Tisha b'Av, and the days leading up to it, constitute a period of national mourning for Jerusalem and the Holy Temple (Beis Hamikdash). Unlike the annual festivals and joyous occasions, which we look forward to and enjoy, this period makes us uncomfortable. We may even find ourselves awaiting the day after Tisha b'Av.
But the stakes are too high to let our feelings get the upper hand. We are not talking merely about a commemoration of past events. Rather, as Rabbi Yisrael Salanter noted: We have the opportunity to grow spiritually on Tisha b'Av no less than on Yom Kippur!
The Talmud records a revealing exchange which took place between Eliezer Z'eira ("Eliezer the Small") and representatives of the Exilarch, the formal head of the Jewish community in Babylonia. The Jewish authorities found Rabbi Eliezer walking through the streets of Nahardea wearing black shoes in the middle of the year, and they correctly saw this as an expression of mourning for Jerusalem. In the view of our Sages, however, a blatant demonstration of this sort not during the period of national mourning was entirely inappropriate. It even smacked of a pernicious self-importance that warranted disciplinary action. Only a gavra rabba, a "great person" could be allowed such a liberty. For the rest of the nation, the annual period of mourning was sufficient. (Incidentally, the Exilarch's representatives quickly came to perceive Rabbi Eliezer's greatness and let him go.)
In order to appreciate the two different "levels" of mourning for Jerusalem, let us note, in broad strokes, what was lost: our ability to draw ever closer to G-d via the Beis HaMikdash; and honor and esteem for G-d among the peoples of the world.
The Beis HaMikdash – with its divine service, offerings and absolutely unique sense of G-d's Presence – gave a lift to Jews in their quest for spiritual growth, and afforded them the possibility of a closer relationship with the Creator than was possible in the post-Temple times. The Sages speak of the elevating, even liberating, experience of being in the Beis HaMikdash. The sacrificing of an animal, (the awareness that the sinner really deserved to be sacrificed, but for G-d's mercy,) and the accompanying golden opportunity to beg forgiveness for sin, left the sinner a different person.
In addition, the palpable perception of holiness and the witnessing of the priestly service made a profound impression. The Zohar goes into detail: A Jew who looked intently at the golden headband of the High Priest (on which the words "Holy unto G-d" were inscribed) would be overcome emotionally and subjugate himself to the Almighty…
Not only are we missing the agency of the Beis HaMikdash, but we of the post-Temple era are missing a keen sense of G-d's Presence. This phenomenon is known as hester panim – a concealment or turning away by G-d which makes it all the more difficult to draw close to Him. As the King of the Kuzaris puts it in Yehudah HaLevi's classic, The Kuzari: "Since the Holy Ark was buried, you Jews are like a body without a head!"
"How right you are," replies the Jewish spokesman, "and even more so. We are like bones that have been scattered…"
What sort of person is most distressed about the lost opportunity to grow spiritually and move ever closer to the Source of life?
First and foremost, it is the great man or woman, the individual with a profound inner longing for godliness who has exploited all the other avenues for spiritual growth. It is precisely this individual who feels most keenly the closure of the "spiritual superhighway" which was the Temple.
If, on the other hand, a Jew does not exploit all of the existing opportunities for closeness to G-d, how can he feel wretched about missing an additional opportunity, however wonderful if might potentially be?!
And the same holds true about the loss of honor and esteem for the Creator in the eyes of his creatures. Who can mourn this tragedy on a daily basis?
Only an individual whose very being is dedicated to "restoring" G-d's "standing" in the post-Temple world of divine concealment. This is the person of importance, or greatness – someone like Rabbi Eliezer.
THE TEMPLE WITHIN
Historians will tell us that the destruction of Jerusalem was wrought first by Nevuchadnetzar and then again by Titus.
But the fact is that neither the Babylonians nor the Romans can be blamed for plunging us into the darkness of the post-Temple eras. They may have smashed the walls and torched the inner chambers, but we Jews have to take ultimate responsibility. We twice destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple using the battering ram of disobedience and the sword of sin. By razing the Temple within our hearts, we rendered the external, three-dimensional Beis HaMikdash completely non-viable.
And herein lies the key to extricating ourselves from the present situation. By rebuilding the Temple within our hearts, by becoming better Jews and servants of our Maker, we create a true dwelling place for the Divine Presence. In such a climate, the rebuilding of the third (physical) Beis HaMikdash is a genuine possibility.
The "great people" of our nation appreciate this and act accordingly. But when they look around, they are distressed to see just how far the rest of us are lagging behind. This only gives them an additional reason to mourn for the Temple and a Jerusalem worthy of it… the whole year long!
While the Jewish people as a whole is not capable of mourning the absence of the Temple and the accompanying divine concealment on a ongoing basis, we are expected to make a concerted effort during the days culminating in Tisha b'Av. The special limitation on enjoyment during this period can help us here – provided they do not become an end in themselves.
