Master of Prayer — Tisha b’Av, 5773 / 2013

“Everything that the Merciful One does is good.”[1] That means everything, without exception. Our job is to find that good…and proclaim it. From this perspective complaints with providence expose the chinks in our faith. If we don’t get what we want, then we just need to reprogram ourselves to want what we get. It’s all good, be happy.

But if that were the only truth, then what’s the point of our three long weeks of mourning and semi-depression between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. Our obligation, at this time is to diminish simcha. (משנכנס אב ממעטין בשמחה).[2] The Talmud lists certain behaviors that people naturally do when they are depressed and it requires us to emulate them at this time. The point is to awaken a melancholia inside our souls—a genuine sadness for the great sins and tragic calamities of Jewish history that cluster around this time.

Scientists note that when a person makes a happy face, even when it’s completely fake, his body starts to produce the physiological symptoms of joy. And similarly, when a person frowns their physiology changes in ways that indicate sadness.[3]

And that is the point (and the obligation) of these three weeks…to behave in ways that express sadness—focusing on the losses, lacks and calamities of Jewish history in order to reduce our simcha (a state of mind we try to cultivate at every other time of the year).

It is especially confusing when we consider what simcha really is. The Tanya defines simcha as, “the spontaneous emotion that arises in the heart when a person comes close to their Creator.” The whole point of a spiritual practice is to accomplish exactly that. On the non-physical planes things are close when they are similar and distant when they are different. Consequently, we create closeness to Hashem through deeds that imitate His compassionate ways (i.e., through likeness of action),[4] or by “making His will, our will”[5] (i.e., through likeness of desire), etc. And since likeness produces closeness (devekut), a quiet joy awakens consequently.

But during this mysterious interval—the three weeks preceding Tisha b’Av—our obligation is to go in the opposite direction and decrease simcha. We focus on what is missing, bewail those lacks, and downgrade our devekut. That is what it means to mourn.

The Komarna Rebbe, a master of devekut, suspended his daily practice of yichudim (kabbalistic unifications that produce devekut) in order to mourn his son’s untimely death. These deep meditations produce closeness which produce simcha, which distracts the mind from its loss and the mourning that is its task at hand. Elsewhere he extends this same suspension of yichudim to Tisha B’Av.[6]

Yet the Mishna seems to think otherwise: “In the same way that we bless Hashem for the good, so must we bless Him for the bad.”[7] This seems to prescribe devekut for all contingencies. But the Talmud is also adamant that our “blessings” be honest and real.[8] We (obviously) cannot muster the same gratitude for tragedies that we feel for our mazal tovs. The Talmud thus clarifies that for good news, we declare HaShem’s all-goodness (hatov v’hamaitiv), and for bad news we proclaim that He is a true judge, a formula that conveys both our displeasure and our faith. The Talmud validates both.

It seems that there are two modes of devekut. There is the devekut of yichudim, where we connect with the ever-present goodness of God that lies at the heart of every creature, moment and circumstance 24/7. When tuned into that frequency there is nothing to mourn for “everything that the Merciful One does is good.” One could argue that the barometer of enlightenment reflects our ease of access to this truth.

Theoretically, one could become so enlightened that they transcend mourning altogether. They are so fixated on the good that they no longer feel the pain of loss. Yet the Talmud says No! As long as we have skin-bodies (instead of light-bodies)[9] there is a place inside us—a layer of soul—that suffers from lack, loss, oppression, and disappointment. And if we don’t feel that ache, it is because our head has lost touch with our heart.[10]

And if that occurs we lose the capacity for prayer (called, service of the heart[11]), which is defined, halachicly, as the obligation to cry out to Hashem in a time of need.[12] Prayer is actually a mode of devekut in its own right. And it can accomplish things that its counterpart cannot. Its starting point of lack binds us to the HISHTALMUT/PERFECTING aspect of HaShem—called Shekhina.

