Is the Hebrew Calendar Obsessed With Mourning?

An important lesson lies in the context of all the depressing Jewish holidays.

Lag Ba'omer celebrations at Mount Meron.
AP

We are told that Judaism is a life-affirming religion. The national anthem of Israel is called Hatikvah or “The Hope,” and we even celebrate at our simchas by saying L’chaim!, “to life!” However, if we take a good look at the Hebrew calendar, we might think that Judaism is the exact opposite of life affirming. We are currently counting the Omer, a seven-week period attached with mourning customs.

If we combine these seven weeks with the three weeks between the fast days of the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, which are also traditionally associated with mourning, we find that 10 out of 52 weeks each year have mourning customs attached to them. In other words, almost 20 percent of our year is dedicated to practices that help us recall tragedies of the past. Is Judaism really a life-affirming religion?

As is usual, things are not always as they appear. While on first glance the Hebrew calendar might appear obsessed with tragedy, it is the context of these days of sadness that teach us an important lesson about life.

The Omer is the 49-day period we count between Passover and Shavuot, the former commemorating our liberation from slavery to freedom and the latter celebrating the gift of the Torah to the Jewish people. Passover and Shavuot are two of the most joyous holidays in the entire year, and they serve as bookends to the mourning customs that have become connected to the Omer. Therefore, we can see in this part of the Hebrew calendar a cycle of joy, then sadness, followed by joy again as the year progresses.

But what about The Three Weeks, which come shortly after Shavuot? Those three weeks are bracketed by two fast days, both commemorating great destruction. There does not seem to be a cycle of joy here, only unhappiness. But we know this must not be the case. Each morning in the 147th Psalm we call God “HaRofe Lishvuray Lev," the healer of broken hearts, and we trust that after the tragedy of destruction must come comfort, and then new hope.

It is no different here. After the three weeks conclude with the fast of Tisha B’av, we begin reading a new set of seven haftarot from the Prophet Isaiah known as the Haftarot of Consolation. These readings serve to comfort us. In fact, they take us right up to Rosh Hashanah, which continues this process of evaluation that comes after destruction, and concludes with Yom Kippur, which is called in the Mishna “one of the happiest days of the year.” It is considered to be so joyful because of the clean slate we receive from God at the end of this cycle that begins with destruction, continues with comfort, and concludes with hope for a new beginning.

Even though almost 20 percent of the Hebrew calendar is associated with mourning, we must not focus on that 20 percent. There is another 80 percent of the year to celebrate, dance, sing and experience joy together. Perhaps this is the lesson that our calendar gives us; over the course of a year, we all have difficult and sad moments in our lives. The lesson we learn from our ancient calendar is one of perspective: You can’t have the good without the bad, but you can learn to not dwell on the tough days and to look forward to the good ones.

Rabbi Micah Peltz is a Conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.