Recently, the expression that Jews traditionally wished each other before the start of the Tisha B’Av fast was replaced by what one might call a more evocative one. What was once “have an easy fast” has been transformed into “have a meaningful fast.” While “easy” or “meaningful” are not necessarily contradictory, nevertheless, in order to make any fast meaningful, we first must understand why we are fasting. And in order to understand why we are fasting, we must think. A good place to begin is a verse in Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, composed by the prophet Yirmiyahu as he watched the Temple, and the society of his times, erode and crumble, and the Jewish people go into exile.
Despite suffering a terrible fate, seeing his leaders, his beloved people, and his cherished Temple all destroyed, he tells the nation: “Of what shall a living man complain? A strong man for his sins! Let us search and examine our ways, and return to Hashem” (Lamenetations 3:39-40).
The prophet’s question, “Of what shall a living man complain?” is difficult to understand. People always complain. Didn’t Yirmiyahu experience enough to complain about? Also why does Yirmiyahu ask about a living man? Dead men don’t tell tales, and they don’t complain either. So why the extra word?
Perhaps the second question answers the first, and the second verse emphasizes the answer.
The Chasam Sofer once met a very old man and asked him the secret of his longevity.
“I know that long life is a gift,” the great sage said. “Tell me, what exemplary act did you do that merited you these long years?” The old man looked up and smiled. “Actually, I did nothing special. You see I have a different theory about long life. I stuck to my theory, and it worked for me.”
“And what is that theory?” the great sage inquired.
The old man wrinkled his deeply lined face. “Like myself, all my friends went through their share of tzorus and misfortunes. We all do. They are, however, not here any longer. I am.”
“But why?” prodded the Chasam Sofer. “That was exactly my question. What is the secret of your longevity? Yes! We all have our tzorus. But they didn’t break you! You are still alive and in very good health. What is the difference between you and your friends?”
“You see,” answered the old man., “my friends asked ‘Why?’ I, however, did not.”
The Chasam Sofer seemed puzzled, but the man continued his monologue. “You see, every time tragedy struck, my friends would ask the Almighty, why did this happen? How did I come to deserve this? They would plead and prod the Creator for answers that no mortal mind could understand. And you know what happened?”
The Chasam Sofer shook his head, careful not to interrupt the man’s train of thought.
“Hashem said, ‘Do you really want to understand? Come, I will show you.’ And so He took them to a place where all the mysteries of life are revealed, a place where the past and the future collide and today’s actions are the answers to history’s expostulations.”
The man continued. “I, on the other, hand, was not so curious. And if I was, I did not turn to Hashem and ask, ‘Why?’ Rather, I accepted what happened.”
Then the man’s face began to glow. “And do you know what? He never invited me upstairs to explain anything!”
Perhaps the essence of our annual mourning service can be summed up with Yirmiyahu’s word’s that analyze a mortal approach to immortal justice. “Of what shall a living man complain? A strong man for his sins! Let us search and examine our ways, and return to Hashem.”
We may have questions, but such questions do not require us to obsess about finding new answers. Instead, the only answer we can have is to search our own souls with introspection and return to Hashem.
In truth, we are not put in this world to demand answers. We are here to improve ourselves and ultimately, the world. And we are here to understand when to turn to our own lives for answers, instead of to the Almighty with questions, so that we may survive the tragedies with both faith and life intact.
Have a meaningful (and easy) fast.
Dedicated in memory of Oscar Oliner by Mr. and Mrs. Marty Oliner Liluy Nishmas Reb Oizer ben Reb Shaul: 13 Av.
Copyright © 2001 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.