Rejoicing in the midst of sadness

By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Devarim

There are days, weeks and months in the Jewish calendar that are reserved for certain emotions, where a distinctly spiritual flavor fills the air, coupled with specific actions or rituals to tangibly reinforce the significance.

One of the most visible signs at Jewish celebrations is the majestic overflowing cup of wine, over which short scriptural phrases are said to sanctify the day. In the weekly cycle, after sunset, the holiest day of Shabbat is welcomed with the well-known mitzvah of Kiddush. The following nightfall, the metaphorical bride is escorted out with Havdallah — a short ceremony to signify different gradations of sanctity within time, making a bridge into the ordinary weekday. Here too, wine is used (along with spices and a braided candle). For, as the sages explain, wine gladdens the heart.

Collective sadness

The current calendar period, known as the “Nine Days,” is a particularly dark time of year. It is a time of collective mourning for the Jewish people, culminating in the fast that commemorates the tragedies on the ninth of Av, the date on which both Temples in Jerusalem fell. During these days, we recall the bitter bloodshed and suffering that resulted in exile, as the Jewish people were scattered around the world, and a sense of being “in the straits” pervades our consciousness and customs.

One of these instituted signs of mourning is refraining from drinking wine — except on Shabbat. On Shabbat, a day removed from the ordinary, we are mentally transported beyond all burdens. Joy must prevail. But what about at the conclusion of the first Shabbat of the Nine Days? Do we make Havdallah on wine? On the one hand, the spiritual light of the day still lingers. On the other hand, it’s technically the beginning of a new week.

Here, there is a general difference of perspectives between the leaders of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewry. The Torah scholars within the latter group make no distinction and drink the wine of Havdallah, as usual. It would be the same as any other special event, like a bris, where drinking wine is permissible during this period.

The Ashkenazi authorities, however, have a more complex take: Due to the laws of mourning, the best solution is simply to find an older child, but who is not yet bar mitzvah, to stand next to the adult making the blessing and let the child drink a mouthful of wine (or grape juice) at the conclusion of the ceremony.

This way, the departure of Shabbat is given its usual honor — with a blessing — yet the adult doesn’t end up partaking of wine during the Nine Days. (It’s like the blessing over the wine; an added layer to the essential Havdallah is said on behalf of the child, who then completes the action of drinking.) From a more psychological angle on the law, perhaps the mournful mood is powerful enough to override the standard practice.

Either way, both views have certain wisdom and logic — within the system of Jewish law — and the actual practice depends on the traditions of one’s community.

The global view

On a deeper and more general level, we see that even a time of grieving is multifaceted in the approach we must take. There are times when we must consciously fight to leave negative feelings behind and reserved moments to embrace painful memories, instead of burying them. In this sense, there are also opportunities to rectify the past (the approach of tikkun).

When it comes to this week, who doesn’t dread the dark and gloomy “Nine Days” of Av and the fast of Tisha B’Av with all the lamentations? It is the heaviest, hardest day of the year. But the Lubavitcher Rebbe offered a higher perspective and profound insight: These days are especially ripe to rebuild the spiritual Bet Hamikdash (the Third Temple in Jerusalem).

More specifically, we must hear the inner call to combat the historical atmosphere by increasing our daily Torah study, learning about the laws and setup of the historical Temple and giving tzedakah (charity) — things that bring joy to the soul.

As it concerns our social life, the Talmud teaches that one of the main spiritual causes for the destruction of the Temples and resulting exile was internal strife — sinat chinam (“free” hatred among the Jewish people, resentment of another without sufficient reason). Therefore, during this time there is an extra emphasis on repair involving more unconditional love, fulfilling the mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael (love for one’s fellow) with more focus. Just as animosity may often be irrational and immature, we can cultivate a love that is free of calculations.

This all-encompassing mitzvah dealing with human relationships — the basis for the entire Torah — has many layers. On a simple level, there is an essential bond that stems from a shared history, experience or identity. At the same time, there must also be an effort to recognize and appreciate the unique assets of each individual character. And, at some point in our development and interactions, we must progress psychologically from wanting to be liked or accepted by people to focusing on having a pure connection, even with strangers — and not caring about the rest.

The seemingly radical idea of wanting someone to be in your orbit, and you in theirs, simply because you love them, is unexpected but welcomed. It is also important to teach our children this distinction (between seeking validation or personal gain and connection), the ongoing choice in this area of life and how it comprises an important feature of ahavat Yisrael.

A special year

This year, the fast day — which coincides with Shabbat — is pushed off until Sunday because nothing can override the spirit of the Shabbat day. Furthermore, we must rejoice even more than usual, to remove any trace of melancholy. The mystical writings further explain that Shabbat is a foretaste of the World to Come. The future redemption and return to Israel will be so complete in its promises that it will wipe away all traces of the exiled past.

So, on this coming Shabbat day there is no place for any sadness or bitter memories.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit

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