What Can We Learn From the Juxtaposition of Joy and Sorrow?
There is a time for mourning and a time for dancing.
-- Ecclesiastes 3:4
Tu B’Av (a minor Jewish holiday that celebrates love, observed primarily in Israel) occurs six days after Tishah B’Av. If you know Hebrew, this fact is not news to you: Tishah B’Av means the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av and Tu B’Av means the 15th of the same month.
So, why am I telling you this?
I am intrigued that Tu B’Av, a holiday that began in Second Temple times, is still celebrated six days after Tishah B’Av, a somber holiday that commemorates the destruction of that Temple – in 70 C.E. – and other tragic events in Jewish history. Although Tu B’Av came first in Jewish history, I am surprised, frankly, that, after the devastating events of 70 C.E., we held onto a festival that fell within the period of shiva that so many Jews would have been observing.
As I thought about this juxtaposition – the deep mourning traditionally associated with and observed on Tishah B’Av with the joyous dancing and singing that is Tu B’Av – I began to think about another calendrical juxtaposition – that of Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, one of the three major pilgrimage festivals in the Jewish year, follows exactly five days after Yom Kippur, our most intense day of self-reflection and self-affliction.
Why is it that Judaism, I began to wonder, established a harvest celebration less than a week after the longest, hardest day of Jewish ritual? And, how can we possibly get in the mood to celebrate what is essentially “Jewish Valentine’s Day” less than a week after commemorating destruction and plague and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain?
Perhaps we celebrate in our sukkot five days after Yom Kippur because, having unburdened our souls, having laid our hearts bare on that “Sabbath of Sabbaths,” we are more than ready to rejoice on our festival. Knowing what it is like to be empty and alone with God on Yom Kippur, we truly are ready to appreciate the abundance of our harvest and the surety of God’s protection on Sukkot. Having survived Yom Kippur, a day the rabbis say is like “a rehearsal for death,” we are eager to celebrate and rejoice and sit in a hut that represents life’s fragility.
At this season, having recently read, as we traditionally do on Tishah B’Av, the Book of Lamentations – words written as the prophet watched Jerusalem burn – we need to know that we are not alone in the world, that we can find comfort not only in the Holy One of Blessing but also in the holiness we can find in the presence of others. Having re-experienced the trauma of loss, we are vulnerable – a necessity if we are to be open to intimacy with another human being. It is precisely at moments of loss that we most need the strengthening, comforting presence of other people.
And such is life.
If we could choose, most of us, no doubt, would prefer if we could separate our joyous experiences from our sad ones (if we must have them at all). It’s especially complicated and emotionally challenging when an illness or a death occurs in close proximity to a wedding or a baby naming. But alas, we don’t usually get to schedule these peak moments – nor can we control the events that happen around them. We experience joy; and then something difficult comes into our lives. We experience a death; and then we wonder whether we should go on with a long-planned celebration.
Tu B’Av is six days after Tishah B’Av. Sukkot, even if we’re not ready, comes five days after Yom Kippur.
Judaism is teaching us a lesson through this calendrical juxtaposition: Gam zeh ya’avor. (This, too, shall pass.) When you’ve come through a difficult time, gam zeh ya’avor. This, too, shall pass. It won’t always be dark and difficult, even when you can’t imagine ever seeing the light again. At the same time, when you’re feeling on top of the world, gam zeh ya’avor. This, too, shall pass. Make time, therefore, to appreciate every moment of joy, dancing, singing, and abundance. They won’t last forever; they, too, shall pass.