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Tisha B’Av: A Day of Hope and Loss

Tisha b’Av, the 9th of the Hebrew month Av, is the historic Jewish day dedicated to mourning the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem. We also call to mind countless other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. A theme that looms in the background, however, is that this day is simultaneously one of hope.

Hope is central to Judaism. While we mourn the destruction of previous Temples, we long for and believe in the rebuilding of the third one (which will happen in the time of the Messiah), as one of our 13 Principles of Faith states “I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah.” This hope — this longing to renew life to its greatest potential — can model how we relate to the rebuilding of our own lives after self-destruction, struggle and loss.

Many of us can identify some piece of our lives that needs rebuilding. But it can be incredibly difficult to maintain hope, especially when we’ve wrestled for so long with the same challenge. So how do we do it? How do we find enough motivation and strength to rebuild? Thankfully, Tisha b’Av rituals mirror the progression from mourning to rebuilding that we can learn to embody in our personal lives.

We spend the first half of the day mourning. We sit on the floor or in a low chair, avoid chatting with others and refrain from cleansing or anointing ourselves. We remain alone with our thoughts and feel unpresentable, mentally and physically consumed by the process of wallowing in the tremendous loss for the Jewish people and for each of us individually.

During the latter half of the day, we shift to a mindset of “getting up”: We may wear tefillin (which represent glory and which we are prohibited to wear the morning of Tisha b’Av) and sit in more comfortable seats. We also recite a consolation prayer omitted earlier in Tisha b’Av (Code of Jewish Law: Orach Chaim, Chapters 555-557 | Beit Yosef, 559). Physically and emotionally, we gradually move into a stage of recovery.

At first, we sit in a state of misery and plight. We don’t look toward the future and don’t even ask G-d for help; we are dejected and our pleas rejected. Only after reflecting and fully embracing the nature of our difficult situation do we consider moving forward. Eventually, after midday, we include the phrase “accept our prayers” in the Kaddish. We begin to remind ourselves of potential and rekindle a hope for it.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld said, “Tisha B’Av is a spiritual tool to help us move forward as a community and as individuals,” and the progression from admitting to ourselves the severity of our troublesome situation to acknowledging the need for hope and Divine assistance are reflected in the first two of the Twelve Steps of recovery promoted by Alcoholics Anonymous:

  • We admitted we were powerless over alcohol [or struggles] — that our lives had become unmanageable.
  • Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Don’t let your flame go out. Mourning and despair signify your care for something beyond yourself; maybe it is forever lost or temporarily unobtainable, but your yearning is the first step to rebuilding. If the fire remains burning, not all hope is extinguished. There is a nostalgia or vision for better times. The process and hard work come in chasing that renewal, and it all starts with a hope to drive us.

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