This week’s parsha of Devorim opens with Moshe Rabbeinu admonishing the Jewish people for the various sins they committed during the forty years they spent together in the desert on their way to Eretz Yisroel. Rashi famously points out that he began his reprimand by enumerating the various places where they acted improperly. Moshe spoke this way to the Jewish people to show them respect and to not cause them embarrassment.
The Ponovezher Rov would travel the world raising funds to build and maintain the Ponovezher Yeshiva and its branches. People would gather to hear his incisive, uplifting and emotional drashos. Wherever he went, everybody loved him. The following short speech he once delivered shows why.
When Yaakov went to Choron seeking out his mother’s brother Lovon as he was escaping from his brother Eisov, he saw the local shepherds gathering their flocks and leaving the area of the watering hole. He said to them, “My dear brothers, where are you from?” When they told him that they were from Choron, he asked them if they were familiar with Lovon. They responded that they were and that his daughter Rochel was approaching with a flock of sheep. Yaakov then began to admonish them that they were leaving early for home.
Said the Rov, “Imagine the scene: An old man with a long white beard, bedecked in a kapota, who is a stranger to the area and knows nothing about the local customs, comes to town and begins to lecture the shepherds that they are leaving work early. Logically, at least one of the culprits should have stood up to him and said, “Who are you? Who asked you? We aren’t interested in what you have to say.’ But instead, they accepted his admonition and responded to him that they weren’t able to remove the large stone that covered the water, and since they couldn’t water their sheep, they were leaving.
“Do you know why? That was because the people were able to discern that Yaakov cared about them. The strange person who was lecturing them opened his conversation by saying, ‘Achai, my dear brothers.’ When they heard that, they were able to tell that what he said was meant for their good.”
When a person feels that the one admonishing him loves him and cares about him, he is able to accept what the speaker says, and listens and pays attention to his comments.
FEELING THE LOSS
During these days of Av, we are all mourners. We consider the time when the Bais Hamikdosh stood in the center of Yerushalayim. We reflect on how different and blessed life was at that time. We think about all the tragedies that occurred to the Jews throughout the ages and become sad, because we know that Tisha B’Av is the repository of sadness and mourning for everything that has befallen us.
The tragedy and sadness have to be part of our essence. We have to mourn, not look for ways to free ourselves from displaying that as believing Jews, we realize our history and what has befallen our people in the churban and ever since. How can we laugh and party when the memory of the six million is with us in this period? How can we engage in happy and fun activities while remembering the Harugei Beitar, the millions of our brothers and sisters who were led into slavery?
When you walk into a room where people are sitting close to the floor with a prominent rip in their clothing, the atmosphere is heavy and sad. Not a word is exchanged. Then a menachem, a comforter, walks into the room. Initially, the people on the floor look up at their visitor with sad, knowing eyes. Then they slowly come alive, sharing stories of their departed loved one, exchanging reminiscences. “What do you remember?” they ask. “What can you share?” They then accept words of chizuk as expressed in the eternal phrase of nechomah: “HaMakom yenacheim es’chem.”
The halachos of the Nine Days are not simply laws that we outwardly observe. Nor should we look for ways to wiggle out of them. They are meant to influence our thought and feelings during this time. We are meant to be in a state of sadness these days, contemplating our losses, as a mourner would do. We are lacking if we don’t feel the loss in our hearts.
We all know that the second Bais Hamidkosh was destroyed because sinas chinom was prevalent amongst Jews at that time (Yoma 9b). However, the Gemara in Maseches Sanhedrin (104b) points to the chet hameraglim as the cause of the destruction. It was on the 9th day of Av that the Jews in the desert cried for naught. Their “bechiyah shel chinom” echoes all these years, giving every generation many reasons to cry.
The meraglim lacked the ability to see themselves for who they were. They were reduced to the size of insects in their own eyes, feeling small and insignificant, because they accepted the attitudes and views of others as fact.
The Jews heard the report of their mission to the land that Hashem promised them and broke down in tears. “Woe is to us,” they cried. “We are being led to a country that will destroy us.” They were insecure about their ability to merit Hashem’s blessing and protection. They feared that they wouldn’t be worthy of the promises that they would inherit the Land.
They didn’t perceive their own greatness.
The historical accounts of the churban Bais Hamikdosh appear in Maseches Gittin because the break between Klal Yisroel and Hakadosh Boruch Hu was a tragedy not unlike a get (divorce). The novi Yeshayahu cries out (50:1), “Eizeh sefer krisus imchem asher shelachtiha – Which divorce has Hashem sent you?”
Hashem never stopped loving His people. He never divorced Himself from them. There was no get. The people who were singled out and set apart with privileges unavailable to others believed that they had been cast aside. Because they lacked self-confidence, they were easily misled and taken in by apocalyptic predictions.
Years later, during the period of Bayis Sheini, although the Jewish people were religiously committed, the rot at the root of the chet hameraglim was still present. Because the people were cynical, negative and pessimistic, they didn’t feel Hashem’s love, nor did they appreciate His proximity. They didn’t see the Jewish people as being worthy of Divine love, so they hated each other. They wrote sifrei krisus to each other because they didn’t appreciate the greatness inherent in every individual Jew. Insecure, they were blind to their own worthiness and, like the Jews at the time of the chet hameraglim, because they felt undeserving, they didn’t appreciate what they were given.
