Sadness is not a Sin

By Cantor Lorna Wallach

This Saturday night and Sunday we observe Tisha B’Av, the darkest day on the Jewish calendar, commemorating the destruction of the two Holy Temples in Jerusalem and other tragic events in Jewish history. As our national day of mourning, there is an intentional attempt to create a mournful mood.

We read Jeremiah’s Book of Lamentations (Eicha) and a lengthy collection of elegies which vividly describe tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people; we fast; and throughout the day we follow many mourning practices similar to those of Yom Kippur. But the themes of these holidays are very different.

While the focus of Yom Kippur is on repentance and forgiveness, Tisha B’Av as traditionally observed openly longs for a way of religious life that has irrevocably passed and that most of us today would find alien. The Holy Temple, after all, was a place to bring animal sacrifices to G-d.

So how can we reframe the observance of Tisha B’Av to find a message that is relevant to our lives today? When sacrifices could no longer be offered to G-d, we turned to words of prayer instead. An important purpose of prayer is self-reflection and examination and a means to bring us to a closer relationship to G-d. We don’t need to eliminate the mourning in order to make this happen, we just need to look at it differently. Sadness, tragedy and disappointment are a part of life – no one can escape such experiences, but it is how we react to these experiences that we can transform our challenges into opportunities for growth and deepening our connection to G-d and to our community.

There is a chassidic saying that says, “Sadness is not a sin, but its effect on the person is worse than any sin’s.” But chassidic teaching differentiates between two types of sorrow: merirut, a constructive grief, and atzvut, a destructive grief. Perhaps on Tisha B’Av, we can turn our sorrow into a springboard for action to improve ourselves and the world around us rather than losing hope and becoming indifferent.