July 15, 2004
It used to be that when I wanted to throw a party, attend a rock concert, go for a swim or even take a haircut, I stopped myself and thought: Wait. Can I do this? What month is it? Am I allowed to celebrate? Or is it a Jewish mourning period?
Jews have many mourning periods. Each one is unique and has its own special prohibitions. During the seven weeks between the second day of Passover and Shavuot -- when we count down the 49 days of the Omer -- we commemorate the death of Rabbi Akiva's students. For at least 33 of those 49 days we don't listen to music, have weddings or other Jewish life celebrations, cut our hair or even shave our beards (this last one is not a problem for me).
Then there is the current mourning period, "The Three Weeks," between the fast of the 17th of Tammuz and the fast of the Ninth of Av (Tisha B'av, which begins at sundown on July 26), when we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples. During this three-week period -- and especially the last nine days, which this year begin on Sunday night -- the Omer prohibitions primarily apply, plus the proscription against engaging in potentially life-threatening activities, such as swimming, boating and plane trips.
In addition to the aforementioned 10 weeks, we celebrate six fast days, two remembrance days (for Israel's fallen soldiers and for the 6 million Holocaust victims), 10 Days of Awe (between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) and a whole month of solemnity in Elul, the final month of the Hebrew calendar, when we engage in repentance in preparation for Judgment Day.
No wonder why I was always afraid to throw a party. The Jewish calendar is replete with prohibitive periods. Why so much mourning? Are we, the Jewish people, obsessed with sadness?
These are not questions of the nonbeliever. Perhaps it was these questions that actually caused the first rift in my belief. During the Omer, the Three Weeks, the fast days, I began to wonder: Why do we have to mourn, what can I not do, and for whom am I doing this? What is the reason for sadness during what should have been a period of joyful anticipation? The death of Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 students, who lived 1,850 years ago in the Roman-dominated Land of Israel, seemed too distant to commemorate meaningfully for the seven weeks. But maybe that was my failure as a religious Jew: the inability to connect with our disastrous history and to "view yourself as if you yourself left Egypt," as we say on Passover. We also say it about Shavuot -- that every Jew, you and I -- were at Mount Sinai, receiving the Torah.
Jews have old souls. Instead of the "original sin" the Christians carry, we seem to carry the "original sadness." We remember every tragedy, from the slavery in Egypt to the Spanish Inquisition to the pogroms to the Holocaust to the current deaths in the State of Israel.
Even our happy days are tinged with sadness: Purim, when we were saved from Haman's evil decree, is preceded by the Fast of Esther, to commemorate her three days of prayer before King Antiochus. Even at a Jewish wedding -- what is supposed to be the happiest time in a couple's life, the culmination of every parent's dream! -- we break the glass to commemorate the destruction of the Temple. Our historical sadness leaves almost no joyous occasion unscathed. (Maybe the bar mitzvah is unmarked by a sad ceremony, but the out-of-pocket expense alone is enough to kill you.)
Why do Jews mourn so much? Is this what it means to be the Chosen People? I'm sure there are many great thinkers who could answer this question, but their pat apologia can be summed up by a Tevye-like character who answers the question with a question of his own: "So, nu, wouldn't you mourn, too, if you had our history?"
But I wonder. I wonder if we've grown accustomed to sadness, to negativity, to looking at our defeats rather than our victories, to remembering what we don't have (the Messiah, coexistence with our Arab neighbors, the end of anti-Semitism), rather than what we do (our own country, economic prosperity, continual survival)? Are we afraid to celebrate, to rejoice, to enjoy, because we think it will bring about the evil eye and the end?
Have we become so attuned to all the bad things that happened to us, that we can't see the good things that have happened to us, and the bad things that have happened to other peoples? Is it possible to reverse this type of negative thinking, of the expect-the-worst-and-"Look!-I-told-you-so" nature of the Jewish people? Are we forever victims because we are historically trained to believe so?
The creation of the State of Israel marked the first modern turnaround in negative/victim mentality (Jews have had other periods of strength, from the Bar Kochba rebellion, which we celebrate on Lag B'omer, to the Warsaw rebellion in the Holocaust). Israelis shunned the image of the poor defeated Jew and created an image of the strong Jew. American Jews, too, enjoy a success heretofore unknown for the stiff-necked people.
But today, many of us feel threatened. Many Jews resort to the age-old reasoning, "Well, a Jew can never be safe, never count on a foreign power," they say when confronted with a resurgence of anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism. "What do you expect from the non-Jews? We are always persecuted," they say with the sigh of an old soul.
I'd like to think differently. I'd like to think positively. We Jews are doing better than ever. We have a few things going wrong, it's true, but can't we think with our positive hearts, from our position of strength, not of victimhood? Can't we view what's wrong as aberrations, not as fulfilled expectations?
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