“And the tikkun chatzos of our rebbe (Rav Shmuel Dov Ungar, the Nitra Rov)…whoever heard it once in his lifetime, could he possibly forget it? During bein hametzarim in1934, two of Hungary’s gedolim visited the town of Nitra. They stood outside near the window of the bais medrash when our rebbi said Tikkun Chatzos with talmidim as was his holy way, with deep mourning and with cries that broke the heart. One gaon (the rov of Kirchdorf) said to another, ‘What does the rov say to this Tikkun Chatzos?’ He said, ‘Were a telegram to arrive from Yerushalayim that at this moment the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed, it would not be humanly possible to mourn and cry more than this” (Rav Michoel Ber Weissmandel, Min Hameitzar).
Those very same words that Rav Michoel Ber Weissmandel wrote about his holy father-in-law, his own talmidim testified about him, describing how he mourned the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh with awesome cries to the extent that those around him felt as if it had just been laid to ruin.
One talmid, Rav Yehuda Friedlander, related: “I will never forget when Rav Michoel Ber came up to the Torah for maftir of Shabbos Chazon. His cries that pierced the heavens lasted for about half an hour.”
Rav Moshe Rottenberg, the Voideslover Rov, said, “I merited to sit next to him during Kinnos on Tisha B’Av. The floor was soaked with his tears. One cannot imagine his cries that began when he lained the haftorah through the entire Kinnos. After Kinnos, he sat and learned Medrash Eicha, said Tikkun Chatzos and spoke a lot about the churban. To me, it was a wonder that a man who was so weak was not only able to fast the entire day, but had the strength to cry so much.
“A few times during Kinnos, he was so weak that he fell to the floor. A fan was put next to him until he regained his strength and continued. This happened a few times. On Tisha B’Av in1951, he was ill and there was a special minyan arranged in his house. Rav Michoel Ber lay on a mattress placed on the floor and said Kinnos with dreadful cries, his whole body shaking, and he rolled on the mattress in distress. The people there saw and wondered. They said that they never witnessed anything like it. It appeared as if he was standing in Yerushalayim and was witnessing the churban as it was taking place.”
Rav Michoel Ber would say the first Kinnah that began with “tziyon” with a special nusach passed down through the generations. He said this with tremendous hisorerus and emotion. A talmid brought a tape recorder to record this stirring recitation, but in the last minute, he decided against it, for one could not possibly chronicle the desecration of the holiness of this avodah.
We are so far removed from such a level of lamenting the catastrophe of the churban, but by hearing how previous generations felt the pain and how they bemoaned the loss, we can learn how paramount this is in our avodah, how we must take it seriously, and how we must not allow another period of bein hametzarim to pass without giving it serious thought.
These lines are being written a few days before the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, the week of Parshas Balak. We are all amazed by the story of one of the greatest miracles in world history, the phenomena of Bilam’s donkey talking back to him, complaining, “What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?”
If that had happened to me, I probably would have fainted from the shock. After recovering, I would sit there and wonder about the fantastic miracle I just witnessed. I would be too stunned to utter a word, let alone carry on a conversation with the creature. But Bilam didn’t even bat an eyelash. He wasn’t shaking in the slightest. He did not stop to marvel at this astounding miracle. He did, however, carry on a conversation with the donkey, as if he were talking to a worker. “You want to know why I hit you? Because you weren’t doing your job, you mocked me.” And then he proceeded to threaten it. How does one understand Bilam’s mindless reaction to such an incredible event?
Once, when the Arizal was asleep, his talmidim noticed that his lips were moving, as if he were learning. When he awoke, they begged him to reveal to them what he had just learned. He told him that he had just learned the parsha of Bilam’s donkey, and even if he would live for another 80 years, it would not be enough time for him to divulge all that he had just learned (Eved Hamelech).
A fantastic miracle, with many deep lessons, and yet this went right over Bilam’s head. He was too busy arguing with his donkey. How can this be?
Rav Yaakov Galinsky explains that Bilam was preoccupied and self-absorbed. He was feverishly involved in going to curse Klal Yisroel. And for what? Because he was promised money and honor, two of the things that Chazal say remove a person from the world. He was busy, he was in a rush, and he was totally focused on his own selfish desires. And when that happens, one doesn’t see anyone or anything around him. He cannot appreciate one of the greatest miracles ever, nor can he absorb the deepest lessons that are inherent in the miracle.
