How does a nation mourn a national tragedy? How much is enough? How much is too much? How does mourning help us to move on – to move back into life? These are the big questions which animate Tisha B’Av, the traditional Jewish day of mourning and fasting in memory of past communal tragedies, which commences at sundown this Monday night, July 19th. They are also the questions evoked by a powerful video which shows a survivor of Auschwitz dancing in the concentration camp, with his grandchildren, to the sound of Donna Summer’s disco classic, I Will Survive.
Tisha B’Av, literally the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, recalls a range of tragedies. According to the Mishna (rabbinic legal code from the second century), five tragedies befell the Jewish people on Tisha B’Av including, the decree that those who left Egypt as described in the biblical story, would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land, the destruction of the first Temple in 587 BCE, the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, the collapse of the Bar Kokhba rebellion against the Roman occupation of Israel, and the plowing over of Jerusalem in the wake of that defeat. But the list doesn’t stop there. Over time, the list grew.
Ultimately Jewish tradition is about life, about the triumph of life over death, of human dignity over indignity and celebration over suffering. To that end, the rabbinic imagination and that of all those who continued their habit of corralling collective mourning into a relatively brief period, was truly wise. Not to mourn at all is impossible, the Talmud teaches, but to mourn too much is also unhealthy.
Whether historically accurate or not, people came to associate other historic tragedies with Tisha B’Av. The list includes the beginning of the First Crusade in 1095, the expulsion of Jews from Spain by King Ferdinand in 1492, and the beginning of World War One in 1914. Others have added a range of events from the Holocaust, and given that it was the Holocaust, it was not hard to find those events. But it’s not the particular events, as much as the impulse to park all these tragedies on a single day, or even within the confines of the 3 week period of mourning leading up to it, that is striking.
We need not ignore past tragedies, but neither can we allow ourselves to be imprisoned by them. Tisha B’Av, and the traditions surrounding it, teach us that a nation can take up to three weeks out of the year, about 5% of its time, to bemoan it current condition and all the tragedies which lead up to it. After that, the community must be about the celebration of life and the building of a better future, regardless of the circumstances in which it may find itself. So like all traditional Jews I will be fasting on Tisha B’Av, but I also know that sadness over the past is not a substitute for a healthy spirituality which is focused on the present and helps to construct a better future.
In that spirit, I found this video of Holocaust survivor Adolk Korman dancing with his family in the very places where he was victimized 65 years ago to be truly beautiful. I appreciate that others may find sacrilegious what I find to be sacred, but how different is that than those early rabbis who were busy creating Judaism 65 years after the collapse of the Temple in Jerusalem? Like Mr. Korman and his family, they chose to celebrate life even in those places where they had suffered. Like Mr. Korman and his family, they sang and danced in the shadow of those places where they had seen their loved ones perish and their spiritual center burned.
I am sure that then as now, some people felt that such behavior was tasteless, inappropriate, disrespectful, insensitive, etc. But were it not for people whose love of life triumphs over their sadness in the face of past death, we would never create a future. We need not forget the past in order to move beyond it. And that is a truth which Adolk Korman, his film-maker daughter and the sages of the Talmud all appreciated. I am grateful to them all.