The halachic rules of Tisha B’Av are straightforward: don’t eat or drink, bathe or have intimate relations, sit or sleep in comfortable positions, wear leather shoes, or put on makeup or lotion.
During the High Holy Days, we attempt to reconnect with God by being cerebral: the deep soul-searching involves listing every sin imaginable, and recounting the Temple sacrifices meticulously. On Sukkot, we emphasize vulnerability, sitting exposed to the elements to remind us how little we actually control in life.
Our goal today is a straightforward experience of sadness and stillness. We lament the calamities of our history, the harsh realities of the present, and our own personal shortcomings — like being unkind to one another… all concurrently.
Tisha B’Av doesn’t appear on the calendar suddenly. It is preceded by extra obligations during the “Three Weeks” from Shiva Asar B’Tammuz to Tisha B’Av, and especially during the “Nine Days” from the 1st to the 9th of Av. Happy occasions like weddings are prohibited, and we avoid listening to music, getting our hair cut, and even consuming meat and wine (except on Shabbat).
These additional practices serve to test not merely the adherence to rules but the ability to genuinely experience strong negative emotions in the face of unfathomable devastation.
However, the reality is that many of us don’t actually FEEL SADNESS that the Temples were destroyed. Most Jews don’t truly consider ourselves as living in exile, which is the very reason we’re supposed to be mourning. Jewish traits such as a preference for text study over spirituality, a love for debate and analysis, and a desire to intellectualize and dissect Jewish concepts are not inherently negative. But on Tisha B’Av, they hinder a profound connection.
The pain and suffering inflicted upon our ancestors goes beyond comprehension. The scale of loss and devastation that followed was unimaginable. We are supposed to be acutely and painfully aware of what we’ve lost.
Our traditional rituals, if we let them, can help us engage with these feelings. I’m going to outline SIX things we can do to help us FEEL SADNESS, as strange as that sounds.
On Tisha B’Av, being uncomfortable is the point. Sit on the floor. No pillow. No book. Just sit. Meditate. Be still. Acknowledge where your body is storing tension… and don’t try to change it. Just notice it. Be aware of incoming thoughts, and then let them pass.
With the exception of reading the books of Eicha, Iyov, and Yirmiyahu, traditional Jewish law prohibits studying Jewish texts on Tisha B’Av, because studying Torah makes us happy. Lamentations, Job and Jeremiah all contain vivid and powerful depictions of destruction and metaphorical language. They contain layer upon layer of hidden meaning. They are written in terse, tooth-breaking biblical Hebrew. They perplexed our wisest sages. Let this day be free from entertainment through television, social media, and books. Engage in the mystery and power of sadness.
You’re tired. You’re hungry. You’re thirsty. You’re feeling lost. What if that’s OK? Accept that this is where you’re supposed to be right now. This too shall pass.
Why did the Holocaust occur? Why do stray bullets kill innocent people? Why did my parents stop loving each other? Why did my friend die so young? Ask why. And then accept that some answers may remain unknown. The experience itself can engender growth, wisdom, and empathy.
Anger is a part of processing pain. The Infinite Creator of Everything can handle it!
Whatever God means to you, love God.
These are the steps I suggest to find your sadness on Tisha B’Av.
Traditional Jewish sources suggest that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av. Whether you take this literally or metaphorically, the transformative power of pain is what can lead to removing what shouldn’t have been present in the first place.
Tradition holds that when the Temple is restored, Tisha B’Av will be a day of celebration. But this can only happen once we have genuinely processed our pain and trauma, and corrected our mistakes. The key is to let ourselves be moved. Let the sadness transform us into a softer, stronger, kinder people. Just like sore muscles after a difficult workout.
We will try, as messy as it is, to truly feel our personal pain, the world’s pain, and the pain of those we love. We’ll try to sit with the complexities and incomprehensible moments rather than trying to solve them.
Tonight, we’ll be reading Megillat Eicha (Lamentations) with its simple, yet deeply stirring notes, as well as singing Eili Tziyon, a short lament, the most well-known of the Kinnot. Tomorrow during Shacharit, we will submit to the imagery in Eicha’s last perek as Reb Arie Chark guides us in an emotional meditation. Mincha at 1:30pm tomorrow will be a transition moment when we add back our tallitot and t’filin, birkat Kohanim (the Priestly Blessing), and our joyful Psalm of the Day…
And when we emerge at the end of the fast, 9:19 tomorrow night — hungry, tired, and weak — only then will we allow ourselves to ponder what should come next.