Seeing God in Tragedy
The doctor called us directly. Something was wrong.
Growing up to a religious family, I could never wrap my head around Tisha B’Av and the Nine Days. It was more and more restrictions – no meat, no swimming, fasting, sitting on the floor saying endless Kinot in near-impenetrable Hebrew. And all smack in the middle of summer vacation. What was the purpose of it?
Is the only purpose making us sad and uncomfortable – that we have no right to be all that happy without a Temple, least not on summer vacation? Is Tisha B’Av just about mourning and being sad, or can we view it as a positive experience, bearing a positive message for us?
I believe the Book of Lamentations (Eichah) provides us with an important clue. Verse 1:15 states:
“God tread upon all my mighty men in my midst, He proclaimed upon me a holiday to break my young men...”
In recounting the terrible tragedies which occurred at the Temple’s destruction, the prophet Jeremiah refers to the ninth of Av as a holiday (mo’ed)! Now that has to be the last word we would have expected in this context. The Hebrew term mo’ed implies a festive day of celebration. Was Jeremiah just being facetious?
The answer is no. In certain regards, Tisha B’Av is treated as a minor holiday, and as a result various sad parts of the prayers are omitted (see for example Shulchan Aruch O.C. 559:1,4). Thus, Tisha B’Av is not simply a sad time. It is a sad holiday! How are we to relate to this?
A little over ten years ago, I experienced a few of the saddest days of my life. Several very difficult events occurred to me one after the other. On Sunday my wife, expecting at the time, went to the doctor for a routine exam, only to find that there was no longer a heartbeat. On Monday (the good day), my computer died. No data was lost (we found out later), only a monetary expense. Such should be my worst problem in life – but it wasn’t.
On Tuesday, not yet recovered from the previous days, my oldest son was scheduled for a physical at the Israeli draft board. As far as we knew he was in perfect health.
The examining doctor called us directly from the draft office. Something was wrong.
The doctor found symptoms of something which might have been a very serious ailment. We would have to deal with it immediately.
I remember later that day sitting with our son’s pediatrician. He was calling another doctor, literally in a panic, to get the name of a specialist who could further examine our son. I had never heard our calm and reassuring family doctor so agitated before.
Thank God, skipping a bit ahead, we found out a week later that what our son had was in fact a relatively minor condition. It would require treatment but was not a serious health threat at all. But at the time we were led to expect the worst – that our son was suffering from a sickness which may or not be curable after severe and invasive treatment. (More details not necessary. Thank God today this is a distant memory.)
I consider myself fairly stoic in general, more focused on solving problems than on fretting over them. But this time it was just too much -- too fast. I couldn't handle this.
I remember the end of that Tuesday. It was late at night already, after everyone else had gone to bed. But I wasn’t ready to. There I was, sitting on the floor in tears, clutching my book of Psalms, feeling utterly helpless and overwhelmed. I begged God to help us get through that time, to give us strength and direction, that all should go as well as possible.
And I noticed something – actually to my surprise. I never felt as close to God as I did at that time.
When everything is going wrong and life is spinning out of control, we know God is speaking to us.
There are times in our lives when everything seems to be going wrong, when life is spinning utterly out of control. We are helpless to do anything about it; we cannot even pretend we are in charge.
And at such times we know God is talking to us.
When we are helpless we instinctively turn to God. Only He could have placed us in this situation – and only He can help us out of it. God gives us difficulties in life because He wants us to turn to Him. We cannot go through life, hoping everything will go well and according to plan, with the illusion that we are running the show. Now and then God reminds us He is there. He wants us to turn to Him, and if we don’t do it in our good times, He will see to it that we do it in our difficult ones.
As sad as suffering is, it is not empty. God is calling us home.
When we mourn the tragedies of Tisha B’Av – as well as the smaller ones every one of us faces in life, it is a holiday. As sad as suffering is, it is not an empty, miserable time. It is a time when God is calling us home – and we can sense it. God wants us to turn to Him, to realize that only He can restore our happiness and bring the redemption. When we can go no further, when we just want to bury our head in our hands and cry, we know it is God who will come pick us up. He is our Father. And at times He just wants us to give up – to drop our absurd fantasy that we control our fates and to come running to Him. He is behind all the suffering we have experienced over all the years and all the millennia. He is the only one who can save us. And He knows that when we are down with nowhere else to go, we will return to Him.