If every year has a zenith and a nadir, surely entering the Nine Days is the lowest point of our annual lives. This particular year, with Yishmoel brandishing an even more demoniacal sword than ever – in their latest embodiment known as ISIS – in a season of uninspiring candidates for president of the United States and a world in turmoil, the universe looks bleak indeed. Yet, Chazal call Tisha B’Av a moed, and the Bnei Yissoschor tells us that in mid-month, the mazel changes and Av becomes our consoling father being menachem our pain. Can we therefore take solace even in our misfortune or are these days necessarily abysmal, wretched and hopeless?
Perhaps our starting point at this time of the year must be the famous reminder of the Kuzari (2:33), Chovos Halevavos (Shaar Habechinah 5) and Rav Yaakov Emden (introduction to Siddur Bais Yaakov) that the very fact that we are alive as a nation is the greatest miracle in our history. Long before Mark Twain recognized this ongoing neis gadol, our rabbeim taught us never to forget Hashem’s incredible chesed in preserving our existence. Of course, our gratitude at this time does not diminish by an iota our mourning for the glory of the Bais Hamikdosh. However, we may focus on the fact that not only are we alive physically, but unlike virtually every other ancient nation, our Torah and those who revere her words and study her teachings are intact and vibrant.
My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, is quoted (see Ohel Moshe on Mikdosh and Golus, page 192) as teaching that “a Jew, even in golus, is a free man.” By this I believe he meant that not only is the Jew not broken in exile, but he is able to fulfill his purpose in the world. I learned this from him late one night when he shared with me an original Torah thought, which I think has gone unpublished until this moment. Dovid Hamelech in Tehillim 105 and 106 gives a synopsis of Klal Yisroel’s spiritual history up until his own time. When he arrives at the saga of the meraglim, the spies who spoke disparagingly about Eretz Yisroel, he says, “He [Hashem] lifted up His hand [in an oath]…to cast down their descendents among the nations and to scatter them among the lands” (106:26-27). As many meforshim point out, even in Parshas Shelach, the source of this narrative, there is apparently no record of golus being the punishment for the sin of the meraglim.
The rosh yeshiva, however, kindly shared with me the following astounding chiddush: Moshe Rabbeinu begs Hashem to forgive Klal Yisroel for this egregious sin, to which Hashem responds cryptically, “I have forgiven because of your words. But as I live —and the glory of Hashem shall fill the entire world…” (Bamidbar 14:20-21). Now, it is clear, as Rashi points out, that this is indeed an oath, but what exactly is Hashem swearing?
The rosh yeshiva explains: “Hashem is saying to Klal Yisroel, ‘I have created you to spread My glory throughout the world. If you had indicated love and gratitude for the Land, you would have settled there and the entire world would come to you in respect to learn how to live properly. But now that you have expressed disdain for the Land, you cannot go there. Yet, since I have sworn that you will be My agents to teach the world the proper way of life, since they cannot come to you in Eretz Yisroel, you will have to go to them.’ This, then, was what Dovid Hamelech was revealing to us. Klal Yisroel’s mission remains unchanged, whether we merited being settled in the land or being scattered throughout the globe. We must still be the ohr lagoyim – the light unto the nations – but now we are destined to wander the world to fulfill our destiny.”
The great gift and uplifting chizuk we gain from the rosh yeshiva is that we have not been diminished in our spiritual potential by golus at all. Our job is now more difficult, the pain is infinitely greater, the reward much less immediate. But we have remained the same Am Yisroel as before.
The Ramban (Shemos 34:10) asks regarding what we read on Shivah Asar B’Tamumz and will read again on Tisha B’Av afternoon: “Before your entire people I will do wonders such as have never been created in the entire world and among all the nations…that I am about to do with you.” The Ramban concludes, “Surely there were no longer any great miracles once we were delivered miraculously from Egypt.” The Ramban himself answers that this refers to Hashem resting His Shechinah amongst us and to His closeness with Moshe Rabbeinu. However, Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l (Machsheves Mussar) explains that the niflaos, wonders, referred to in the posuk are the nissim mentioned above, that we are alive both physically and spiritually and that we are still the nachalah, “inheritance,” of Hashem, as Moshe Rabbeinu had requested. Indeed, the “wonders” that were promised to Moshe Rabbeinu have been amply fulfilled as Klal Yisroel travels through terrifying hostile hosts, emerging ever stronger, throughout the vicissitudes of time and space.
This teaching was actually alluded to long ago by the Kli Yokor (Devorim 30:1), who explains that there will come a time when “we may think that Hashem no longer wishes our avodah (divine service), but this is not true, for Hashem always desires our closeness and being His nation.”
The Netziv (Haamek Dovor, Bereishis 47:28) goes even further. He asserts that “Hashem revealed to Avrohom that once Am Yisroel was created to be the ohr lagoyim, it was impossible to [fulfill this destiny] without sending them into golus.” The Netziv seems to be of the opinion, apparently somewhat different than Rav Hutner’s approach, that the ideal, what we might even call the lechatchilah, is that Klal Yisroel travel to each country that proves worthy, bringing its sparks of holiness to them. Of course, as the Meshech Chochmah (end of Vayikra) points out, if we overstay our mission deadline, we must be forced out, sometimes under the pressure of expulsions and extreme anti-Semitism so that we do not assimilate and sink into oblivion, G-d forbid.
The Sefas Emes (Vayechi 5650), too, echoes this sentiment when he declares that “Bnei Yisroel’s exile is not coincidental, for every step Klal Yisroel takes leaves an impression.” He had actually taught this concept four years earlier in Parshas Va’eira (5646), where he declared emphatically that “Klal Yisroel’s greatness manifests itself most clearly in golus, as they go about “tending Hashem’s vineyard.”
Yet, we are left wondering, would Hashem actually send us into the den of many wild beasts just to bring light to the gentiles? Wasn’t there a better way, even if we deserved to be punished?
Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu 2:17 and 47) answers these questions eloquently. He explains that for Klal Yisroel, the issue has never been as much where we are as discovering who we are. It is our encounter with our enemies that clarifies the truth to us that “the only battle that counts is the one that rages within.” Hashem demonstrates forcefully to us that “even when we are in the throes of the worst spiritual darkness, the holy spark within us is never extinguished.” This lesson could never have been taught and absorbed in the spiritual tranquility of Eretz Yisroel, while basking in the radiance of the Shechinah. Thus, as the Netziv and Sefas Emes taught us, we had to plunge into the morass of golus at its worst, so that we would learn that, ultimately, we belong to Hashem wherever we are.
So of course we mourn and we yearn for our lost greatness and glory. But “the avodah of Tishah B’Av is to understand and know that if we can discover the Shechinah in the midst of golus, that revelation will prepare the geulah. This is the source of the joy and consolation of the seven weeks of consolation following Tisha B’Av” (Michtav M’Eliyahu 2:47).
May we indeed be zocheh to access the nisayon of exile to bring Moshiach Tzidkeinu bimeheirah beyomeinu.