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Acknowledging Suffering – Tisha B’Av

There is a Gemara in Berachos that relates a story involving two sagesRav Yochanan, the unofficial leader of the Jewish People, and RavChanina Ben Dosa, a pious scholar. 

Rav Chanina ben Dosa went to visit RavYochanan and when he arrived he learned that Rav Yochanan’s son had been deathly ill for quite some time. Rav Chanina ben Dosaimmediately placed his head between his knees in prayer and a moment later, the Talmud tells us, Rav Yochanan’s son was healed. 

Rav Yochanan’s wife, obviously overjoyed that her son was healed but was also troubled and she shared her concern with her husband. “I don’t understand,” she said, “you are considered the leader of the Jewish People, yet you’ve been praying all this time for our son to get better and nothing happened. Rav Chanina ben Dosa came and prayed for two minutes and our son was healed. How can that be?” 

Rav Yochanan responded rather cryptically: “I am like a minister of the king and he is like a servant.” 

What does that mean? 

The Kedushas Levi, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev explained that this story speaks to two different personality types. There are those, like Rav Yochanan, who was a minister of the king. What that means is that he saw things from G-d’s perspective. When he saw illness, he knew that there was a reason. When he saw death, he knew it wasn’t the final destination. And then there are those like Chanina ben Dosawho was like a servant to the king. He didn’t have the same access. He wasn’t able to see things from that lofty perspective. When he saw pain, he saw pain. When he saw illness, he saw illness. 

What this story teaches us is that RavYochanan’s more “religious” perspective, the perspective of a believer actually got in the way of his ability to pray. Because it’s only when we see pain and tragedy for what it is, it’s only when our heart breaks, only then can we truly turn to G-d in heartfelt and sincere prayer. As unbelievable as this soundsRav Yochanancouldn’t pray properly for his son because in the back of his mind he believed that there must be a purpose for the illness. Rav Chanina ben Dosaonly focused on the illness and was therefore able to pray from the bottom of his heart. 

What we could take from this story is that these two perspectives are both valid but each have their time and place. There are times to remind ourselves that it could be worse, or better yet, that this may be part of a larger Divine plan. But there are also times when it’s important to face the problems of the world and the problems in our own life and acknowledge the pain that we feel. 

Rav Levi Yitzchak suggests that when we say Tachanun, when we cover our face, we are symbolically blocking out the big picture and we are acknowledging the pain in the world. The pain felt by the many people we drive by on our way to work who are starving and whose lives don’t really have a clear sense of purpose – we think about them. The pain felt by the people we know who are ill or are suffering in one way or another – we think about them. And we also acknowledge the pain we so often ignore – our own pain. 

For a moment every day, we put our head down, we block out the rest of the world and we whisper to G-d and we whisper to ourselves, and we say, I’m hurt, I’m in pain. I may put on a brave face the whole day, but right now for a moment I acknowledge that I’m hurting for one reason or another. 

On Tisha B’av we don’t say Tachanun, but that’s because it’s one long day of Tachanun. While we usually ignore what’s wrong, while we usually focus on what’s right, while we usually take the big-picture, full– of-faith approach, today we sit in the dark, and we allow ourselves to cry and we allow ourselves to yes, even feel self-pity. It’s okay, that’s what Tisha B’av is for. It’s a day that we stop acting so brave and we say, I sometimes feel weakk’moisha b’tzireha

Tomorrow, we will discuss at length how our tradition taught us how to overcome the inevitable tragedies in our lives. But before we grow through suffering, we have to acknowledge it exists. And so while we normally hide our feelings, our sadness, tonight, in the darkness of this room, I invite you to allow yourself to grieve, not only for the terror in Israel, not only for the for the sick children, but for the pain you feel. It is a night of raw emotions. Like the Aron’s cover that is taken off tonight, we too shed our normal stoic appearance and we allow ourselves, as we will read in just a moment, to pour our hearts out like water. Shifchi kamayim libeich.

Our Sages teach us that it is those who cry who will ultimately rejoice. If we spend tonight allowing ourselves to feel pain, pain that can ultimately be traced back to a destroyed temple,symbolizing a world bereft of G-dliness, then we will one day celebrate a world where that pain will be banished forever.

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