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Tisha B’Av & Counter Conditioning: A Message from the Tisha B’Av Lady

If you’ve taken an introductory psychology course, you’ll know all about Pavlov’s dogs and Watson’s studies with Little Albert. Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov initially demonstrated what is known as Classical or Pavlovian Conditioning[1] in the early 20th century. His experiments with dogs involved repeatedly pairing the ringing of a bell with the presentation of food such that eventually the dogs salivated not only in response to the food itself but also to the sound of the bell alone. In America, John Watson later demonstrated that human beings are also susceptible to classical conditioning[2]. In his famous study with Little Albert, Watson’s experimenters presented a baby with neutral stimuli, including a fluffy white lab rat, while also making a frightening, clanging sound of a hammer against a steel pole. This sound scared Little Albert, who began to experience a startle response (fear and crying) when presented with the rat, even in the absence of the sound of the gong. Over time, Albert’s fear spread to things that reminded him of the rat, as well, including Santa masks with fluffy white beards. Watson’s experiments demonstrated that classical conditioning affects people, too, and specifically that fear responses can be triggered by previously innocuous objects.

The theory of classical conditioning has had a far-reaching impact in the field of psychology and psychotherapy. It provides context for how we develop associations between things in our lives, and how feelings generalize from one event or experience to another.

In preparing for Tisha B’Av, I have been thinking a lot about the impact of classical conditioning on our emotional experience of this time of year. Though I no longer spend my summers at camp, I’ve been privileged over the years to become Camp Dina’s unofficial “Tisha B’Av lady,” coming up to camp for the fast, leading the Kumzits after Eicha, giving shiurim, telling stories, and generally making people cry. After enough times pairing my presence with the impending hunger pains and sadness of Tisha B’Av, campers and staff have come to associate me with doom and gloom. Now, when I show up at camp for a Shabbos or just to visit, I expect to be greeted at least once with, “Oh no! Is it a fast day?!”

Though mildly amusing as an anecdote, the notion of this association is actually quite disturbing, not only because I’d rather not be associated with grieving and hunger, but also because this phenomenon has highlighted for me the very real damage wrought by our own conditioned responses. The Mishnah (Taanis 4:6) writes, “mi’shenichnas Av, mi’maatim bisimcha,” when the month of Av comes in, we reduce our joy. Generally, this provides the contextual basis for the Halachos D’Rabanan forbidding certain joyous behaviors during the nine days preceding Tisha B’Av, such as eating meat and drinking wine. In a broader sense, however, the impending grief of Tisha B’Av seems to permeate not only the month of Av but also the weeks preceding it with a heavy sense of sadness.

Each year, as the month of Sivan draws to a close and Rosh Chodesh Tammuz looms, you can feel a shift in the air – and it isn’t just the changing weather. Once the 17th of Tammuz is upon us, everything starts to feel a little bit different. An invisible wall seems to be caving in, a dark cloud looms ever closer, and the three weeks becomes less about not listening to music and more about our associations to this time period. Year after year, we’ve been forced to equate this chunk of time with fear, sadness, and loss. As it approaches, we’re filled with a sense of foreboding, wondering what terrible thing is going to happen this year, G-d forbid. As the nine days draw nearer, we hyper-focus on our dairy/vegan/fish-laden dinner menus to distract us from the very real anxiety and fear building within us. The dread builds to a crescendo as Tisha B’Av approaches, and then, the wave crashes as the day dawns, and we are awash in our grief, drenched in suffering for twenty-five painful hours. We cry and we rage and we bemoan our prolonged exile, we vow to do more, to be different, to band together – and then it’s over.

While it makes sense for us to experience this conditioned fear response when presented with the stimuli of this time of year, we must also ask ourselves: is our conditioning keeping us stuck?

Unfortunately, we’ve become so used to this cycle of fear, dread, and subsequent relief that even though it is highly uncomfortable, we don’t really stop to consider whether there’s any possibility of an alternative ending for our story. We commiserate about the way that the Three Weeks, Nine Days, and Tisha B’Av “take over” our summer. We lament being unable to attend concerts or go swimming on the hottest days of the year. We associate the entire month of July with sadness and grief, and yet we also shrug our shoulders to some degree as if to say, “well, it is what it is.” But does it have to be?

The problematic nature of our conditioning calls to mind another experiment, with another group of canine subjects. In the 1970s, Dr. Martin Seligman, known for his contribution to positive psychology, conducted a study on what he later called learned helplessness[3]. Examining the behavior of 150 dogs, Seligman noted that those dogs who repeatedly received electric shocks while having no means to escape tended to lie down in their cages and did not escape even once they could. Generalizing this behavior to human beings, Seligman concluded that prolonged trauma without a foreseeable way out can cause people to become so discouraged that they simply learn to become helpless and may not escape a harmful or painful situation even when there is a way out because they have given up hope.

Seligman’s theory provides the basis for understanding depression, the impact of trauma on the developing brain, and perhaps also provides some food for thought for us this Tisha B’Av. The dogs, rats, and humans of these experiments did not know what was happening to them; they did not understand that associations were being made, or that conditioning was occurring, or that helplessness and hopelessness was taking root. We, however, do know that we have been conditioned to associate this time of year with sadness and fear, that we have been trapped in our cage of exile receiving shock after shock, painful tragedy following unbearable suffering. And, we know we are standing on redemption’s doorstep. We know, through the words of our prophets, that we are in the Ikvisa Di’Mashicha, the heels of the Messianic era. We don’t quite know when, but we know that we are on the verge of being sprung free from our cage. And it is up to us to be ready to escape, and to not give up hope.

