A Place for Sadness: Reflections on Tisha B'Av and the Wholeness of a Broken Heart

This week, we are immersed in the days leading up to the most mournful day in the Jewish calendar, Tisha B'Av, (the 9th day of the month of Av, this Monday night into Tuesday) which marks the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem and the horrific degradation and loss of life that were wrought. Thus, the nine days leading to the commemoration of Tisha B'av are not just solemn, they are sad. We are taught that "As the month of Av enters, joy must diminish."

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Sari Laufer, experienced sadness in a palpable way this week at the very site the Temple once stood as she came to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. She stood together with the Women of the Wall who for over twenty years have gathered the beginning of each month to celebrate Rosh Hodesh, with joyful prayer despite often violent opposition to their presence there. However, this time a huge number of charedi, commonly called ultra-orthodox, men and women, many of them teens succeeded in preventing the group from getting to the women's section. Even after the Women of the Wall and their allies found themselves inside a police barrier in a different part of the plaza, other charedim harassed them by shouting, whistling, and, in several cases, throwing eggs such as the hard boiled one that hit Rabbi Laufer in the neck.

In her own account of the experience Rabbi Laufer emphasized that "she felt not anger ....but deep, deep sadness."

My friend's reflections led me to think about these two emotions that sometimes ride together. Both anger and sadness have many faces and their occasions overlap. Sometimes even our words show the connection, such as "anguish" for sadness which shares with anger the root meaning "narrow or constricted" or "upset" which can sometimes be used to show grief and other times aggravation. In Hebrew too, the word kaas can be both rage and sorrow,

However, it is anger that often is emphasized as the emotion most likely to drive us away from our better purposes and occlude our experience of G*d's goodness. Anger can make us think of ourselves more than we think about others. But what about sadness?

In the midst of this season traditionally dedicated to sorrow I heard an amazing statement by none other than the titular head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. In a meeting of future priests and nuns, the Pope focused on the importance of joy and reportedly left his prepared text to say that there is "no sadness in holiness" because one who "acts like a wet blanket" must do so because he or she is missing a sense of "the Divine joy." Now, I know that I am not qualified to interpret with any certainty the profundity of an impromptu statement made by the leader of a different faith translated from another language. However, his forceful words hit home, especially in this season. Is there room for "sadness in holiness" or even "holiness in sadness?"

Joy and celebration are intrinsic to the Jewish people's strength, wellbeing, and longevity. And yet there are times, like this week in which our tradition bids us to take on sorrow through reading of Lamentations and a joyless fast. One of our great sources of spiritual insight, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, who himself may be best known for the phrase "It is a great commandment to be joyous at all times," provides a profound way of understanding the place of sadness in our lives.

He says that there is a very real and human susceptibility to sadness as well as anger that brings bitterness, fear, depression, and despair. Those feelings, whether they come from tragic occurrences in our lives or inexplicable origins, cannot be avoided but they do no good to dwell on or get lost in. On the other hand there is a sadness which he calls "the broken heart" --, perhaps triggered by a memory of what or who once was, and a sense of how distant both we and the world are from what we could achieve. That is the subject of another great teaching that proclaims "There is nothing so whole as a broken heart" And how can you tell the difference? Rebbe Nachman says this: Depression and anger cause us to focus on how we have been let down and how our wishes have not been fulfilled. But when you have a broken heart, you can be standing in a crowd and still turn around and pray, 'Master of the World..."

Returning to the Western Wall, I think that the question that confronts us in this place and at this season may be how to find the sacred even in sorrow. How to find a place for sadness as well as the wholeness of a broken heart.

May we open our hearts to the full range of what makes us human and dedicate even our brokenness to the work of repairing the world.