The Mishna (Taanis) states, “Mi’shenichnas Av Mi’maatin B’simcha, when the month of Av begins, we decrease our displays of joy.” This is a heavy month. A month filled with historical and contemporary tragedy. A month in which we commemorate the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and at the same time, actively mourn the members of the Salomon family from Halamish who were brutally murdered at their Shabbos table. But the Mishna reminds us that the root of the mourning and devastation of this month is the Sin of the Spies. We couldn’t take God at His word, we couldn’t take Moshe at his word, we had to find out for ourselves. So we approached Moshe and told him we wanted to send spies. The results were tragic. The spies returned and told the people that the Land and its inhabitants were simply “unconquerable.” These demoralizing words sent the people into a downward spiral. They cried. And it is here that the Talmud records a dramatic statement: “God said, ‘You have cried unnecessary tears, I will cause you to cry for many generations to come (Taanis 31).’” When did this report and Divine response occur? On the 9th of Av. It is the sin of the spies that created the tragic foundation for this difficult day. A foundation, which has seen layer after layer of tragedy added to it over the last two thousand years.
But did the punishment fit the crime? I understand that we were ungrateful and lacked faithfulness. But to condemn every Jew (over the age of 20) to death in the desert; to mark this day for ongoing tragedy – seems a bit disproportionate? Furthermore, the people tried to do teshuva (repent). The very next morning the Torah relates that the people arose early in the morning and ascended to the mountain top, saying, “We are ready to go up to the place of which the Lord spoke, for we have sinned.” Moses said, “Why do you transgress the word of the Lord? It will not succeed. Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you, [so that] you will not be beaten by your enemies (Bamidbar 14:39-41).” They acknowledged their mistake and they tried to right the wrong, yet the punishment was still severe and swift. How are we to understand the nature of their mistake and the Divine reaction?
The Dubno Maggid (Rabbi Yaakov Kranz, 1740-1804) explains this dynamic with a mashal (parable). There was a fine young man who was known to be a Torah scholar with sterling middos (character traits) who was engaged to marry a young woman from a very wealthy family. One day the fathers were sitting down to discuss the financial arrangements for the upcoming wedding. The father of the bride told the father of the groom, “I am so happy our children are getting married, we will be happy to pay for the wedding. My only request is that you take care of outfitting your son for the wedding. But it is important that you buy him a suit of the finest materials.” To which the father of the groom responded, “My dear friend, I, too, share your excitement for the upcoming wedding of our children and I have much appreciation for your generosity. I am a man of virtually no means and while I can certainly afford a basic wardrobe for my son, I can’t purchase the type of clothing you are suggesting.” “Well if you can’t provide this one small part, then the wedding is off!” replied the father of the bride. And so the beautiful match ended. A few months went by and the father of the bride regretted his hasty decision. The groom was such a fine young man with such sterling character, how could he justify breaking off the nuptials over a suit. He contacted the father of the groom and voiced his desire to have their children marry. “My dear friend, replied the father of the groom, my son is a very special young man who has much potential. Yet, you were willing to cast him aside because of a suit. Any family that would treat my son this way doesn’t truly appreciate who my son is. I no longer wish for my son to be a part of your family.”
The Dubno Maggid explains, when the spies maligned the Land of Israel, it highlighted a fundamental lack of love and appreciation for the Land. This wasn’t simply a lack of proper judgment; this sin represented a fundamental lack of understanding of the preciousness and holiness of the Land. A mistake of this magnitude could not simply be remedied by attempting to march on the Land the next day, nor could it be remedied by simply apologizing. It would take another forty years of nomadic existence to cultivate an appreciation for a home, for a land, for a destiny. The real sin of the spies was that all they saw were the problems; they didn’t see the beauty and good.
There is nothing in life that is perfect, everything and everyone has their strengths and weaknesses but if all I see is what is broken and wrong – I end up appreciating nothing. Many of us have struggles with which we must contend each and every day but we must be careful that these struggles don’t obscure or eclipse our blessings. It is easy to lose one’s self in the sadness and despair of difficult circumstances. We must always maintain a healthy disposition and recognize all of the beautiful berachos and bounty we possess as well.
This lesson has an important interpersonal ramification as well. There is an amazing Gemara.
Rabbi Chiya’s wife was a difficult person. Yet, whenever he would come across a nice item he would purchase it, wrap it and give it to his wife (as a gift). Rav (Rabbi Chiya’s student) observed this and said, ‘Rebbe, why are you doing this? We see how she often mistreats you. To which Rabbi Chiya responded, ‘It is enough (I have gratitude) that she raises the children (she is a wonderful mother) and saves me from sin’ (Yevamos 63a).”
