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Jewish World Review
July 27, 2004
/ 17 Tamuz, 5764
Tisha B'Av: Celebrating Jewish sadness
Rabbi David Aaron
This past Tisha B'Av, I watched my thirteen year old son publicly recite Eicha (Lammentations) for the first time. As he read Jeremiah's heart wrenching words his voice started to quiver and tears began to pour down his cheeks, I thought to myself, what am I doing to my son? Why put him through this pain and cause him such grief? Why pass on to him a history of Jewish pain? I too began to cry.
Growing up the son of a holocaust survivor, I was very conscious of the pain of being Jewish. My mother's experiences in the holocaust made me aware of the horrors that Jews have experienced throughout our history. Until I revisited Judaism in my teens, I did not love being Jewish. In fact, I hated it. I realized that if I were born a couple decades earlier, I too would have known the horrors of life in a concentration camp.
Focused on the pain of my Jewish identity, it took me years to find within it power and joy.
How can Jews find meaning, power and beauty in our long history as victims of incredible oppression and cruelty?
As counterintuitive as it may seem, it is necessary for humans to feel pain in order to feel joy. We strive to be happy our whole lives and avoid all sadness and pain. But only people who truly know pain and sadness can truly know pleasure and joy. And only people who truly know pleasure and joy can know pain and sadness. We live in a dualistic world. We know black from white and white from black, up from down and down from up. At the very breathtaking peaks of life are the beginnings of the slopes down. The mountain and the valley are interfaced and one. To be fully alive and aware we must be willing to embrace the total spectrum of human emotions and experience. We must be willing to feel the pain and pleasure, the sadness and the joy because they are the two sides of the one coin of life.
Although G-d promised that eventually the Temple will be rebuilt, Jewish tradition teaches that only those people who truly understand and feel the pain over the destruction of the Temple will have the ability to rejoice at the rebuilding of the Temple. In a strange way, on Tisha B'Av we take pleasure in our ability to mourn and we experience profound fulfillment in our tears.
Unfortunately, society has perpetuated the silly attitude that men should not cry. But without a good cry, we cannot have a good laugh. One of the most powerful and beautiful moments of my life was when I cried the first time in front of my wife. In fact, crying in front of your spouse is one of the greatest opportunities to share your genuine humanness. Animals do not cry nor do they laugh. The laughing hyena is not expressing intense joy; it is simply making a sound that sounds to us as laughter. According to Jewish mysticism animals feel pain, but they do not know they are feeling pain. It is not as if in the middle of their pain, they think, "Oy, if only I could be happy."
We feel pain and joy most acutely when we are looking at it. Those are the times we really sob and rejoice. When we are in our pain and we remember all of the joyous moments of our lives. And in our most joyous moments, we remember all of our pain. These paradoxical moments capture the profundity of life and the unique power of human consciousness.
Illustrating this point, in the very midst of Jeremiah's woes, he says, "What does a living human being have to complain about?" It is a serious question. Are we complaining about our crying and suffering? Are we complaining about complaining? Jeremiah realizes in the depth of his pain that we cannot know the joy of being alive without experiencing the pain that comes with it. And we should be thankful for the very ability to cry it is a sign that we are fully alive and conscious. Our ability to cry and feel pain is itself part of our ability to laugh and feel pleasure together they capture the miraculous experience of being alive. Understanding the depth of Jewish history and life takes the courage to open yourself up to both mourning and celebrating, crying and laughing but especially crying.
It is strange how we cry in moments of pain but also in moments of intense joy. What does pain and joy have in common that they can both move us to tears? Both pain and joy can bring us face to face with the bedrock of life and this encounter is overwhelming. Suddenly it hits us: We are real and this moment is real and life is overwhelmingly mysterious, miraculous and incomprehensible. Our intellectual and emotional faculties, with which we generally grasp reality, are simply too small to capture the truth we face and we simply break down in tears. This is hinted to in the metaphoric language of Jewish Mysticism that describes how the finite vessels of our perception broke down because they could not contain the endless light of G-d's truth the manifestation of ultimate reality.
I used to imagine that, please G-d, when I will be standing under the wedding canopy, the chuppah, of my children, I will be crying my eyes out. I now know this to be true, thank G-d. When you really open yourself up to the most powerful, deepest experiences that life offers, you cannot help but cry.
Jeremiah, while lamenting the destruction of the Temple, tells us to, "Pour out your heart like water." It is an interesting phenomenon that tears are salty. Salt water does not quench your thirst; rather, it makes you thirstier. However, Jeremiah is teaching us that when our tears pour out of our hearts then such tears actually satiate us like fresh water.
Crying from the heart satisfies a very deep need; it quenches. The famous psychologist Carl Jung said that neurosis actually is a substitute for legitimate suffering. In others words, denial of our pain is counterproductive and even destructive. If a person is not ready to accept his legitimate suffering, then he will express it in unhealthy and dysfunctional ways. However, acknowledging and expressing sadness through crying heals our hurt, helps turn our pain into a source of motivation and empowers us to feel joy with even greater sensitivity.
To be fully alive means to open ourselves up to the spectrum of life's experiences and to embrace the dialectical dance of pain and pleasure, joy and sadness, laughter and tears.
Judaism is not about being happy it's about being whole. Wholeness, however, is actually the only true path to real happiness because then you experience an inner happiness even when you are sad. You take pleasure in your ability to feel pain. You embrace and celebrate the totality of your humanness. To be whole we must be willing to immerse ourselves in the complete drama of being alive and human.
Therefore, even as I struggle to share Jewish pain with my children, I feel a strange joy in it. It gives me a deep sense of peace to share with my children this battle, this restlessness that we Jews feel because this is truly the path to wholeness and experiencing the fullness of life.
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Rabbi David Aaron is the founder and dean of Isralight, an international organization with programming in Israel, New York South Florida, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Toronto. He has taught and inspired thousands of Jews who are seeking meaning in their lives and a positive connection to their Jewish roots.
He is the author of the newly released, The Secret Life of G-d, and also the author of Endless Light, Seeing G-d and Love is my religion. (Click on link to purchase books. Sales help fund JWR.) He lives in the old City of Jerusalem with his wife and their seven children. To comment, please
© 2004, Rabbi David Aaron