This coming Sunday we will be observe the saddest and most traumatic day on our calendar, Tisha B’av (the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av). It is on this day that we remember the tragedies and catastrophes which have befallen our people over the last few thousand years. However, the darkness and sadness of this day can be traced to one, singular episode— the Sin of the Spies. Despite the assurances of God and Moshe, we felt compelled to scout out the Land of Israel. The spies came back and delivered their disastrous report, telling the nation that the land was simply unconquerable. These demoralizing words sent the people into a downward spiral. The nation 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 does it not seem disproportionate to condemn every Jew (over the age of 20) to death in the desert and to mark this day for ongoing tragedy? Furthermore, the people tried to do teshuva (repent). The Torah relates that the very next morning the people arose early in the morning and ascended to the mountaintop, 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 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, as 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 refined 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 through a simple apology. 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 one of flawed perspective and outlook. All they saw were the problems. They failed to see the beauty and good.
Nothing in life is perfect. Everything and everyone have 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 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 aspects of his wife’s personality. Rabbi Chiya realized that in life nothing and no one is perfect, and you must 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 our interpersonal relationships.
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 is a beautiful blessing. 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.
(Reprinted from 5779)
Given at OU Israel Center
The Torah is filled with many beautiful and meaningful mitzvos (commandments). These mitzvos teach us to how to create and sustain a relationship with God and with one another. Imagine for a moment if you were 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 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 613 mitzvos are derivatives of the Ten Commandments. Long before you and I pondered this question, the great rabbinic sages of yesteryear 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.
Yet, Ben Azai, Rabbi Akiba’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 listing of the lifespan 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. They’re simply not “loveable” because of their temperament and disposition. And therefore, I would like to suggest something else. There is something more basic and 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 the Jewish people), 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. We are each entitled to our personal religious, socia,l and political views, but we must learn to respect even those who don’t share them. We can disagree and argue our positions vociferously and passionately, but always with respect and dignity for the other.
This Motzai Shabbos and Sunday, we will observe the 9th of Av. It is on this day thousands of years ago that 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 must 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. We need not compromise our beliefs and values we hold dear 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. (Reprinted from 5778)
Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of a new Hebrew month, brings with it promise, potential and joy. There is nothing more beautiful than a new beginning, an opportunity to start again, to rejuvenate and regenerate. But today, the beginning of this new month, the month of Av is different. As the Talmud states:
“Mi’shenichnas Av, Mi’maatin B’Simcha, (When the month of Av enters we diminish our joy).” (Mishna, Tractate Taanis 26a)
This Rosh Chodesh ushers in 9 days of mourning and sadness. We refrain from various activities including the consumption of meat and wine (except on Shabbos). Our hearts are filled with the pain of thousands of years of collective sorrow. The Mishna recounts the various events that make this month one of sadness and pain. The mergalim (spies) returned from the Land of Israel on the 9th of Av and delivered their disastrous report; the city of Beitar, the city of the Bar Kochba rebellion, was crushed by the Romans and its inhabitants slaughtered; and many other unfortunate and tragic events unfolded during this auspicious month. However, the central event on which we focus is the destruction of the Temple (Bais HaMikdash). Each and every year we face the same challenge. How do we mourn for something we have never known? We have existed without a Bais HaMikdash for over 2,000 years, and although deep in our souls we know that something is missing, it is difficult for us to feel a true and real void. It is difficult to shed a tear for something for which we have no frame of reference. It is challenging for us to relate to that which we do not know. So how can we connect? How do we appreciate the loss of the Temple and make it relevant?
I want to share with you an idea which I have discussed many times in the past but has timely relevance during these important days. In Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers, Chapter 5 Mishnah 5), we are told about ten miracles that occurred in the Temple. The 8th miracle listed is, “Omdim tzefufim, u’mishtachavim revachim”, (the people stood crowded together, yet prostrated themselves in ample space). When our ancestors came to the Temple on the Regalim (Pesach, Shavuos, and Succos) and Yom Kippur, the Bais HaMikdash was packed from corner to corner. In fact, Jerusalem was teeming with people from the cities of Israel and beyond. The courtyard of the Temple was so crowded that people literally stood shoulder to shoulder. However, when they bowed in prayer, there was room for everyone to have personal space. An amazing miracle, clearly in defiance of natural law. But why the need for such a miracle? What was the message?
