By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
See that I place before you this day a blessing and a curse. The blessing will come if you obey the commandments of G-d, your G-d, which I command you today; the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of G-d, your G-d, but stray from the way that I command you today, and pursue other gods, which you have not known. (Devarim 11:26-28)
In the Torah world, Tisha B'Av ends and the official 'Bein Hazmanim' period begins. Yeshivos do not take off many days from the regular learning program throughout the course of the year, because learning Torah is crucial for a Jew's development and the world's survival. Nevertheless, "the Torah was not given to ministering angels," we are told (Brochos 25b), and thus being only human, we have the break between Tisha B'Av and Rosh Chodesh Elul.
However, that is against a backdrop of seven weeks of consolation that link Tisha B'Av to Rosh Hashanah. The timing is a little awkward, leaving the halls of Torah learning at a time when we are really supposed to be building towards the Yemai Norayim (Days of Awe), but we try to make up for lost time during the month of Elul.
In fact, many do not even look at Tisha B'Av in that manner. Being so different from Rosh Hashanah in theme and time, it is rarely seen as the starting point of a climb towards the holiness of the Day of Judgment and the nine days that follow it. However, that is indeed what it is, and it is important to understand how if one is to fully appreciate for what they are being judged on Yom HaDin.
The Talmud provides a historical origin for the Jewish day of infamy:
"The entire assembly raised up and issued its voice; the people wept that night." (Bamidbar 14:1).
Rabbah said in the name of Rebi Yochanan: That night was the night of Tisha B'Av; The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to them, "You cry without reason! I will fix a crying for the generations!" And, the First and Second Temples were destroyed. (Ta'anis 29a)
As a parent, I am familiar with the philosophy. There are more than enough REAL things in life to cry about, so why waste tears over things that do not count for very much? It is a lesson that children ought to learn early in life, and many a parent has been heard saying these very words: "Oh, so you are crying over nothing?! Well, I'll give you something to cry about!"
However, can you imagine telling your bawling child, "crying over something silly, are you? Well, I'll give you something to cry about! I'm going to smash your computer, break your bicycle, and who knows what else I'm going to damage and destroy in the upcoming years?! I might not even come to your wedding in ten years time! HUH! That'll teach you to cry for no reason!"
You would certainly get your child's attention, whose baffled look would betray his thoughts, "What did I do to deserve all that? Because I cried for nothing? How does the punishment fit the crime?"
Exactly! Because the spies came back and gave a lousy report about Eretz Yisroel, and they mourned their fate for one night, two temples were destroyed, Beitar was decimated, Spanish Jewry was sent packing, and who knows how many millions of gallons of Jewish blood has been spilled over the millennia?
How do the countless punishments fit the single crime? The scales of justice, it would seem at first glance, are little lopsided here.
The entire assembly raised up and issued its voice; the people wept that night. They complained about Moshe and Aharon. The entire nation said to them, "If only we had died in Egypt! We should have died in this desert! Why has G-d brought us into this land only to be killed by the sword, and to make our wives and our little ones into prey? Isn't it better for us to return to Egypt?" (Bamidbar 14:1-3)
You want to run that by me again? What did they mean by this? It could only have meant one thing, that G-d had picked them up in Egypt, driven them through the desert and taken care of their needs, but was about to drop them off on the border of Canaan and take off in another direction, so-to-speak. They thought that the Divine Providence that had carried them to Eretz Canaan was going to come to an abrupt end at the gates of the Land of Milk and Honey.
Now that was something to cry about!
Or so they thought. However, G-d came and retorted, "Nonsense! After all we have been through together, you act as if I have yet to prove Myself! Just as you have witnessed My protective hand in the past, you should have seen it in your future as well!"
Thus, the people of the Spies' generation had turned the ninth day of Av into a day of denial of Hashgochah Pratis (Divine Providence). Therefore, (Kabbalistically,) measure-for-measure, Tisha B'Av became a day of pronounced Divine Providence. 'Crying for nothing' is the result of none other than an inability to see the hand of G-d in what is happening, leading, therefore, to an acute inability to read the warning signs of history that lead to such terrible disasters as destruction of the two Temples, etc.
