Sometimes we have to cry in order to feel sad.
It has been noted that the laws of national mourning for the Beis HaMikdash are patterned after the personal aveilus that one observes for the loss of a relative (lo aleinu). The restrictions of The Three Weeks are the same that a mourner observes during the 12 months after losing a parent: no haircuts, music, or weddings. Beginning with The Nine Days, we take on the national version of Shloshim: no laundry, cutting nails, or bathing. Lastly, the mourning of Tish’ah B’Av itself has the status of Shiv’ah: no leather shoes, Torah study, or sitting on chairs.
While the parallels are undeniable, it is intriguing that the trajectories of these periods trend in opposite directions. Personal aveilus begins with the harshest customs (Shiv’ah) and then slowly reduces over time (Shloshim, followed by the 12-month period). By contrast, national mourning progresses in reverse: We begin with the lighter restrictions, and then gradually increase as the summer continues. What is the meaning behind this discrepancy?
Rav Soloveitchik zt”l (Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and the Human Condition) explained that the laws of aveilus are more than a collection of dry rituals; they are overt actions that correlate with inner emotions. The causal relationship between these behaviors and feelings can manifest in one of two directions. The customs of mourning can serve as a way to express the emotional anguish that one is already experiencing inside. Conversely, these halachos can help create these feelings in one who is not yet in touch with the internal turmoil. Put simply, some cry because they feel sad; others cry in order to feel sad.
An individual who has endured the death of a relative (chas v’shalom) is already experiencing an enormous degree of emotional pain – perhaps even questioning if it is possible to continue living. In such a case, halachah validates these overwhelming feelings, and channels them into the most drastic expressions of mourning. During Shiv’ah, everything shuts down for a week as the mourner delves into the sorrow and loss. With time, the goal is for the aveil to reintegrate into everyday life, and so the mourning gradually decreases in severity. As Shiv’ah eases into Shloshim, and then the 12-month period, a mourner discovers that it is possible to recover from a recent tragedy.
By contrast, the loss of the Beis HaMikdash – however well we understand it intellectually – is not something that most of us relate to on an emotional level. In this case, the goal of national mourning is not to express our feelings, but to ignite them. Unlike the aveil, we cannot start with extreme acts of mourning, because we are not yet attuned to the suffering they represent. Therefore, the restrictions begin slowly as the Jewish people try to tap into the millennia-old destruction. With introspection, the goal is for us to reconnect to our collective history, and so the mourning gradually increases in severity. As The Three Weeks intensifies into The Nine Days, and then Tish’ah B’Av, a Jew discovers that it is possible to connect to an ancient tragedy.
With this perspective, we can view the halachos of this period in a meaningful way, as emotional opportunities rather than religious restrictions. In the merit of striving to feel genuine sorrow, may Hashem grant us the opportunity to celebrate the new Beis HaMikdash with true joy.