Many years ago during a Yom Kippur Torah reading, I encouraged people to ask any question they wanted about Judaism. One person asked, “Why is Judaism always so solemn?” I responded by saying that this perception came from the fact that he mostly went to shul on Yom Kippur, which is indeed a solemn day. One such day in the year. But if he would come to shul more regularly, he would see that 52 times in a solar year we spent a whole day focused on appreciation, and several more times a year the focus was on joy and freedom during the major (and minor) holidays.
I write this on the morning of the 18th of Tammuz, the day we are observing the beginning of the three weeks leading up to Tish’a b’Av, the fast of the 9th of Av. Today marks the day the outer walls of the first temple were breached, culminating in its destruction three weeks later. These are the 21 days in which we remember the terrible things that have happened to us and that we brought upon ourselves, not only when we went to war against the Babylonians back in the 6th century B.C.E., but also later when we rebelled against the Romans, when so many were martyred during the crusades, and when we were exiled from Spain. When I was a camper at Camp Ramah during high school and before Yom ha’Sho’ah was established, Tish’a b’Av was also when we remembered the destruction of the European Jewish communities.
But less than a week after the only other 24 hour fast on our calendar comes the 15th of Av, when unmarried men and women met in the fields and vineyards to seek out life partners. Only six days after we finish remembering the horror and the paradigm shift forced on us by the loss of both temples, we are dancing and celebrating love and optimism.
For three weeks we allow ourselves to dwell on the pain we have endured for bearing witness to our understanding of a God-centred world and then we get back to our calling.
שֶׁכֵּן חוֹבַת כָּל־הַיְצוּרִים לְפָנֶיךָ י־ה־ו־ה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְאִמּוֹתֵינוּ,
לְהוֹדוֹת לְהַלֵּל לְשַׁבֵּחַ, לְפָאֵר לְרוֹמֵם לְהַדֵּר, לְבָרֵךְ לְעַלֵּה וּלְקַלֵּס
עַל כָּל־דִּבְרֵי שִׁירוֹת וְתִשְׁבְּחוֹת דָּוִד בֶּן־יִשַׁי עַבְדְּךָ מְשִׁיחֶךָ.
For this is the [true] duty of all creatures before You, Yah our God and the God of our fathers and mothers, to acknowledge, to praise, to exalt, to make beautiful, to lift up and adorn, to bless and give more praise going beyond all the words of song and praise uttered by David, Yishai’s son, your servant and anointed one.
Our real duty is not to be sad about how hard it is to be a Jew, not to dwell on the tragedies and mistakes of the past and even the present, but to realistically face them, mourn over them when appropriate, and then pick ourselves up and get back to singing, composing, appreciating this amazing world we have been given to care for, and living in such a way that we connect our aspirations to our actions.