In fact, the story of the destruction of the Second Temple is embedded within another seemingly harmless story of two men, sworn enemies (Gittin 55b). By a bizarre twist of fate that we Jews call 'Hashgochah Pratis,' a man, whom we will call 'Ploni,' made a simchah to which his messenger invited Bar Kamtza, his enemy, instead of Kamtza, his friend.
Even more bizarre was the way Bar Kamtza interpreted the invitation as an act of reconciliation between two enemies, setting the stage for his own public humiliation. Upon seeing Bar Kamtza sitting at his simchah, Ploni spared no time in ejecting his enemy from the party, who had offered to pay for the entire meal just to avoid being thrown out, to no avail.
If only Ploni had known that his insensitivity would lead Bar Kamtza to snitch on the Jews to the Romans. If only the wise men sitting there who did not protest Bar Kamtza's public humiliation knew what Heaven thought about what was transpiring down below on earth:
Come and see how great is the power of humiliation, for The Holy One, Blessed is He, helped Bar Kamtza and destroyed His House and burned His Sanctuary. (Gittin 57a)
REALLY?! Talk about your snowball effect! Talk about 'butterfly effects'! I mean, to go from this to that? When? How? Why?
Wait, it gets better. In the middle of the 'Kamtza u'Bar Kamtza' story is the account of Neron, who was sent by Rome to finish off what Bar Kamtza had initiated: destruction of the Jewish people. So, there he is, this Neron fellow marching with his army of troops against Jerusalem, meeting little resistance, if any at all, along the way.
Most gentile conquerors would have reveled in the ease of their mission. Not Neron, who instead became suspicious and cautious. Of what? A trap? Of a hiding Jewish army. No. The Talmud provides the details:
"When he [Neron] arrived, he shot an arrow to the east and it fell in Jerusalem. So, he shot an arrow to the west, and it also fell in Jerusalem. [He shot arrows] in all four directions and they all fell in Jerusalem..."
Now, why would a gentile do something like that? What was Neron trying to find out with his little archery experiment? What direction the wind was blowing? The Talmud continues:
"He asked a young child, 'tell me a verse [that you are learning]'."<>
What? If Neron was the superstitious type, shouldn't he have asked his own priests, who traveled with the army in all their battles for precisely these reasons, what all of his successes to date have meant? What would a little Jewish child have to offer that could make any difference to the picture that was forming right before the eyes of the potential destroyer of G-d's House and His people?
"He [the child] told him, 'I will lay My revenge upon Edom by the hand of My people, Israel'." (Yechezkel 25:14)
What does this mean? Who knows? It can mean a dozen things at different times in history. What connection could there possibly be between a posuk just learned by a cheder child and Neron's impending attack? Most gentiles would never have thought to have even asked such a question, let alone interpret the answer in the following way:
"He [Neron] then said, 'The Holy One, Blessed is He, wishes to destroy His Temple and wipe His hands on the man [who does it, that is, me]!'."
Neron's onto something. He's figured out G-d's game plan. He can see that the role for which he was hand-picked by Roman nobility is going to be easily fulfilled. There will be the glory of success, laurels, even promotions. Maybe he'll even get to be Caesar one day! Cause for celebration?
Not for Neron, who clearly was a G-d-fearing gentile. Cause to abandon his mission? Absolutely. Reason to flee to another corner of the earth and avoid the Roman posses bound to pursue him. For sure. Reason to convert to the enemy about to be militarily pulverized? Seemingly, only if you're a masochist.
Well, in any case, that's what Neron did. He ran away from his role as conqueror and instead joined the ranks of the conquered. It's inexplicable, and certainly a detail of the story of the destruction that could have been placed somewhere else (like on page 96b of Tractate Sanhedrin, where other great conversions are discussed).
And, before we return back to our regular scheduled program, the Talmud says, we'd just like to add that Rebi Meir, eventually, was his descendant.
Hmmm. Is this one of the messages within a message?
You mean, the great Rebi Meir, of whom the Talmud says:
Rav Acha bar Chanina said: It is known and revealed before the One who spoke and everything came into being, that there was no one like Rebi Meir in his generation. So, therefore, why is the halachah not like him? Because his colleagues could not fathom the depths of his logic. (Eiruvin 13b)
The famous Rebi Meir Ba'al HaNeis, for whom miracles happened as he willed? (Avodah Zarah 18a)
Correct, that is the Rebi Meir to whom we are referring. If so, what did Neron do to deserve such an illustrious descendant, and why did he become Jewish in the first place?
