By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The way we observe the restrictions of the nine-day period is fast becoming one of the great dichotomies of religious Jewish life. We know that this is a period of mourning. We know that we are not supposed to wear fresh garments. We know that there are no major simchos during this period, no music, no meat, nothing that would take our minds off of the great suffering our people have endured throughout our history. Yet, although we are well-intentioned and observe every halacha, kallah k’chamurah, when it comes to the Nine Days, the observances don’t always impact us. They become more of an inconvenience than a way to force us to introspect.
We are in a period in the Jewish year when we are instructed to conduct ourselves a certain way, reflecting the mourning we feel within. Chazal direct us not to eat meat or listen to music. However, it is possible to observe all the halachos and refrain from all forbidden activities, and yet not experience the mournful feeling that our actions are meant to induce.
During the Nine Days, we are meant to reflect on what we are lacking by being in golus.
Being in jail is dreadful. Speak to anyone who has been there and they will tell you that even life in the so-called “camp jails” is awful. Despite how they are depicted in the media, camp jails are very sad places. Every waking moment that a person is incarcerated, there is a reminder that he is not home.
The prisoners have a certain degree of freedom in their dormitory-like rooms and can walk about the campus unencumbered, but the knowledge that they are not home serves as a constant punishment.
Children go to sleep-away camp, where they are together with friends, all having a good time, yet they get homesick. Camp is great. It’s a lot of fun. Campers get to meet other youngsters from all over, swim, play ball, and go on exotic trips. But it’s not home. They get homesick and call up their parents crying that they want to come home.
Campers receive packages from home, letters and cards, and after being away for a whole week and a half, their parents sit in hours-long traffic to spend time with their children on visiting day.
The prisoners, and lehavdil the campers, are comforted in their longing by remembering home, thinking about home, and getting updates and packages from home. They know that they will soon be home. Camp lasts but a few weeks, and a stay in Otisville’s satellite camp style jail is also finite. The people who are there don’t have to do anything to be able to return home.
Golus is different. We are far from home and we don’t know for how much longer. Every day, we wait anew to be returned home. It is one of the fundamental beliefs of our faith. The Rambam writes (Hilchos Melochim 11:1) that anyone who does not believe that Moshiach will be sent to reestablish Malchus Bais Dovid, rebuild the Bais Hamikdosh and gather all of the nidchei Yisroel, and does not actually wait for his arrival, is a disbeliever in all of the nevi’im and in the Torah and Moshe Rabbeinu.
To be considered a maamin, a believer, it does not suffice to believe that Moshiach will come to redeem us someday. Rather, we must await his arrival every day. A person who doesn’t is considered a kofer, r”l.
Similarly, the Gemara (Shabbos 31a) states that when a person arrives in the Bais Din Shel Maaloh after 120 years, he is asked six questions. One of the questions is: “Tzipisa l’yeshuah? Did you anticipate Moshiach’s arrival?”
Part of expecting Moshiach to arrive every day is doing actions that will lead to his arrival. If we wait for him and want him and are anticipating his arrival, it would follow that we ourselves would be undertaking to do what Chazal teach will lead to the geulah and to encourage others to also act accordingly.
The Alter of Kelm explains this with a parable. A person was shouting, “Help! Help! My father is dying!” When people rushed to offer aid, they saw that the son was standing next to his father and choking him. They said to him, “Are you crazy? If you want your father to live, why are you choking him?”
The Alter would say that it is incongruous to mourn over the destruction of the Botei Mikdosh and then engage in actions that caused their destruction and prevent their reconstruction.
During these days of Av, we mourn. We remember the time when the Bais Hamikdosh stood in the center of Yerushalayim. Tisha B’Av is the repository of sadness and mourning for everything that has befallen us. We reflect on the tragedies that occurred to the Jews throughout the ages and are saddened as we recall them.
Tragedy and sadness are part of our essence. On Tisha B’Av, we shall remember the 45 kedoshim of Meron, the victims of the Stolin bleacher collapse, the victims of the Surfside building collapse, the six million victims of the Nazis, the hundreds of thousands brutally killed in pogroms, those murdered during the Crusader period and the Inquisition, the millions killed at the time of the churban, the Jews who were sold into slavery, and the people who were pillaged, beaten, robbed and thrown to the lions.
The torture afflicted upon our people is far greater than any other nation had to endure.Tisha B’Av is the day when we commemorate it all. But the halachos of the Nine Days are not simply laws that we outwardly observe. They are meant to influence our thoughts and feelings during this time. They are meant to lead us to teshuvah, to do what we must in order to merit being brought back home.
We know that the second Bais Hamikdosh 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 when the Jews in the desert cried for naught. Their “bechiyah shel chinom” echoes all these years, giving generation after generation many reasons to cry.
The meraglim viewed themselves as insects, feeling small and insignificant, as they traversed Eretz Yisroel and accepted the attitudes and views of others.
Upon their return, the meraglim shared their pessimistic report and analysis with the people. “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 made to them that they would inherit the Promised Land.
They didn’t perceive their own greatness. The nation that was chosen as the favorite from among all others feared that they had been cast aside. Lacking sufficient self-confidence, they were easily misled and taken in by the apocalyptic predictions of the meraglim.
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 see the Jewish people as being worthy of Divine love. They hated 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, we sit on the floor as aveilim reciting Kinnos, recalling how good we had it, 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 each person’s potential for greatness. People give up on becoming great even before starting the process. They are easily knocked off course and lose motivation to excel, because they don’t believe enough in themselves. This is one of the ways the yeitzer hora causes us to live a hopeless, sad and sometimes self-hating life.
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.
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.
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.
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 them, 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.
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 read 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 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 to battle the ever-present yeitzer hora, but every generation has unique temptations. The further we get from Har 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.
We must act as Moshe did, admonishing in a way that could be accepted so that the people can merit exiting golus and entering the land of geulah.
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.
Through his tochacha, Moshe demonstrated that he saw greatness in the people 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 others as brothers and sisters, and caring about them, we can 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 golus. On Tisha B’Av, we 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.
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. We want to go home.