This piece was published on Aish.com and the Queens Jewish Link
Tisha B’Av – Festival of Sadness
Unless things change a whole lot in the next few weeks, we will one again be going through the days leading up to and including Tisha B’Av, the Ninth Day of the Month of Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. Year after year, we take time to reflect on our condition in the Diaspora, and what this long, seemingly endless exile is supposed to teach us, while awaiting the long sought for Geula (Redemption).
There is an interesting anecdote recorded regarding a meeting between the prophet Jeremiah and the famous Greek philosopher, Plato. Jeremiah was mourning the destruction of
Jerusalem, and Plato engaged him in conversation. Impressed with Jeremiah’s great wisdom, Plato asked him “I do not understand how a sage of your stature can weep so bitterly over something that is over and done with. Surely, what is past is finished with, and your concern now ought to be solely with the future, and how you can influence it. What possible use can there be in all of this weeping? Jeremiah answered, “I cannot give you a proper answer to your logical question, for you will not understand it.”
Was Plato not right? And surely now, 2500 years later, is it not time to focus on the present and the future, and to let bygones be bygones? Can we never forget? Can we never forgive? How can we spend three weeks of every year going into greater and greater mourning, culminating in a day of fast and sadness after all this time?
In fact, one of the great blessings that Hashem grants us is the ability to forget painful memories. “Hashem has decreed about a deceased person that they should be forgotten from the heart” (Sofrim 21). If it was not possible to forget, if the pain of losing a close relative or friend remained always as immediate as when the loss first occurs, we would be immobilized, unable to cope with life. It is a blessing that while we always carry a memory of a departed loved one, we are able to remove the pain of the loss from the forefront of our consciousness. Nevertheless, this general rule does not hold here, as expressed by the famous verse in Psalms, “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten!” We are bidden never to forget! The sages, by instituting all of the Halachot surrounding these three weeks, made sure that at least during one long period of the year, and several other fast days year-round, not to mention the requests in our thrice-daily prayers, that we would constantly remember and never forget to mourn for Jerusalem.
The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Noah Barzovsky, zt”l, wrote a fascinating essay on this subject, in which he noted that central to Tisha B’Av is the idea that we are not to make our peace, ever, with the fact that the Bais Hamikdosh (Temple) was destroyed. To never allow ourselves the thought that we accept the post-Bais Hamikdosh world as the new, normal; as the permanent reality for us as Jews. The Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed for many reasons, some more well known than others. But that was never meant to be its final disposition. The day that we stop hoping that the Bais Hamikdosh will be rebuilt is the day that its destruction will really be irreversible.
This basic thought ought to permeate all of our concerns in life. We struggle with our problems, with our kid’s education, with our personal growth, with financial problems, existential problems; we look at the contemporary scene both here in
Israel. We look to the pundits and “wise men” who have this or that solution to intractable problems or who point to this or that occurrence to explain the crux of our quandaries, and forget that the main problem is none of the above, but rather it is the fact of Golus – our distance from Hashem and his Holy Temple in Jerusalem. For it is surely true that no matter how many problems we solve here in America and regardless of how much we grow in our spiritual lives as Jews, we will have a huge gaping hole in our spiritual lives as long as “we have been exiled from our land, and we cannot fulfill our obligations in your great & holy House . . . ”
Why are so many Jews distant from their spiritual roots? Why are there so many terrible, endless problems between groups of Jews? How are we ever going to be able to resolve the great issues that divide us, when those matters are based on such fundamentally different outlooks on what the Torah is, what it means to be Jewish, the nature of our Jewish obligations, and how flexible can we be about adapting them for modern times? What will it take to allow myriads of Jews who have no idea of the beauty of Shabbos, Kashrus, Torah learning, and Jewish living to even have a real glimmer of what they are missing? How will the great problems surrounding the
, and the mutually exclusive claim to is territory, ever be resolved? Land of Israel
And most of all, how will all of us ever be able to finally arrive at a place of closeness with Hashem; when we will be able to always feel the indescribable joy of His closeness without the inner contradictions and pain and difficulty, and existential loneliness, that we so often feel in our spiritual quest? To quote the timeless words of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, in his ode to the Jew in Golus that we say on Tisha B’Av:
! When will you ask about the welfare of those who were taken from you? ...Those who long to cling to your mountainsides . . . Your atmosphere is food for souls, Your dust is spice and your Rivers’ floes of flagrance, I would treasure going even barefoot and bare through your former castles and ruins, at the place of your hidden Ark, with the Cherubs in your Sanctuary. I cast off the pride of my accomplishments . . . for how can I enjoy my eating and drinking . . . How can I enjoy the sunlight . . . when I remember fallen Israel, and recall Judea captured . . . Beautiful Zion, you excite Love & Joy, bound to you are the lives of your friends, those who glory in your successes, who hurt in your pain, and who weep over your destruction . . . from prison dungeons they reach out to you, bowing from distances toward your gates . . . ” Translated by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein in Jewish Action Zion
In this most beautiful elegy, (beautifully re-translated), where the aching longing for a reunion with Hashem in Jerusalem is expressed without equal, we begin to sense just how much we are really missing in this long Golus, comfortable as we may be.
These longings for that rebuilding are the building blocks of the eventual edifice. Although in many ways, Judaism teaches that what one does (actions) are more important than what one thinks or believes, it is nevertheless true that “The longing to perform a mitzvah, or to engage in a spiritual pleasure, is even greater than the pleasure itself.” The active awaiting of its rebuilding, the tears shed over its absence; the effort to not assimilate into the surrounding culture and its alien values, but rather to strive to retain our uniquely Jewish selves, these are what will eventually bring it back. Every tear shed and every sigh over its absence, and what it means to us today, is another element in the building.
Thus, says the Slonimer Rebbe, the period of the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av are a period of crying, but a positive period: a crying that is part of the rebuilding process. A cry of hope, of longing for a better future – an expression from the depths of the soul that we will never be satisfied and complacent in our spiritual quest until we have achieved total Teshuva, back to the closeness with Hashem that once was and is still potentially possible. “Hashiveinu Hashem Aylecho VeNashuva - Bring us back to you Hashem and we WILL return, renew our days as of old! ”
This longing is something that is so very precious to Hashem, as the Zohar states, “A person that raises their voice to cry about the destruction of Hashem’s house, merits to have it said ‘together we shall sing’.” As Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev said regarding the verse in Eichah, “You will surely cry in the night, and her tear will be on her cheek, not receiving comfort from all those who come to console her,” the tear remains on the cheek because they make a great impact in the heavens if a person truly cries regarding the Churban - destruction. The tears are not for naught, they are the lubricant that allows one to move higher and higher in one’s spiritual quest.
For each of us then, we certainly must face life with a happy confident attitude. We must take time to enjoy our growth, to celebrate our Jewishness, and to sing with the joy of being fortunate to be engaged in building our spiritual lives inwardly, as well as in our families and communities. But we must also take the time to mourn a little inwardly; about all the potential that is there, that is not yet being fulfilled. Only thus will we continue to grow, and look forward to the day that our inner sanctuary will be fully built, heralding the time of Moshiach, speedily in our days.