“Everything has its time, every experience under heaven has its season,” writes King Solomon in Ecclesiastes (3:1-4). “A time for birth and a time for death, a time to plant and a time to uproot; a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to destroy and a time to build; a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to lament and a time to dance…”
The Jewish year is basically a succession of frameworks for national spiritual processes. Elul and the High Holidays are a time for introspection and asking forgiveness. Succot is a time for rejoicing and basking in God’s light. Chanukah is a time for celebrating our uniqueness. Purim is a time for joy and finding God hidden behind everyday events. Passover is a time for celebrating our freedom. Shavuot is a time for renewing our covenant with God.
The Three Weeks, a period that culminates in Tisha B’Av, began this week. It is a time to grieve the loss of our Temple, and to mourn for the millennia of suffering that came about as a result of its destruction.
It’s a bit of a bummer, especially in the middle of the summer when we’d really rather be thinking about beaches and lemonade.
But the Jewish calendar teaches us that we need to allow space in our lives for all of these experiences.
The first loss of a close family member I experienced was last year. My grandmother passed away a few days before Passover. It was as gentle a death as one could wish for. She was prepared, she was comfortable, and she got a chance to say good-bye to all her loved ones. She passed away peacefully in her sleep, lying next to her beloved husband of more than sixty years.
I got the news while I was vacuuming some dresser or other, alone in my house on the other side of the planet.
Living far away from family is always difficult, but this time the distance felt unbearable. She passed away in Florida; I live in Israel, and had just come back from a trip to the USA to visit family. I wasn’t able to attend the funeral. I wasn’t able to join my mom sitting shiva for the mere day or two she had before the holiday. I wasn’t even able to spend much time with the few family members who remained here in Israel.
The Jewish calendar never bulldozes over you as brutally as it does around Passover. I had to clean, I had to prepare, I had to deal with my kids on vacation. There was no time and no framework for grieving. The time I was able to spend with my mom afterwards never quite made up for that lack.
A few months later, we spent Tisha B’Av eve at my parents’ house, and I decided to go to synagogue with my mom to hear Lamentations. I walked into my childhood shul with my mom and sat down with her on the floor. On Tisha B’Av, the entire Jewish people is considered mourners. We all sit on the floor or low stools; we all refrain from washing for pleasure or greeting one another.
And somehow, sitting in the narrow space between the seats, I felt I was finally able to be there with my mother in her mourning. She recited the mourner’s kaddish at the end of the service. It was the first and only time I got to hear her say it, and to answer “amen.”
Of course, Tisha B’Av is a fast commemorating a collective loss, something much bigger than me and my mother and my grandmother. But somehow, the catharsis of personal grief gives way to a deeper connection to the collective loss.
Judaism as a faith is both as grandiose and transcendent as the heavens above… and as close and personal as our own beating hearts. The Jewish calendar helps us connect those two poles, channeling our personal experiences to further our understanding and goals as a nation.