My heart always returns to this day nineteen years ago. My children were much younger, my youngest not yet born. My best friend and his family were visiting from Los Angeles, and the kids were playing, blissfully unaware of the nature of the day, on a long-gone swing set in a long-gone back yard in a long-gone home. As it usually is on Tisha B’Av, even in Seattle, it was hot.
My mind wasn’t on the children or on my friends or even with the Jewish People that day. Rather, my mother, in hospital in Denver, was undergoing an emergency angioplasty without surgical back-up, in other words and all-or-nothing final gamble to give her the strength to recover from her grave condition. I felt people around me trying to make conversation, to help me take my mind off morbid thoughts, but I was just waiting for “the call”.
When the phone finally did ring, the news was that, somehow, my mother had come through the procedure and was stronger than she’d been in months. The prognosis was for her to be released in about two more weeks! I was so relieved after I had primed myself on this, the most disastrous day of our Jewish year, for the worst. I had an overwhelming experience of redemption arising from the ashes.
Perhaps that was the beginning of my understanding that Judaism is the art of unreasonable optimism.
Her death, about a week later, hit me very hard. It didn’t however, cancel my insight about what our tradition is all about. Rather it taught me, among many other things, that we all have limited vision and, as such, can’t see the entire road. We can, and should, react to “local conditions”, to what we are actually experiencing. If needed, we should grieve fully, but we can’t let ourselves become lost in the grief. Our question is where do we go now, not, as we all too often ask, why did this occur.
Likewise as a people, we have many things to grieve over on this day. We should learn from our sages that the root cause of our disasters stem from lack of faith (the spies in the desert), our attempting to exempt ourselves from primary rules of civilization (the destruction of the First Temple) and our endless bickering with each other (the destruction of the Second Temple and our current exile/dispersion/alienation), but we don’t do much to relieve the problems by merely beating our chests in guilt.
Rather, we need to correct our direction, regain our faith in the beneficence of The Creator, decide that the system works only if everyone, including ourselves, plays by the rules, and remember that everyone else, working outward from the center, of course, beginning with our fellow Jews but encompassing all mankind, is also playing their part in bringing an imperfect world to completion.
A very beautiful minhag (custom) is to sweep the floor on the afternoon of Tisha B’Av, and make our home ready to welcome the Machiach. The means we must prepare our very center to finally sing in perfect harmony with the world. May this be the final year of our fasting.