Why We Mourn on Tisha B’Av

A very big misconception exists as to what Tisha B’Av is all about. Plain and simple: We are mourning for the destruction of our two Temples. This destruction sent the Jewish people into exile.

Many feel that Tisha B’Av is a commemoration of anti-semitism throughout the ages. The day is spent dwelling on discussing how much Jews were mistreated throughout the ages.

This is wrong as it is missing the central point. Had the Temples not been destroyed, there would not have been an exile and there would not have been suffering.

The Torah reading for the day warns us that if we do not keep the Mitzvot, we will perish and be scattered among the nations.

Sadly, people don’t understand how much Jewish life and the strength of our people was affected when we were without our Temples. This lack of understanding shows how deeply in Galut so many Jews find themselves. To borrow a familiar phrase, “We want Mashiach now!”

The Tragedy of Galut

The Galut is a curse. It is a punishment. It is proof that the holy land of Israel does not tolerate sinners. It is a fulfillment of the warning that if you do not keep the Mitzvot, “the Land will vomit you out.”

The disconnection between the Jew and his land, is an expression of spiritual pain. The Jewish soul yearns for this connection, just as a baby yearns for his mother’s nourishment and love.

One cannot serve Hashem on a very high level, when he is detached from the source of his spirituality.

Only in Israel is one able to feel the Shechina, the Divine Presence. And only in Israel, is a Jew truly in his home. In the Galut, he is a guest. And history has taught us that he is usually an unwanted guest.

We are close to the commemoration of the destruction of our two Temples on the ninth of Av. Throughout our exile, Jews understood why they were mourning and what this destruction meant for our people. Sadly, in today’s world of affluence and self indulgence, the significance of Tisha B’Av, is being grossly overlooked.

On the one hand, Jews are free to practice their religion anywhere in the world. And Jews are free to come to live in Israel, without obstacles. But today’s tragedy is that the majority of the Jewish people in Galut, choose not to take advantage of these privileges that our ancestors never had.

The assimilation and intermarriage rates of Jews in the Diaspora, is nothing less than a spiritual holocaust. But the smugness and complacency of comfortable Jews who should know better, is also a tragedy.

We waited for a homeland for nearly two thousand years. Now that we have a beautiful, thriving country, that is the envy of the world, the knowledgeable, learned Jews have turned their backs on this incredible, Divine gift. Perhaps this reality is the more painful one.

This Tisha B’Av when we mourn for the destruction of our holy Temples, we should also mourn for the ignorant and complacent Jews. We should pray that G-d should open their eyes that they have the courage to do what is “right in the eyes of G-d.”

The Rabbis tell us that he who mourns for the destruction of Jerusalem, will merit to see it rebuilt. May the third Temple in Jerusalem be speedily rebuilt in our times.

Accepting Responsibility

Moshe Rabbeinu reviews the various travels of עם ישראל in the desert. He refers to חטא העגל as ודי זהב, the place of ודאי זהב, when there was enough gold.

The Gemara in ברכות says that Moshe argued with Hashem that it was not the fault of the Jewish people for making the Golden Calf. Had they not been given the Egyptian treasures, they would not have had the means to build it.

Yet, this argument is not mentioned in the Torah. Instead, Moshe asks for forgiveness and accepts guilt. He felt that this set a superior precedent for future generations. It was only a leader like David who accepted guilt for his sin with Bat Sheva. Others, like Shaul, chose to put the blame on others. It takes a big person to accept responsibility for his actions. This is what Moshe was also trying to teach future generations. We are likely to make mistakes in life, but we need to ask Hashem for forgiveness in order to move on.

These nine days are certainly meant for introspection and reflection. We must learn from the past in order to bring the גאולה. May it come speedily.

Rebuke Before Death

We begin this Shabbat the Book of Devarim, also known as משנה תורה. Unlike the other four books of the Torah, דברים is spoken entirely by משה רבינו during the last thirty-seven days of his life.

Rashi points out that Moshe learned from Yakov Avinu that the most appropriate time for תוכחה, rebuke, is at the end of one’s life. Yehoshua, Shmuel, and David, all gave תוכחה before their deaths.

The reason Rashi gives for this is that the timing for rebuke is everything. Yakov Avinu was afraid that had he rebuked Reuven earlier, he may have become angry. He could have attached himself to Eisav.

