Thursday, July 11, 2013


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch/Ashar


The Rema1 records2 that when King Nebuchadnezzar came to destroy the first Bais Hamikdash, the prominent Greek philosopher Plato accompanied him. After the Bais Hamikdash was destroyed, Plato found the great prophet Yirmiyahu near the fresh ruins of the Bais Hamikdash crying uncontrollably. Plato asked him, “You are an eminent and revered sage and prophet. Is it befitting a man of your intellectual stature to cry over destroyed stones? Furthermore, the building has already been destroyed so why cry over the past? There is nothing your tears can accomplish anyway.”
Yirmiyahu responded, “Plato, as a world-renowned philosopher you surely have many perplexing questions. Why don’t you share some of your questions with me?” Although Plato assumed Yirmiayhu was avoiding his own questions, Plato humored Yirmiyahu by relating a plethora of his most perplexing philosophical enigmas. Patiently and humbly, Yirmiyahu resolved each question with a few terse sentences. Plato was stunned, “I don’t understand how a mortal can be so wise!” Yirmiyahu replied, “All of this profound wisdom I have derived from the destroyed building behind me and that is why I cry and mourn for its destruction. As for your second question, “Why do I weep over the past?” this is something I cannot answer you, because you will never be able to comprehend the answer.”

Shulchan Aruch3 states that tachanun4 is not recited on Tishah B’av because the verse in Eichah5 refers to Tisha B’av in the same vein as the Torah refers to all holidays, - as a ‘Mo’ed’6. The correlation between Tisha B’av and the other moa’dim is perplexing. The Torah refers to holidays as ‘Moadim’ because they are times of ‘meeting’ between G-d and His nation, as it were. During each holiday we recall and even re-experience the Divine love, closeness, and salvation that G-d granted at the time of the miracle.
Tisha B’av however, is quite different. While the pasuk does refer to Tisha B’av as a ‘time of meeting’, the meeting it refers to is a meeting, “to destroy My chosen ones”. The remembrance of the destruction of our people conjures up the polar opposite emotions of what we feel when we commemorate the redemptions of all other mo’adim. How can Tisha B’av even be classified together with other holidays?
It must also be noted that the entire day of Tisha B’av seems to be an inherent paradox. Tisha B’av is a day of national mourning for two millennia in exile. We lament crusades, inquisitions, holocausts, Cossacks, Church injustices, and numerous blood libels. The lights in shul are dimmed, the curtain is removed from the Holy Ark, shoes are not worn, we neither eat nor drink, and we refrain from various forms of pleasure. We sit on the floor as mourners as we recall the flowing rivers of blood throughout our exile. The night and morning of Tisha B’av continue with this sad atmosphere while the pages of kinnos (lamentations) are recited.
Then the clock strikes chatzos (midday). Benches are turned upright, lights are put back on, the curtain is replaced, and an inaudible sigh of relief escapes the shul. The most stringent level of mourning is over and, although most restrictions still apply, there is a noticeable reduction in the level of mourning.
What sense does this make? Why would the laws of mourning which were so strict until now suddenly begin to mitigate at the precise time when the sanctuary of the Bais Hamikdash was engulfed in flames? If anything, this should be the time of the most intense mourning!
If the laws of mourning begin to relax, it is indicative of the fact that the most intense mourning has concluded. Somehow the collective Jew can commence the process of consolation for her magnanimous losses. How does the process of consolation begin?
There is another aspect of Tisha B’av that requires explanation. When, G-d forbid, one loses a close relative, there are different stages of the mourning process. The laws immediately following the death are very stringent, and begin to mitigate as time goes on7.
Time heals and, although one never forgets a deceased relative or friend, time has a way of reducing the initial numbness and shock so that one can move on. Therefore, it is logical that as one’s personal pain mitigates, so do the laws of mourning.
In regard Tisha B’av however, the process is reversed. The fast of Shiva Asar B’Tammuz ushers in the mourning period of the Three Weeks, which are analogous to shloshim. Rosh Chodesh Av begins the ‘Nine Days’, which bear certain resemblance to ‘shiva’. The actual week of Tisha B’av8 has added stringencies like the first three days of shiva. Finally, the night and morning of Tisha B’av are analogous to when the mourner must contend with the overwhelming grief felt at the moment he is informed of the tragedy that has befallen him.
On Tisha B’av we do not don talis and tefillin, leather shoes are removed, and we do not greet others. It is as if the Jew People are in a state of oninus, mourning for a parent who has not yet been buried. However, on Tisha B’av itself we begin to accept consolation. By midday of the day after Tisha B’av we are again permitted to listen to music, shaving, taking haircuts, and doing laundry. Shabbos Nachamu - the Shabbos after Tisha B’av – has a measure of added joy.
What is the meaning behind the enigmatic and rapid turnabout that occurs after Tisha B’av concludes?

