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“Good Mourning”

by Gedaliah Gurfein

Thoughts from Jerusalem, August (Av) 2019 – Gedaliah Gurfein

Our Sages teach us that, “Anyone who mourns Jerusalem will be worthy of seeing Jerusalem in its greatness. And anyone who does not mourn, etc.” Why is it necessary to say these both in the positive and the negative? Is this a vow that was made and therefore it follows the required structure of a vow? Or is it telling us that when it comes to our attachment to Jerusalem there is no such thing as sitting on the sidelines. Eldridge Cleaver put it, “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.” King David upped the ante when he said that a person who forgets Jerusalem will forget his very right hand and his tongue will cleave to the roof of his mouth.” But why did the King decree so dramatic a punishment?

The primary period of mourning the loss of Israel/Jerusalem/Temple is commonly referred to as the three weeks that begin with a fast, the 17th of Tammuz, and end with a fast, Tisha B’av (the Ninth of Av). In Chassidic literature these three weeks are actually linked to another three week period that begins with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and concludes after Succot with the holiday of Simchat Torah. The first three week period is the mourning for Jerusalem while the second period is the rejoicing for Jerusalem (as in “Next Year in a rebuilt Jerusalem). So in one way the joy that will be experienced from the second 3- week period is connected to how we mourned during the first three weeks.

Where is the link? The answer is found in the Rambam. When discussing how a person can perform a comprehensive Tshuva (repentance – or rebalancing), he breaks it down into three stages. The first stage is regret, the second is repentance and the third is accepting a new life free from past mistakes.

The month of AV (or the first three weeks) is the period of remorse, regret, mourning, followed by the next month of ELUL which is all about Tshuva, which, in turn, is followed by THISREI which is all about a clean slate and starting anew.

Mourning is not just about loss, but it is really about lost potential – what could still be or what was still left to be done. A person does not mourn over a fully
satisfying experience. Nobody mourns after an amazing meal but they do mourn if they did not have enough to eat. Mourning is also intuitive. A person doesn’t have to be told to say “ouch” when he burns his hand. Maybe this is why the laws of mourning in Judaism are rabbinic. G-d knew that man didn’t need to be
commanded to mourn; he would do it on his own. The rabbis came to realize that man wasn’t always in touch with his intuitive nature and he would try to escape
the mourning period without affording himself the full healing experience that mourning brings. Or perhaps man would be lost in his pain and need guidelines
to hold on to so as not to drown in his mourning and mourn beyond the point of it being helpful, to the point where it becomes destructive, especially when it steals
a person’s future because he is trapped in his past.

The Talmud says that a sigh, better in Yiddish as a kvetch, breaks a person’s spirit. The Talmud tells the story of a man who was travelling with a rabbi who
was moving so fast the man could not keep up with him. He yelled out to the rabbi, “Remember the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.” He had thought the rabbi would give a kvetch breaking his spirit and causing him to slow him down, but it didn’t. The man yelled out to the rabbi, “I thought remembering things you
mourn would cause you to kvetch and slow down?” The rabbi responded that something which happened a long time ago doesn’t generate the same kind of a kvetch.

Now, if in the time of the Talmud the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple was approximately 200 years prior and the rabbi was already calling it a long time ago, then certainly for us today, approximately 2,000 years after the event isn’t this then a very long time? Why are we still mourning? Have we mourned too long, to the point where our future is stolen by our memories of the past?

The answer is that there are two different types of mourning. The classic mourning is the permanent loss of something such as a person’s death and with it the realization of the end. Then there is a mourning over something that is only temporarily lost. Somebody mourns over his broken leg but he also longs for when it will be better again.

The mourning over the loss of the Temple is combined with the secret knowledge that it is only a temporary loss and there will be a third Temple in Jerusalem which will last forever. We find this in the fact that even on the saddest day of the 3 weeks, Tisha B’Av, the day is also called “Moed” which means holiday where certain prayers are omitted, the same prayers which are omitted on regular holidays.

Maybe this shouldn’t be such a secret? Maybe this should guide our behavior on Tish B’av, to focus on the coming joy rather than crying over the past? The answer is that it is only through our realization of what we have done (yes, us, not God) to destroy our lives and our world and our Temple can we fix and amend the situation. The mourning itself will create the joy.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov points out that the spelling of the name of the book we read on Tish B’av, Kinot, uses the same letters that also spell the Hebrew word, Tikon, which means to fix. As he says, “If you realize you are the one who broke it you can become the one who fixes it.”

This may be why the three weeks culminate on Tisha B’av, on the 9th, because the number nine represents the imperfection of all bad/evil. This failure to achieve perfection, symbolized in Jewish thought by the number ten, is precisely the space that has been afforded to us to complete God’s creation. Our coming to grips with the damage we have done makes the very mourning a healing process which leads to our perfection in the second set of three weeks on Yom Kippur which is the 10th of the month.

In the laws of Shabbat if someone breaks something, he has not violated Shabbat because it was a destructive act and Shabbat is about creation. However if he broke a vessel in order to rebuild it better, then even the destructive act becomes a positive act and is viewed as a violation of Shabbat. If a person’s mourning is seen as the beginning of process that will lead to Tshuva (Elul) and then a better life (Thisrei) then even the mourning becomes a positive act of creation.

