SOW WITH SADNESS, REAP WITH JOY
“You sulked in your tents and said, it is because the Lord hates us that He brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to wipe us out.” (Deuteronomy 1:27)
This week we begin reading the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. Moses recounts the history and the laws to the new generation about to enter the land. This week in particular Moses recalls the story of the spies who had travelled through the Promised Land some forty years earlier. Ten of the spies brought back an evil report about the land, setting the people weeping and longing to return to Egypt. The Midrash takes off on this idea. God says to the people, “You weep on this day for no reason. I will give you a reason to weep. In the future this will become a day of sadness.” (Taanit 29a)
This day of weeping was the ninth of Av, Tisha B’Av, which begins Saturday night. This portion is read every on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av is a full fast day, commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem and numerous other tragic events in Jewish history. It has become the Jewish national day of mourning. And yet, despite the sadness, Tisha B’Av points forward with signs of hope.
On Tisha B’Av in the evening, we sit on the floor and in a mournful tune, chant the book of Lamentations. Traditionally ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah, it is a description of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its inhabitants. Nonetheless, at the very end of the chanting, a verse from earlier in the book is repeated. “Turn us unto You O Lord, and we will turn; Renew our days as of old” (Lamentations 5:21). This verse is also chanted in synagogue every time we return the Torah to the ark. We chant it at the end in order to finish the reading on an upbeat note.
This practice is not unusual in Jewish tradition. It is forbidden to end the reading of a portion of Torah, a haftarah (a portion of the Prophets), or one of the megillot such as Lamentations on a negative note. No matter how sad or depressing the reading may be, it must end with optimism. If the world appears sad for the moment, the future will be brighter. Sadness always contains the seeds of future happiness. Or to quote the book of Psalms, “They who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” (Psalms 126:5)
As a rabbi, I am frequently asked why awful things happen to people. Sometimes the best response is not to answer but just give them a hug. But when I do try to answer, I often share the thoughts of Christian theologian and philosopher John Harwood Hick. He claimed that evil serves a divine purpose. He used the phrase soul-building. It forces us to work to make ourselves better, and in so doing, make the world better. In other words, out of sadness we can create goodness. This is very similar to the kabbalistic idea that we can reach into the heart of darkness to uncover holy sparks of light. Sadness has the potential to become joy.
On Tisha B’Av this idea is symbolized by an old but beautiful Rabbinic teaching. The Rabbis taught that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av. The saddest day of the Jewish calendar will mark the birthday of the one who will bring deliverance and joy to the world. Obviously this teaching is not to be taken literally. But it is a profound insight. Suffering contains within itself the seeds of joy. Tisha B’Av, our most tragic day, can become an opportunity to find ways to heal the world. It is the beginning of a bright future. This glorious future is reflected in Jewish liturgy, where following Tisha B’Av we read prophecies of comfort for seven weeks.
Sometimes when we are living in the heart of despair, it is hard to believe that there is any hope for a bright future. Darkness envelops us. That is the reason we learn at this season that even the blackness of despair can contain seeds of hope and joy for the future.