Apparently Rabbi Chiya didn’t have a story book marriage. There were complications. Yet, Rabbi Chiya chose to see the beautiful parts of his wife’s personality. Rabbi Chiya realized that in life nothing and no one is perfect – and you have to choose through which lens you will view others and the world. People wrong us, people hurt us, but we must learn how to see the positive aspects in the other. This is not just in marriage. The Rabbi Chiya standard must guide and inform all of our interpersonal relationships.
This coming week, we will observe what is undoubtedly the saddest day in our year, the 9th of Av. It is a day when we remember 2,000 years of tragedy, loss and sadness. It is a day when we will remember the sin of the spies, the more than 1,000,000 who died when Yerushalayim fell to the Romans, the 6,000,000 Kedoshim, those who have been murdered in acts of terror and tragedy. There are many things that are broken in the world and so many things that are broken within each of us. Tisha B’Av is a day of tears for all that has been lost. Tisha B’Av is a day when we cry for the dreams which never materialized. Tisha B’Av is a day when we cry for those we have lost and whose absence is acutely felt by our nation. Yet, we must remember that even on Tisha B’Av itself, the mourning practices lessen as the day progresses. Because after we cry and after we mourn we must remind ourselves that all is not lost. We each have beautiful blessings, each of us are beautiful blessings. As we dry our tears we pledge to ourselves that we will not lose ourselves in the abyss of sadness or despair. I will focus on that which is good. I will focus on my blessings. I will strain myself to see something beautiful and positive in every person. I will push myself to actively take stock of my personal blessings. I won’t be a spy. I won’t live life with a skewed perception. Perhaps, this is the merit we need. If we see the good in the other, ourselves and the world, maybe this will be the last Tisha B’Av marked with mourning.
May we merit to see the coming of Moshiach, the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash and the drying of our tears.
The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan to the land of Canaan, you shall designate cities for yourselves; they shall be cities of refuge for you, and a murderer who killed a person unintentionally shall flee there. These cities shall serve you as a refuge from an avenger, so that the murderer shall not die until he stands in judgment before the congregation. The cities that you provide shall serve as six cities of refuge for you. You shall provide the three cities in trans-Jordan and the three cities in the land of Canaan; they shall be cities of refuge. These six cities shall be a refuge for the children of Israel and for the proselyte and resident among them, so that anyone who unintentionally kills a person can flee there (Bamidbar 35:9-15).
The Torah provides protection for the accidental killer through the creation of the Ir Miklat, the City of Refuge. These cities were scattered throughout the land and provided refuge to the individual who had inadvertently killed another. From the Torah’s perspective there is a strong level of personal liability even for an accidental act. Therefore, the accidental killer must remain within the city of refuge in order to avoid the vengeance of the victim’s surviving relatives.
But what is the message? What is the accidental killer supposed to learn during his exile? And by extension what we are to learn from the city of refuge?
Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt’l (1910-2012) provides a beautiful insight. The Gemara questions why the accidental killer should be subject to any repercussions. After all, accidents happen. To which the Gemara responds, “D’ibayey L’Iyunei,” he should have been more cognizant and aware. Accidents are often the result of not paying enough attention to the task at hand. Accidents occur because of a lack of focus and dedicated attentiveness. But it is not only tragic accidents which occur because I am not paying attention. Sometimes, I fail to progress and move my life forward because I am too busy multi-tasking. There are times when I fail to place my full strength and abilities into a particular life endeavor and therefore, I don’t move forward. The accidental killer in the extreme example of one who lives life without dedicated focus and attentiveness. But this is something many of us struggle with. We begin something meaningful and beautiful and then lose focus on the intended aspiration. We create lofty goals and then get busy with other things. The accidental killer must remain in the city of refuge in order to regain his life focus. The cities of refuge were also home to the Tribe of Levi. The Leviim were individuals with a singular focus. Their tribal mandate was to serve in the Temple and provide religious instruction and leadership for the nation. They were so dedicated to this mandate that nothing would distract them. Hence, they were not given additional lands in Israel lest they get distracted with farming. They were supported through various tithes lest they get caught up in a career. They embodied the power of singular focus. And so, the accidental killer who is stricken with “life distraction” must remain in the ir miklat, where he can observe the Leviim and learn about “life focus.”
