It's so simple to be wise.  Just think of something stupid to say, and then don't say it.     Sam Levenson (1911-1980)

Friday, August 5, 2011

Dog Days

"Dog Days" are the hottest, most sultry days of summer...usually fall[ing] between early July and early September... Dog Days can also define a time period or event that is very hot or stagnant...
[In ancient Rome] Dog Days were popularly believed to be an evil time "when the seas boiled, wine turned sour, Quinto raged in anger, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies" according to Brady’s Clavis Calendarium, 1813. (Wikipedia)
These are days of tragedy and grief. Syria is in chaos, as the government ravages its people. Floods continue to pound Southern Africa, while in the East children are dying of draught. The Greek economic crisis threatens all of Europe, and fills its own citizens with despair. Growing unemployment, inconsistent health care coverage and budgetary wars threaten the health, and the homes, of millions of Americans. Our own nation's ongoing anger at inaccessible housing has erupted into demonstrations and tent cities. And this morning I awoke to learn that Y, the sweet, strong and healthy 25-year-old son of friends from my teen years, collapsed yesterday -- inexplicably -- of a heart attack. In a few hours from now he will be buried in a Southern California cemetery.

It must be human nature, that among the unfathomable grief on faceless human beings around the world, one young man's death has hit me so hard.

I haven't seen Y since he was a child, but throughout my teenage years, his parents taught me a formative lesson in true hospitality. Time and geography have led me to lose immediate touch with the family for the past few years, though I've thought of them often. I remember his deep dark eyes, his energy, and his siblings. S, his older sister, is a talented writer while younger sister E was always a bright and energetic spark. Together, they were three of the most beautiful, talented, well-rounded and mature children I have encountered. Now they are only two. They did not have to say goodbye.
* * * * *
A few days ago, I thought I was having a bad week. Our beautiful and affectionate cat, barely out of kittenhood, was cruelly mauled to death in the street by neighborhood dogs, most likely ones owned by irresponsible neighbors. In the fallout, the neighborly high following our family's celebration from last month collapsed like a blown-out mine of precious metals; sadness and anger took its place. Much thought, and a carefully-worded neighborhood email followed, whereby I took our dog-owning neighbors to task -- not by name -- and was rewarded with both words of support, and the inevitable rejoinders of denial.

For a few days, the stressful burden of ill will and mutual suspicion pretty much outstripped the sorrow of losing our lovely little feline. But, I thought, Ahhh, such are The Nine Days. "כפרה עליך" (kaPAra aLAyich) as they say. An atonement for past errors, and a gentle reminder to treasure the good things. Our fate is not in our hands.

Now I imagine the family, waking to a morning with no Y, and another, and another. I picture them gathered together, enveloped by their community, crying out in despair, with shock and disbelief filling every corner of the house.
* * * * *
A few months back I was in class on a minor fast day -- Asara b'Tevet -- and my teacher, a convert to Judaism, remarked,
You know, this religion is so fixed on depression. Why do we need so many fast days? Why can't we be adding more holidays and celebrations instead? It's not good for us...
I imagine he knows a thing or two about depressed peoplehood, having both African- and Native American roots. When I think of two nations with more than their share of calamity and maltreatment, these two come to mind.

Thing is, I was kind of torn. On the one hand, he's right. Why do we insist on indulging in sorrow, guilt and mourning, year after year, four times a year, commemorating events some of which are so historically obsolete as to be almost ridiculous. Why, in fact, should we keep Asara b'Tevet on the books, when it commemorates [the beginning of] the destruction of a Temple -- the First Temple -- that has since been both rebuilt and re-destroyed?!

It is easy, even natural, to side with the thinking that suggests this type of mourning is no longer in step with our national timeline. Maybe such harping on the negative even weakens our collective conscience, at a time when we need to be investing all our emotional energies into increasing our sense of resilience. Can wallowing in our collective sorrow really help us?

On the other hand, we've harbor a tendency to hang on to our traditions, obsolete as they might seem, and for the most part this does us more good than harm.
* * * * *
Either way, Tisha b'Av stands apart from the four minor fasts. We don't just grab one day, midyear, and assign it historical importance, long since superseded by subsequent national events. We enter a process of reverse-mourning, and we give ourselves nearly a month to do it, scraping away, little by little, at our every-day comforts until we come to feel some sense of loss.

And yet, despite all these collective efforts, I know I am not alone in saying that most years, it's a real challenge to really make the loss feel tangible. No Temple? No big deal. We've gone without that for nearly two millennia. As for the victims -- the previous generations who died at the hands of the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans -- they'd all be long gone by now in any event. How can I learn to feel that loss deeply and personally?

We don't fool ourselves either -- as mourning goes, this is not exactly the Real Deal. Unlike individual mourners, physically demarcated and emotionally isolated from their visitors, on Tisha b'Av we all sit together on the floor, reading out Lamentations for all to hear. When Tisha b'Av ends, we don't isolate ourselves, avoiding haircuts and new clothes and parties. We resume our lives, since we have not, in fact, just lost a mother, a child, a brother.

Unless, G-d forbid, we have.

This Tisha b'Av I will continue struggle, as I do every year, to make our ancient national losses feel personal. But this year, I know, this personally-felt loss will echo the national tragedy it truly is.

May the family be comforted among the mourners of Tzion and Jerusalem.

Keep the balance,


See a previous post on prophets & the Three Weeks.

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