Words spoken before one’s death leaves a lasting impression. The parting advice of a parent remains with an individual forever.

Moshe’s parting words to בני ישראל have remained with us for all of time.

A Thorn in Your Side

It is important that we submit our will to Hashem’s will. He alone knows what is true compassion and true justice. This is especially difficult when views in the Torah contradict our own value system.

Another such example comes from פרשת מסעי where we are told to drive out the inhabitants living in Israel from our holy land. We are warned that if we do not drive them out, they will be as “pains in our sides and thorns in our eyes.” And if we do not drive them out, we will certainly regret it.

This does not sound like the epitome of tolerance to say the least. Yet, it is a very definite commandment from Hashem.

We Jews have a mission to teach morality to the world. We cannot allow ourselves to be influenced by inhabitants who will turn us astray from our ultimate destiny. As difficult as such a commandment might be, it is true and just, and represents the word of Hashem that we must observe.

Real Mercy

After the war with מדין, Moshe Rabbeinu is upset that Midianite women were brought back as captives. Moshe felt that these women, who enticed Jewish men to sin, were deserving of death. After all, the whole reason for taking vengeance on Midian, was because of these sinful women.

Moshe then instructed that all the women who transgressed with Jewish men, should actually be put to death.

On the surface, this whole incident seems troubling. How could the killing of defenseless women, be justified? Yet, it is written that when evil is destroyed, it is, in actuality, a merciful act.

The perpetrator of evil, when eliminated, makes the world a holier and safer place. It is horrible that it is possible for man to choose evil, and degrade himself to such a low level.

But it is more important to follow the instructions of Moshe Rabbeinu and destroy evil, thereby making the world a better place. This is real mercy and compassion.

Regretting a Vow

Shavua Tov. Related to the subject of התרת נדרים, the release from vows, there is a necessary statement from the one attempting to be released from his vow.

This statement is also applicable in other areas of Jewish law. It is necessary to make the following declaration: “Had I known what the results of the vow were, I never would have made the vow.”

This can apply in a monetary case as well. If one released a contractor of his duties, but later found further damages, he can reopen the case. He can also claim that had he known about these damages, he never would have released the Kablan.

And a further case could apply in the case of a marriage annulment. A similar claim can be made by one of the parties in a marriage. Had I known that my new spouse had certain concealed medical issues, I never would have married him or her, is also a valid claim.

All of this is learned from the case of the annulment of vows.

מראית עין

This week’s Parsha speaks of the Tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe, who requested to dwell on the east side of the Jordan River. They claimed that they needed the fertile land of Gilad, for cattle grazing.

At first, Moshe Rabbeinu was very upset with this request. He was afraid that the people would again be demoralized as they were during the evil report of the spies.

He uttered the famous Pasuk, האחיכם יבואו למלחמה ואתם תשבו פה. “Will your brothers go to war, and you will remain here?” The two and a half tribes promised that they would join the rest of the nation in battle, before they would settle the land.

Rabbi Soloveitchik uses this story to teach that we should be careful about מראית עין, giving the wrong impression. For example, if one has almond milk with a meat dish, he should leave a pile of almonds next to the almond milk.

The two and a half tribes needed to be careful not to

give the wrong impression that they were oblivious to the needs of the rest of the Jewish people. Shabbat Shalom

Cities of Refuge

Rabbi David Milston, in his recently published book, “Eternity”, has an interesting observation regarding the cities of refuge.

Rabbi Milston notes that forty-two of the forty-eight cities of refuge were inhabited by Kohanim and Leviim. The killer is sent there because of an element of negligence that caused the death of another individual.

Perhaps if the killer would have been more careful and considerate, this tragedy would never have taken place.

Therefore, his rehabilitation comes by living among the most giving and considerate  members of society, the Kohanim and Leviim.

Everyone is influenced by their environment. If one is surrounded by the educators of the Jewish people, who live a purely spiritual life, it will have a positive effect.

When the killer gets out upon the death of the Kohein Gadol, he will be a changed person.

Watch What You Say

In Parshat Matot, we learn about the making of vows and their possible nullification. A husband is allowed to nullify his wife’s vows on the day he hears them.

