How Tisha B’Av Helped Me Heal
Cancer, and a year of chemotherapy, gave me a new perspective on Jewish holidays—starting with Tisha B’Av
After a year of treatment, I could begin planning the next step in my life, but I faced a new hurdle: motion. I had the opportunity to start rebuilding, but no energy to actualize it. To not have to go into a full day of chemotherapy was all I wanted at this point; I couldn’t muster the energy to be productive beyond that. Free from the hospital, I would need another entire year of recuperation before I was strong enough to re-enroll in classes, move out of my parents’ apartment, and re-emerge in an attempt to regain my self. I learned, in that time, that coping, in and of itself, is forward motion, even if just through mindful introspection.
By Tisha B’Av in 2011, two full years after my initial diagnosis, I felt nearly back to full strength, and I went on a trip to Scotland. Spending Tisha B’Av in Edinburgh stood in stark contrast to my Tisha B’Av two summers earlier.
Having forgotten to pack nonleather shoes—as per our custom of mourning—I walked back from shul in my socks after hearing Eicha. It was a little more than an hour walk, but I was more comfortable on Tisha B’Av hiking old cobblestone streets without shoes than I had been on the Tisha B’Av I spent at camp.
Today, at age 24, I have been in remission for two years. I’m entering my last semester of undergraduate studies and preparing for another Tisha B’Av. Marking the destruction of the Temples, we often consider the holiday to commemorate the end of our culture’s peak. According to Jewish tradition, however, Tisha B’Av is also the day when the messiah is born. Within our suffering, and beneath the ruins, there is a flask of pure oil, waiting for us to retrieve it.
Cancer made me feel completely misunderstood and out of place, but it also made me more self-aware. It gave me a new perspective on the world, helping me appreciate simple dialogues with loved ones and strangers. Above all, it was transformative and empowering, giving the knowledge that only an experience like this could impart: to know what it means to be empathetic. This is my story of Tisha B’Av.
The first word for cancer to appear in medical literature, back in the time of Hippocrates around 400 BCE, was karkinos, from the Greek word for crab; it’s a linguistic coincidence, but to me it seems connected to the similar-sounding word kinos, the elegies for Tisha B’Av. Since that hour on my bed at camp three summers ago, I have searched for the notebook where I wrote my own kinos and filled pages with my own pain, but I haven’t found it. Maybe like the old Jewish custom to bury the books of kinos deep in the ground, in the hopes of not needing to use them the following year (with the rebuilding of the Temple), I buried them somewhere deep in my room. What I feared then as my life’s end, like the Temples’ destruction, turned out to require of me the courage to begin again.
One of my kinos did show up, though, one that I’d torn out of that notebook. I found it last year on one of my best friend’s fridges:
As the heart of the Nation beats,
The mind of the People settles to focus.
Time has brought us to the place of Redemption.
The tears have dripped into a pool of blood leaving behind a darkened moon.
So the Nation lifts its legs and rises above,
Perfecting what is theirs
And begins to walk alongside the rising sun –
Day has broken.
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Hiking the Appalachian Trail—once before Tisha B’Av—taught me the essence of observance