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 1040-1105) explains that when the people would bow in prayer, each person would ask for his/her personal needs. If individuals were in earshot of one another, the supplicant would feel self-conscious about articulating his needs. Furthermore, on Yom Kippur when people would bow in order to confess their sins, if the penitent felt he could be overheard by his neighbor, he may have been hesitant to confess. Therefore, to allow each person to have a personal dialogue with the Divine, God performed this miracle.
Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859) offers an additional insight. The Rebbe explains that this Mishna is not simply relaying a miraculous event but is also conveying an important life lesson. Omdim (standing) – if a person always stands his ground and is never willing to yield to another, the result is, Tzefufim (crowded) – the world is very crowded and constricted, there is no room for the other. However, if a person is Mishtachavim (prostrating) and willing to yield to another, then Revachim (ample space), there is room for everyone. The secret to successful life relationships is knowing when to stand your ground and when to yield. There are things in life that we must fight for, and there are many more things for which conflict is not the answer. There are times when we must be an Omed on certain issues and accept the negative repercussions, and there are times when we must be a Mishtachaveh and learn the art of yielding to the other for the sake of peace and harmony. We must learn the delicate balance of knowing when to use each of these powerful traits.
The Bais HaMikdash was the address for the entire Jewish community. There were not different temples for different hashkafos (religious philosophies), there were not different temples for different levels of observance. There was one Bais HaMikdash for the Jewish nation. There was one address where we had to learn how to come together in brotherly harmony and serve our God with one heart and one soul. There was one place where we were required to come and learn the art of bowing to one another, yielding to one another, respecting one another.
In the Bais HaMikdash, Jews of all stripes and colors would gather to worship together. We mourn the absence of this unifying place. We don’t mourn the loss of a building, as buildings can always be rebuilt. We mourn the loss of an ideal. When the Bais HaMikdash stood, it was clear that the will of God was for us to unite. The Bais HaMikdash, through its mere existence reminded us that to remain a nation we can’t argue over every single issue. There are issues that are so delicate and important that we must vociferously disagree and yes, draw our line in the sand. But I would venture to say that for many other issues, we must find the strength to yield. We mourn the unifying absence of our beloved Bais HaMikdash.
It is difficult to cry and mourn for that which we do not know. But if we can’t cry – we must at least yearn. We must yearn for a time in which we can embrace our differences and coexist as a cohesive nation.
Truth be told, we must do more than yearn – we must do. We must learn to bow, learn to yield, learn to make the hard sacrifices in order to achieve true shalom with one another. Before getting into an argument with another, before saying something that may be hurtful, before doing something that may be “correct” but may not be “right”, we should ask ourselves: Is it really worth it? There are times in life when we may be truly in the right, but this doesn’t mean a battle should be waged. It is difficult to strike the balance between being a principled and peaceful person. The Bais HaMikdash helped us to achieve this equilibrium; now we must do it on our own.
Today is Rosh Chodesh, but it is unlike all other monthly new beginnings. We feel a sadness, we feel a heaviness as we continue to mourn over what has been lost. But as we observe our mourning practices and reflect on our national and personal tragedies and set-backs, let us resolve to do our part in bringing shalom into our personal, communal, and national lives. There are times to be rigid, but there are many more opportunities for understanding, compassion and flexibility. In the merit of bowing before one another, may we be privileged to bow together before God in a rebuilt Jerusalem – bimheyra b’yameynu, amen.
(Reprinted from 5778)
Rabbi Silber’s delivers words of inspiration to members of WIT Baltimore. The Tisha B’Av lecture had been dedicated leilui nishmas Chaim Yeshayahu a’h ben Yosef.
All learning for the month of Av is generously sponsored by Avraham and Shaindy Kelman with the hope that this year’s Tisha B’Av will become a Yom tov and we will be granted the Beis Hamikdash.
Kinnos Sponsors. Judah & Judy Minkove in memory of their beloved daughter, Rachel Tova z’l bas Yehuda Avrum. Maia Hoffman in memory of her beloved father, Reuven ben Emanuel z’l. Gregg and Rena Trestman in gratitude to Rabbi Shmuel and Aviva Silber for the incredible dedication to the kehilla.