Joy in the Midst of Mourning

“To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)


“A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.” (Ecclesiastes 3:4)


 Dear Friends,


We are in the midst of the “Nine Days” – the last and most intense stage of the three-week mourning period for the loss of our Holy Temple and for the ongoing exile – both physical and spiritual – which now prevents us from experiencing the true wholeness and complete joy which is our ultimate destiny. The Nine Days began at the beginning of the month of Av and this period concludes with the Fast of the Ninth of Av, known in Hebrew as “Tisha B’Av.” This year, Tisha B’Av begins on Monday evening, July 23rd.

The Talmud states, “When the month of Av enters, we reduce joy” (Taanis 26b). The Talmud does not call upon us to “eliminate” joy; it calls upon us to “reduce” joy. The wording of this statement serves as a reminder that even during this intense period of mourning over our physical and spiritual exile, we do not lose our connection to our inner wellsprings of joy. In fact, Jewish tradition calls this month “Menachem Av,” which literally means “the Comforting Av”; moreover, during the seven weeks following Tisha B’Av, we chant on each Shabbos comforting portions from the Book of Isaiah regarding the future redemption and renewal of Israel and the world.

Yes, we mourn our loss, but we do not despair during this period, for we have a Divine promise that the days of fasting and mourning will be transformed into days of joy, as it is written:


“Thus said Hashem, God of the hosts of creation: The fast of the fourth (month), the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth will be to the House of Judah for joy and for gladness and for happy festivals” (Zechariah 8:19).


Av is the fifth month in our calendar; thus, the above reference to “the fast of the fifth” is referring to the Fast of Tisha B’Av. It will become a day “for joy and for gladness.” And it will also become a festival.


Regarding the service of the Compassionate One, King David wrote, “Serve Hashem with joy, come before Him with joyous song” (Psalm 100:2). The most joyous service for Israel was the pilgrimage to the Temple on Passover, Shavuos, and Succos. The joy that each person experienced during these three pilgrimage festivals is expressed in the following statement in the Book of Psalms:


“I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the House of Hashem!’ ” (Psalm 122:1).


Within the House of the Compassionate One was the Holy of Holies, and within the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant with the Tablets of the Covenant, as well as the Torah scroll transcribed by Moshe Rebbeinu – Moses, our Teacher. The Holy Temple is therefore the “Sanctuary of the Torah”; thus, when all the diverse tribes of Israel made the joyous pilgrimage to Jerusalem, they were renewing their bond with the Torah – the Divine Teaching that unified all of them. The unity that the tribes experienced during the pilgrimage festivals greatly enhanced the joy of these festivals.

The climax of this joy was experienced during the concluding pilgrimage of the Festival of Succos, which also celebrates the final fall harvest. Regarding Succos, the Torah states:

”You shall rejoice on your Festival – you, your son, your daughter, your male servant, your maidservant, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow who are in your gates. A seven-day period shall you celebrate to Hashem, your God, in the place that Hashem, your God, will choose; for Hashem will have blessed you in all your produce and in all your handiwork, and you shall remain only joyful.” (Deuteronomy 16:14,15).

At the beginning of the above passage, the Torah states, “You shall rejoice on your Festival,” and at the conclusion of the passage, it states that “you shall remain only joyful.” Why does the passage conclude with an extra emphasis on joy? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that in the beginning of the passage, the Torah is referring to the joy that we are to experience during the seven days of the Festival. At the end of the passage, when the Torah states, “you shall remain only joyful, it is referring to a state of happiness that is to remain with us and become a permanent part of our nature. With these concluding words, explains Rabbi Hirsch, we are given a mandate to remain joyous “beyond” the Festival, even in conditions which would tend to disturb our joy. This joy is to accompany us throughout the whole of life, with all its troubles and challenges.

We acquire this permanent state of joy, adds Rabbi Hirsch, through the pilgrimage to the Temple – the Sanctuary of the Torah – a pilgrimage which enables us to renew the Covenant with the Torah. The spiritual strength and renewal that we gain from this joyous pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Torah enables us to maintain our sense of joy throughout the year.

One of the major reasons why we mourn the loss of our Temple is because we are no longer able to have the uplifting and unifying experience of the pilgrimage to the Temple which helped us to remain joyful throughout the entire year. Although we now lack that unique experience, we still have the Divine call to be joyous throughout the whole of life; thus, even during the mourning period of the Nine Days, we are to remain connected to our wellsprings of joy. After all, the Temple may be temporarily gone, but the Torah is still with us!
May we be blessed with Shabbat Shalom.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen


Related Teachings:


1. Many of us have heard the following teaching of the great Chassidic sage, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: “It is a great mitzvah to always be joyous.” This teaching is also sung to a lively melody. Rabbi Yehudah Levi, also known to some of you as Dr. Leo Levi, suggested that a biblical source for the mitzvah to always be joyous can be found in the above teaching of Rabbi Hirsch where he states that the Divine statement, “you shall remain only joyful” is a mandate to remain joyous throughout the year.


2. In the heart of the Temple was the Ark of the Covenant which contained the Tablets of the Covenant and the Torah scroll which Moshe placed within the Ark. As the classical biblical commentator, Rashi, explains, the Talmud (Baba Basra 14a-b) cites two views regarding the exact location of the Torah scroll within the Sanctuary (commentary on Deuteronomy 31:26).   According to one view, there was a board protruding from the Ark, and it was there that the Torah scroll was placed. According to the other view, the Torah scroll was placed besides the tablets inside the Ark (next to the interior wall of the Ark.)


3. The idea that the Temple is the “Sanctuary of the Torah” is expressed in the writings and biblical commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, including the commentary cited above.


4. There is another reason why the Temple was the center of Torah. The Supreme Court of Israel, composed of the leading Torah sages, was located in the courtyard of the Temple, in “The Chamber of Hewn Stone.” A reference to the role of these judges appears in the following biblical passage which describes the pilgrimage of the tribes to the Temple:


“For there the tribes ascended, the tribes of God, a testimony for Israel… For there sat thrones of judgement (Psalm 122:3-5)


“For there sat thrones of judgement” – Two noted biblical commentators, the Metzudas Dovid and the Malbim, explain that this is a reference to the seats of the judges on the Supreme Court, which later became known as the Sanhedrin.


5. Torah is a source of joy, as King David proclaimed to Hashem regarding his Torah study, “I rejoice over Your word!” (Psalm 119:162). This is why on Tisha B’Av – a day of serious mourning – we limit our Torah study to sober themes of the day, including the destruction of the First and Second Temples, as well as other tragic events which took place on Tisha B’Av. Other appropriate themes are the causes of our exile, the suffering of our exile, and the process of “teshuvah” – return and renewal – which can hasten the arrival of the messianic age of comfort and redemption.


We plan to send out an appropriate letter on Tisha B’Av. If by next week, the Messiah has not yet arrived, and it is still a fast day, then the message will be in the spirit of the fast day; however, if the Messiah will have arrived, this fast day will be transformed into a day of joy, and the message will be in the spirit of the new festival of Tisha B’Av. Either way, with the help of Hashem, Torah will go forth from Jerusalem to all our brethren and friends. As King David prayed regarding Jerusalem:


“For the sake of my brethren and my friends, I shall speak of shalom in your midst. For the sake of the House of Hashem, our God, I shall request good for you.” (Psalm 122:8,9)

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