Chasam Sofer notes that the concept of national mourning is itself unusual. Throughout the course of history there have been many great empires that achieved global domination and unrivaled might. With the passage of time they have faded into oblivion. Their glorious past has become relegated to the history books and scholarly debate. There aren’t any rituals which recall that past greatness. Let bygones be bygones!
The Turks do not cry about the loss of the mighty Ottoman Empire. Greece and Italy benefit greatly from the tourism generated from its ancient ruins, but the nation does not mourn the death of Caesar and the demise of the Academy. The Iberian Peninsula has forfeited its glorious empires during the Middle Ages, and Contemporary Iran and Iraq have little connection to the mighty Persian and Babylonian empires of yesteryear.
As the world turns, empires rise and fall. Only the Jewish People refuse to let go of their ancient glory. Why the obstinate refusal? It is true that in the time of Shlomo the ancient Israelites had a great empire, with every king in the world paying homage to him, but now that is all ancient history. For two millennia we have been wandering the globe, persecuted, victimized, and hated. What is the point of continuing to mourn our fallen glory?
Chasam Sofer explains that G-d created a blessing called ‘forgetfulness’. After any unbearable tragedy, the immediate sorrow and pain is unbearable. The ability to resiliently get past it and continue with life is only due to that gift of forgetfulness that G-d endows.
However, if the relative one presumes to be dead is really alive, there is no ‘blessing of forgetfulness’ and the mourner will have a far more difficult time coping.
Yaakov Avinu mourned the loss of his beloved son Yosef for twenty-two years. The Torah records that after Yaakov came to the conclusion that Yosef had been killed, “All of his sons and all of his daughters arose to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted, and said: ‘For I will go down to the grave mourning for my son’.9” Rashi10 explains, “One is unable to accept consolation for someone who is alive if he (the mourner) presumes him to be dead. This is because the decree of ‘forgetfulness from the heart’ was only for a dead person, not one who is alive.’
The reasons why no nation mourns the demise of its former glory is because ‘you can’t cry over spilled milk.’ Ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, Byzantine Empire, Napoleon’s France, Bismarck’s Germany, the British Empire etc., will never again reacquire the dominance and superiority they once had. When something is perpetually lost it naturally is slowly forgotten. Life unavoidably moves on, and there is no purpose agonizing over the past.
Klal Yisroel however, cannot be consoled because our glory and prominence is not gone! What we lost with the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash is not permanent, and we believe our greatest glories are yet to come.
Yirmiyahu commences Eichah lamenting the fact that Jerusalem, the once proud metropolis, “has become like a widow”. She has become like a widow, however she is not truly a widow because her husband is not dead. He is far away - battered, bruised, and shaken. But he is not dead, and she knows he will one day return11.
The mere fact that Klal Yisroel mourns on Tisha B’av is the greatest testament to our future revival. By virtue of our tears and national grief, despite almost two thousand years in exile, we have the greatest proof that what was destroyed is not permanent. The Gemara Megillah states that the sanctity of the Temple Mount was never lost and the Divine Presence continues to rest there, even today. That holiness will yet have its resurgence and will return to its former glory with the advent of Moshiach.
It is in this sense that Tisha B’av is a mo’ed. True, it is a day when we recall all of our painful losses and anguish, but the very fact that we still mourn is itself the greatest consolation. That we still feel there is a purpose in our tears and that we obdurately refuse to forgive and forget is the greatest solace. It is a strange phenomenon: as we cry and mourn on Tisha B’av we are simultaneously filled with hope in our hearts. It is in deference to that hidden joy that we omit reciting tachanun on Tisha B’av. 

