Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
When you walk into a room where people are sitting close to the floor with a prominent rip in their clothing, the atmosphere is heavy and sad. Not a word is exchanged. Then a menachem, a comforter, walks into the room. Initially, the people on the floor look up at their visitor with sad, knowing eyes. Then they slowly come alive, sharing stories of their departed loved one, exchanging reminiscences. “What do you remember?” they ask. “What can you share?” They then accept words of chizuk as expressed in the eternal phrase of nechomah: HaMakom yenacheim es’chem.
During these days of Av, we are all mourners. We remember the time when the Bais Hamikdosh stood in the center of Yerushalayim. We reflect on how different and blessed life was at that time. We think about all the tragedies that occurred to the Jews throughout the ages and become sad, because we know that Tisha B’Av is the repository of sadness and mourning for everything that has befallen us.
The tragedy and sadness have to be part of our essence. We have to mourn, not look for ways to free ourselves from displaying that as believing Jews, we realize our history and what has befallen our people in the churban and ever since. How can we laugh and party when the memory of the six million is with us in this period? How can we engage in happy and fun activities while remembering the Harugei Beitar, the millions of our brothers and sisters who were led into slavery?
How can we be so callous about Jewish suffering? Just this past Shabbos, innocent Jews were slaughtered at a Shabbos table in Eretz Yisroel. How can we not feel their pain? How can the reaction to such a tragedy be more apathy? In these days of Av, how can we not mourn what happened to this family and so many others like it?
The halachos of the Nine Days are not simply laws that we outwardly observe. Nor should we look for ways to wiggle out of them. They are meant to influence our thought and feelings during this time. An observant Jew is meant to be in a state of sadness these days, contemplating our losses, as a mourner would do. We are lacking if we don’t feel the losses in our hearts.
We all know that the second Bais Hamidkosh was destroyed because sinas chinom was prevalent amongst Jews at that time (Yoma 9b). However, the Gemara in Maseches Sanhedrin (104b) points to the chet hameraglim as the cause of the destruction. It was on the 9th day of Av that the Jews in the desert cried for naught. Their “bechiyah shel chinom” echoes all these years, giving generation after generation many reasons to cry.
Too many of us no longer cry. That itself is a reason to cry.
The meraglim lacked the ability to see themselves for who they were. They were reduced to the size of insects in their own eyes, feeling small and insignificant, because they accepted the attitudes and views of others as fact.
The Jews heard their report of their mission to the land that Hashem promised them and broke down in tears. “Woe is to us,” they cried. “We are being led to a country that will destroy us.” They were insecure about their ability to merit Hashem’s blessing and protection. They feared that they wouldn’t be worthy of the promises that they would inherit the Land.
They didn’t perceive their own greatness.
The historical accounts of the churban Bais Hamikdosh appear in Maseches Gittin because the break between Klal Yisroel and Hakadosh Boruch Hu was a tragedy not unlike a get (divorce). The novi Yeshayahu cries out (50:1), “Ei zeh sefer krisus imchem asher shelachtiha – Which get has Hashem sent you.”
Hashem, however, never stopped loving His people. He never divorced Himself from them. There was no get. The people who were singled out and set apart with privileges unavailable to others believed that they had been cast aside. Because they lacked self-confidence, they were easily misled and taken in by apocalyptic predictions.
Years later, during the period of Bayis Sheini, although the Jewish people were religiously committed, the rot at the root of the chet hameraglim was still present. Because the people were cynical, negative and pessimistic, they didn’t feel Hashem’s love, nor did they appreciate His proximity. They didn’t see the Jewish people as being worthy of Divine love, so they hated each other. They wrote sifrei krisus to each other because they didn’t appreciate the greatness inherent in every individual Jew. Insecure, they were blind to their own worth and, like the Jews at the time of the chet hameraglim, because they felt undeserving, they didn’t appreciate what they were given.
On Tisha B’Av, mourning is how we repent for what they did. We sit on the floor, reciting Kinnos, recalling how good we had it, how much love there was, how close we were to Hashem, and the holiness and unity that were apparent in our lives. We bemoan the losses we suffered. We recognize through our tears how much Hashem loved us, and we proclaim that we know that He still loves us and that we are worthy of that love. By doing this, we repent for the sins of the meraglim and sinas chinom.
