By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Every year, as the months of Tammuz and Av approach, we are reminded of how far we are from where we need to be. Thanks to the material comforts we enjoy, we grow comfortable in the exile, and lose the sense Jews once had of being painfully distant from our real home and our leaders of yore.
Sixty years after we, as a people, were almost exterminated, we have staged a miraculous comeback. Despite whatever hardships we are experiencing due to global financial and political turmoil, we enjoy unprecedented wealth, comfort and political influence.
Yet we have short memories. We forget the terrible poverty and hardships Jews suffered for centuries in “the old country” and romanticize about the alter heim as if it were the Promised Land.
I was recently reading an interview with Reb Yankel Finkelstein in a new book entitled “Shimchah Lo Shachachnu,” which recounts the experiences of bnei yeshiva before and during World War II.
Reb Yankel Finkelstein discusses the poverty that was rampant in the pre-war shtetel. He speaks of how he went barefoot and hungry, and how many young people left the fold because they couldn’t cope with a life of such impoverishment. He reminisces about the time a dignitary arrived in town from Warsaw and held a melava malka for ten local askanim. Reb Yankel was a youngster at the time and was sent to purchase a can of sardines for the feast. The can was opened and each guest was given one sardine to eat. One sardine! He savored the treat so much, the memory of its succulence remained vivid even decades later.
We are blessed with so much that we can’t fathom that people lived under such conditions not so very long ago. As difficult as our situation may be, we aren’t facing starvation. We aren’t forced to make do with one sardine as a delicacy, or to quiet an empty, churning stomach with crusts of bread. We take everything for granted and don’t seem to really appreciate our blessings.
This is not to minimize the financial difficulties afflicting many people today due to the economic downturn. Some people don’t have money for the basics. Tuition goes unpaid and many parents can no longer afford to send their children to camp. It cost so much to maintain the American lifestyle. Without significant income, many people are strapped and don’t know where to turn.
Our brothers in Eretz Yisroel are suffering as well. Although families there always lived on lower economic levels, with large families crowded into small, two-bedroom apartments, people were content with what they had. The mothers and girls had one Shabbos dress apiece and the fathers and boys possessed one Shabbos suit, yet they didn’t feel deprived. Now, with the economy in free-fall and government safety-nets pulled, things have worsened for thousands of our brothers in Eretz Yisroel. Their grinding poverty recalls Reb Yankel Finkelstein’s generation, when people went to bed hungry.
We meet many people from these unfortunate families on this side of the ocean as they work their way through our neighborhoods, knocking on doors and asking for a handout. We view them as intruding shnorrers. Perhaps some of them fit that description, but if we were to stop and speak to these people before handing them a dollar, we would find many wonderful geshmake individuals who simply have no place to turn. By the time they have joined the circuit of door-to-door begging, they are way past their last dollar, heavily in debt. Unemployment is rampant-there are simply no jobs. As a desperate last resort, they take out another loan and buy a plane ticket to New York.
They come here and travel from shul to shul and house to house, some with sad eyes and some with hearts full of bitachon and simcha. They trudge about waiting to find good Jews who will have rachmanus on them and treat them like human beings, not unwanted outcasts.
We are jaded. There are so many of them, it seems, that we can’t possibly treat them all with kindness and patience. Do we ever stop to imagine ourselves in their place? Do we ever stop to contemplate the fact that if not for the hashgacha that caused us to be born and raised in this land of plenty, we might easily be them?
In essence, we are them! We are in a place we don’t belong, knocking ourselves out to feed our families and meet our obligations. Though we don’t feel it as much as they do, we are dependent upon the mercy of our Father to find favor in the eyes of people we meet and those with whom we do business. We are fortunate that He showers kindness upon us and gives us what we need-sometimes even more, to enable us to lend a helping hand to relatives, friends, neighbors and Yidden from around the world who need assistance.
In order for us to begin the march out of golus, we have to begin rectifying the way we view each other. It is not just the way we view people who come looking for a handout, but the way we treat the guy next door and the fellow we meet in the bais medrash. Until we treat other people the way we would like to be treated, we are doomed to remain in golus-far from our true home.