In Chassidic writings the Shekhina is identified with the vast pool of longing in the universe (called feminine waters)—all the spaces that can hold more, and yearn to do so, and express that longing through prayer (in the broadest sense of the word).[13,14]

In these three weeks the Talmud insists that we drop into this second frequency of devekut and allow ourselves to drown for a moment in the sorrow of it all—the heartbreak of human suffering, the number of people that wail from misfortune in each moment, the grief of hopes unrealized, the failure in our own lives to live up to our ideals, the rampant desecrations of HaShem that poison our well and sabotage our mission, the tragic state of wildlife and wilder-land on this planet, the strife and causeless hatred that won’t abate…and finally, all that hurts and lacks in our own lives and those around us. It is a scary place to visit for its bottomless pit threatens to swallow us alive.

But the lesson of the three weeks is that the opposite is true. For some mysterious reason it is this channel of devekut that is most potent to catalyze redemption. Mashiach is born (we are told) on Tisha b’Av—the day that we wallow in our sorry state, suspend our yichudim, and beg for relief.

Masters of prayer cannot be afraid of the dark. They must face their deficiencies to articulate prayers that are potent to draw forth lights properly configured to fill their lacks. This is the painful work of Tisha b’Av—the lower yichud—the glass-half-empty-consciousness when we commiserate with the Shekhina around the torments of exile.

Tisha b’Av is a collective meditation and I use that word deliberately, for meditation is defined as a continuous flow of thought on a particular object or point of focus. One chooses a target of attention and returns to it again and again whenever one’s mind strays. The mark of a potent meditation is that it arouses the emotion that is appropriate to its focus. For example, meditation on HaShem’s generosities arouses gratitude. Meditation on God’s greatness arouses awe.

It may sound strange, especially to New Age ears, but on Tisha B’Av millions of Jews throughout the world—the entire Jewish nation—are simultaneously meditating on our failures and their consequences. This meditation is designed to break our pride, in order to, hopefully, clear out enough space for the soul of mashiach to finally squeeze into this world.

כי בי חשק ואפלטהו…ואראהו בישועתי
Because he has yearned for me, I will deliver him…I will show him my salvation.[Psalm 91] ———————
[1]TB Ber. 60b.
[2]TB Taanit 26b
[3]Scientific American, Mind and Brain, Oct 14, 2009, Melinda Wenner, “Smile it could make you happier.”
[4]TB Sota 14a.
[5]Avot 2:4.
[6]Heichal HaBracha, parshat Shalah 103a (on the mekoshesh), As brought in Baal Shem Tov Al HaTorah, Bereshit,Mekor mayim ChayimElsewhere he tells of a calamity that struck a town because a mystic scholar was doing yichudim on Tisha bl’av (nidche) and thereby drawing down chidushei Torah (an inevitable joyful endeavor)]
[7]Mishna, Brochot: chapter 9, mishna 5.
[8]TB Yoma 69b.
[9]In this post Edenic world every sliver of soul is encased in an opaque skin or shell that we call body. But in these six thousand years of Adamic history our job is to refine the physical plane and purify it until, eventually, it acquires a transparency that allows light to pass through. At that point the body will actually reveal the soul instead of conceal it. That is what kabbala means by “light bodies,” and that is how things will be in the post-messianic world.
[10]Presumably, even R. Zusha would mourn properly while in aveilut and on Tisha b’Av.
[11]TB Taanit 2a.
[12]Explicitly, according to Ramban; implicitly according to others. See Sefer HaChinuch, #433.
[13]Baal Shem Tov on the Torah, Pillar of Prayer, #126, #151 (among others).
[14]R. Dessler explains that the “state of lack and desire to fill it” is, by definition, prayer. The question is, do we direct our prayer upward to Hashem, or do we direct it horizontally, to the forces of nature, and process it that way. These are two different types of prayer. Michtav M’Eliyahu, vol 3, p.68.

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