Many of our problems are rooted in the sin of low self-esteem, of not realizing who we are. People give up on becoming great even before starting the process. They are easily knocked off course and lose motivation to succeed and excel, because they don’t believe in themselves. This is one of the ways the yeitzer hora causes us to live a hopeless, sad and sometimes self-hating life.
We don’t talk about it much, and maybe we should, but that doesn’t mean there is not an epidemic of young people who hate themselves and cause themselves pain because they can’t cope. These people start out like the rest of us, but because of bad vibes they pick up, they end up on a downhill trajectory and often hit bottom.
To get up, they need love, they need care, they need self-value, and they need to know that they make a difference and their lives are important. It may be easier said than done, but it saves lives and makes us and them better people.
How do we combat it? By putting our arm around a young person’s shoulder and letting them know that they are loved. By talking to them and treating them with respect, we instill self-pride in them.
How do we combat it? By talking up to people, not down. By pumping people up, not taking them down. By not being judgmental and by bearing in mind that every person wants to feel good about themselves. You can help them have that feeling if you talk to them as if their lives have worth, no matter how they act and how they look.
By caring about people and their feelings, you are helping give people a lifeline and a reason to carry on.
Chazal famously teach us that a generation that doesn’t merit the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh is viewed as having had the Bais Hamikdosh destroyed in its time. The Sefas Emes explains that anyone who doesn’t believe that their actions can contribute to the building of the Bais Hamikdosh is accountable for its destruction. Those who don’t realize that they have the power to bring about the return of the Bais Hamikdosh have a part in its destruction.
To believe that we make no difference is part of the churban.
Our response to churban is to have faith in ourselves and know what we are, who we are, and what we can achieve.
This, says the Sefas Emes, is what’s meant by the brocha we recite in Birkas Hamazon referring to Hashem as the “bonei (presently building) berachamov Yerushalayim.” Rebuilding the Holy City is a steady, ongoing process. At any given moment, Hashem is rebuilding Yerushalayim. It is destructive to think that we can’t play a role in that process.
We lost the Bais Hamikdosh because of two related sins: bechiyah shel chinom, a futile cry, and sinas chinom, baseless hatred.
Rav Yecheskel Abramsky quoted the posuk which states, “Umacha Hashem dimah mei’al kol ponim.” He explained that Hakadosh Boruch Hu will wipe off the tears of every Jewish face. “If every Jew is precious enough to Hashem that He takes the time to wipe off the tears of every face,” he said, “then we also have to do our part to erase tears and pain.”
Our every act, word and tear has a purpose. They are not for naught, chinom. Realizing what a Jew represents is the greatest and most effective antidote to sinas chinom. Each of us carries so much power. We have to appreciate the mitzvos and ma’asim tovim of our friends and see their efforts with an ayin tovah.
In a Tisha B’Av shmuess, Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi succinctly commented, “One who looks at his friend with sinas chinom and mocks the efforts of his fellow Jew isn’t just a hater, but an idol-worshipper. Because he wants every person around him to act as he does, think as he does, and agree with him about everything, he worships no one but himself.”
On Tisha B’Av, we see that no one is chinom and nothing they do is chinom. We re-learn how to love. We recognize that just because we look differently and act differently doesn’t mean that we are inherently different. Because the other fellow wears green and we wear black doesn’t mean that we should hate him and throw stuff at him. Just because someone dresses differently doesn’t mean he is not worthy of love and care.
The Chofetz Chaim would travel from town to town selling his seforim. It happened that he found himself staying at a Vilna kosher inn. At mealtime, a large burly fellow walked in and sat himself down at the table. He called over the server and ordered her to bring him roast duck and a large glass of an adult beverage. When the food came, he grabbed it from the server and began to eat voraciously, without a brocha or any decency and manners.
The owner saw that the Chofetz Chaim was appalled by the man’s behavior and was debating whether to get up and speak to the man. He walked over to the sainted gaon and begged him not to go over to the glutton and not to say anything to him. He was worried that something would break out. The uncouth man was a veteran of Czar Nicolai’s army and was liable to curse and lay a hand on the Chofetz Chaim.
