If you haven’t tried it you can’t say no!

Rabbi Dr. Geoffrey HaberGeorge was sitting on the edge of his bed when I visited. He worked as a machinist all his life and was promoted from apprentice to machinist, to foreman and to floor manager because of his skill, intelligence and willingness to try new things. He shared this with me: “Chaplain,” he said, “When I was just starting out, my foreman came to me and said, ‘I need you to do such-and-such for me. Have you ever done it before?’ And I said, ‘No.’ He then said to me words that became my motto in life: ‘Well, if you haven’t tried it you can’t say no!’”

George said he had no regrets in life because whenever a new challenge came along, he would remember and invoke those words of long ago: “Well, if you haven’t tried it you can’t say no!” George’s willingness to be open, flexible and persevering gave him a resilience that enabled him to face many difficulties in his life with determination, hope and resolution to overcome obstacles in order to experience a brighter day in the end.

So too, do the Jewish People seek brightness at the end of turmoil. Each year around this time, Jews the world over observe a 25-hour fast akin to Yom Kippur called Tisha B’Av. But unlike Yom Kippur which is a white fast, a fast of purity and renewal, Tisha B’Av is a black fast; a fast of catastrophe and martyrdom. Tisha B’Av is the Fast of the Ninth day of the Hebrew calendar month of Av. It is a day of mourning to commemorate the many tragedies that befell the Jewish people, many of which occurred on the ninth of Av. Tisha B’Av primarily memorializes the destruction of the first and second Jerusalem Temples, both of which were destroyed on the ninth of Av (the first by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.; the second by the Romans in 70 C.E.). Although this holiday primarily commemorates the destruction of the Temple, it is appropriate to consider on this day the many other tragedies of the Jewish people, many of which occurred on this same day, most notably the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, from England in 1290 and from France in 1306; World War I began on Tisha B’Av and the Treblinka death camp opened on Tisha B’Av in WWII.

As we remember and commemorate Tisha B’Av, this day that recalls the tragedies that befell the Jewish people, it also teaches us not to say “No!” but instead to persevere with determination, hope and resilience to not only survive but to thrive as a sacred community and as individuals celebrating the gift of our lives. Indeed, there are no ancient Babylonians alive today, nor is there a great Roman Empire. The Spanish Expulsion and the subsequent Spanish Inquisition ruined Spain’s political and economic might, the effects of which are still felt today. While England and France experienced a dark age once bereft of Jews, the Levant—to which Jews fled—experienced enlightenment. And Hitler’s (yimah sh’mo) 1000-year-Reich lasted only six years and while he sought to exterminate us, we are here and he is not.

Resilience is the key to our survival. And the key to our resilience is our Torah which teaches: “Therefore, choose life.” Each time we live by the dictum, “Well, if you haven’t tried it you can’t say no,” we put the Torah’s teaching into action and choose life. That is why we are here and those who sought to destroy us are not.

Wishing all a thoughtful and reflective fast,

Rabbi Dr. Geoffrey Haber
Director, Department of Spiritual Care
Baycrest Health Sciences