Just as the prick of a needle causes no pain to a body that is paralyzed or anesthetized, so the tragedy of a world without the Temple causes no pain to desensitized souls. But the limitations and mourning practices can help us re-sensitize ourselves. And this itself is a reason to rejoice. If we feel the pain, we know we are still alive. We have woken up!
THE ANTIDOTE TO CAUSELESS HATRED
The Sages of the Talmud tell us that the root cause of the destruction of the Second Temple was sinas chinam – animosity between Jews that defied a legitimate cause or explanation. Indeed, they point to a specific instance which set the catastrophe in motion. Here, in essence, is the story (as retold in The Principal of Eternity, published by Mishor Pub. Co.):
One of Jerusalem's wealthy men decided to make a banquet for his many friends. He also invited the sages of Jerusalem. The food and drink served were magnificent and all were enjoying themselves. But suddenly the host noticed that his good friend Kamtza was missing. Immediately, the host tried to correct the oversight by sending his servant to bring Kamtza to the banquet. But the servant made a crucial error. He invited Bar-Kamtza instead, an enemy of his master.
Now Bar-Kamtza assumed that his enemy had invited him in order to make up their differences. So he gladly joined the banquet.
When the rich man spotted his enemy Bar-Kamtza seated among his guests, he grew very angry. He immediately ordered his servants to see Bar-Kamtza to the door. Bar-Kamtza, however, approached the host and told him that he was embarrassed to leave in the middle. He requested that the host be kind enough to let him stay and would cover the cost of whatever he ate.
But the rich host answered back angrily: "I am not interested! I don't need your money and I do not want you as my guest!"
At this, Bar-Kamtza began to plead: "Listen, I will cover half the cost of the banquet you are hosting, only please do not send me away in the middle. I would be embarrassed in front of the many guests."
But the host did not agree to this suggestion either. And even when Bar-Kamtza offered to cover the entire cost of the banquet, the host would not change his mind. Again he ordered his servants to remove Ba-Kamtza by force. Needless to say, Bar-Kamtza was angered by his disgrace – so much so that he decided to go to the Roman Caesar and speak against the Jews. "The Caesar will be angry at them and punish them all," he thought to himself. "Thus will my enemy be punished, the man who put me to shame in public today. The sages of Jerusalem also deserve to be punished because they did not speak up or protest…"
So Bar-Kamtza went off to Rome and told the Caesar that the Jewish people were rebelling against him. The Roman king believed this lie and ultimately decided to destroy Jerusalem…
Now, if causeless hatred paved the way for the Destruction, we can readily appreciate that abounding, overflowing, "causeless" love is crucial to the reconstruction of the Temple and a Jerusalem suffused with holiness. The Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza story seems, on the surface, to illustrate only the scourge of causeless hatred.
But, as Rebbe Yitzchok of Borki noted, if we look closely at the text, we can also see a failure in the realm of causeless love. Kamtza was, after all, a good friend of the wealthy host. And yet he did not even put in an appearance at the banquet. Why?
Apparently because he did not receive an invitation! He decided to stand on ceremony and pass up his friend's simchah.
This was not only a missed opportunity to love one's fellow Jew as oneself. This was a contributing cause of the Destruction! Had Kamtza come to the banquet, which he surely knew about, perhaps the tragic train of events which ensued could have been avoided. The Talmud is hinting as much, notes Rebbe Yitzchok, in stating that "because of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed" (Tr. Gittin 55b).
The ability to love others "without cause" is not something we are born with. But if we do not cultivate it, it will not flower. And neither will the Third Temple. Perhaps a bit of introspection about our own tendency to stand on ceremony, is a good place to start.
The subject, quite obviously, is much broader than sharing in friends' celebrations without being invited. It encompasses understanding and overlooking our friends and relatives' occasional lack of regard for our wants, needs, accomplishments, brilliance… and all the rest.
THE MAN WHO FLED FROM HONOR AND HIS ENTOURAGE OF 300,000 MOURNERS
(essay by Sarah Shapiro, which first appeared in the Jewish Observer, is reprinted from Torah Lives (Mesorah/Artscroll, 1995) with permission from the publisher)
"Who was this man?" asked a policeman redirecting traffic in downtown Jerusalem. "If I knew my funeral would be like this, I'd drop dead right now."
I overheard that remark while standing on a street corner, craning my neck, trying to see something – anything – over the passing sea of heads. I know what you mean, I thought. If proving oneself worthy of other people's love and admiration is one's underlying, though unacknowledged, goal in life, then by that yardstick this particular life was a remarkable success. And if honor is what one craves, then a final ovation such as this would almost make it worthwhile to die on the spot.
