The Best Nine Days You Ever Had

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I still remember vividly one of the strangest ads I have ever seen.  When I was much younger, a restaurant in my neighborhood was promoting its special menu for the Nine Days, including fish specials, tofu dishes, and veggie burgers.  But it was the final line in the ad, bold and in large letters, that caught my attention: “It will be the best Nine Days you ever had.”      


Best Nine Days you ever had?  That is like saying, “We have an amazing menu planned for you, this will be the best shiva you will ever sit.”  We don’t refrain from meat and wine during the Nine Days as a way to expand our palettes or as motivation to get us to experiment with new recipes.


These Nine Days are dedicated to focusing on our collective mourning and our communal grief for both the tragedies and calamities of our past and for the challenges and suffering that continue in our present.  During these days, we abstain and refrain from things like meat, wine, laundry, music, and haircuts.  But, there is something in particular we should do more of during this time, an area we should increase our attention and focus on: saying hello to one another.


The Talmud (Yerushalmi Taanis, Chapter 1) tells us that on Tisha B’Av we don’t offer greetings, we don’t say hello to others.  The Shulchan Aruch (555:20) records this practice, ein she’eilas shalom l’chaveiro b’Tisha B’Av.  The Aruch HaShulchan suggests a reason for this unusual law.  Tisha B’av isn’t a day of shalom, it isn’t a day for socializing and levity. 


While lightheartedness is inconsistent with the essence of the day, specifically being cold to one another, and making ourselves distant and unfriendly, hardly seems like the antidote to sinas chinam, baseless hatred, the cause of the destruction to begin with. Wouldn’t you think on the day we mark our suffering that resulted from baseless hatred we should explicitly go out of our way to be friendly, greet others, be warm to one another?  


Our prophets tells us that the destruction was caused by the cruelty we showed others.  We criticized, marginalized, judged, and neglected those who needed our help and support.  We made the vulnerable feel invisible, lonely, and outcast.  As a result, yashva badad, Hashem made us feel that way among the nations.


Perhaps the reason we don’t give shalom, we don’t say hello to each other on Tisha B’Av is so that each of us experiences what it feels like to be an outcast, lonely, estranged, and deserted.  By not exchanging greetings, by not saying hello, we learn what it feels like to be badad


If we want to transform Tisha B’Av from a day of mourning in which we are forbidden to greet, to a holiday, we must transform these Nine Days into days in which we are running to say hello, to offer warm greetings to one another, we must rush to make everyone feel and know they belong. 


The Talmud testifies (Berachos 17a) about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai that no one ever preceded him in a greeting of Shalom, even a stranger in the marketplace.” The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (4:20) encourages us all, "Hevei makdim b'shalom kol Adam, be the first to greet each person." The Maharal explains that when you walk past someone without offering a greeting, you make him or her feel invisible and insignificant. By making a point of greeting someone you demonstrate that you don’t see yourself as superior or better than another. Rather, by instigating the greeting, you show that you respect that person as an individual and thereby you give them dignity and worth.


Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s brilliance was undeniable, and yet it was perhaps surpassed only by his humility and sensitivity to all. R’ Chanoch Teller recounts the following anecdote: “When Rav Shlomo Zalman passed away, a beggar in Sha’arei Chesed sobbed in her anguish: “Now who will say ‘good morning’ to me every day?” (Mi yagid li boker tov?)”


Casually reaching out to people in our social circles can mean more than we realize.  New research published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found people tend to underestimate how much friends like hearing from them. An article summarizing the findings says: “Calling, texting or emailing a friend just to say “hello” might seem like an insignificant gesture — a chore, even, that isn’t worth the effort, but it makes a huge difference and means an enormous amount to people.  Researchers concluded that “To be functioning at our best, we need to be in a connected state.  Just like you need to eat, like you need to drink, you need to be connected to be functioning well.”


Someone who moved from another community shared with me that where they are from, on Shabbos people walk right by each other.   In fact, if you say “Good Shabbos,” someone will give you a funny look and ask, “Do we know each other, do I know you, why are you talking to me?”  In that community, smiling and greeting every person you pass is weird, peculiar and makes you stand out.


If we want to bring Moshiach, if we want to repair and redeem this world, we need to create a culture in which it is strange and peculiar to not say hello to everyone we meet.  Wishing "Good Shabbos” to all we pass must become the standard, the default.


There is no time of the year in which more siyums are made than these nine days.  While many love Torah learning, some deliberately pace their learning to allow themselves to celebrate the siyum with meat and wine.  Indeed, there are restaurants today that advertise siyums on the hour so people not even connected to the one making the siyum can attend and “celebrate” with a big steak.


The Baal Shem Tov was a proponent of Nine Days siyums.   He suggested promoting siyums widely and publicly and specifically inviting many others to attend and participate.  But here is the catch.  While he encouraged a daily siyum, he also advocated that no meat be eaten at the meal marking the siyum.  The purpose of the gathering should be simply to say hello to each other, to socialize and greet and to communally bask in the light of Torah learning and Torah living.  Attending such a siyum each night can truly make it the best nine days you ever had.  


On Tisha B’Av we can’t greet, we can’t fix the problem, we sit on the floor and cry about the churban going on around us, and in too many cases, inside us.  We cry and we grieve for the pain, but we must be prepared to get up off the floor and do something about it, to reach out and ensure that nobody is alone.  At the end of Tisha B’av we are allowed to break the fast, but the question is which fast will we break first, our fasting from food or from friends?  Will we reach first for a coffee or our cell phone?  Will we first consume or connect?