The Talmud tells us that when the Hebrew month of Av comes we reduce our joy. It’s the month of destruction and exile and is meant to be more somber and reflective than the rest of the year. It’s a month to consider our losses and to ache with the pain of the depths to which we have fallen.
The language of the Talmud is puzzling. Instead of telling us to increase our sadness, the Talmud says we should reduce our joy. Shouldn’t the emphasis be on our sadness?
After all, Av is a month that is replete with pain and misfortune for the Jewish people. From the sin of the golden calf through the destruction of both Temples, the long subsequent exiles, the expulsion from Spain, the beginning of World War I, so many terrible things in Jewish history happened in the month of Av. In fact, we enter into a period of deep mourning during the nine days preceding Tisha B’Av where we are prohibited from eating meat, from cutting our hair or nails, from washing our clothes, from listening to music. It would seem that we should perpetuate this mourning by increasing in sadness within all of our lives. When the month of Av comes Jews should walk around feeling sad. Right?
Because a Jew is not sad. A Jew is happy. A Jew is happy to have been chosen, happy to be God’s most beloved child, happy to have the opportunity to glorify Him and spread His message in this world. In fact, it is a great mitzvah to be happy. So how do we reconcile that happiness with the sadness of the Temple’s destruction and the pain of our long and difficult exile? How do we feel happy in Av? In other words, how do we take pleasure in what we once had when we have lost it all?
Our sadness at how far we have fallen shows us how exalted we once were.
Yes, we are sad because we are in exile. We are sad because we have lost our Temple and with it our warm and obvious connection to God. We are sad because we were uplifted and now we are downtrodden. We are sad because we are exiled and we have not been redeemed. All of this is true.
But it is also true that we had a Temple, that we were chosen and that we are still His precious children. It is also true that we have the means, the desire and the hope of bringing ourselves back to Him. Once we were close to the King and now we are far from Him, but we are still his servants and He is still our King!
Our sadness at how far we have fallen only shows us how exalted we once were. And while it is terrible to find yourself deep in a dark pit, struggling to reach the light, if you have been aboveground and you have seen the light then you know the way out. You are motivated to keep struggling because you know what you struggle for.
And so we are happy because God chose us, and sad because we disappointed Him. We are happy because we have His precious Torah, and sad because we do not always have the strength to live by it. We are happy because the Temple and the closeness to God are ours to have again and sad because we have not yet managed to get them back.
It’s the two truths in our pockets; that we are dust and ashes, but also that the whole world was created in our merit. It’s the pain of the knowledge that we are transgressors and the joy of the relief that we can repent and be forgiven.
In the terrible, wonderful paradox of the Jew in exile, we are permanently, gratefully, happy. And temporarily, terribly sad.