Friday, August 5, 2022

A Different Meaning of Meaning

A Facebook friend of mine, Seth Chalmer, wrote a post a few years ago about Tisha B'Av which I found very insightful, and helpful for people who have a hard time with finding meaning in Tisha B'Av or other aspects of Judaism. With his permission, I'm sharing it here:

Tomorrow lots of observant Jews will ask one another, "Did you have a meaningful fast?" Or (if they laudably don't assume everyone fasts, since you never know who has a medical issue or just struggles with that observance) they may ask, "Did you have a meaningful Tisha B'Av?"
Asking any individual Jew this question, in either formulation, is based on an interesting assumption. The assumption: that having a meaningful personal experience is highly relevant to Tisha B'Av.
Now, on a surface level, the assumption is obviously true. Rabbinic sources extensively discuss how the day's restrictions and observances are intended to give us the experience of mourning. (Don't study Torah, it will make you happy, etc.) But look past that for a moment to reflect: if the personal experience were really the point, shouldn't the halakhic details be subverted to the individual's personality and the things that would prompt mourning in her?
I am one of countless Jews for whom the restrictions of Tisha B'Av are very poorly designed, if the point is to prompt mourning. Fasting doesn't make me feel sad at all; it makes me feel thirsty, headachy, very fatigued, and too distracted to think or feel much of anything. Certainly it doesn't increase my sensitivity about hunger, or make me feel empathetic. I feel *least* empathetic when hangry. And not wearing leather shoes has, I promise you, no effect on my mood.
Now, can I work myself up into sadness on Tisha B'Av? Sure. I can think hard about sad things. But the point is, my ability to do so is not enhanced or empowered, and probably actually lessened, by the observances of the day.
So am I against these observances? Do I chafe at them? Do I reinterpret them or customize them to maximize my own personal experience?
God forbid. 
Because that's not the main point. It's an auxiliary point, it has value, but it's not the true point. We may connect Tisha B'Av to our personal tragedies, but the essence of the day is in relation to *national* Jewish tragedies. That's why we all do this on the same day together; that's why we keep on obeying rules about leather shoes that don't make any sense to our generation given advances in modern footwear; that's why I fast even though I'm not one of the Jews for whom that feels sad or empathy-enhancing. That's why I take the rabbinic literature (and my rabbis at shul) with a hefty dash of salt when they talk about how the laws of Tisha B'Av are supposed to make us feel. They're talking, I think, about our feelings collectively, corporately, not about the individual in himself. And if you want proof, just ask your rabbi if you can observe Tisha B'Av on a different day, or with a different set of restrictions, to meet your individual needs.
And that's also why it feels so odd to me when people ask whether I had a meaningful Tisha B'Av. The answer is: *in the experiencing of it*, not at all! I had a really unpleasant day and not even in any form that was sad, reflective, emotionally intense, or particularly mindful in any way. But if I just say that, it sounds like I don't value the day, and I truly do. I value it before I do it; I value it after I have done it; I value it while I muddle through it; I value it not for its immediate experiential value but the same way I value the existence of Pesach even in November. I value Tisha B'Av being observed by Jews worldwide and I value being a part of that. Because I value the vast, beautiful, complex, intergenerational, national / tribal / extended family art project that is Judaism, altogether.
I have been completely in love with that art project for a dozen years now and my passion has not abated. And I hear this question about having a personal experience on any given holiday and I think: what, isn't just being part of this incredible production meaning enough? I should expect myself to personally "have a meaningful day" as if the existence of the meaning depended on my experiencing it? As if it were possible to do it without it being meaningful? The day was already phenomenally meaningful whether I paid any attention to that meaning or not. It would be fragile meaning indeed if it depended on my mental state. Its meaning transcends me and my experience. I am a cell in the body of the people Israel; observing Tisha B'Av I put national mourning into my body, I make it physically real. That's more impressive to me than making it emotionally real. Combined with other Jews everywhere we make the day remarkably physically different. That's a massively powerful project no matter what any one of us experiences inwardly. 
Personal emotional meaning I actually know how to do for myself, thank you very much. And if that's my goal, then frankly I can do it a lot better than any Jewish holiday can provide. I can listen to the right song, at the right time, walk in the right kind of place, whatever. All customized for me. If Judaism presents itself as a source of *personal, individual* meaning, then it will always lose. Every time. It loses for me, and I'm a self-selected observant Jew. (How much more so will it lose for secular people.) If personal experience were the heart of the offer, I for one would turn Tisha B'Av down. And most of the rest of the Jewish year too. (Okay, Shabbos and Sukkos I'd keep.)
But as part of the whole sweep of observant Jewish life, a theatrical production on a global set and a runtime of millennia, with all my ancestors, contemporary fellow Jews, and descendants all in the ensemble, and with the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe as an audience/director/designer/co-star/protagonist/antagonist/lover? That I can't find anywhere else. That, and only that, keeps me coming back, and gladly. That's enough, much more than enough, to keep me fasting every Tisha B'Av.
So, to answer your question: yes, of course I "had" an inherently meaningful Tisha B'Av. 
And so did everyone else, whether they knew it or not.


