"Snakes don't kill," our Sages tell us, "but sin does!"
That is quite an assertion. It may even strike us, at first glance, as naïve or farfetched. And yet, when the doctors tell us that pneumonia was not the real cause of the patient's death, but rather the collapse of his immune system, we understand perfectly well.
The fact is that by sinning, by spurning our Maker, we undermine the "immune system" which G-d implanted within us. We make ourselves vulnerable to all sorts of "viruses" and other dangers which would ordinarily do us little or no harm. This is true not only of us as individuals, but of our People as well.
Thus, when the Babylonians crashed through the wall surrounding the First Temple Jerusalem on the seventeenth of Tammuz, our ancestors should have gotten the Message: The national immune system had been severely compromised by sin: death was a real possibility unless serious remedial action was taken.
But the message fell on deaf ears. The "patient" refused to take the required medications. And "death" came soon enough: the Babylonians succeeded in destroying the Beis Hamikdash, the Holy Temple, three weeks later – on Tisha b'Av. National exile followed before too long.
Mourning Before Death
If we had been charged with perpetuating the memory of the Destruction of the Temple, the spiritual center of the Jewish people, would we not have considered shiva? That is, why not have Jews, in ages to come, sit on the floor and mourn the churban for seven days: from the ninth of Av until the fifteenth?
And yet, Jewish practice is just the opposite. Our mourning for the Destruction begins three weeks before Tisha b'Av (nine days before, according to Sephardic custom), and peters out entirely shortly after this bitter Fast Day draws to a close.
How are we to understand our practice of sitting shiva, as it were, before the patient's death?
Learning from King David
In pursuing and marrying Bas-sheva in the manner that he did, Kind David made a grave error. (A full understanding of exactly what this saintly Jewish leader did wrong can only be obtained from a reading of the Biblical text in conjunction with the supplementary information found in the Oral Torah.) When confronted by the prophet Nasan, the King made absolutely no attempt to justify his conduct – even though he had ample grounds for doing so. "I have sinned against the Lord!" David confessed.
David's repentance was accepted, but he still had to pay for his error: the child Bas-sheva had conceived from him would not live. (Their second child was Shlomo [Solomon] – who saw to the building of the Temple.) Now, let us focus in on exactly how David responded to the illness and death of this first child, as recorded in Samuel II, Ch.12:
Nasan made his way home, and Hashem struck the child… with a fatal illness. David beseeched Hashem on behalf of the child. David fasted and lay on the ground all night. The elders of his house approached him – to pick him up off the ground, but he refused. Neither did he eat bread with them.
Then, on the seventh day, the child died and David's servants were afraid to tell him that the child was dead. They reasoned: When the child was still alive, we spoke to him, but he did not listen. How then shall we tell him that the child is dead?! He will do himself damage!
But when David saw his servants whispering, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the House of the Lord and prostrated himself. He then went to his own house, asked them to serve him bread and ate.
His servants questioned him: "What are you doing? You fasted and wept for the child while it was still alive, but now that the child is dead you get up and eat bread!"
"While the child was still alive," he explained, "I fasted and wept, for I thought: Who can tell? Perhaps Hashem will be gracious to me and the child will live! But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again?? I shall go to him, but he will not come to me!"
And David comforted his wife Bas-sheva…
The Past is the Future
There is no such a thing as a mere "Bible story" or simple "Biblical history." If an episode from the lives of our Patriarchs and forefathers was included in the Tanach, it possesses meaning and significance for later generations. In responding to this own particular adversity, David teaches us how to respond to our own and our nation's: As long as something can be done to remedy the situation, we are obliged to act. Perhaps Hashem will concur that we have changed ourselves to the point where we no longer deserve the judgment that had been relevant to us.
But once the opportunity has passed, we must look to the future. The past may provide us guidance for our future conduct, but it will never be the focus of our psychological and emotional energies.
David comforts his wife. And in the very same verse, the Tanach tells that Bas-sheva becomes pregnant and gives birth to Shlomo!
We walk in the footsteps of Kind David. We begin our period of mourning over the Destruction and Exile three weeks before Tisha b'Av, the most bitter of all days. The period opens on the anniversary of the day that the walls of Jerusalem were breached – when there was still time to salvage the situation. But when Tisha b'Av is upon us, we change direction. The intensity of our mourning practices had reached its crescendo by mid-day. We have finished intoning the long, long series of kinos (dirges) while sitting on the floor. We have finished sobbing through the public reading of Eichah (Lamentations).
By noontime, we are permitted to sit on chairs once again – even though it was during these very hours and on into the following day, that the Temple actually went up in flames. "But now that (it) is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring (it) back again??"
From this point on, our gaze is to the future, to the precious opportunities of Elul and Tishrei to scale the barricades which our sins have put between us and our Maker. From the remoteness of Tisha b'Av, we begin drawing closer to Hashem once again. In gratitude, we reach for His gift of teshuvah (repentance), through which He permits us to rewrite history. To transform all of our demerits into merits.