The Apter Rav, known affectionately as the Oheiv Yisroel (Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heshel, Poland, 1748- 1825) advances a different explanation. The Rebbe explains that the original six Cities of Refuge correspond to the six words we recite daily in the Shema, Shema Yisroel Ado-nai Elohey-nu Ado-nai Echad, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” After crossing the Jordan and settling in Israel there were another forty two cities designated as cities of refuge – for a total of forty-eight cities of refuge. The number of words from the beginning of Shema through the end of the first paragraph (V’Ahavta) totals forty-eight. The Oheiv Yisroel explained the deeper meaning behind this connection. The declaration of Shema Yisroel is a “City of Refuge” in which any Jew, no matter what his sin or history, can find shelter and protection.
We live in a fast-paced, ever-changing world. We look to find an anchor, something to hold on to, something to ground us, a stabilizing force in the sometimes turbulent waters of life. A meaningful and passionate relationship with God provides that sought after stability. This is the connection between the cities of refuge and the words of Shema. Just as the city of refuge provided safety and security for one in a dangerous and precarious situation – the words of Shema, the Torah, Mitzvos and all forms of connection with God endow us with a sense of protection, safety and security. And in the same way a city of refuge welcomed the individual despite the fact that he had made a terrible mistake – God’s embrace is open to all – even those who may be spiritually tarnished or compromised.
These are the profound lessons and messages of the ir miklat. The City of Refuge reminds us to be attentive in life. Keep your eye on the ball. If there are things you need to accomplish don’t lose your focus. Because the moment you stop paying attention is the moment your life can go in all kinds of unintended directions. The City of Refuge reminds us that God loves us and is willing to welcome us back home no matter how severe our mistakes and missteps may be. Even if we have wandered or strayed, even if we have lost our direction, God provides us with multiple avenues of connection in an effort to provide us with life-lines and refuge in the most difficult of times.
This coming week we will usher in the Hebrew month of Av. This is a month in which we commemorate two thousand years of tragedy, sadness and persecution. It is during Av that we remember the destruction of our two Temples, the crusades, the pogroms and the Holocaust. It is during this month that we remember the millions lost throughout centuries of hardship and sadness. It is during this month that we focus on our present day challenges as individuals and as a nation. Despite the adversity we must recommit ourselves to actualizing our dreams and goals. We can’t get distracted or lose direction. We must lead attentive lives. Despite the adversity we must remember how truly privileged we are to have the opportunity to create, cultivate and nurture a relationship with God. It is this relationship that is our anchor, it is this relationship that fills us with courage, it is this relationship that provides us the safety and security we so desperately need. The words of our Torah, beautiful Mitzvos, moving prayers, and acts of kindness are the cities of refuge to which we must journey.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal. Therefore, say, “I hereby give him My covenant of peace. (Bamidbar 25:10-12)
It was a dark chapter for our people. We had fallen into the abyss of immorality with the nation of Midyan. Pinchas saw the terrible Chilul Hashem (Desecration of God’s name) and took decisive action to stop this downward spiral. His actions were not motivated by anger or resentment; they were a manifestation of his love, care and concern for his people. As a result God rewards him with the covenant of peace, bris shalom.
Pinchas was fortunate in that he was given the covenant of peace, we too must work to create this bris shalom for ourselves. Especially, during this period of time, the Three Weeks we must try to right our historical wrongs. Our current 2,000+ year diaspora came about as a result of sinas chinam, unwarranted hatred. Our greatest threat has never been the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans; our greatest threat is often ourselves. Our inability to love each other as we should is often at the root of many national issues.
Our Torah is filled with many beautiful and meaningful mitzvos (commandments). These mitzvos teach us how to create and sustain a relationship with God and with one another. Imagine for a moment if you were to be asked, which is the most important of all of God’s commandments? Which mitzvah do you think outweighs the rest? Perhaps, it is Shabbos or Bris Milah (circumcision) both of which are referred to as an “Os” (sign) between God and His nation. Perhaps, it is not any one particular mitzvah but a unit of mitzvos like the Aseres HaDibros (Ten Commandments) which are the spiritual centerpiece of our Torah. In fact the great sage, Rav Saadiah Gaon explains that all of the 613 mitzvos are derivatives of the Ten Commandments. Long before you and I pondered this question, the great rabbinic sages were conducting this very discussion.
You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:18); Rabbi Akiva said, “This is an important principle of the Torah.” Ben Azai said, “This is the narrative of the generations of man on the day that God created man, in the likeness of God He created him” (Genesis 5:1), is even more important (Sifra, Kedoshim).
