaged or broken. And yet, while there is a time and place for that tendency, it is not on this anomalous day. A distinct purpose of Tisha B’Av is not to raise us beyond sadness, but let it linger. Unlike Talmudic fasts that were centered around prayer and repentance during times of drought or danger, Tisha B’Av stands apart as a day dedicated to mourning. We do not seek a silver lining or try to rationalize the ways of God. We do not attempt to escape or distract ourselves from the pain, but wallow in our sadness. We acknowledge, accept, grieve and sensitize ourselves to our emotional core.

On Tisha B’Av, the synagogue lights are dimmed and the atmosphere is somber. We listen to haunting verses of Lamentations and read the Kinot, which are elegies depicting calamities throughout the ages. In this introspective time, we embrace chaos, trials and tribulations. Unlike our usual quest for answers and action, we take a passive stance and literally sit with our sorrow. Through doing this, Judaism provides a license to mourn, embrace our vulnerabilities and unabashedly feel the pain.

And yet, while Tisha B’Av may represent despair, we do not remain there. It occupies but one day of the year as it propels us towards healing and hope. It is through our mourning that we cultivate empathy and understanding. We gain insight that can transform our perspective and guide towards renewal. It is this belief in the future that gives us the strength to fully acknowledge suffering, transforming mourning into a profound act of faith.

This day of commemoration prepares us for joy and the rediscovery of life’s meaning in the face of aspiration. It is for this reason that the biblical source of Tisha B’Av is Zechariah’s prophecy of redemption, when the day “shall become times of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts.” Perhaps when we attain this ultimate perspective captured in Frankl’s “tragic optimism,” we will come to realize that grieving in the right way at the right time, is just as valid as celebration for: “To everything there is a season…”

Tisha B’Av reminds us that it is OK to feel sadness, frustration and other emotions that we are often programmed to avoid. While it is only one day, it takes a prominent place in our calendar nonetheless. A day where we have permission to grieve.

Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy is a co-founder of the philanthropic advisory Israel Impact Partners, Keshev mental health center and an Al summarizing startup called Tanna. He is the former CEO of Mosaic United and dean of Moriah College.