Tish b’Av, a holy day of sadness, commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples, a day when we read the Book of Lamentations and on which many fast. Is there any benefit to living in the past, focusing on tragedy? Or can we perhaps learn a lesson from tragedy?
Rabbi Michael Bernstein of Congregation Gesher L’Torah reminds us that “joy and celebration are intrinsic to the Jewish people’s strength, well-being, and longevity.” Yet there are times, like Tish b’Av when we take on sorrow through recalling the painful experiences of being Jewish and our less than stellar history. One of our great sources of spiritual insight, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who himself may be best known for the phrase “It is a great commandment to be joyous at all times,” was reported to have suffered from depression.
However, Rabbi Nachman grew from his depression and really knew the human condition. He provided a profound way of understanding the place of sadness in our lives. Rabbi Nachman said that there is a very real and human susceptibility to sadness as well as anger that brings bitterness, fear, depression, and despair. Those feelings, whether they come from tragic occurrences in our lives or for no conscious reason, cannot be avoided. However, they do us no good to dwell on them or to get lost in them. In the words of a great teacher of mine, Mike Smith, “it is empowering to honor the past – to learn from it and it is disempowering to live in the past –to be stuck there. Living in the past is like carrying a heavy sack of all our past hurt, anger, resentments, despair and then creating the future by tossing forward this heavy sack of the past. Now, try having a powerful life that way”
One of my favorite Jewish Renewal authors and pastoral counselors, Estelle Frankel, wrote in her book, Sacred Therapy, “spiritual awakening begins with learning how to navigate our way through dark times. “Night” is a recurrent theme in Jewish myth, signifying the fertile and transformative power of the unknown – the hidden face of the Divine in the world. After all, Jacob wrestled throughout the night and alone. His transformation to Yisrael could only happen when he struggled with his darkness – what Karl Jung called his shadow – those parts of ourselves that we reject and on which we expend lots and lots of energy hiding from ourselves and the world. Frankel continues, “all life moves in cycles from darkness into light, from contraction into expansion, brokenness into wholeness. … a kind of exile, a state of being disconnected and dislocated from our true place.” However, just like the Israelites, there is the possibility of redemption from our own mitrayim (Egypt).
There are times when we must flail away in the muck of what James Hollis wrote about in his book, The Swamplands of the Soul. Getting stuck in those swamps does us no good. Avoiding them is even worse – we drink, we sex, we work, or we buy our way out of our swamps, trying to fill the inner hole and choosing denial as our method of managing our dark nights of the soul. However, avoiding our darkness leads to addiction, neuroses and even physical illness. Taking the time to explore, to feel, to share, to express and even to get support allows us to traverse these swamplands. Deriving meaning and growth from the swamp is the dry ground onto which we can eventually step.
By being with our pain, there is a sadness which Rabbi Nachman called “the broken heart” –, perhaps triggered by a memory of what was lost, changes that we did not desire, all the endings the befall us in our lives. He said that broken heartedness is free from anger and blame – it is rooted in the humble awareness that all human beings experience sorrow and pain – broken heartedness is a validation of our humanity. Another great teaching by Rabbi Nachman proclaimed “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart”.
Rabbi Alexandri, the third-century Palestinian Talmudist described G-d as the seeker of shattered hearts, writing, “when a man uses a broken vessel he is ashamed of it, but not G-d. All instruments of G-d’s service are broken vessels, as it is written in Psalm 34:19, “G-d is close to the brokenhearted.” All we have to do is share ourselves – with others, with professional counselors, our rabbi and with G-d. G-d then shows up through others.
As we begin the last book of the Torah, Devarim, with the realization that Moses will not enter the promised land, let us look at his broken heartedness and not his depression. Some commentators wrote that Moses really was lamenting that he did not allow the Israelites to grow from their mistakes like a parent who allows his children to skin their knees, following behind with a box of band-aids. Moses was broken hearted that he was not a better leader and that is why he did not get to enter the Promised Land. Let us look back on our own lives at our losses, at our missed opportunities, at our fears, at our humanity. Rather than falling into regret and resentment and anger at ourselves, at others or even at G-d, let us feel the pain. Let us feel it – sit with it – breathe into it – NOT get stuck in it. Then ask, how did I grow from it? Embrace the fact that all of that stuff got you exactly where you are sitting right now. What was the meaning? How did you grow? Then, simply thank G-d for the gift of life, for life is short and can end in a moment. Let us commit ourselves to taking risk, to riding more roller coasters, to playing large and not small or safe – flying by the seat of our pants. Then, when we do leave this life, we can see how we made a difference for just being here. Learning from our mistakes and then teaching others. Loving and being loved. After all, as another teacher once taught me, “life is about loving, connecting and contributing. Everything else is hiding out and wasting time”.
Written by Rabbi Mitch Cohen, director of the Neshama Interfaith Center and part of the Darshan Yeshiva Conversion to Judaism program.