Personal vows in the form of a נדר, are more problematic. The only way such vows can be released, is by way of a בית דין in the form of התרת נדרים.

The key question the individual is asked by this בית דין is, “Had you known what the effects of this vow were, would you have made the vow?” That individual is expected to show sincere remorse for not guarding his tongue, and putting himself in a regrettable situation.

The book of קהלת says it best. טוב שלא תדור משתדור ולא תשלם. It is better not to make a vow rather than make one that you are not able to fulfill.

We must think carefully before we speak. Words are powerful and it is difficult to take them back.

The Holy Jewish Family

The incident with Pinchas began in Parshat Balak and continued through Parshat Pinchas and into Parshat Mattot.

After the heroic act of Pinchas, a revenge war was made against Midyan for their part in causing so many Jewish men to sin. This led to a plague that ended with the death of 24,000 Jews.

Rabbi Soloveitchik teaches that the lesson to be learned from this entire episode is the importance of the family in Jewish life. The evil Bilaam and the Midianites realized that the way to weaken עם ישראל was to break apart that adhesive bond of the Jewish family. When there was infidelity and giving into lusts, the moral fabric of that bond was severed in a way that was difficult to repair.

We must realize that when we nurture this specialness of the Jewish home, we create a protection from the pollution that exists in the world.

A home based on the three pillars of Judaism; Shabbat, Kashrut, and Family Purity, brings a strong wall of protection. We must be strong and not let anything in that will compromise the sanctity of the Jewish Family.

Women Loved the Land

We learn from Parshat Pinchas the love for the Land of Israel by the daughters of צלפחד. They pleaded with Moshe for the rights to an inheritance. They did not want to be deprived simply because they were female and there were no male heirs.

We find that one of the reasons why we fast on Tisha B’Av was because of the crying for nothing instigated by the spies and their evil report. We learn that the decree not to enter Eretz Yisrael to that entire generation, was given on Tisha B’Av.

The ספר התודעה points out that this decree applies only to males between the ages of twenty and sixty. It did not apply to any of the women because they did believe the evil report of the spies and they deeply lOved the land.

Take Action

Shavua Tov. Rabbi Soloveitchik compares the actions of Pinchas to World War II. Several countries chose the path of pacifism rather than get involved and join the war effort.

There are times when action must be taken. Countless lives were saved because of the Allies and the results of the war.

Pinchas demonstrated that there are times when inaction is wrong. In order to achieve something, we must sacrifice. This is true in many different areas of life.

We sacrifice our work time in order to be with our family. We sacrifice our capital in order to make money.

It certainly is easier to be passive and do nothing. But if we want to accomplish anything in life, we have to work hard and rise to the occasion to do what is necessary.

Loyalty

When Moshe Rabbeinu realized that all of his pleas failed, and he would not be entering Eretz Yisrael, he was concerned who his successor would be. Moshe tells Hashem that he doesn’t want the עם to be like sheep without a shepherd.

Rabbi Soloveitchik points out how remarkable Hashem’s great mercy has been over the generations. Somehow when a great leader passed away, there was always someone available to take his place.

In the case of Yehoshua, he was a fulfillment of the Pasuk in Mishlei that says, “He who guards the fig tree, eats the fruit.” The key word regarding Yehoshua was “loyalty.” He proved to be Moshe’s closest confidant. He may not have been as great a scholar as Pinchas or Elazar, but he was definitely the most loyal.

Yehoshua was rewarded for his loyalty by being chosen to succeed Moshe. We must show equal loyalty to Hashem and to all those who consistently are there for us. Shabbat Shalom

Pinchas-A Unique Zealot

Parshat Pinchas addresses the question as to when is an individual allowed to take the law into his hands. Pinchas was one such person who acted on his own in a zealous fashion for the sake of Hashem’s honor.

His actions in killing זמרי and כזבי, were at first frowned upon by the rest of the Jewish people. It was only after Hashem clarified that he acted correctly, was he reinstated as a hero.

Pinchas was referred to as a קנאי, a zealot. In order to be considered a zealot and not a mad man, one must be certain that he is acting solely for the sake of Heaven. He must be a virtuous person in order to justify such zealousness.