  1. Not discussing the message, but if someone believes modern footwear is not appropriate to the goal of the day, maybe he should try not wearing it (after all that's the position of Rashi and Rambam)

  2. Meaning comes through experience and learning. Pay attention to the תפילות and קריאות התורה והנהיאיםand you will experience meaning on an individual and national level. This is the way we
    connect with Hashem

  3. Unlike Shabbat and the holidays, 9 be-Av doesn't have any value per se. Its only purpose is to extinct. We should not discuss how to get any profit from it, we should discuss how to build the Temple.
    BTW the modern footwear is not really permitted. What's permitted is footwraps.

  4. Thanks for sharing this. This was a great piece that resonated. I will pass it on.

  5. So sad. Some people are just missing what life is all about. And in this case, what tisha b'av is all about. What does this author think this day is in fact about? It's supposed to be about feeling like we're missing our basic personal connection with the בורא עולם. The fact that missing this connection doesn't make us sad is even more sad.
    This article is the writing of a person who has no connection to what yiddishkeit is supposed to be about. All he hears is fast, be thirsty and get through this awful day as quickly as possible. We all share many of these sentiments, but at least we have the understanding that it is because we aren't feeling the way we are supposed to be feeling. And we are at least saddened that we feel so emotionally disconnected from our relationship with הקב"ה.
    What was expressed here is fine - being part of כלל ישראל and all, but it is missing a basic level of nuance that a Yid is supposed to have. This person will have to deal with the question of צפית לישועה and how he is supposed to relate to that. This is Judaism 101.

    1. "What does this author think this day is in fact about? It's supposed to be about feeling like we're missing our basic personal connection with the בורא עולם." No, that's actually not what it's supposed to be about.

    2. The Rambam writes the correct reason to await Moshiach
      לא נתאוו החכמים והנביאים ימות המשיח לא כדי שישלטו על כל העולם ולא כדי שירדו בעכו"ם ולא כדי שינשאו אותם העמים ולא כדי לאכול ולשתות ולשמוח אלא כדי שיהיו פנויין בתורה וחכמתה ולא יהיה להם נוגש ומבטל כדי שיזכו לחיי העולם הבא כמו שביארנו בהלכות תשובה:
      A person who sees how distant he is from תורה וחכמתה, how few Sugyos he knows clearly on a high level, should understand that Moshiach will solve that. When a person realizes that his need to spend days and nights working and not learning Torah is removing his ability to fully know Torah, he will daven for the days of איש תחת גפנו ואיש תחת תאנו, when a minimal amount of work will suffice for our lives.
      This is the national problem as well as the individual's problem. When we see hundreds of thousands of Jews who have no idea what it is that makes them Jewish, we have a national נוגש ומבטל that has prevented us from being פנוי לתורה ולחכמתה on a national level.

      Imagine a world in which Torah and Mitzvos are a given, that every interaction with another person includes the basic premise that we both care mainly about keeping the Torah, how different things would be? Business isn't about getting one up over the other guy, hoarding supplies, or beating the market. It's just about producing a product that people need or use, and covering our expenses at the same time. Imagine the default being that the mornings are for Shacharis, a Shacharis that includes enunciating each word clearly, as well as with full Kavana. Imagine a world in which people driving are primarily careful with not becoming מזיקים, and they care about little else.

      We are so far from it, yet our ruchniyus is constantly suffering from this lack.

    3. It's not? Ummm... how many sources do you want? But more than that, it is ALWAYS about that. I'm sorry you missed the memo, but ALL of Judaism is about getting closer to הקב"ה. Davening, learning, מועדים, fast days, it's all about furthering our connection. Before the בית המקדש was destroyed there was נבואה. We were so close to הקב"ה that there were those that could talk to Him. Davening, which is supposed to be a conversation with השם, was done properly before the destruction, but with the destruction we have a טענת שיכור. We are missing in our connection, and very much yes, that is why we are sad.

    4. Tisha B'Av is not about mourning the loss of Nevuah. It's about the loss of the Beis Hamikdash, the loss of Jewish sovereignty, and the associated loss of countless Jewish lives, along with many, many persecutions over our history.

    5. Dovid, I recommend that you read Megillas Eicha.

    6. I find it interesting that people can accept Sefer Bereishis as an allegory, but insist on taking EIcha literally.
      The pain we recall is both physical and spiritual. If we live a happy life, with all kinds of luxuries within reach, it only makes sense to focus on the spiritual loss that we are experiencing.
      Especially after the Rambam revealed to us that the true reason to pine after the Ge'ula is not in order to stick to our enemies or to lord over the world. The spiritual benefit is our main reason to beg for the Geula and by extension, to feel the Galus.

    7. Uh, do you know that a lot of people died?

  6. Tisha B'AV is a national tragedy for the Jewish people with tragic
    consequences to national, phyisical and spi

  7. How can one not feel the impact
    of Tisha B'Av which began the Galut of 2000 years with the suffering and persecution of the Jewish people in it's extreme with the Holocaust.Our spiritual
    as well as personal persecution.
    This is not an abstract fantasy
    but a reality that even continues
    today when we have sovereignty
    in a tiny part of our land in Eretz


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