CONNECTING WITH OUR PAST
There are 21 days on the Jewish calendar when we are supposed to mourn the destruction of our Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Three Weeks – beginning on the fast of the seventeenth of Tamuz and ending on Tishah b’Av – is a period of national mourning in which Jewish Law limits pleasures such as listening to music, taking haircuts, and making weddings. The mourning customs and conduct intensify until they reach a climax on Tisha b’Av. But it would be a mistake to limit our mourning for theTemple to external actions. According to Jewish Law (משנה ברורה, תקנא סק’ ק”ג בשם האר”י), we are to take out time each day during these three weeks (specifically at midnight or midday) to mourn and cry over the destruction of theTemple. Ideally we are supposed to focus on our loss and project these feelings externally. Perhaps the following parable, which some of you may have heard, can help us better appreciate both the challenge and the importance of identifying with the tragic loss of our Holy Temple.
There was a couple who loved each other dearly, but, unfortunately, had not been blessed with children. They comforted each other by saying that the day will come when they will be “ready” as parents, and they will be able to hold their future in their hands. They prayed together, went for blessings from great rabbis together, and went for treatments together. On her way home from work, the woman used to pass a certain park where she would observe children playing and mothers rocking their baby strollers and talking about parenting. This “wannabe mother” would look at the sky, and ask G-d to bless her, too, with a child.
The difficult waiting period dragged on year after year – for twenty years. The woman cried bitterly to her husband, and began to despair . But her loyal husband kept encouraging her – and himself. One night, he looked at her tear-stained face and suggested that they try still another series of treatments. To their utter joy – the woman became pregnant, and the two of them were catapulted beyond “Cloud Nine.” They would often stay up late discussing what they would name their baby if a boy or if a girl. They talked about what neighborhood would be ideal to live in, and about details of good parenting that they had never before gone into. They laughed together for nine months – the best nine months of their married life.
As the woman was rolled into the delivery room, she began to feel horrible pains which were unrelated to the regular birth pangs that she had been experiencing for the previous several hours. A doctor was rushed in, an ultrasound was done, and the unexpected cause became clear: the baby was not in the right position, and its umbilical cord was wrapped tightly around its neck. The complications were getting worse by the minute, and the lives of both mother and baby were in jeopardy. The doctor put the hard facts on the table in the form of an ultimatum: either the mother or the baby! There was not enough time to ask a Rabbi about what Jewish Law dictates in this case, and the poor woman acted on emotion: She turned to her husband and said, “Call him Nachum, and tell him how I gave up my life for him. And make sure he says Kaddish for me with all his heart!”
The father held his son on his knees at the bris, and everyone cried bitterly when he called out the name. Every year, Nachum would celebrate his birthday on the Yahrzeit of his mother. He would say Kaddish in shul from the first time he went. And on the day of his Bar Mitzvah, his father asked him to go visit the mother’s grave and say Kaddish fervently for the one who gave up her very life for him. To the father’s dismay, however, the boy said the Kaddish nonchalantly, without a tear in his eye. The father was devastated. “Nachum,” he asked “don’t you have any feeling for your mother who gave up her life for you?”
Nachum gazed at the floor and tried to explain himself: “But I never met her. I really don’t have a feel for the person everyone has been telling me to cry for.”
How We Survived
In a certain sense, we are all Nachum. We have difficulty mourning the Beit HaMikdash (Temple), something that we never had the privilege of experiencing. But let’s stop and think for a minute. The prophet Yermiyahu tells us that G-d poured out his wrath on “sticks and stones” – the Holy Temple – instead of destroying the Jewish People for the sins they committed (Eicha,Ch. 4). We only survived because theTemple was destroyed. To fully understand what we lost, however, we must learn about the major differences between the era of the Temple and the present. TheTemple was so much more than just a mere building of sticks and stones. It was the place where all Jewish hearts connected. And it was the only place in the entire galaxy where the glory of G-d’s Presence could be experienced. Only by destroying this marvelous place was G-d able to wake us up from our spiritual slumber and sinful lives.
Mourning Our Former Greatness
The Talmud emphasizes that the descendants of Jacob and Esau have a seesaw-like relationship: when one People rises, the other falls. They cannot prosper and succeed simultaneously. When ancientJerusalemwas at its peak, our nation was the leading world power intellectually, economically, and physically. The ethics and morals of our nation were of such high caliber that all the other nations praised them. To get an inkling of what we lost when ourTemplewas destroyed and our nation exiled, we need only think about the steep ethical decline modern Western society has experienced in the last couple of generations. In the time of theTemple, we Jews were a nation of spiritual greats who worked on building character and sensitivity to one another. During these three weeks, we are supposed to take out time to meditate on who we were, and what we lost.
Mourning and Depression
I was recently asked to elaborate on the difference between mourning and depression. In short, depression is a state of unhappiness characterized by feelings of dejection and hopelessness. Mourning, in contrast, is characterized by a feeling of deep sadness following the death of a dear one or a great loss of some other type. The mourning period is a time where a person deepens his understanding of what he has lost, and connects emotionally with what he once had. It has the opposite effect of depression. It helps the mourner better understand the importance of life, and how to use his time more wisely. It motivates, and provides a new perspective on how one should be living his life. Let us try to make these next three weeks such a period.