The Gemara in ערכים says that today, no one is capable of giving rebuke. It is so difficult not to come across as self-righteous and judgmental. Pinchas acted with the goal of acquiring peace. He was blessed with the כהונה as his reward for his efforts.

Anyone who thinks he’s on the level of Pinchas, is arrogant and mistaken. We should only strive to be like him, and act strictly לשם שמים. This, too can bring Hashem’s honor and glory to the world.

The Empty Cup

The Gemara in Brachot 40a, makes an interesting observation about the difference between Hashem and man.

Regarding one of flesh and blood, he is only able to fill an empty cup. If the cup is full, there is no place to add any further contents.

This is just the opposite when it comes to the ways of Hashem. An empty cup is a reference to one who is empty of knowledge and deeds. He has no interest or ability to fill his cup with holiness and spirituality.

But the one whose cup is full of Torah and Chessed, is a receptacle for more and more of the שפע, or abundance, provided by Hashem.

Our job is to become proper receptacles to receive Hashem’s blessings.

A Desire for Wealth and a Desire for Torah

The תורה תמימה makes a comparison between Bilaam and רב יוסי בן קסמא in Pirkei Avot.

Bilaam tells Balak that even if he gives him a house full of gold and silver, he refuses to violate the word of G-d.

Rav Yossi says to a community that offered him a lucrative financial gain to become their rabbi, the following: “If you give me all the gold and silver of the world, I refuse to live anywhere but in a place of Torah.”

Rashi concludes that Bilaam was very desirous of gold and silver. The Torah Temima says that Rav Yossi was not materialistic at all.

The difference between the two is that Rav Yossi was offered actual real wealth and he refused it. Balak only promised Bilaam honor and never promised wealth.

Bilaam revealed his true desires. Rav Yossi revealed his true love of Torah.

Free Will

The Gemara in מכות comments on why Hashem ultimately allowed Bilaam to go with Balak after He told him not to go. The message here is בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך מוליכין אותו מן השמים. The direction which one wishes to go, is where he is led from Heaven.

This is very much in line with the idea that הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים, all is from Heaven, except fear of Heaven. The concept of free will is often misunderstood. While so much of our lives is in Hashem’s hands, we do make certain basic decisions. These decisions are specific to the path we choose to take.

If one desires holiness and spirituality, Hashem will set things in motion that we be able to acquire such holiness.

In Bilaam’s case, he was interested in the wealth promised by Balak. When G-d saw this, it was as if He said, “You made the choice. I will honor your decision and let you go. But because it’s the wrong decision, you will live to regret it.”

We make the major decisions in our lives by way of our free will. We only have to hope they are the right ones in the eyes of G-d.

No Father Hates His Son

Shavua Tov. The Gemara in מסכת סנהדרין makes an interesting observation about how the elders of Midyan and Moab tried to convince Bilaam to come and curse עם ישראל.

When Bilaam tells them to wait until the following morning because he needed to ask permission from Hashem, the Pasuk says וישבו שרי מואב עם בלעם, that the officers of Moab remained with him.

The Gemara asks what happened to שרי מדין? The answer is that once Bilaam told them that he needed to ask for Hashem’s permission, they knew that he wasn’t coming with them. They said, כלום יש אב ששונא את בנו, “Is there any father who hates his son?” The שרי מדין understood that we are Hashem’s children. No father, and certainly not Hashem, would show such hatred for his son, that he would give anyone permission to harm his son. Therefore, they gave up and went home.

Balak and Anti-Semitism

Rabbi Soloveitchik views Parshat Balak as a lesson in learning about anti-semitism. Aside from Bilaam and Balak who hated the Jews, there is also a reference to Amalek. They were the first to attack Israel for no reason at all.

Based on all of this, the Rav comes to the conclusion that there is no rational reason for hating Jews. We see at the end of the Parsha that the hatred was so deep that Balak sent princesses into promiscuous behavior, in order to weaken the Jewish people.

We must be aware that we are a nation that dwells apart. We are meant to be separate and unique in the world.

Therefore, Jewish unity becomes essential. When we are united, no force on earth can harm us. Jews all over the world must stand together regardless of their backgrounds.

Balak speaks of the uniqueness of the Jewish nation, as well as the reality of anti-semitism in the world. The result of this reality is Jewish unity and how vital it is for our existence. Shabbat Shalom.