The answer is as fundamental as Torah itself: Not only did Neron believe that everything was a function of G-d's will, he lived as if it was true. He took everything as a message from Heaven, as if life was an ongoing dialogue with the Creator, and fashioned his responses to his reality based upon this logic.
This is the very essence of what it means to be a Jew. Living with this fact leads to mitzvos, personal spiritual greatness, and closeness to G-d. Not being real with this concept only leads to sin and spiritual under-achievement. Mitzvos become mechanical, and can even be used as rationalizations to avoid even greater spiritual growth.
The story of Kamtza u'Bar Kamtza teaches this very message. Big events, be they positive or negative, never occur out of nowhere. They are the end result of a process, not the beginning of it. If they appear otherwise, it is because we weren't sensitive to the smaller events that led to them.
Tisha B'Av represents the very same message: Be sensitive to the small events in life and where they can lead. As the Talmud warns:
Who is the wise man? He who can see what will be born. (Tamid 32a)
This little handy piece of advice is not just about becoming wise, it is the essence of what the Jewish people are all about (and the antithesis of Amalek, who intensely denies Divine Providence). Therefore, it is the message that we were expected to take out of Tisha B'Av and which is supposed to be the true source of our consolation even though the Temple has yet to appear. It shows us the path to transform Tisha B'Av from a day of mourning into the day of joy it will eventually become, G-d willing.
And, as such, it will also be the issue for which we will be judged on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the basis of the possukim with which we began this entire d'var Torah.
Three times a year all males must appear before G-d, your G-d, in the place which He will choose... (Devarim 16:16)
A fitting end to the message of this parshah and this d'var Torah is the mitzvah of going up to the Temple for the three holidays, Pesach, Shavuos, and Succos. In-between the holidays it was easy to become desensitized to Hashgochah Pratis, even though the miracle of life was everywhere. However, it was miracles with a mask, hidden behind the mundane activities of daily survival.
At the Temple, the veil was removed. The Temple was the House of G-d, and the Owner was home, especially in the time of the First Temple. Miracles were obvious and abundant, and the collective atmosphere at such crucial points in the Jewish year itself tasted of overt Divine Providence. The spiritual charge is beyond our comprehension, being so far away from such a glorious time in history.
We have discussed in previous essays what went wrong, but the point now is how the Torah, by speaking of the mitzvah of being 'Oleh l'Regel,' is reminding us, even today, about how easy it is to become desensitized to the detailed extent to which G-d operates in the life of the Jew. It is a reminder of how important it is to take note of the seemingly insignificant occurrences in life, and project what they can become if left unchecked.
A tragic example of this reality is the fire that burned up over 136,000 acres of Colorado, its largest conflagration ever. The fire began when a forest ranger ignited a two-page letter on June 8, a "years-old letter from their [her children's] father expressing a love now withered and seeking reconciliation that had come and gone."
Apparently, the children of the forest ranger had discovered the letter and had slipped it into her belongings before she had left that fateful day. "The children may have hoped the words would still have force..." The article conjectured, bringing back together their separated parents, resuscitating the already dead marriage.
Instead, the letter had been more than their mother could bear, after her estranged husband had become such a huge disappointment. And, "in defiance of the fire ban, she was duty-bound to enforce in Colorado's sun sere parks," she ignited the letter "and left once it had burned, only to return to find grass burning."
Tragically, her personal 'fire' quickly became national news, and as a result, she became "the most despised woman in Colorado." Who would have thought that such a small and personal act could so quickly become a national disaster? Who would ever have thought that such a small snowball could become such a big one, and do so much damage in the end.
They do. And they may be doing it again right before our very eyes. At what point, do we learn the lessons of Kamtza u'Bar Kamtza, and particularly that of Neron, and be safe, rather than sorry? At one point do we consider how four-fifths of Moshe's generation refused to read the messages of their time, and were left behind in Egypt, lost in the Plague of Darkness?
There are some today who consider the spiritual blindness of our generation to be a kind of 'plague of darkness.' The question is, when the lights go back on again, as they did in Egypt, who will be left, and where? Something to think about this Shabbos Mevarchin, as the month of Elul and its offer of closeness to G-d sneaks up upon us, as we recover from our vacations and get back to reality.
Have a great Shabbos,