In the Jewish calendar, this is the last of three solemn weeks in preparation for Tisha B’Av, the 9th of the month of Av, which is marked by mourning for the destruction of the first and second Temples (2500 and 2000 years ago, respectively) the expulsion from Spain half a millennium ago, and other tragedies that have occurred on that bloody day.
In the cycle of the year, this period evokes my ambivalence. The tradition warns against excessive mourning, making a fetish of grief. The prescribed mourning periods and practices for the death of a loved one are generous by current secular terms, where everyone expects you to “get over” even the greatest loss in a few weeks. But there is an end to the formal mourning period: 11 months for a parent, 30 days for another loved one, followed by a gradual return to the stream of life.
So I agree with a rabbi friend of mine who said, in response to Tisha B’Av, that two thousand years of mourning are enough. When I gaze back over the history of the Jews, I see that just as the exodus from Egypt—the pain of slavery that led up to it, the plagues, the terrible suffering of even those Egyptians who had no hand in enslaving the Israelites—was in retrospect the necessary act to anchor the saga of liberation that drives our spiritual path, the end of Temple practices—of a powerful priest caste, of animal sacrifice, of an understanding of spiritual power as local to a specific site—was necessary to to open the way for a more complex, humane and encompassing spirituality.
Yet there is something in the air these three weeks that has led me to a kind of mourning for losses that barely cross my mind the rest of the year.
A friend’s child is to be married; another friend reminded me of the death of a beloved pet; the one and only relative with whom I am connected, a first cousin, called last night, and the way I recognized his voice in an instant reminded me of what it is to be known all one’s life, and how seldom I have experienced that.
As I enter the Third Age, my mourning is for the way my life’s path has separated me from so much of what is usual, so much of what gives meaning, to ordinary life. My father died when I was a child, my mother much later—but long before she died, I lost her. Instead of having children, I took myself on a journey animated by compassion for and a sense of responsibility to the whole wide world; I opened my arms, but not to embrace the usual type of family.
If I had the power to go back and change any of it—knowing myself, knowing what I know now—I wouldn’t. I see that loss, even terrible loss, opens a channel to change. I see that my story so far has reflected my essence, that wishing things had been different would be like wishing an apple tree had grown oranges or almonds. But the sadness I feel today is real too: that when my friends busy themselves with aging parents or the joys and tribulations of their children, they swim in the stream of life in way I never can; that there will be no young people to care for me in old age, should I need help; that when I pack up my things for the move I hope will come soon, my choices will be shadowed by questions about how much I want to carry into a new life where there is no one to inherit these possessions, or even clear them away when my husband and I are gone.
I expect to be done mourning soon. Despite the absurd and pervasive social message that a person of my age is at the end of life—despite the deep truth that it is not given to us to know the day of our death—a healthy, lively person such as myself has a rather long life expectancy, and I plan to live every day of it, thumbing my nose at whomever tells me to lie down quietly, to get myself out of the way.
But dimly, dimly, I can see the road not taken and feel the sadness that collects around my heart when I perceive my distance from the things that tie most people to life. In the temple of my life, a strange kind of sacrifice has been performed. The loss is real and irreversible, and I would choose it again if I could go back. Just for today, I mourn, then move on.