Delivered in Israel at the OU Center
WIT Tisha B’Av Lecture
The 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 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) that 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? .
Yet, Ben Azai, Rabbi Akiba’s trusted disciple, disagreed with his rebbe (teacher). At first glance,Ben Azai’s statement is difficult to understand as there is no actual mitzvah contained in the verse he quotes. This verse, from the fifth chapter of Bereishis (Genesis), begins a listing 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 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 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. We are each entitled to our personal religious, social 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, bur always with respect and dignity for the other.
This Motzai Shabbos and Sunday, we will observe the fast of 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 can do better, we can be better. We don’t have to agree – we just must respect.
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. And 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.
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 seat 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 soul 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 be 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.
A new series on Yom Tov, Rabbi Silber shares some of the basic highlights for the upcoming Jewish holiday.
“And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh week, [namely,] the fiftieth day, [on which] you shall bring a new meal offering to the Lord.” (Vayikra 23:15-16)
God commands us to count the days from Pesach until Shavuos. Why the need to count? The commentaries provide many layers of insight. Yet, on the most basic level, God was teaching us an important lesson; the exodus was not the end; it was a means towards establishing a life of holiness and meaning. We left Egypt to accept the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Torah, with its plethora of commandments and life-lessons, provides us the ability to find the holiness within ourselves and our world. As such, God commanded us to count these days to link the events of Pesach and Shavuos, in order to establish a connection between our freedom and Sinaitic revelation. God tells us, “I took you out of Egypt so you could receive the Torah. I gave you the Torah so you can change yourselves and the world.”
This past Wednesday night and Thursday we celebrated the 33rd day of the Omer, a day we simply refer to as Lag Ba’omer. The Shulchan Aruch, in reference to this day says, “U’marbim bo k’tzas simcha, we enhance the day with a bit more joy.” Why is this day unique? And if it is indeed special why only “k’tzas simcha, a bit more joy”?
The Talmud (Yevamos 62b) tells us that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students and they all died, “al shelo nahagu kavod zeh la’zeh, for they did not give proper honor one to the other.” The Talmud goes on to explain that these deaths occurred between Pesach and Shavuos and according to many, the deaths ceased on the 33rd day of the Omer. But the question is obvious: why celebrate the cessation of the plague? We celebrate events and occurrences which are truly joyous because of their positive, dynamic momentum. The plague stopped because all the students had died, there was no one left. It is understandable that we can stop our mourning practices on Lag Ba’omer, but to celebrate (even just a little bit) seems out of place.
The Pri Chadash (Rav Chizkiya Silva, 1659-1698) explains this dynamic by examining the end of the previously quoted passage:
“… the (Torah) world was desolate (as a result of the death of the 24,000 students) until Rabbi Akiva went to the rabbis of the south (of Israel) and began to teach them. Who were they? Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Elazar ben Shamuah. These new students re-established the world of Torah in this turbulent time.” (Yevamos 62b)
When did Rabbi Akiva go and find these new students? Right after he attended the funeral of the final student who had passed away. My dear friends, let’s take a moment to reflect on these powerful words. In the span of just a few weeks Rabbi Akiva had to bury 24,000 students. But the tragedy didn’t end there. He cared for their widows and orphans; he was tasked with the overwhelming responsibility helping tens of thousands to rebuild their lives. And what of his personal loss? Rabbi Akiva devoted his life to building his students and his yeshiva. His entire life’s work was intertwined with the lives of his students and now it was all gone. No students, no yeshiva, just immeasurable amounts of pain and heartbreak. Rabbi Akiva would have been within his right to say, “I’m done. I tried, I devoted my life to my people and to my God, but alas my efforts were not meant to endure. I am an old man; someone else will need to find the strength and courage to rebuild. I did my share.” And who would have faulted Rabbi Akiva had he chosen to “retire,” learn in his local Beis Midrash, spend time with his family and leave the work for others. But he didn’t. Rather, immediately following the last funeral, he dried his tears, dusted himself off, said goodbye to his family and began the journey to the south of Israel to find new students and begin the process of rebuilding. And when did all of this happen? On Lag Ba’omer. This day, Lag Ba’omer, is not simply another day in the sefirah count. This day is a testament to the strength of the human spirit. It is this day that reminds us we can all be Rabbi Akiva. It is on Lag Ba’omer that we understand that although we may be faced with incredible challenges, we need not yield to or buckle beneath them. Sometimes, we need to dry our tears, pick ourselves up and figure out how to keep moving forward.
This is the meaning of the Shulchan Aruch’s statement, “U’marbim bo k’tzas simcha, we enhance the day with a bit more joy.” Lag Ba’omer does not possess the almost childish joy of Purim, nor does it possess the reverential happiness of our Yomim Tovim. Lag Ba’omer is the day on which we confront our challenges and recognize that for many of us life is filled with much adversity and difficulty. Yet it is on this sacred day that we pledge to be like our ancestor Rabbi Akiva and find a way to regroup and rebuild. This is the “little bit of simcha” of Lag Ba’omer. Perhaps, our responsibility is to take this simcha with us into the remaining days of Sefira. We celebrated our freedom on Pesach. Pesach was a new beginning, an opportunity to start fresh and begin to actualize our goals and dreams. Truthfully, over the last few weeks, we may have fallen short. The taste of Matzah is long gone and perhaps, the inspiration from the beautiful Yom Tov has begun to fade. IWe have gone back to “business as usual.” Lag Ba’omer, reminds us that we can always start again. The verse in this week’s Parsha, U’sfartem Lachem, reminds us that we can make each and every day count and we can begin anew whenever we desire. May the courage of Rabbi Akiva and the holy words of Parshas Emor inspire us to do more, be more and when necessary, start again.