July 5, 2013: Transcending external circumstances and cultivating the inner landscape (Matot/Mas'ei)

We are approaching Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, which commemorates ancient calamities in the history of our people. (This year, Tisha B’Av falls on July 16.) Jewish tradition inversely relates the period leading up Tisha B’Av in the religious calendar to the period after the death of a loved one for an individual. That is to say, the rituals of national grief intensify as the date of Tisha B’av approaches, whereas the stages of personal grief diminish as the moment of burial gradually recedes into the past, and the mourner’s acute despair gives way to lingering melancholy. Specifically, from the first day of Av on, observant Jews avoid parties and celebrations, just as the bereaved traditionally avoids revelry for a full year after the death of her parent. The week of Tisha B’Av corresponds to sheloshim, the thirty days immediately following the death of any close family member, during which Jewish law forbids activities such as haircuts and ironing clothes. The day of Tisha B’Av itself corresponds to Shiva, the week of intense mourning after burial. In both cases shaving, bathing, wearing leather or jewelry, and sexual relations are prohibited; mirrors are covered, and the practitioner sits on low benches or stools. However, some interesting anomalies render the parallel between national and personal mourning inexact. For example, one must refrain from commerce during the week of Tisha B’Av, whereas one is encouraged to go back to work immediately after the conclusion of Shiva. And, of course, one fasts on Tisha B’Av, but meals of consolation are sanctioned and even encouraged throughout the week of Shiva.

What can the customs and practices surrounding Tisha B’Av teach us concerning personal grief and the Jewish attitude toward the human psyche in general? In his essay entitled “Avelut Yeshanah and Avelut Hadashah,” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the giants of 20th century American Jewish thinkers, discusses two types of responses to circumstances and events: cognitive and emotional. Avelut Yeshanah, which translates to “ancient grief,” is primarily a cognitive response. We know intellectually that the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in the year 70 CE, but it’s difficult to get worked up about an event that took place close to two thousand years ago. Therefore, Jewish tradition imposes a regime of increasing austerity, culminating in the fast of Tisha B’Av, in order to simulate and perhaps even induce an emotional response of grief. On the other hand, Avelut Hadashah, “new grief,” requires no prompting. It is, in Rav Soloveitchik’s own words, “a primordial, instinctual, spontaneous response of man to evil, to the traumatic confrontation with death, to the impact of catastrophe and disaster. It is an existential response, not one that evolves by the application of artificial stimuli.” In the case of individual grief, the laws and customs of Jewish tradition pursue the exact opposite course: gradually cooling the searing bitterness of despair and replacing it with more sober, contemplative reflection. Thus, whether she feels like it or not, the individual mourner must eat, she must recite Kaddish, and, shortly, she must return to work—all activities that force her out of isolation and into the company of a compassionate and caring community. She begins to recognize her connection with all her fellow human beings within the larger cycles of life and death, as opposed to viewing herself as a victim singled out by a cruel God (or cruel fate) to suffer.

Both Aveilut Yeshanah, the ritualized national mourning associated with Tisha B’Av, and Aveilut Hadashah, the personal mourning practices after the death of loved one, underscore the bedrock Jewish principle of free will. Free will is often conceptualized with regard to behavior—the maxim that we are always free to determine our course of action. Judaism goes further by applying the concept of free will to the internal human landscape as well: we are always free to choose our emotional reactions to circumstances and situations. Sometimes, says Jewish tradition, it is beneficial to bring about feelings of sadness, such as with the observance of Tisha B’Av or, similarly, on the groom’s wedding day, when he tempers his joy under the huppah (the wedding canopy) by breaking the glass. At the other times, we must rouse ourselves from misery and self-pity, such as on the seventh day of Shiva, when the mourner opens her front door, emerges from the house and takes a walk around the block, symbolizing her conscious commitment to reengage the world and reaffirm life despite her personal tragedy.

Common to all of these responses is the basic assumption that the human being is capable of mastering her feelings. Preeminent social scientist Daniel Goleman popularized the term “emotional intelligence,” in his groundbreaking book of the same name, to denote the cognitive mind’s ability to intervene and manage feelings constructively, instead of being hijacked by them. The genius of Jewish practice is that it has long recognized that our internal emotional state is not at the mercy of external events. It is a testament to the dignity and worth of the human being that we are capable of transcending our circumstances, whatever they may be, and cultivate inner peace and joy.