This coming Sunday will be Tisha b’Av (the ninth of Av), the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. Jews around the world will sit on the floor in mourning, crying over the Beis HaMikdash which was destroyed many years ago on this day.
We find something somewhat alarming in the texts describing the essence of Tisha b’Av. On the one hand, we have an obligation to mourn. As our Sages have explained, the mourning isn’t merely over the physical building of the Beis HaMikdash which was destroyed, rather we mourn the disconnect which resulted between us and HaShem. We cry because we realize how far away we are from HaShem and how far we’ve strayed from His presence. On the other hand, the Medrash tells us that Tisha b’Av is called a “mo’ed”, a holiday. Yet in Jewish consciousness, holidays were given to represent a connection to HaShem! Their sole purpose is to celebrate the closeness of our eternal relationship with our Creator! This is seemingly a contradiction. How can Tisha b’Av be a day whose essence is the expression of the great distance we feel between us and HaShem while also being a day where we celebrate our closeness with Him?
The previous Slonimer Rebbe of Yerushalayim answered this question with a parable. A father has two children. One child grew up, went to medical school and became a successful doctor. He was able to pay back all of his student debts and was able to build himself a nice house with his newfound income. Being the loyal son that he was, every Friday, before Shabbos, he would call his father to see how the week had went and to wish him a gut Shabbos. The other son wasn’t as fortunate. After getting into some trouble in high school, he found himself in one difficult situation after the other. He grew up, scrimping and saving to pay off his debts, but it never seemed to be enough. He would also call his father every week before Shabbos, but his conversation would look vastly different then his brother’s. Instead of calling and saying, “Hey, Dad, how are you?… How was your week?… Have a gut Shabbos..”, this brother would call his dad and say “Dad, I’m sorry to ask you again. But I need help. I can’t do it by myself. I feel like I’m drowning… please, dad, please help….”
Who do you think the father feels more love towards? Sure, he’s probably much prouder of the first son. But to which son does he think and worry about? Which son occupies his thoughts, and gives him a longing to just be with that son, and make everything all right? To which does he feel closer? To me, it seems obvious that the answer is the second son.
Our relationship with HaShem is oft-times likened to the relationship between a father and a son. On Tisha b’Av, we sit and we cry because we’re so far from HaShem. But that itself brings us closer to Him. At the times where we feel like we just can’t do it anymore, like we can’t function by ourselves without Him – those are the times where HaShem feels closest to us. Just like a father, when the son calls out for help, the father is always there.
That’s the reason why the day is considered both a day of mourning, but also a holiday. Because within our mourning and sadness we come closer to HaShem.
I think the lesson here goes even a step further. When are the times that HaShem is close to us? When we mourn and cry because we’re so far away from Him. The lesson here isn’t just in a theoretical sense. It’s practical as well. How many of us fail to mourn? How many of us come to a day like Tisha b’Av without being able to cry? HaShem wants to be close to us. But how can it be if we’re not even the son who calls up the father to say, “Dad, I need help”. How can it be if we’re the son who neglects to call his father at all? The lesson here isn’t just that HaShem is closest to us in our times of despair, it’s that we need to look to Him within that sadness and use it to draw closer to Him. It means being the son who calls his father and says “please, dad, please help me…”
The first step is to know the father. That’s really what it’s all about. To not be the estranged son who neglects his father’s. Only after that can we use the tools at our disposal to draw closer and closer to Him.