There is a legend that Napoleon Bonaparte, the emperor of France and conqueror of most of Europe, was walking down the street one summer afternoon with an entourage of officials. As they walked, they passed a shul and heard the sounds of muffled sobs and voices chanting prayers sadly. When Napoleon asked what was happening, one of his officials mockingly told him that it was the day when the Jews sit and mourn the destruction of their Temple seventeen hundred years earlier. Napoleon was impressed. He is purported to have replied, “A nation that can still mourn its downfall will live to see its return to glory.” There is great merit and truth in those words.

With the explanation of the Chasam Sofer, perhaps we can now understand the other enigmas regarding Tisha B’av. It is now understandable why the laws of mourning begin to relax on Tisha B’av itself. When we ourselves realize that we have spent a night and a morning crying and lamenting our fallen glory, therein lies the consolation. The day itself grants credence and validity to our hopes and dreams for Hashem’s Glory to someday be realized by all.
As we realize that the anniversary of the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash is imminent, we are filled with sadness that the redemption still has not arrived. As Tisha B’av approaches our sadness increases and the laws of mourning intensify until it reaches its climax on Tisha B’av itself. But the day’s sadness gives us hope and fortitude and we are able to jovially proclaim, “Be consoled! Be consoled My nation!”
It is not inappropriate that we seem to cast off the mourning process the next day. Our ability to be joyous so soon after reminding ourselves of all our pain in exile stems from our belief that our tears are the foundation and guarantee for our future joy. The fact that we cry when we read the warnings of the prophets is the reason why we can rejoice when we read the promises of the prophets about the salvation to come. When we cry together it symbolizes that all our hopes have not been lost and will yet be realized.
Plato, great intellectual and philosopher that he was, was not a Jew. He could never comprehend that the basis of Jewish hope lies in their refusal to cease mourning. A Jew feels it in his heart; he knows what he must cry for. But one who lacks a Jewish soul cannot relate to such an idea.
Tisha B’av is not an easy day, but it is a very meaningful day. In a sense, Tisha B’av gives us more strength to withstand the travails of exile than any other Yom Tov. If we must spend Tisha B’av on the floor again this year, we will take comfort in knowing that the eternal redemption is imminent.

“For Hashem shall comfort Zion, He shall comfort all her ruins.
He shall make her wilderness like Eden,
 And her wasteland like a garden of Hashem;
Joy and gladness shall be found there, thanksgiving and the sound of music.” 
1 Rabbi Moshe Isseles of Krakow
2 Torah HaOlah
3 O’ch, 559:4
4 the supplication recited each weekday, but omitted during holidays in deference to the joyous atmosphere
5 1:15
6 lit. place/time of meeting
7 Until burial, the mourners are in a period of ‘oninus’ when they are completely exempt from the performance of all mitzvos. Following burial, the mourners ‘sit shiva’ – a week of sole mourning. Following the week is the period of ‘shloshim’ which ends thirty days after the burial. If, G-d forbid, the deceased was a parent there is an additional mourning period that continues until a complete year has elapsed.
8 Beginning on Motzei Shabbos prior to Tisha B’av
9 Bereishis 37:35
10 quoting Gemara Pesachim 54b
11 See Sanhedrin 104b


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