How can the saddest days of the year make someone happy? My first exposure to Tisha B’Av came when I was a teenager at a religious Jewish camp. As a lonely, only child living on welfare, I had no sense of any feeling of unity with the Jewish people. That changed when on the night of Tisha B’av, all the counselors and campers gathered around a campfire near a clear blue lake, where the counselors sang songs that reminded me of blues music, told stories and teachings about exile and the destruction of the Temples, and other mournful events that took place throughout Jewish history on the same calendar day.
Inexplicably, as I was drawn into the painful memories, a feeling of support and comfort surrounded me. It was then that I began to really feel, in contrast to just learning about it, what it means to be a member of the tribe. I didn’t know why but several later experiences around this gloomiest week of the Jewish calendar, helped enlighten me.
The first day of this Hebrew month, Rosh Chodesh Av, is the only date mentioned in the Torah about someone’s death: It is the yahrzeit of Aaron, the high priest. The commentaries explain the significance of this reference based on the idea that ‘the cure comes before the disease.’ In other words, the sages taught that the destruction of the second Temple, whose exile we are still in, occurred due to the sin of causeless hatred. Recent Rabbis have elaborated that the primary cure therefore will be Ahavat Chinam, ‘love for no reason,’ –unconditional love. And the prime Jewish prototype was Aaron, who would throughout his life, go around making peace between people.
Then, right between the new moon and the ninth of Av, there comes the fifth of Av, which happens to be the yahrzeit of Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Ari Hakadosh, or the holy lion. He is also known for initiating the morning custom of reciting before prayer, the proclamation of “Behold I accept upon myself the positive mitzvah of ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
What does all this have to do with me? Over forty years ago, I found myself at the gravesite of the Ari in Safed, on his yahrzeit. I brought my siddur that got covered in fresh blue paint from the newly painted graves- a siddur I still have to this day with the permanent paint stains. I had intended to stay in the cemetery for just an hour or two, but so many people kept pouring down the mountain, that there was no room for me to move, or even breathe! I resigned myself to staying through the night. I looked in the semi-darkness for a relatively open space to sit. I plopped down on what seemed like a plain stone and continued reciting Psalms till the crack of dawn.
When I awoke in the first light, and saw where I was sitting, I felt devastated. It was the grave of Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, the composer of the Friday night prayer, Lecha Dodi. However as I cried and mentioned that to someone nearby, he kindly told me: ‘If the rabbi didn’t want you to sit on his grave, you would not have been able to.’ So there you have it…another moment of grief that helped me to feel more connected to the Jewish community.
Fast forward to about 15 years ago here in Boulder, Colorado on the Ari’s yahrzeit. I had persuaded Reb Zalman A’H, to teach with me about miracles, by the blue running waters behind Bonai Shalom. It was a memorable day where many people shared their personal stories of miraculous events in their lives, both of supernatural happenings, and acts of what we call ‘Hashgacha Pratit,’ seeming coincidences, of divine intervention. Again, I rarely felt so close to a bond with my people as on that day.
Then came this past Sunday, again, the fifth of Av. I had arranged to give an online class based on some profound teachings I had learned the week before in an online seminar from Hadar Institute in New York. It was to be my first foray into long distance teaching, and I was both excited and anxious for it to go well. About 30 people joined in, some locally and some from other places. About fifteen minutes into the class, where I was showing a text that talked about hating evil deeds, but not the perpetrator, a ‘zoom bomber’ managed to get in. First he drew swastikas all over the text, and then proceeded to spew anti-Semitic curses and profanities, all over the site. I was horrified and especially devastated since there was a young boy with his mother and grandparents on the site! I suggested we first sign out and then try to reconnect. About half the people came back, and somehow, in spite of being terribly shook up with what was actually my first direct encounter with anti-Semitic attacks, we managed to have a very deep and meaningful class and discussion. So who said feeling ‘blue’ can’t make you happy?
A final memory that brings all the above anecdotes together is the last topic I taught in that class. It was about the grief of the Shechina, the divine feminine presence that has been and is still with us in all our travails and exiles. The idea of that profound topic is that just as G-d is grieving with us, we can actually sit with G-d. And somewhere in that mutual grief, as happened with my early camp experience, we can find consolation. We learn this concept from the episode of the burning bush, where G-d tells Moshe, ‘I am with you in your times of sorrow.’
About fifty years ago, I escaped from a house fire that occurred on December 25th, where the Torah portion for that day just happened to be the incident of the burning bush.
So, as I look back on these blue threads in my life, is it any wonder I can say that the saving grace has been the awareness that both G-d’s continuous presence and the miracle of Jewish community have carried me through to this day? And G-d willing, this miracle will carry me through many more days until the coming of Mashiach — perhaps even before this Tisha B’Av.