The innkeeper approached the Chofetz Chaim. “Please, rebbe,” he said, “leave him alone. There is no one to talk to. He is an illiterate bully. When he was seven, he was taken away with other Jewish children and, as cantonists, they were taken to Siberia. He grew up with local peasants, and when he was 18 years old, he was inducted into the Czar’s army, where he spent twenty-five years.
“Forty years of his life found him among uncivilized ruffians, far removed from any Jewish community. He never learned a word of Torah and never saw a Jewish face. Rebbe, please don’t start up with him. Your respect is worth more to me than getting into a tussle with him.”
“Have no fear,” Klal Yisroel’s rebbi responded. “I can speak to him and set him straight.”
With that, the Chofetz Chaim lovingly and with a smile approached the man. “Shalom Aleichem. Is it true that you were kidnapped as a young child, taken to Siberia, grew up among gentiles, and never merited to study even one word of Torah?
“It would seem to me that you suffered gehennom in this world, enduring various types of torture. No doubt they mocked your religion, tried to convert you, and forced you to eat pig and other non-kosher foods. Despite all you went through, they didn’t break you and you remained a Jew.
“I would be glad to have the sources of merit that you have and be a ben Olam Haba as you are. All the decades of mesirus nefesh for Yiddishkeit and kevod Shomayim rank you with the greatest of our people. In the World to Come, you will be seated among the giants of our people, the tzaddikim and gaonim.”
As the Chofetz Chaim spoke, tears began streaming down the face of the tough army veteran. He was shaken by the loving words of praise and support. His heart was touched as it never was before.
When the man found out who was speaking to him, he began to cry loudly and kissed the Chofetz Chaim.
The aged tzaddik completed his pitch: “A person such as you merited being considered a kadosh who was moser nefesh for Hashem. If you live the rest of your life as a ‘kosher Jew,’ you will be the happiest man alive.”
The former cantonist undertook to do teshuvah and became an observant Jew.
Parshas Devorim, like the rest of the last seder of the Torah, is Moshe Rabbeinu’s farewell message to his people. This week’s parsha introduces us to the seder that describes the stay of the Bnei Yisroel in the midbar and ends with prophetic words concerning their entry into Eretz Yisroel.
The Jewish people went on to settle the land, erected the Mishkon in Shilo, built the Botei Mikdosh in Yerushalayim, and experienced two churbanos before being tragically evicted from the land promised to them. They were sent into golus, where we remain until this day.
We will reach our desired state of shleimus when we will be gathered from exile and permanently brought to Eretz Yisroel with the geulah.
Rabbeinu Bachya (Devorim 1:1, 30:3) explains that the main role of Eretz Yisroel will also only be realized after the final redemption. Our people lived in the land for a temporary, relatively short period. After Moshiach returns us there, the purpose for which the world was created will be realized. Thus, the final pesukim of the Torah connect to the first ones in Bereishis. This is because the permanent return of Klal Yisroel to Eretz Yisroel is similar to the creation of the world, because at that time it will begin realizing the purpose for which it was established.
Similarly, Chazal teach, “Sofo na’utz b’sechilaso,” the end is tied to and rooted in the beginning. The paths, peaks and valleys of our existence combine to lead to our destiny.
Seder Devorim begins with Moshe Rabbeinu rebuking his people, because to merit geulah and entry into Eretz Yisroel, they had to engage in teshuvah. As the Rambam says (Hilchos Teshuvah 7:5), “Ein Yisroel nigolin ela beseshuvah,” Klal Yisroel will only be redeemed if we engage in proper and complete teshuvah.
Since Moshe loved his nation and selflessly wanted them to be able to enter the land that Hashem promised their forefathers, he admonished them with love and respect so that they would accept his tochacha. He spoke to them in a way that preserved their self-esteem (Rashi, Devorim 1:1; see also Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 4:2), because he knew that for people to accept mussar, it is usually advantageous to maintain their dignity.
It’s not as if Moshe wasn’t aware of their obstinate and disrespectful nature. Rashi (ibid.) explains that Moshe gave them mussar only after the entire nation had gathered in one place. Moshe knew the nature of these people and wanted to prevent loathsome characters from being able to proclaim that had they been there, they would have spoken back to and challenged Moshe. Therefore, he gathered them all together, indicating, “If you have what to say, say it here to my face.”