Rabbi Akiva and his disciple Ben Azai were trying to figure out what is the most important, core principle we have in our Torah. Rabbi Akiva explains that everything comes from loving the other. This is reminiscent of the story of the gentile who approached the great sage Hillel and said, “I want to convert on the condition that you (Hillel) teach me the entire Torah standing on one foot.” To which Hillel responded, “That which is despicable to you, do not visit upon the other.” Rabbi Akiva continues this tradition and explains that the mitzvah of “V’Ahavta L’Reyacha Kamocha, Love your fellow as you love yourself” is the most important tenet of our belief. If you can’t love another how can you love God? If you can’t love someone who you can see, touch and experience, how can you love that which is amorphous and beyond the scope of human comprehension? If you work to love your fellow Jew, you will come to love God.
Ben Azai, Rabbi Akiva’s trusted disciple disagreed with his rebbe (teacher). However, at first glance we don’t understand Ben Azai’s statement. There is no mitzvah contained in the verse he quoted. This verse, from the fifth chapter of Bereishis (Genesis) begins a list of the life-spans of the generations beginning with Adam. What is the nature of Ben Azai’s disagreement with Rabbi Akiva? Rav Asher Weiss advances a beautiful insight. Ben Azai says, “My great teacher, Rabbi Akiva if only we could be as pure as you. It would be wonderful to think that we could love each other as we love ourselves. But this aspiration is fraught with so many problems. There are people who have wronged me and it is difficult for me to forgive, let alone love them. There are people who do bad things and who is to say they deserve my love. There are people who are simply not “loveable” as a result of their temperament and disposition. And therefore, I would like to suggest something else. There is something greater and more important than love – respect. We can’t love every other Jew, but we can learn to respect them. “This is the narrative of the generations of man on the day that God created man, in the likeness of God He created him
(Genesis 5:1).” Every Jew (it is true for all humanity, but let’s first focus on loving each other), is made in the image of God and for that alone (s)he deserves my respect. To require us to love one another is a tall order, but to respect each other; this is attainable.”
Such a powerful lesson. Perhaps, it isn’t possible to love everyone – but I must work on my ability to respect the other. There is a societal trend to vilify anyone who does not share “my” views. This is true on an individual and national level. Even the most “open minded” of people often lack tolerance for opinions and views that may differ from their own. The Jewish people are comprised of multiple streams. I identify as a Torah Jew who tries (I admit, that I must try harder) to adhere to the laws of the Torah as they have been handed down for thousands of years. I vehemently disagree with other interpretations of Judaism and am fiercely protective of my faith. I will not compromise in matters of Halacha (Jewish Law) and I will resist those who try to tell me that Judaism must consistently adapt or cater to contemporary sensitivities or various types of ‘isms” (I know this sounds strong – I am a traditionalist). But at the same time, I respect the right of my fellow Orthodox, Conservative and Reform brothers and sisters to have their views. Even within the big tent of Orthodox Judaism we have many different streams. I often find it difficult to figure out my place. Maybe it’s because deep down – I wish it wasn’t this way. No matter what I agree or disagree with – I pledge to my fellow Jews that our dialogue will be with respect and love. This is the Ben Azai way.
It is true, at the end of the day decisions must be made, action must be taken and someone’s opinion will not be accepted. But if we hear the other and validate the other in the course of a dialogical process, perhaps, we can emerge from the most difficult of discussions as brothers.
This past week we observed the fast of the 17th of Tammuz. It was on this day thousands of years ago that the walls of Jerusalem were breached. Three weeks later our beloved Beis HaMikdash (Temple) was set ablaze. So much of the hardship, so many of the heartbreaking difficulties were the result of infighting, factionalism and indifference to the other. We don’t have to agree – we just have to respect. We can do better, we can be better.
What is the most important mitzvah of the Torah? I’m not sure – much greater men have pondered this question and the answer still seems far from reach. But here is what I do know. The path forward must be lined with love for our fellow Jew. But before we can love we must learn to respect. Some think that the way to demonstrate allegiance to one’s beliefs and ideologies is to disparage those who believe differently. If I can knock down your belief – then mine must be stronger. We can disagree. And if we feel there are problems and religious or intellectual inconsistencies within other approaches to Judaism we should vigorously discuss and debate. We need not compromise our beliefs and values we hold dear in order to make someone else feel happy, accepted or validated. But we must respect the other no matter how deep the divide or disagreement. Why? “…for in the likeness of God, He created him;” we are each a beautiful Tzelem Elokim (image of God). May we be privileged to see this Divine identity within ourselves and may we be courageous enough to see it within one another.
“Sticks and stone may break my bones but words will never harm me.” While the authorship of this statement is subject to dispute, it is clear that it is unequivocally false. Yes, sticks and stone can most definitely break bones, but words can harm and leave lasting scars.