We look at Bilam with wonder and derision. What a missed opportunity. And yet, in a way, we are guilty of the same folly. “Kol rodfeha hisiguha bein hametzarim – All of her pursuers reached her within her borders” (Eicha 1:3). Well-known is the vort of the Maggid of Mezeritch. All those who want to pursue the holy Shechinah and grow in avodas Hashem can accomplish great things in this period of bein hametzarim. It can be a time of tremendous siyata diShmaya. But we are preoccupied and we are self-absorbed. We are distracted by our daily routine, parnassah and other pressures. Others are just enjoying their vacation. In the process, we lose such a tremendous treasure and perhaps even prolong the golus.
Rav Shimon Schwab explains that the reason we fast on Tisha B’Av is because food is the sustenance of our physical bodies. Without it, we cannot live. By not eating on Tisha B’Av, we show that we are putting our regular lives on hold, so that we will sit and contemplate the reasons for the churban, mourn over it, and resolve to conduct ourselves in a manner that will bring the geulah. Perhaps this is also the reason why limud haTorah is prohibited, for it is the source of our life, and on this day life cannot continue as usual. It is a time for thought and introspection. But this cannot happen all of a sudden. It starts with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz and progresses throughout the Three Weeks, as our regular simchos are forbidden. Sadness and contemplation intensify during the Nine Days, until the climax, Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning the churban.
The story is told of a person who was offered to invest money in a successful business involving a sizable amount of funds. The man was on the fence as to what he should do. On the one hand, the owner of the firm promised him hefty profits. On the other hand, it meant sacrificing most of his savings. He went to his rebbi and asked him what to do.
The rebbi thought for a few moments and told him not to invest the money. A short while later, news got out that this company went bankrupt. Upon hearing this, the man went back to his rebbi and thanked him for saving him from a terrible loss. Then he said, “Rebbi certainly has ruach hakodesh.”
The rebbi said that this had nothing to do with ruach hakodesh. “It’s just that as I was going into the mikvah one Erev Shabbos, I heard this man groaning, ‘Oy, Ribono Shel Olam, bring Moshiach already.’ I thought to myself,” said the rebbi, “that you don’t usually hear a wealthy and successful man express this wish, because life is so good for him. This made me think that perhaps business was not going well for him. I therefore felt it prudent that you not take the risk.”
Perhaps we are in that same situation. Life is good. We live in a land of freedom, most of us in larger Jewish communities. We are experiencing miraculous growth in our mosdos of Torah and chesed. The physical amenities available to us are far beyond what existed in previous generations, so it is easy to be fooled into thinking that all is well. But all is far from well.
There are so many personal tzaros of individuals all around us, be they in matters of health, parnassah, or family matters. There are so many people who feel alone in their misery, with no light at the end of the tunnel. There is so much pain out there that would not exist were we living in Eretz Yisroel with a Bais Hamikdosh in the presence of the Shechinah.
We feel safe and sound in this land of liberty, and indeed, we must be grateful to Hashem for allowing us this comfort, but are we really secure here? Events of the past year should serve as a reminder that we are in golus. Anti-Semitic acts have increased of late. Twice, we experienced tragedy when shuls were specifically targeted by racist terrorists. What about the political scene, both domestically and internationally? Eretz Yisroel is always in a precarious position and faces turbulence both within and from the enemies that surround it. Here in America, the voices of godless progressives get louder by the day, which doesn’t bode well for frum Yidden. Who knows what challenges they can pose for shomrei Torah umitzvos and what damage they may cause with their anti-Israel leanings?
And what about our connection to Hashem? The very fact that we don’t feel that we miss Yerushalayim and the Bais Hamikdosh is an indication that our ruchniyus lacks depth. This, say the seforim, is something in and of itself that we must mourn over, the fact that we don’t even feel that we’re missing something.
In one of his classic shiurim on Tehillim, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz began with the posuk (Tehillim 84:3) which states, “My soul pines and indeed yearns for the courtyards of Hashem. My heart and my flesh prayed fervently to the living G-d. Even the bird finds its home and the free bird finds her nest…” As Rav Shraga Feivel was explaining that this refers to the golus of the Shechinah, he could not contain his feelings. The contrast between the free bird and a Yid who is chased out of Yerushalayim, and the fact that a bird has its nest waiting for it at all times while our Bais Hamikdash lay in ruin, was too much for him to handle.
His emotions poured out, tears flowing from his eyes onto his beard, and he could not regain his composure. He then closed the Sefer Tehillim and apologized to his talmidim: “I’m sorry, but I cannot continue…”
The shiur that morning ended just a few minutes after it began, but the memory of that experience never left the hearts of all those who witnessed this (Shlucha Derachmana).
Our avodah during this period is to try and capture some of that emotion. To long for those days when we are able to feel the presence of the Shechinah in our real homes, in our own land, with the Bais Hamikdosh as our center. If we are able to collectively shed some of those tears, then perhaps we will merit that this coming Tisha B’Av will be a day of celebration as we welcome Moshiach Tzidkeinu.