The three weeks immediately preceding Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of both Holy Temples, each time leading to painful exile, has a number of prohibitions mandated. There are restrictions on bathing (for pleasure), buying new things, laundry and wearing fresh clothes, celebrations and weddings, festive music and hair cutting.
I admit to not being that frum with all these restrictions. Part of that I justify by recognizing that we do have, admittedly not yet complete, Jewish national sovereignty for the first time since these restrictions were originally enacted. Jerusalem, although still a work in progress, is no longer in complete ruins and close to half of worldwide Jewry now lives in Israel! I also justify my own laxness with thoughts that our generation is, spiritually, a very weak one, and that rather than properly focusing on what these restrictions are intended to make us think and feel, all too often they only make us irritated and complaining as we focus no further than our personal discomfort and inconvenience. I’m also just not so frum, even when, perhaps, I should be stricter with myself. Thus, if I can find a kula, an established rabbinic leniency, I generally embrace it enthusiastically!
Although I’m pretty much Ashkenazi, I like to see myself as at least somewhat an honorary Sephardi on the basis of some very close friendships, as well as my admiration of Sephardi learning. When I recently learned that, at least according to the Ben Ish Chai, the revered 19th century Iraqi authority, that some restrictions, including hair-cutting, only come into effect the week of Tisha B’Av itself, I felt very relieved. You see, I only realized last Shabbat, the 17th of Tammuz itself, the beginning of the three-week period, that I forgot to get a haircut on Friday and I was feeling a bit shaggy. After younger decades of hair to my shoulders and a full, untrimmed beard, I’ve recently kept my beard and hair a lot shorter if for no other reason than to de-emphasize the white which now predominates…. So, I thought very seriously to take advantage of the Ben Ish Chai‘s opinion and go to the barber.
But as I thought more about this, I was struck that perhaps the usual point of reference for these restrictions, the restrictions during the mourning process, might not be the entire story. Of course, we’ve been in an almost two-millennia state of mourning, alienation and exile, and it is appropriate to emphasize that during this period.
But, I started to feel another parameter underlying these traditions, a sense of empathy with our ancestors who actually experienced this horror. They were surrounded with massacre and destruction, starvation and homelessness to a degree that I, honestly, can’t even begin to imagine. Their world really was ending, crumbling around them. These survivors were in no position to enjoy a warm bath, a family celebration, clean clothes or a sense of being decently-groomed.
I have begun to see my own deprivations, minor as they are, giving me just the tiniest sense of the pain and terror they experienced. Not only that, it reminds me that, comfortable and secure as I am now in 21st century America, given the very real, existential threats that Israel, and by extension every Jew, faces every day, it’s not impossible that I and/or my children could, chas v’shalom, find ourselves in the very same straits. It scares me to death, as well it should!
My thinking is that if I’m commanded to remember my own and my people’s vulnerability, I should proceed to do every thing I possibly can to prevent that from ever happening. Which brings me to examine the causes of that original disaster, which, our sages tell us, was sinat chinam, senseless hatred and pettiness towards our fellow Jews. And the remedy for that, we’re taught is achdut and ahavat chinam, Jewish Unity and unconditional love for our fellow Jew (which, of course, does allow for disagreement–I’m not suggesting uniform conformity to any particular mandate).
So this year, as I surmount feeling sorry for myself because I’ve gotten so old and grey, I’ll remind myself to go out of my way to show my love and support for my fellow Jews. And, hopefully, I can continue this even beyond Tisha B’Av, hoping that this will be the final year we still have even a vestige of exile and hoping that my actions bring us all even a tiny bit closer to our ultimate geula, redemption.