Rabbi David Aaron
Excerpt from “Inviting G-d In”
This past Tisha B’Av, I watched my thirteen-year-old son publicly recite Eicha for the first time. As he read Jeremiah’s heart-wrenching words, his voice started to quiver and tears began to pour down his cheeks. I thought to myself, “What am I doing to my son? Why put him through this pain and cause him such grief? Why pass on to him a history of such pain?” I too began to cry.
Growing up the son of a Holocaust survivor, I was very conscious of the pain of being Jewish. My mother’s experiences in the Holocaust made me aware of the horrors that Jews have experienced throughout history. Until I revisited Judaism in my teens, I did not love being Jewish. In fact, I hated it. I realized that if I had been born a couple of decades earlier, I too would have known the horrors of life in a concentration camp.
I grew up in a non-Jewish community, where I was one of only two Jews in my school. I was often harassed because I was Jewish. When I worked hard in school and got high marks, the kids called me a brownnoser. When I did not attend school during Jewish holidays, I was called a lazy Jew. Focused on the pain of my Jewish identity, it took me years to find within it power and joy. But I did, when I realized that it is necessary for us humans to feel pain in order to feel joy.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, there is no joy without sadness. We strive to be happy our whole lives and to avoid all sadness and pain. But only people who truly know pain and sadness can truly know pleasure and joy. And only people who truly know pleasure and joy can know pain and sadness. We live in a dualistic world. To be fully alive and aware, we must be willing to embrace the total spectrum of human emotions and experience. At the very breathtaking peaks of life are the beginnings of the slopes down. The mountains and the valleys are connected and one.
Although Hashem promised that eventually the Temple will be rebuilt, the Jewish tradition teaches that only those who truly understand and feel the pain over the destruction of the Temple will have the ability to rejoice at the rebuilding of the Temple. In a strange way, on Tisha B’Av, we take pleasure in our ability to mourn, and we experience profound fulfillment in our tears.
Unfortunately, society has perpetuated the silly attitude that men should not cry. But without a Hashem cry, we cannot have a Hashem laugh. One of the most powerful and beautiful moments of my life was when I cried for the first time in front of my wife. In fact, crying in front of your spouse is one of the greatest opportunities to share your genuine humanness. Animals do not cry, nor do they laugh. The laughing hyena is not expressing intense joy; it is simply making a sound that sounds to us like laughter. According to the Kabbalah, animals feel pain, but it’s not as if in the middle of their pain they think, “Oy, if only I could be happy.”
Human beings, however, are able to remember the joyous moments of their lives, even when they are in pain. And in their most joyous moments, they are able to remember their pain.
Some years ago I attended the wedding of a widower with eight children. His first wife, a young woman, had suffered from cancer for several years before finally succumbing to it. He badly needed a wife after all the years of illness and stress, and his children needed a mother, so he remarried quickly. At the wedding mixed emotions were apparent. While relatives and friends were happy for him, they still remembered his first wife and were poignantly aware of her passing. They cried as they wished him and his new wife “Mazel Tov!”
Such paradoxical experiences capture the profundity of life and the unique power of human consciousness.
Illustrating this point, the prophet Jeremiah, in the very midst of his lamentations, says, “What does a living human being have to complain about?” It is a serious question. Are we complaining about our crying and suffering? Are we complaining about complaining? Jeremiah realizes in the depth of his pain that we cannot know the joy of being alive without experiencing the pain that comes with it, and that we should be thankful for the very ability to cry, since it is a sign that we are fully alive and conscious. Our ability to cry and feel pain is itself part of our ability to laugh and feel pleasure. Together they capture the miraculous experience of being alive.
Understanding the depth of the suffering Jews have endured in their history leads us to open ourselves to both mourning and celebrating, crying and laughing-but especially crying.
It is strange that we cry in moments of pain but also in moments of intense joy. What do pain and joy have in common that they can both move us to tears? Both pain and joy can bring us face-to-face with the bedrock of life, and this encounter is overwhelming. Suddenly it hits us:
This moment is real and life is overwhelmingly mysterious, miraculous, and incomprehensible. Our intellectual and emotional faculties, with which we generally grasp reality, are simply too small to capture the truth we face, and we break down in tears. This is hinted at in the metaphoric language of the Kabbalah that describes how, at the beginning of creation, the finite vessels of human perception broke down because they could not contain the endless light of Hashem’s truth.
I used to imagine that, someday, when I would stand under the wedding canopy, the chupa, of my children, I would be crying my eyes out. And sure enough, that’s what has happened. When you really open yourself up to the deepest, most powerful experiences that life offers, you cannot help crying.
Jeremiah, while lamenting the destruction of the Temple, tells us, “Pour out your heart like water.” It is interesting that tears are salty. Saltwater does not quench your thirst; rather, it makes you thirstier. However, Jeremiah is teaching us that when tears pour out of our hearts, then such tears actually satiate us like fresh water.
Crying from the heart satisfies a very deep need-it quenches. The psychologist Carl Jung said that neurosis is a substitute for legitimate suffering. In other words, denial of our pain is counterproductive and even destructive. If we are not ready to accept our legitimate suffering, then we will express it in unhealthy and dysfunctional ways. However, acknowledging our sadness and expressing it heals our hurt, helps turn our pain into a source of motivation, and empowers us to feel joy with even greater sensitivity.
To be fully alive means to open ourselves up to the spectrum of life’s experiences and to embrace the dance of pain and pleasure, joy and sadness, laughter and tears.
The secret is not to be happy but to be whole. Wholeness, however, is actually the true path to real happiness, because when you are whole, you experience an inner happiness even in times of sadness. You take pleasure in your ability to feel pain. You embrace and celebrate the totality of your humanness. But to be whole, you must be willing to immerse yourself in the complete drama of being alive and human.
Therefore, even as I struggle to share Jewish pain with my children, I feel a strange joy in it. It gives me a deep sense of peace to share with my children this battle, this restlessness that Jews feel, because this is truly the path to wholeness and experiencing the fullness of life.