But the irony is that Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, whose funeral was attended by an estimated 300-400,000 people, did not in his eighty-four years achieve visible success, as success would probably be defined by most people, including the policeman. He had never amassed wealth, he was unknown to the world at large.
The day after his death, the big-circulation Israeli newspapers were full of bemused speculation as to how this rabbi's death had managed to bring together religious Jews of all stripes and how the largest funeral in the country's history had been held in honor of a man whom the journalists themselves, and most of the readership, had never heard of. He was reported to have been a great, even the foremost, halachic authority, but plenty of great halachic authorities go to their graves without anything approaching that kind of mourning. How could anybody be at once so extravagantly renowned and utterly unknown?
My own attendance at the funeral came about at the result of a personal experience dating back nine or ten years. At the time, I had been caught in the crossfire of an ongoing inner was with myself over an agonizing personal decision, a daily battle between yes and no. I decided to consult Rabbi Shlomo Auerbach. Revealing myself to a respected Rav on personal issues was an unappealing, embarrassing prospect, but the war was such that I called for an appointment.
The phone was answered by a woman who said that her father-in-law didn't really make appointments, but that I could show up at their home at midnight any night of the week, and that if I wanted to be first in line, perhaps I could come a little early. I knew he would meet with me without charge, but thought it appropriate to offer some sort of payment for his time anyway. She said, "Oh, no."
That evening at 11:00, having located the house with some difficulty in the old neighborhood of Shaarie Chessed, I ascended a rickety flight of wooden stairs that trembled beneath by feet and arrived at a cramped, high-ceilinged apartment around a hundred years old. Someone who I gathered was Rav Auerbach's son led me into a living room where four or five children were sleeping; the living room doubled as the children's bedroom.
I was seventh in line. There was a row of folding chairs for those who waited and each of us sat submerged in his or her own world. At two-thirty, Rav Auerbach's son ushered me past the children into a teeny, book-lined chamber. As the Rabbi rose – a little man! – to welcome me, what struck me was his utter frailty, as if he were a weightless and pale winter leaf. But then when he smiled (I wondered, does he know me from somewhere?) his smile was of such a pure and lucid light that something in me melted from the warmth. I didn't know it at the time, but that momentary vision of his smiling face would remain with me from then on in my mind's eye. "What shall we discuss?" he inquired.
For the next forty minutes or so, he listened to my words as if the fate of the planet depended upon a correct understanding of my predicament. He considered me more important, evidently, than I considered myself. When I went out in the starry night – all the little houses silent and darkened in their pre-dawn stillness – I realized that I was feeling inexplicably buoyant, and it occurred to me that it hadn't been awkward or embarrassing, after all. The ancient-looking Yerushalmi, born and raised in this neighborhood, seemed to identify with me: I, half a century younger, who'd grown up an assimilated Jew in a distant Connecticut suburb.
A decision emerged of itself, by the way, during the next few days. I realized only later how his nonjudgementalness towards my self-entanglement had enabled me to move on.
When I flagged down to a cab to rush home for my children's return from school, the driver asked if I was coming from a funeral. I nodded, "I delivered a letter to that rabbi one time," he told me. "He was tzenua."
That word, meaning modest, hidden, concealed, constitutes an apt summation of Rav Auerbach's power. Recognition – the very thing people could sense he wasn't seeking – was precisely that which the policeman could joke about giving his life to acquire. What is it that fuels the policeman's desire for recognition, just at it fuels my own? A feeling of unimportance. Because of that submerged feeling, we unwittingly devote our lives, no matter how worthwhile our deeds, to the cause of self-glorification, and would heartily enjoy the eulogies at our own funerals.
To Rav Auerbach there was nothing to prove. A Jew is a Jew, a human being a human being… unquestionably, eternally precious.
What was it that drew us there that day to say goodbye?
Rabbi Auerbach's light. Like moths drawn to a flame, each of us had sensed in this person something beyond ego, beyond body, something even beyond self. With that uncanny perspicacity the inner eye recognized the rare one among us who's thinking of other things than his own honor! It's he whom our hearts most respect.
MELODIES FOR THE EARS OF HEAVEN
reprinted with permission from a Treasury of Chassidic Tales, by Rabbi Shlomo Y. Zevin (Mesorah/Artscroll).
The day of the year when we feel the greatest distance from our Maker is, without question, Tisha b'Av. Yet, as discussed by Rav Chaim Friedlander, the distance itself can serve as an impetus for drawing closer to G-d. In the compelling story below about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidim, we get a taste of just what closeness to G-d can mean.
It was the way of the Baal Shem Tov to show a particular fondness for simple, G-d fearing folk, and many such people became his warm admirers. For the more intellectually sophisticated among his disciples, this affinity was a bitter pill to swallow – nor did it become more palatable even after their Rebbe had sent them to associate with such folk in order to learn from their example such desirable traits as unquestioning trust in the Creator, simple faith, and the love of a fellow Jew.