Over the last number of weeks the Torah has tried to teach us the power of words. Almost a month ago we read the story of the meraglim (spies) who derailed our national dream of entering the Land of Israel through their slanderous speech. Words destroyed the dreams and aspirations of an entire nation. We then went on to read of the rebellion of Korach. Korach, angered that he did not received a coveted position of leadership, ferments a rebellion against the leadership of Moshe and Aharon. Through words he turns 250 men and their families against God and His chosen ones. The end is catastrophic; the earth opens up and swallows the men and their families. Words caused the death of so many. Last, we read of the mistake of Moshe at Mei Merivah.
Moshe was instructed to speak to the rock and bring forth water and instead he hit it. The Chasam Sofer explains that Moshe was to speak to the rock to teach the people the power of speech. It is not only actions which bring about results, speech creates realities as well. But Moshe failed to teach this lesson. Words were supposed to be used instead of the staff. The absence of words resulted in Moshe’s inability to enter the Land of Israel. And then we came to Balak:
“He sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of his people, to call for him, saying, “A people has come out of Egypt, and behold, they have covered the “eye” of the land, and they are stationed opposite me. So now, please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will be able to wage war against them and drive them out of the land, for I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed(Bamidbar 22:5-6).” Balak, the King of Moav, realized that he could not defeat the Jewish nation through conventional warfare and decided to try to beat them with words.
Through these stories and episodes the Torah reinforces for us the power of words. Words impact the other, words can hurt the other. We are living in tumultuous times. The current climate in our political landscape is one of constant attack and maligning of the other, the opponent. Terrible things have been said about our leaders and our leaders have in turn said terrible things about others. But it’s ok – because it is only words. But my dear friends, it is not ok. Because it is not “only words.” How we speak and what we say creates the very consciousness through which we formulate our plans for dynamic activity. How we speak influences how we think, approach others and ultimately act. We are careful to avoid nivul peh (speaking profanities). If you curse, swear and use inappropriate language, those words influence who you are and shape your actions. But profanities are not only four-letter words. Any word that is specifically used to hurt or deconstruct the other is a profanity as well.
There are real issues to deal with. In our current political landscape issues like healthcare, immigration and the economy impact us on a daily basis. We have our sacred right to agree or disagree with the proposals and policies of our government. But we must always make our voices heard in a way which reflects the refined nature of our humanity and holiness.
We were shocked and saddened to hear of the allegations of fraud perpetrated by a number of religious families in Lakewood, New Jersey. It is important to remember that we must reserve final judgement until the legal system has run its course. We know that in many respects whatever the outcome is; the damage is done, the Chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) has already been committed. Nevertheless, we must remain vigilant about the way we talk about others Jews and other communities. Each of us has our faults and weaknesses. We don’t make excuses for the egregious mistakes of others nor do we sit in judgment and malign the other. We must resist the urge to make sweeping generalizations about segments of our people. In the same way in which we actively refrain from making generalizations about other minorities, recognizing that such statements would be racist; we must apply this same standard to our own.
In Israel we face our challenges. The current decision to “freeze” the Kotel compromise has many up in arms. The legislation to grant the Chief Rabbinate final decision making powers in matters of conversion has many worried about the status of certain converts. We don’t have to agree on these issues (and I will not use this as a platform to advance for my own opinions) but we must disagree agreeably. Having a passionate position is not license to lash out or demean others. We must recognize that there are certain core issues on which the various streams of Judaism will never see eye to eye. We will disagree and remain steadfast in our positions. Our mission is to learn how to dialogue with dignity.
Let me end on a positive note. During our forty-year sojourn in the desert we were protected by the Divine cloud which hovered overhead. The Talmud explains that this cloud was given to us in the merit of Aharon HaKohen. The great tzaddik, Rav Yisroel of Ruzhin (1796-1850) explains the connection between Aharon and the cloud. Aharon’s entire life-mission was to create peace and harmony within the ranks of the Jewish people. He would do whatever was necessary to restore shalom to the homes and lives of our nation. When a person speaks and exhales, there is breath which exits their body. Aharon spent his years sharing encouraging words, complimenting and building the sense of self of the other. The breath expended by all of these words and positive conversations coalesced and formed the cloud above the Nation of Israel. It was words of love, encouragement and unity which formed the protective cloud around our people.
There are challenging days ahead. There are real issues we must tackle and contend with. But we must be mindful to do with proper use of our speech. Words can harm, words can hurt and words can destroy. But words can do so much more. Words can heal and words can build. May we find the strength to use our gift of speech to grow as individuals, help the other and create the beautiful cloud of unity to envelope our nation.