The Gift of Pain

Tisha B’av (Fast of the Ninth of the Month of Av), 2013 was the day I started this blog. I remember it. I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom, bawling, writing what would become my first post on this blog, the words swimming in an out of focus through the tears. I had a lot to mourn for last year. I was just coming to terms with some things about my past that I’d recently discovered, my best friend, the person I love most in this world, was raped on her birthday, and, overall, the enormity of suffering in this world was just hitting me particularly hard. I was almost looking forward to Tisha B’av last year; I was looking forward to the crying, the catharsis. I was looking forward to screaming at God for the evil allowed in this world. The words of Eicha (Lamentations) still felt fresh on my lips:

The Lord has become like an enemy; He has destroyed Israel; He has destroyed all its palaces, laid in ruins its strongholds, and He increased in the daughter of Judah, pain and wailing.

I was exposed to suffering I’d never experienced up close before. I’d read about how people suffer, but I’d never seen it firsthand. I’d never actually heard someone say the words “I was raped last night” before. I’d never felt the rage, the all-consuming bloodlust, the powerlessness, the simultaneous desire to hold the person I love most close while we both watch the world burn for its crimes. I’d never seen the effects of domestic violence, the terror and confusion in the eyes of a wife at once petrified but still protective of her husband. I’d never been the person to whom other people turned when life violently flung them out of their element. It was all new to me. So raw. So abhorrent and aberrant. It was so far outside of the standard deviation of my life, and it needed to go somewhere. Tisha B’av couldn’t come too soon last year.

When I was finished writing, I knew I had written something special—something that should be shared. It felt like an opportunity for a new beginning, to do something that could actually make a difference.

It’s a year later, and I’m sorry to say that it’s no longer raw, no longer unusual—it no longer has that effect on me. These issues are common, almost foregone conclusions. While hearing people’s stories of abuse and hardship used to throw me for hours, sometimes days, rendering me incapable of functioning properly, it has become, in this past year, just another day in the life. I used to cry when I heard about terrorist attacks in Israel; now I keep scrolling down my news feed and laugh at something funny from 9gag. Every once in a while something comes along which arrests my attention and violently awakens my empathy, but those instances are becoming fewer and farther between.

Last year I wrote that I was mourning for the conscience that died in those who made us suffer. I cried as I wrote those words. I meant them with all my soul. I don’t feel that way anymore, and honestly it scares me. I sat on my floor this year and read Eicha just as I did last year, and I found myself counting pages until I could go back to checking Facebook. The things I had cried for last year didn’t even register this year. That scared me. It almost made me cry. Almost. And that scares me even more. I feel myself beginning not to care. Tonight I mourn the empathy inside of me that I feel slowly ebbing away with each passing tragedy.

There is what to be said for becoming jaded. We have to cope somehow. Holding on to every ounce of grief is unhealthy. We need to forget, let go, move on, and stop caring. We need that to live. By the same token, however, we can’t afford to entirely lose the pain we feel when we see a fellow human being suffer. Tonight I pray that God grant me the strength to live with the pain, the fortitude to accept it without giving up, the ability to process and let go of the excess, and gift of always being able to feel it.


The Gift of Tears

‘For these things I weep; mine eye, mine eye runneth down with water; because the comforter is far from me, even he that should refresh my soul; my children are desolate, because the enemy hath prevailed.’

I couldn’t say those words. I was sitting in my room, alone, reading Eicha, and I could not say those words. Every time I tried, I choked up. I was remembering all those years I cried alone, as I was crying last night, and there was no one there to comfort me. I remembered the stories of what happened to my friends, how I felt hearing them, how powerless I was to make the people I loved feel safe. I remembered the phone call I got a few months ago from someone I love more than anyone or anything in this world, telling me about how she had been raped the previous night. I remember crying with her, beating the walls because I couldn’t beat her rapist.

I remembered my grandfather and the stories he told about being in the concentration camp at 19 years old. The atrocities he described, the bravery that people exhibited when the world lost its humanity, the lengths to which people went to preserve their faith, and the horrifying barbarity to which the world succumbed. But also the despair following the Holocaust; how so many people, the remnants of a world torn apart, had lost sight of a god who couldn’t possibly have existed and allowed such atrocity. True, we’ve rebuilt both spiritually and physically, but we lost a part of ourselves in the Holocaust.

Who ever cries about anything; when is it ever acceptable? Every morning, I put on my happy face and go about my business. I don’t let people see underneath because it would scare them and depress them. Most people are like that, really, hiding the part of them that isn’t happy, either because they know people don’t want to see it, or because it betrays a weakness that they don’t feel they can afford. Twice a year it becomes acceptable to cry, to remove the mask and show what’s underneath. On Yom Kippur we cry for forgiveness, and on Tisha B’av we cry in mourning for the losses we’ve suffered.

People dread both days because of their sepulchral nature (albeit for different reasons), but in truth both are a gift of sorts. We all do things we feel guilty about, but since guilt is generally at odds with our constant pursuit of success, we push guilt aside, or justify our actions to make them easier to live with. Yom Kippur is the one day a year when we can bare our souls to ourselves and our God, face our demons, and beg forgiveness, without worrying about what others may think or how it may adversely affect our lives, because everyone else is similarly confessing their own sins and iniquities. Thus, instead of causing divisiveness, this communal confession actually becomes a bonding moment between a “nation of sinners,” thereby bringing us closer to each other, and God.

Tisha B’av, too, allows us a day to express publicly what we keep hidden in the innermost recesses of our hearts. Crying is an intensely intimate experience, not just for oneself, but for everyone else around you. It’s something most people never let themselves see, let alone other people, but one day a year, we all sit on the floor, mourning, crying together over the losses we’ve experienced, both personally and as a nation. It raises us together to a different level, a level that that is equal and free of class, or caste, or position. We all sit on the floor and show our deepest vulnerabilities. On both days we are united by tears.

Yom Kippur and Tisha B’av are gifts that, while they may start of as an imposition, end as uplifting and unifying experiences because they force us to embrace the gift of tears.