These three weeks of mourning are a wakeup call, a Good Morning. In Hebrew good morning is Boker Tov. Boker actually comes from the word to investigate, to
analyze and the arrival of light. The beginning of the day brings the light of the morning. It dispels the darkness prior to the day and reveals our fantasies, dreams, nightmares and all of the rest of our mental distortions that pervert a clear perception of what is really real. It’s like being in the dim lit disco with loud music, lots of drinks when suddenly someone throws on the powerful overhead flood lights. In a second everyone is sober, back to reality. The seeming darkness of the three weeks is actually the throwing on of the lights.

The only things we mourn and regret are the things we did wrong. If we wasted our lives, if we misused our talents, if we squandered what was really of value. Nobody regrets the good things he did. On those we rejoice that we succeeded in that which is truly important.

If Jerusalem is the eye of the world then the Temple is the pupil. When the Temple stands, the eye sees what is real. When the eye is shut, then fantasy rules but not forever – only up to the 9th level, one shy of perfection. Mourning over how our eyes have been closed, thinking that we were created in the mirage of God, is the beginning of the very process that leads us to having our eyes wide open on Yom Kippur, the 10th level, when we understand that in fact we are created in the image of God.

On Rosh Hashanah we begin a new year, possibly a new life. God says that life or death are put before us – chose. Adam choose death and death has continued in the world ever since. But we can opt for life and there will be no more death. So much so that even those that have already died will come back to life! On Tisha B’av we take an honest, heart-felt account looking back at the year. Did we really choose life? Did we really grow, heal and become the person we were meant to become with this new year of life we were granted?

This is why we call the month AV, meaning Dad. In our prayers we cry out to God admitting we have no merit, have done no good, but since we are his children
and He is our Father, we ask for undeserved kindness to forgive us. And guess what, He does. This is hinted at by the book ends of the three weeks.
They begin with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz when Moshe broke the First Tablets at Mt. Sinai. What would you imagine God said to Moshe when he did that? Something like, “Are you out of your freaking mind! Are you nuts! Crazy! I just gave you, for the benefit of all mankind, the 10 Commandments and you smash them!!!” Well, actually it was nothing of the sort. God said to Moshe, “Bravo” (or more literally, May your strength the straight.). God endorsed Moshe’s action.

Then if this was a good thing, why do we fast? Because, like we said, sometimes breaking something is the first step towards building. Through their actions with the Golden Calf the nation proved they were not ready for the light contained in the First Tablets. The tablets needed to be replaced with something that would be more appropriate. And although it is a fast day, a day of mourning, there is still a wink from above that it too is good because it was on the 17th and the number 17 in Hebrew is the word good (Tov).

The other bookend of these three weeks, Tisha B’av, was created on the day the spies came back and spoke poorly about the Land of Israel. The Land of Israel for the Jewish people was the macrocosm of what the Garden of Eden was to Adam. Just like Adam could have lived forever in the Garden but forfeited the opportunity and chose death instead, so too the Jewish nation repeated the same mistake and forfeited a chance to bring the whole world back to the Garden blessed with eternal life had they entered the land. And despite this national disaster there is still buried inside this day the belief that this will be the birthday of the Messiah, the man tasked to bring the world to its true destiny.

The Zohar points out that the meaning of Hebrew letters can be understood from the first time they appear in the Torah at the beginning of a particular word. The first time the letter “tet”, which is the number nine, appears in the Torah is at the head of the word Tov (good). The Zohar says that when God was deciding which letter to begin Creation with, the letter Tet presented itself saying it should be the letter chosen since it represents good. But what could be good about nine which represents imperfection? It is the fact that we can partner with God to convert this imperfection to perfection, moving the nine to ten, so to speak, through our spiritual accomplishments on Yom Kippur.

This is the real secret of Tish B’av that, as impossible as it may sound, ultimately
it will be revealed that even our worst nightmares were also for the good. All evil
will vanish because the light of “Good morning” will show that evil was nothing
but hidden good.

This teaches us that no matter how bad our lives may be, as long as we are alive, there is hope. This is why the year does not end with Av but rather with Elul. When we understand the intimacy of our connection with God as our Father, even in a month of mourning like Av, we can then understand that the way to reconnect with God is given over to our hands in the month of Elul. Elul is associated with the quote, “I am to my beloved (God) and my beloved (God) is to me.” Since I made the effort to reach out to God, doing Tshuva during Elul after having awoken during Av, then God will be there for me with the advent of a new year, Rosh Hashanah, to give me a new chance, a new life.

A new life, not just for you and me, but for the whole world, is the creation of a home for God in Jerusalem, where all people of the world, not just Jews or Muslims, will come together to pray to the One God of mankind. This is why King David said that to forget what Jerusalem (and the thus the Temple) really means for everybody, an end to suffering, even an end to death, then such a person has forgotten the purpose of what he or she can do with their hands in the world, symbolized by the right hand, and has no voice to speak of the real reality this world is about, symbolized by the tongue glued to the roof of one’s mouth.
May this be the year when we all convert our Good Mourning into the Good Morning the world awaits and longs for.


  Gedaliah Gurfein is the developer of The People’s Talmud, the world’s first online Talmudic Primer for people with little or background in Talmudic wisdom. He has been a Torah teacher in the US and Israel for over forty years.

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