If you have not already, I highly recommend watching the Meaningful Minute video made by R’ Yaakov Klein, R’ Eitiel Goldwicht, and R’ Shlomo Katz for this time of year. Of the many beautiful ideas discussed in the video, the following struck me as particularly poignant and relevant to the above.

R’ Shlomo Katz related a story about his father visiting Har HaBayis with Rav Shlomo Goren, chief Rabbi of the IDF. When approaching Har HaBayis, Rav Goren said to R’ Shlomo Katz’s father, “Shal Naalecha Me’Al Raglecha,” remove your shoes from your feet. A quote from Shemos (3:5), R’ Goren was citing the moment when Moshe approaches the Sneh, and Hakadosh Baruch Hu tells him to remove his shoes, for that place was particularly holy. R’ Katz notes that the word “Naalecha,” referring to “Naalayim,” shoes, has the same root as the word “na’al,” to lock, like in the word Neilah, the last prayer of Yom Kippur when the gates are locked. R’ Shlomo explained that perhaps the lesson of accessing Kedusha, and particularly of approaching Har HaBayis, and by so doing demanding the gates to that holiest of places literally be opened to us, is that we must first remove whatever we are locked into. Whatever stubbornness keeps us stuck, whatever ideas we are holding onto that keep us locked out of our Geulah, we must eradicate. Whatever conditioning has kept us eliciting the same response to the stimuli of this time of year must be identified, and ultimately, undone.

This Tisha B’Av, we must realize that we have been conditioned, and as such, we are in danger of becoming desensitized to our situation. Let us not simply lie down and take it – we can break the cycle. Let us think about what keeps us locked out, what ideas we are stuck on that make it hard for us to move forward as a people. Do we mistakenly believe that we’re doing the right thing, but they (whoever “they” are) are preventing Mashiach from coming? Are we stuck in our own ruts of brokenness, spiritually or emotionally? Are we already being pulled in by the insidious doubts of learned helplessness, assuming that once again Tisha B’Av will come and go and nothing will change and we’ll just go back to business as usual the next day? If the gates open, will we even notice?

Through their continuous experiments, Pavlov and Watson concluded that there is something called counterconditioning, a process by which one can undo the associations made between stimuli by continuously presenting the conditioned stimulus (i.e. the bell or rat) without the unconditioned stimulus (the food or the gong), until the former no longer elicits the same response one would have to the latter. Perhaps this year it is time to break the association we’ve developed between Tisha B’Av and the hopelessness and dread it evokes within us. Yes, it is a time to mourn, to grieve, to question, and to approach our Creator with our anger and our devastating grief. And, it is not a day of hopelessness. If done through a proper lens, Tisha B’Av can be a day of mourning – and of hope.

I was recently speaking to a close friend about Tisha B’Av and she shared sheepishly that for her and her husband, Tisha B’Av actually has an ironically positive connotation, as it was on Tisha B’Av of the year they got married that they ultimately decided to get engaged. As such, she explained, the day actually is associated with joy and meaning. Though initially she expressed feeling slightly guilty about this positive association to such a sad day, my friend and I discussed how in actuality, Tisha B’Av is a day on which we clarify our priorities. The seriousness and gravity of the day allows us to come to terms with deep pain, but also to recognize truth and prioritize our values accordingly. As such, there is no shame in celebrating the clarity that comes with truly making meaning of the day. And, moreover, perhaps beginning to allow for Tisha B’Av to be associated with more than just mourning, but also with clarity, meaning, and even joy, can begin to pave the way for the counterconditioning that must occur in order for us to one day celebrate Tisha B’Av as a Moed, a festival. This year, let us challenge ourselves to experience a Tisha B’Av Kumzits and infuse the moment with awe, inspiration, and hope. Let us vacuum out the hopelessness and desensitization that may once have been festering within us and instead clarify our priorities and seek out truth, creating space for the joy that one day Tisha B’Av will bring.

This Tisha B’Av, we approach Hashem free of the things that have previously kept us locked out, free of our stubbornness, our hopelessness, and our indifference. We approach this day with the intent to grieve if we must, and celebrate if we are Zocheh. We approach this day with openness, prepared to be counter-conditioned to associate this time of year not with fear and sadness, but with joy, singing, and celebration, with the renewal of our holiest city, and the building of the Holiest of Holies.

In the same Meaningful Minute video, R’ Yaakov Klein posits that each year, we wonder what more we can do to try to bring the Geulah, and he proposes that actually, perhaps we are already doing it all. Perhaps it is not that there is more for us to do, but that the challenge is that we must keep holding on anyway. We are drowning in the stormy waters of the End of Days, and we must find a hand to reach out toward, a rope to grab, a life raft to cling to. Whether it is the Mitzvos and Chesed we do, the people in our lives who inspire us, the very longing coming from deep in our souls, there is always hope. Find it, and cling to it. As we say each day in Aleinu, “ba’yom ha’hu yihiyeh Hashem echad,” on that glorious day that is speedily approaching, we will know that Hashem was right here ready to set us free all along. Perhaps, all we have to do as that Day is dawning is find a way to hold on, and not sink further.

This year, we strive to make new associations, to our fellow Jews, to our holidays and practices, and we commit to building hope, to holding on to one another, and to storming the locked gates and demanding they be opened. Let us come together not in fear or grief, but in power and longing. We’re here Hashem. We’re ready. We’re waiting.

See you soon in Yerushalayim!

[1] [2],become%20afraid%20of%20a%20rat. [3]

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