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Celebrating Jewish Sadness

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi David Aaron

Tisha B'Av teaches that through pain and sadness, we can truly know pleasure and joy.

This past Tisha B'Av, I watched my 13-year-old son publicly recite Eicha (Lamentations) 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.

This Moment is Real

Although God 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.

When our intellectual and emotional faculties are too small to grasp reality, we break down in tears.

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 God's truth -- the manifestation of ultimate reality.

I used to imagine that, please God, 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 God. 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.

Being Whole

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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