Despite his keen understanding of their displeasing behavior, his speech was laced with love and respect. The role of parents, teachers and leaders when reproaching is to do so without destroying the person, while providing clarity about the correct path and conveying confidence for the future.
It is commonly noted that we lain this parsha before Tisha B’Av because it contains Moshe’s admonition beginning with the word “Eicha,” which we lain in the same tune as Megillas Eicha on Tisha B’Av.
Perhaps we can suggest that another reason is to teach us how to give mussar and bring people home. It is not by demeaning them, yelling at them, or making them feel utterly useless. It is by crafting the corrective message with sensitivity and infusing it with love, demonstrating that it emanates from a loving and intelligent heart.
Man is created with a heart and a brain, impulses and emotions, competing character traits, and a complicated psychology and thinking process. In his youth, a person requires parents and teachers to set him on the proper path and teach him Torah, responsibility and manners. He needs to be shown and taught how to think and how to act. Man has successes and failures as he goes through life. Due to his very nature, he often requires course corrections by real friends, family and those who care about him.
Torah and mitzvos help us battle the ever-present yeitzer hora, but that is not always sufficient. Every generation has unique temptations. The further we get from Sinai, the harder it is to deal with them. Just like Noach in his day – Chazal say, “Noach hayah tzorich sa’ad letomcho” – we all need help to make it and can’t always do it on our own.
To the degree that people recognize this, they can be sources of support and constructive chastisement.
It is interesting that this month of Jewish tragedy is referred to as Av, which is the same as the word meaning father. Perhaps we can say that it is a reminder to us to reprimand, with fatherly love, those whose sins prevent us from realizing the redemption, treating others as a father would and lending them a shoulder to lean on and a hand to help them climb.
It is a reminder to act as Moshe did, as the Chofetz Chaim did, admonishing in a way that could be accepted so that the people would merit exiting their golus and entering the land of geulah.
The Torah teaches us to understand difficult moments by recognizing that “just as a father punishes his son, Hashem punishes Klal Yisroel” (Devorim 8:5).
We are to understand that when we are hurt by Hashem, it is an act of love, not anger. A parent disciplines because he wants to prod his child to growth and success. Even when the admonishment is painful, it is understood to be in context of parental love and hope.
So, during Chodesh Av, we read this week’s parsha, in which Moshe Rabbeinu, the av lenevi’im, the most effective rebbi we have ever had and the eternal Jewish father figure, demonstrates how a loving father offers rebuke.
In order to bring people to teshuvah, which will bring us to the ultimate geulah, we need to preach as Moshe preached, and rebuke and reprimand as he did.
An examination of the posuk beginning with the word “Eicha” reveals the state of the Jewish people at the time of Moshe Rabbeinu’s talk with them. Far from a great people simply lacking in refinement, they were actually rambunctious apikorsim, who would mock Moshe and incessantly quarrel among themselves (Rashi, Devorim 1:12).
Yet, Moshe saw greatness in them and worked to bring them to the level that would allow Hashem to end their golus and bring them to Eretz Yisroel. So too, in our day, if we are mochiach with love, treating all Jews as brothers and sisters, and care about them, we can also help bring the nation out of golus and into geulah.
So much Jewish blood has been shed. So much heartache has been felt throughout the centuries in exile. On Tisha B’Av, we sit on the floor and plaintively ask, “Lamah lanetzach tishkocheinu?” For how long will death endure? For how much longer will we linger in golus? We want to go home.
Help us follow in the paths of Moshe Rabbeinu and the Moshes of every generation. Help us love all Jews and bring them back. Help us show them the way so that we can all finally go home.
Enough with hate. Bring on the love.
On Tisha B’Av, we say in unison, “Hashiveinu, Hashem eilecha venoshuvah, chadeish yomeinu k’kedem. Hashem, bring us back to You…”
People all over say and intone these words with love and inspiration. Hashem, we know that Your arms are opened wide, waiting to receive us. We know that we are worthy of Your embrace.
Bring us back. Take us back. We’re ready.