AT THE TABLE OF THE BAAL SHEM TOV
Among those who flocked to be near the tzaddik one Shabbos in summer were many such people-innkeepers, farmers, draftsmen, poultrymen, market stallkeepers, and the like. And it was these visitors to whom the Baal Shem Tov showed especial tokens of affection at his Friday night table.
With one he shared the wine over which he sanctified the Sabbath; to another he lent his own Kiddush goblet; some were offered slices of the sweet challah over which he had pronounced a blessing; and others tasted a morsel fish from his plate. The inner circle of scholarly disciples who made up the holy brotherhood – the Chevra Kadisha – wondered at the conduct of their Rebbe.
The custom in the household of the Baal Shem Tov was that the guests who came to Mezhibuzh for Shabbos joined him at the Friday night tish and again at the twilight Third Meal on the following day, while the midday meal of Shabbos was reserved for the inner circle alone. This gathering of strangers were not even allowed to watch from a distance. The unlettered folk who had come for that Shabbos, therefore ate their midday meal at their lodgings, and then found their way back to the shul of the Baal Shem Tov, where they engaged in the only kind of divine worship that their meager schooling had given them – pouring out their hearts in singing and praises and entreaties on the Book of Psalms.
As the Baal Shem Tov took his place at the head of the long table, he first seated each of his disciples in a particular place, according to his custom and then revealed to them such secrets from the world of the Torah that their hearts were aglow with spiritual delight.
Their Rebbe too was living through a moment of rare joy, and they thanked their Maker for having brought them into his radiant orbit.
But the hearts of a few were clouded by a critical thought. Why did their Rebbe show such marks of favor to men so simple that they did not understand his teachings?
At once the face of the tzaddik took on a serious appearance. In a tone of restrained ecstasy and with eyes closed, he said: "In a place where penitents stand, the most righteous of men have no place. So our Sages teach us. There are two paths in the service of the Creator – the righteous service of tzaddikim and the contrite service of baalei teshuvah. The service of simple folk belongs to the second level, the loftier level of the penitent – for they are lowly of spirit, regretting the imperfect past, and striving nobly to improve the future."
A haunting melody began imperceptibly from around the table, and those disciples who had harbored doubts as to their Rebbe's conduct realized that he had sensed what they had been thinking. The music faded away. The Baal Shem Tov opened his eyes, gazed long and deeply into the faces of his disciples, one by one, and then told them each to rest their right hand on the shoulder of their neighbor. When they had sung quietly together for a further space, he asked them to close their eyes, and not to open them until they were told to do so. He then rested his right hand on the disciple who was seated at his right, and his left hand on the shoulder of the disciple seated at his left – and the circle was closed.
From that moment the sweetest of tender melodies stole into their ears, melodies that bore with them the heartfelt entreaties of honest soles.
"Ribbono shel Olam!" said one manly voice, appealing to the Maker of the Universe in gentile terms of his own, before going on to address Him in words first used by King David: "Examine me, O G-d, and test me; refine…my heart."
"Zisser fotter, father dear!" another voice prefixed his verse from Psalms. "Be gracious to me, O G-d, be gracious, for my soul trusts in You; and in the shadow of Your wings will I take refuge until woes are past."
"Father!" came the piteous cry of a storm-tossed life, desperately seeking anchorage in a haven of its own. "Even the sparrow has found a home and the swallow a nest for herself…"
The holy brotherhood of learned Chassidim trembled in the face of such innocent supplication. Their eyes were closed, but they shed tears of contriteness and humbly envied the worship that was the daily portion of these simple singers of Psalms.
The Baal Shem Tov lifted his hands from the shoulders of the disciples and the music vanished from their ears. He told them all to open their eyes and again the brotherhood sang softly together.
"…WITH ALL YOUR HEART"
One of that circle who was present on that Shabbos was Reb Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch. Years later he told his disciple, Reb Shneor Zalmen of Liadi, that at that moment he experienced a rapturous love of the Creator with an intensity that he had never before known. Indeed his whole being was seized by such a paroxysm of desire for teshuvah that his very slippers were soaked with perspiration and tears.
The singing had come to an end and the brotherhood sat in pensive silence. For some time the Baal Shem Tov sat with his eyes closed in a trance of dveikus, then he looked again at his Chassidim and said:
"The music that you heard was the innocent singsong of the simple folk in the synagogue, intoning their verses from the Psalms from the bottom of their trusting hearts. Consider now. We mortals are made up of a body, which is not a thing of truth, and a soul, which is truth – and even the soul is only part of the Whole. Being thus creatures of imperfect truth, we are called sfas emes, 'the lip of truth,' a mere hint of truth. Nevertheless, even we are able to recognize and sense the truth and be overwhelmed by it. How much more so must the Almighty – the ultimate Truth – recognize the truth in the Psalm-singing of these simple men."