If, through our skewed way of dealing with fellow Jews, we rob others of their dignity, and mock those who do good and mean well, we will not merit the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh. As a splintered nation, with individuals and factions acting on their own and without having the greater good in mind, we delay the arrival of our final redemption. If we live life in attack mode, undermining true leadership and seeking to destroy those who are trying to make our world a better place, we are in effect consigning ourselves to continued golus.
Chazal remind us that hateful and spiteful behavior between Jews is the one force that holds back the geulah more than any other. In the days when Reb Yankel Finkelstein thought a sardine was a treat, Jews appreciated each other and didn’t seek to take advantage of one another. During the Holocaust period, when Jewish blood was made cheap, Jews knew to value one another. There were always internecine squabbles, but not to the degree that we experience today in our period of plenty.
Hakadosh Boruch Hu has blessed us with abundance. We have risen so miraculously from the ashes of the Holocaust that we don’t fathom the miraculous nature of our revival. Nor have we sustained that love and appreciation for a fellow Jews that survivors and victims felt.
The Talmud Yerushalmi teaches the following message about sinas chinom: (Yoma 1:1): “We find that the first Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because there were those who were ovdei avodah zarah, megalei arayos and shofchei domim. We know that the Jews during the period of the second Bais Hamikdosh studied Torah and observed the mitzvos, were punctilious in giving maaser, and had proper middos. Yet they loved their money and hated each other for no reason, and sinas chinom is as great a sin as the three cardinal aveiros.” The Bavli in Yoma (9a) contains a similar narrative.
The Vilna Gaon explains that the severity of sinas chinom stems from the fact that at the root of the hatred and jealousy lies lack of trust in Hashem.
Those who are jealous and those who resent other people’s success in essence deny that Hashem runs the world, and decides what each person should receive. People who are consumed with accumulating wealth attribute their gains to their own talents. They don’t believe that Hashem decrees how much people earn. Anyone who surpasses them in business, career, talent, status or popularity becomes the object of their jealousy, resentment and hatred. When they see the size of another person’s house, they are overcome with anger. When they see someone else make money, they hate them. “How dare they! Who do they think they are?!” Were they to believe that all a person has comes from Hashem, they wouldn’t be so filled with jealousy and hatred.
That is the explanation of the words of the Yerushalmi. The Jews of the generation of the bayis shaini loved their money and they therefore hated others with sinas chinom.
Since the Bais Hamkidosh has not been returned to us, it is an indication that we have still not overcome the sins of sinas chinom caused by jealousy. We are still consumed by these dark forces. We can’t stand to see other people succeed, and when they do, we endeavor to rip them down. We are constantly judging others negatively. We have our fingers on the trigger waiting to catch someone making a mistake so we can embarrass them and destroy them.
The Mishnah states that the epitome of strength is embodied by the person who controls his yeitzer. The truly rich person is he who is happy with his lot. The Maharal comments on this Mishnah that if one can defeat others, it is not necessarily because of his own personal strength; it may be because of his opponent’s weakness. However, if he triumphs over the evil inclination which seeks to entrap him, that is the true yardstick of strength. He is not strong because his opponent is weak; he is strong because he has beaten a strong opponent.
In the same vein, if one considers himself wealthy because of his holdings, then his wealth is determined by outside factors and is never secure. On the other hand, if a person is content with whatever Hashem assigns him, that kind of “merchandise” can never be diminished by outside circumstances, and is thus the only real, enduring wealth.
We all seek wealth, comfort and happiness. We long for an end to our suffering and pray for the golus to end. Those blessings are contingent on one thing; our determination to defeat the urge to believe in our own abilities and deny the Hand of Hashem.
Since sinas chinom ultimately flows from jealousy and jealousy is a product of egotism, we have to work on the antidote: strengthening our trust and belief in Hashem, as well as our love of our fellow Jews. We must work on treating everyone with the dignity, respect and compassion with which we ourselves want to be treated.
In that merit, may we all be zoche to celebrate Tisha B’Av as a Yom Tov in Yerushalayim Habenuyah this year.