I am not a very good faster. In fact, I confess that I allow most of the minor fast days of the Jewish calendar to pass without notice. If I did fast, I would spend most of the day thinking not only about food, but about missing my morning cup of coffee.
However, twice each year I gear up for a full twenty-five hour fast. One fast, of course, is on Yom Kippur, when I am conducting services for several thousand people. The other comes in the midst of the summer, when life is quiet around the synagogue. This second fast day, Tisha B’Av, is by far the more difficult for me.
Why do I fast on these days? As a wise rabbi once taught, on Yom Kippur, when our sins are being forgiven, who needs to eat? And on Tisha B’Av, when we recall the horrors of Jewish history, who can eat?
I fast on Tisha B’Av because we Jews need one day to commemorate sadness. Certainly we ought to emphasize the joys of living Jewish, particularly for our children. I know too many Jews who show up on yizkor (memorial services) and yahrzeits (anniversary commemorations), who speak of the shoah (Holocaust) and suffering, but who never dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah or wear a mask on Purim. I know too many Jews who only emphasize Jewish suffering and sadness. That is not a healthy approach, nor is it Jewish. Most of the Jewish calendar is filled with joyous moments.
Once a year, however, it is necessary to stop and remember that Jewish history is filled with sadness. We need to mourn, and then say never again. Tisha B’Av is that day.
For me, Tisha B’Av has a personal as well as a national sadness. I had flown out to California with my soon-to-be bride Evelyn to introduce her to my family. On Tisha B’Av morning, as we were fasting, we found my mom unable to talk. She had had a stroke. Fortunately she was able to attend our wedding, but the stroke was the beginning of a series of health problems that led to her premature death a few months before our oldest son’s Bar Mitzvah.
Thinking about my mother, and about Tisha B’Av, I think about how we mourn. And how we teach our children to mourn.
The first lesson is that we need rituals to mourn. On Tisha B’Av we not only fast, but we sit on the ground and chant the book of Lamentations to a mournful melody. In Jewish camps, the rituals are often conducted outdoors by candlelight. Children remember them. For many of us, our natural inclination is to protect our children from the rituals of mourning. I have met families that will not allow even their teens to attend a funeral because it is too sad. In contrast, I always teach that as soon as children are old enough to sit respectfully, usually around six, they ought to be allowed to attend funerals.
The other major lesson about mourning is that sadness and mourning are also a time for soul searching. We Jews did not despair through the destruction of the two temples. Instead, we said “because of our sins were we exiled from our land.” We saw the tragedy as a time for careful self scrutiny and repentance.
Personal mourning can also be a time for self-improvement. The Talmud teaches that when disease strikes, people should always search their own soul. This does not mean that our behavior caused the disease (although that is sometimes true.) Rather, it means that moments of sadness are a time for self-reflection and self-improvement. Many people walk away from a disease, a funeral, or other losses with the resolve to do better in life.
Our children need to hear this lesson. We cannot protect them from the vagaries of life. We can teach them to use difficult moments to think about their lives, and how they can do better. Times of national loss such as Tisha B’Av, and times of personal loss such as a funeral, are perfect times to teach children the importance of tzedakkah (charity) and good deeds.
Tisha B’Av is a difficult fast. Some Jews fast only part of the day, maintaining that with the rebirth of Israel the sadness is mitigated. I still fast a full day. We Jews need one day of mourning. My hope is that the day becomes an opportunity to create rituals and memories, and also a time of soul searching and resolve. On Tisha B’Av we can learn to improve ourselves, and to improve the world.
Rabbi Michael Gold wrote this article for the on-line magazine Jewish Family & Life!—www.JewishFamily.com