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Engaging with Pain and Grief

A teaching from Rabbi Steph Kennedy on the holiday of Tisha B'Av

9 Av 5783 • July 27, 2023

A person in all black, including a black hat, is standing facing the Western Wall in the Old City ofJerusalem

On July 26 and 27 we will mark the final significant holiday of the Jewish year, called Tisha B'Av. It holds a profound significance as a moment of communal grief and mourning. Amidst the late summer atmosphere, Tisha B'Av disrupts our tranquility and urges us to remember and find meaning in the distant tragedies of Jewish history.

The words Tisha B'Av mean, literally, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, which marks the occurrence of a number of tragic events. According to Jewish tradition, it is the date when Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed in 586 BCE and again in 70 CE, as well the date of the expulsion and exile of Jews from Spain and England. It is a day of grief, prompting us to reflect on loss and exile. The day is so significant that Jewish tradition prepares us for it by asking us to self-impose increasingly restrictive practices in the weeks leading up to it. On Tisha B'Av itself, traditional observance includes fasting and sitting low to the ground. These practices facilitate a transition into a collective state of introspection and grief, similar to the seven-day mourning period following a funeral that is known as shiva.

We may wonder about the relevance of a communal day of mourning rooted in the destruction of an ancient Temple. How can we authentically mourn a loss we do not personally feel? Why would we even want to?

For me, Tisha B'Av is not solely about historical losses. By embracing the practices of mourners and engaging in the grief of our tradition, we can transform historical loss from an abstract concept into a personal experience. In a society that often overlooks and avoids grief, Tisha B'Av provides a sanctuary in which it can be acknowledged and embraced, compelling us to genuinely confront a world burdened with suffering. Tisha B'Av offers a haven for our collective anguish over the plight of humanity, guiding us to encounter and empathize with the pain of others in a profound way. Through this experience, our hearts become open to compassion.

Throughout history, the Jewish community has consistently responded to tragedy with a spirit of renewal. After the destruction of the ancient Temples, a revitalized form of Judaism emerged, replacing Temple rites with home rituals, prayer, and study. As Tisha B'Av occurs seven weeks prior to Rosh Hashanah, this period of communal mourning and grief serves as essential groundwork for the subsequent processes of repair and rejuvenation during the High Holiday season. Tisha B'Av and its place in the Jewish calendar serve as poignant reminders, urging us to acknowledge and engage with our pain before embarking on the transformative journey of healing and renewal.

This year Tisha B’Av begins at sundown on the evening of Wednesday, July 26, and continues until sundown on Thursday, July 27.

You can learn more about Tisha B’Av here and about Tisha B’Av for families with children here.


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