In these weeks following the fast of Tisha B’Av, the Jewish people pivot from grief over the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem to consolation. The selections we read from the prophets in this period all focus on this theme, reaffirming the relationship between God and the Jewish people and helping us focus on the work of return and repentance as the Days of Awe approach.
It has also been a time of personal mourning as well. In my extended family, we came together recently for the funeral of an extraordinary young woman afflicted by a terrible illness that ultimately took her life. I watched as her parents, siblings and grandparents descended into their own private Tisha B’Av, a time of relentless sorrow, rage and despair.
At such moments, in personal and in national life, there are no words or practices that can lift the spirit. Nor should there be. One of Judaism’s wisest guidelines is the rule forbidding consolation at the start of Tisha B’Av. Our tradition compels us to sit with the grief, making room for the full range of our emotions and encouraging us to feel all we need to feel as we make our way through life’s inevitable ups and downs.
But while there may be no words or deeds to lift our spirits in such times, there are time-tested ways that Judaism mobilizes to hold us, cradle our hearts, and connect us to each other and to the One. We gathered together at the synagogue to honor and mourn. We drove together to the graveside to return the body to the earth, feeling the thud of each clod of earth on the casket as we tucked her remains into their final resting place. And then we drove to the family home to attend to her closest relatives and make sure they were not alone in those horrific first days.
With each next step, Judaism provided ways to care and to shield. In the face of the awkwardness we often feel struggling to figure out what to say in the face of such grief, Judaism directs us to silent acts of nurture: sitting with the mourner, offering food or drink, crying together. Of course, none of these acts of presence and generosity remove the stark reality of the loss. But sitting in loss together, knowing we are not abandoned, is itself real consolation.
Judaism creates space to allow us to feel whatever we need to feel while providing the support that comes from belonging to something greater, a heritage and a destiny. For me, this is where Judaism’s real authority emerges: from its wisdom, its focus on thriving, its bringing us together to shelter our grief and channel our joys. The Torah makes this point too. In offering guidance about why we should observe the Torah, Moses tells us: “You shall faithfully observe all the instruction that I enjoin upon you today, that you may thrive and increase and be able to possess the land that the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors.” (Deuteronomy 8:1).
Moses posits three benefits of Jewish faithfulness: to thrive, to increase, and to possess the land. We thrive when we do not cut ourselves off from the full range of our emotions. Too often our culture nudges us to do otherwise — to dissociate, become alienated from our feelings, avoid anger, get over it. The price we pay for such amputations of the heart is depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-sabotage. The price is excessive. And it is not needed.
The Torah invites us to a world that welcomes everything we feel, channeling our natural emotional responses into vessels of shared practice and affording us the gifts of time, space and permission. Human thriving emerges from such a web of engagement. We do our love rather than cheapen it with speech. And through these practices, Judaism creates a path to thrive even in our anguish and loss.
At times of crisis, we feel, but not alone. We grieve, but with each other. And out of such gentle relating, we experience life in all its fullness: the tragedies and the pain, but also its tender compassion, poignant memories, and even joy.
This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on August 20, 2022. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.