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Jul 23 2010

Tisha B’av and Jewish Grief, versus “Get Over It!” and “The Power of Now.”

Published by at 9:35 am under Knowing Relationships BLOG

By Philip Belove, Ed.D. ,,

“When I look behind, as I am compelled to look, before I can gather strength to proceed on my Journey” –Stanley Kuntiz, from his poem, The Layers.

This blog starts out with a story about an argument I couldn’t win. It ends with a teaser about the next blog entry, which will be about forgiveness.

But about that argument. It was difficult for me. I like to be an agreeable person and don’t like disagreeing. Yet disagreeing is a skill I feel obliged to practice, along with speaking up.  Still, I work hard to find ways to do it respectfully.  My commitment to being able to argue well is, in part I believe, because I’m Jewish. In our tradition, every word in the holiest books is surrounded by pages of discussions about what they really mean. Having your own opinion is an obligation of Jewish adulthood.

But anyway, the argument I had with the woman went like this:  Her new boyfriend told her about his grief for his ex. She said, “If you still have such feelings you aren’t ready for a new relationship.”  He said, “I still have grief and I might always. It was a genuine loss.”  She said, “Live in the present.” He said, “I can’t. I’m Jewish.” So they broke up.

I told this story to a young rabbi and  he said, “I know. We tend to wallow.” The Jews have a saying, “If you don’t retell the story, then the story was lived in vain.” But there was much more to the conversation and this is what I want to share with you, my dear readers.

The Rabbi had said that there was a lot of truth to the idea of living in the present, but not the whole truth. He’d said this in the context of a long conversation about a Jewish holy day called, Tisha B’Av.  This holiday has to do with the Jewish approach to grief.

Tisha B’Av means the ninth day (Tisha) of the month of Av. (I hope I have my spellings correct.)  It’s a day of fasting and it commemorates several catastrophes in Jewish history. Specifically it commemorates the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem. However, as long as we were commemorating a terrible thing, we decided to also allow it to commemorate the destruction of the second temple and the legend is that it was destroyed on the same date. And as long as we were doing that, the elders decided, why stop there? The current mythology says that the day the decision was taken to create the holocaust, which killed 6 million Jews in Europe, was also on the ninth of Av.  However, the most mythological explanation of the holiday extended the idea even further, all the way back to a story in the book of Exodus.  And here is where the mythology touches upon everyday actions most deeply and becomes most spiritual, challenging and instructive.

The set up is this. The tribes of the children of Israel were wandering in the dessert, having escaped from slavery, but not yet having found a place, or a way, to establish for themselves a normal life and a normal home.  Now since I’m intensely interested in the challenges of the midlife transition I tend to read this story as yet another one of those mythic stories that also talks about what happens in the midlife transition, the passage from slavery to freedom.

In the story, the People of Israel have already escaped slavery in Egypt and have already received the Law from Mount Sinai. The community has had it spiritual awakening and has learned, at least in principle, what it will take for them to live a good life in a good community. The Ten Commandments have been named. Now it’s time for them to enter “the land which has been promised,” a chance to put those principles into practice and realize their fondest dreams.   This is the set-up for the first Tisha B’Av. They send spies into the land to see what will be required of them if they go there.

Stop here for a moment while I tell you a contemporary story.  I was helping someone think clearly about what it was she really wanted in a relationship. It was very difficult for this person.  As soon as we got close to actually saying out loud what she really wanted in a relationship she turned into a fountain of reasons why she could not ask for it.  She was not prepared to say out loud what I knew she’d wished for. She could name it as a complaint, as a tragic loss, and as something that seemed to come easily to others.  She knew what it was. She could not ask for it for herself.  This is a commonly difficult challenge for midlife singles.   Now back to the tribes in the dessert.

They’d sent spies to scope out the promised land and when the spies came back, ten of them had the most pessimistic of reports.  “We can’t do this. It’s too hard. The challenges are too great.  We have to give up and go back.”  Two said, “We can do this. It will be difficult but we can do it.”  The two optimistic spies were Joshua and Caleb. (My uncle was a “Caleb.”)  It’s same story as with my client.

In the end, the people of the tribes decided to trust the pessimistic spies. As a result the Essential Spirit who had led them out of slavery and who had given them profoundly wise guidelines, said to them, “You cannot enter into that which I have promised you. You just aren’t ready for it. You are too shaped by your past and the slavery you lived in for so long. You must therefore wander around for another 40 years until all those pessimistic voices have died.  In the meanwhile, I will feed you and protect you,.”  So in a sense, the people were sent to re-hab, a spiritual retreat, a chance to somehow free themselves of their limiting beliefs. But still, it meant that everyone over the age of 20 would not live to see the promises come true.

This is more or less why recovering from a divorce and finding that promised love at midlife can take several years. This holiday of Tisha B’Av sanctifies that moment, that triumph of pessimism. Isn’t that interesting?

This dark pessimism, this “I can never do it,” spirit, is also filled with the presence of God. That’s the message from my tradition. As bad as it gets, and it can get pretty bad (think Holocaust) we are never alone and never abandoned and never without hope.  The pessimistic voices outnumber the optimistic ones ten to two.  But they do not silence them and in the end, do not prevail.

The ancient sages have said that this very low point is the foundation on which the highest points rest.  No bottom, no top. Both must be honored and recognized.

So for me, it’s as though there is something profoundly important, almost a spiritual obligation, to be gained in taking time to confront, even honor, your deepest fears.

There is a lot to be said about how to confront those fears in a way that makes you stronger and wiser, but we can’t cover everything here, and so let’s go back to the argument: “Get over it” confronts “I can’t without dishonoring my losses” the championship match between “The Power of Now” and “The Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av.”

Who is right?

As you can probably see, I think that “Who is right?” is a trick question. No matter which answer you choose you’ll be wrong.  The correct answer is that they are both right.  In fact, they depend on each other.  If you want to live successfully in the Now, without being reckless, or careless, or foolhearted, or in denial, then you must reconcile yourself to the truths and lessons of the past and what they can tell you about the future.

“Reconcile,” by the way, means, “to be on friendly terms with.”  That’s what makes Tish B’ov such a peculiar and complex observance, and a mature one. Reconciling yourself with  your disasters is more or less the same thing people have to do as part of their midlife emergence.

We have to learn to both respect our losses and respect our tendency toward pessimism. We have to let it have a voice in our deliberations. At the same time, we can’t let it be the only voice, or the dominant one.

To every thing there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

—          King Solomon, from Ecclesiastes,

Apparently the one thing we can’t fight is timing. For midlife singles who wish to love again and to create a promised land with another, this is a profound challenge

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