By Toby Klein Greenwald
It happened about a decade ago. I lay on the living room couch under the whirring ceiling fan, trying not to think about my dry mouth and the nine-and-a-half hours till the end of the fast. Tishah B’Av is the hardest day of the year for me. On Yom Kippur, at least one sits on a regular chair in synagogue, listening to the evocative sound of the chazan’s voice. But Tishah B’Av is a day of mourning, when you sit on the synagogue floor, back aching, listening to the mournful tones of the Book of Eichah (Lamentations), listening to the story of the grisly deaths of our people and the destruction of our Temples and of the fabric of our national life. The promise of Messiah feels like a distant fantasy.
But I’m a bad faster, so in recent years, I just lie on the couch.
The afternoon hours lighten up a bit, but on Tishah B’Av morning, one can’t even study Torah — only study or read about what relates to the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and similar tragic events in the life of Am Yisrael.
So I picked up the book Witness by renowned photo-journalist Ruth Gruber. It included, among other things, her experiences as a reporter during World War II. I had bought it from her personally earlier that year, when, at the age of 95, she spoke at the Cinematheque in Jerusalem. I thought it would be heavy enough reading, but it began with her escapades in Alaska, and she made me laugh. Maybe I shouldn’t be laughing on Tishah B’Av, I thought.
Finally, it was eleven o’clock. I had heard that a young woman, I’ll call her Tamar, was going to give a talk about the Beit HaMikdash. She had made several visits to the Temple Institute of Jerusalem, which teaches about the Beit HaMikdash and prepares the gold and silver vessels to replace those plundered by the Romans 2,000 years ago, so that when the Messiah comes, we can hit the ground running.
The women filled Tamar’s apartment, solemn but happy to see each other. Tamar’s personal journey had included rebellion against some of her family’s religious norms. So there we were, women in head-coverings and long skirts, sitting around Tamar, with flaring ponytail, in jeans and a cool T-shirt, clear-headed and sweet, teaching us about the Temple in Jerusalem.
She spoke about the gathering of the scattered tribes who came from far away to rejoice at the Temple on the holidays, of the joy on Simchat Torah, of the exquisite garb of the kohanim (priests), of the breathless waiting to see if the High Priest would exit the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur alive.
Partway through her riveting description, she said, “The Temples were destroyed because of corruption and hatred.” She paused. “There are two ways to prepare for the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash—physically, by preparing the vessels, and spiritually, by creating an atmosphere of ahavat Yisrael, love for each other. Look at our community. Look at all the chesed, the acts of charity and kindness, people do that reaches so far beyond our town. Everyone does something — for the hungry, for the sick, for soldiers, for victims of terror.”
Then Tamar suddenly took a different track. “Love your children,” she said. “Love them even if they are not the way you raised them. Embrace them. Hold them close to you. You don’t know what G-d’s plan is.” She spoke passionately about families. I felt the tears welling up in me. I looked to my left and my right and saw friends trying to swallow their tears and not sniffle in public. Had none of us thought to bring a tissue?
Tamar finished her haunting and passionate class, and we hugged her as we left. A friend, whom I’ll call Avigayil, gave me a ride home. Her young married daughter was ill with cancer, and Avigayil spent long days at the hospital and helping with her grandchild. “Stop rejecting our offers of help,” I said. “Let us have a hot meal waiting for you every night. It’s not enough to give. Sometimes you have to let others give to you.” She squeezed my hand.
I walked up the steps, under the hot sun, back into my house, and looked at my watch. Eight hours to go.
The rabbis say that when the Messiah comes, our tears will turn to laughter. I lay back down under the ceiling fan, closed my eyes, and smiled.
Toby Klein Greenwald is the editor of WholeFamily.com, an award-winning director of Raise Your Spirits Theatre, and a recent recipient of an American Jewish Press Association Simon Rockower award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism.