I saw two very different rituals today relating to the same human experience. I saw two different ways of responding to loss and grief. I'll describe them and let you decide which is best for you.
The first was a funeral for the non-Jewish relative of a congregant. The minister emphasized that we were "celebrating the life" of the deceased. There were references to our happiness that he had gone to a "better place." The minister even told a joke during the service that had the mourners laughing heartily.
I think I understand the approach that the minister was taking in leading the funeral. I think I understand how it is comforting to help people put their grief aside and remember that the only reason why losing someone is so painful is because of love. By celebrating the life of a loved one, we remember why the loss hurts and we remember that death does not end the joy we feel in recalling the person's life and gifts. It is an approach that I understand, but it is one also that I reject.
Tisha B'Av is not a funeral, but the way we mark this darkest day says something about the Jewish attitude toward grief. As the rabbis teach, "At a time of joy be joyous. At a time of mourning, mourn" (Genesis Rabbah 27:7). Judaism does not try to allay grief with talk of celebration and God's glorious heaven. Grief is real and it hurts. Explaining it does not make it hurt any less and it does not, in the end, help people to "get over it." Jewish tradition says that we need to look squarely into the abyss of grief and acknowledge its reality. We do not turn away from our pain.
Today is Tisha B'Av. It is a day for confronting our grief for the broken state of the world. This world is in such pain that it must require at least one day of putting aside the happy talk of love, joy and redemption. This world deserves at least one day for us to cry, fast, mourn and deeply feel our sorrow, without sentimental palliatives, without the cover-up of false joy, and without jokes.
If we spend one day of the year really feeling just how bad the world can get, and just how awful human beings can treat each other, maybe we will spend the other 364 days working harder to fix it. Maybe we will spend more of our lives working to create true joy, instead of pretending that we are laughing while our hearts are crying.
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