The current period on the Jewish calendar is one of remembering sadness, of recalling what was lost to us and the world with the destruction of the Temple and the resultant exile imposed upon the Jewish people. The period of bein hametzarim - the Three Weeks and the Nine Days - that culminates in Tisha Be'av is marked by the absence of any personal or national festivities, by changes in diet and abstaining from major purchases, among other laws and customs. It is therefore a subdued period, one that carries with it a heavy psychological and historical burden.
No one wishes to remember sad events. In fact, part of the genius of the human psyche is to sublimate such memories into our subconscious so as not to interfere with our ability to get on with life and not wallow in sadness and depression over past events and traumas. Forgetfulness is thus seen as a blessing. Moses himself, in his final words to Israel, mentions the blessing of forgetfulness as being one of the gifts of the Creator. Yet, we find that in Jewish life and practice, we are bidden to purposely forgo forgetfulness and remember sad events - indeed, almost to treasure them and appreciate their occurrence and lesson.
The commemoration of the day of the death of a loved one - yahrzeit/azkara - is a sacred custom in Jewish life. The remembrance of the Holocaust as well as of all of the previous terrible massacres of Jews over the ages occupies special days on the Jewish calendar and also special prayers and commemorations. So, why are we are so hung up on remembering sadness?
The answer lies in the Jewish understanding of life itself. A life that knows no sadness or disappointment is pretty much an impossibility. The great rabbis, when visiting Rabban Gamliel of Yavne who was mourning the loss of a loved one, remarked that they felt sadly relieved at the event. "Until now he apparently suffered no reverses in life, so perhaps his entire reward for his good deeds would be paid to him in this world. Now, seeing his current sadness, we appreciate that the true payment for his goodness and piety is truly reserved for the eternal world to come."
Life automatically brings with it moments of sadness and tragedy. In fact, the ability to cope with such sadness and difficulty becomes the true test of a person and a nation. The Jewish people, annealed in the fires of unspeakable tragedies, has always risen to greatness. Its achievements in every generation and location can only be truly appreciated against the backdrop of the tragedy and sadness that has always preceded them. If we forget the sadness, there is no way to truly measure and appreciate the joy and attainment.
We should be able to appreciate the restoration of millions of Jews to the Land of Israel only if the exile and its harsh memories are real to us and still in our memory bank. The fact that there are so many Jews that do not appreciate the fact of Israel's rebirth is due to the loss of the memory of sadness within them and much of Jewish society. The Holocaust deniers are the greatest Israel haters. There is a definite correlation between these two hateful processes.
The period of the memory of sadness that we are now experiencing serve as a prelude to the High Holy Days and the joy of Succot that are already in the wings. Our survival of sadness and our resilience in being able to deal with it serves to strengthen us for the great days of Tishrei that are only a few short weeks away.
Remembering losses and defeats enables us to forge victories and gains. I have often thought that this is part of the reason behind the Ashkenazic custom of naming children after departed loved ones. The remembrance of those who are no longer here but whose lives and hopes will yet be carried on by their descendants creates a bittersweet joy. It vindicates the past, while pointing us to the future. So remembering sadness is not such a negative thing after all, for it alone helps shape our lives, dreams and aspirations. And this is the greatest antidote to depression and a permanent state of sadness.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator. www.rabbiwein.com