On Tisha B’Av, we repent for what they did. We sit on the floor, reciting Kinnos, recalling how good we had it, how much love there was, how close we were to Hashem, and the holiness and unity that were apparent in our lives. We bemoan the losses we suffered. We recognize through our tears how much Hashem loved us, and we proclaim that we know that He still loves us and that we are worthy of that love. By doing this, we repent for the sins of the meraglim and sinas chinom.
REALIZING OUR SELF-WORTH
Many of our problems are rooted in the sin of low self-esteem, of not realizing who we are. People give up on becoming great even before trying. They are easily knocked off course and lose motivation to succeed and excel, because they don’t believe in themselves. This is one of the ways the yeitzer hora causes us to live a hopeless, sad and sometimes self-hating life.
Many people hate themselves and cause themselves pain because they can’t cope. These people start out like the rest of us, but because of bad vibes they pick up, they end up on a downhill trajectory and often hit bottom.
To get up, they need love, they need care, they need self-value, and they need to know that they make a difference and their lives are important. It may be easier said than done, but it saves lives and makes us and them better people.
How do we combat it? By talking to them and treating them with respect, we instill self-pride in them.
How do we combat it? By talking up to people, not down. By pumping people up, not taking them down. By not being judgmental and by bearing in mind that all people want to feel good about themselves. You can help them have that feeling if you talk to them as if their lives have worth, no matter how they act and how they look.
By caring about people and their feelings, you are helping give people a lifeline and a reason to carry on.
WE MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Chazal famously teach us that a generation that doesn’t merit the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh is viewed as having had the Bais Hamikdosh destroyed in their time. The Sefas Emes explains that anyone who doesn’t believe that his actions can contribute to the building of the Bais Hamikdosh is accountable for its destruction. Those who don’t realize that they have the power to bring about the return of the Bais Hamikdosh have a part in its destruction.
To believe that we make no difference is part of the churban.
Our response to churban is to have faith in ourselves and know what we are, who we are, and what we can achieve.
This, says the Sefas Emes, is what’s meant by the brocha we recite in Birkas Hamazon referring to Hashem as the “bonei (presently building) berachamov Yerushalayim.” Rebuilding the Holy City is a steady, ongoing process. At any given moment, Hashem is rebuilding Yerushalayim. It is destructive to think that we can’t play a role in that process.
We lost the Bais Hamikdosh because of two related sins: bechiyah shel chinom, a futile cry, and sinas chinom, baseless hatred.
Our every act, word and tear has a purpose. They are not for naught, chinom. Realizing what a Jew represents is the greatest and most effective antidote to sinas chinom. Each of us carries so much power. We have to appreciate the mitzvos and ma’asim tovim of others and see their efforts with an ayin tovah.
On Tisha B’Av, we see that no one is chinom and nothing they do is chinom. We re-learn how to love. We recognize that just because we have a different appearance and act differently doesn’t mean that we are inherently different. Because the other fellow wears green and we wear black doesn’t mean that we should dislike him or look down at him. Just because someone doesn’t dress the same way you do doesn’t mean he is not worthy of love and care.
SPEAKING OF ANOTHER’S GREATNESS
The Chofetz Chaim would travel from town to town selling his seforim. It happened that he found himself staying at a Vilna kosher inn. At mealtime, a large burly fellow walked in and sat himself down at the table. He called over the server and ordered her to bring him roast duck and a large glass of wine. When the food came, he grabbed it from the server and began to eat voraciously, without a brocha or any decency and manners.
The owner saw that the Chofetz Chaim was appalled by the man’s behavior and was debating whether to get up and speak to the man. He walked over to the sainted gaon and begged him not to say anything to the rude guest. He told him that the man was a veteran of Czar Nicolai’s army and was liable to curse and lay a hand on the Chofetz Chaim.
“Please, rebbe,” said the innkeeper, “leave him alone. There is no one to talk to. He is an illiterate bully. When he was seven, he was taken away with other Jewish children and, as cantonists, they were taken to Siberia. He grew up with local peasants, and when he was 18 years old, he was inducted into the Czar’s army, where he spent the next twenty-five years.
“Forty years of his life found him among uncivilized ruffians, far removed from any Jewish community. He never learned a word of Torah and during those years, never saw a Jewish face. Rebbe, please don’t start up with him. Your respect is worth more to me than getting into a tussle with him.”
“Have no fear,” the sage responded. “I can speak to him and set him straight.”
With that, the Chofetz Chaim lovingly and with a smile approached the man. “Shalom Aleichem. Is it true that you were kidnapped as a young child, taken to Siberia, grew up among gentiles, and never merited to study Torah?
“It would seem to me that you suffered tremendously, enduring various types of torture. No doubt they mocked your religion, tried to convert you, and forced you to eat pig and other non-kosher foods. Despite all you went through, they didn’t break you and you remained a Jew.
“I would be glad to have the sources of merit that you have and be a ben Olam Haba as you are. All the decades of mesirus nefesh for Yiddishkeit and kevod Shomayim rank you with the greatest of our people. In the World to Come, you will be seated among the giants of our people, the tzaddikim and gaonim.”
As the Chofetz Chaim spoke, tears began streaming down the face of the tough guy. He was shaken by the loving words of praise and support. His heart was touched as it never was before.
When the man found out who was speaking to him, he began to cry and kissed the Chofetz Chaim.
The aged tzaddik completed his pitch: “A person such as you merited being considered a kadosh who was moser nefesh for Hashem. If you live the rest of your life as a ‘kosher Jew,’ you will be the happiest man alive.”
The former cantonist undertook to do teshuvah and live a Torah life.
When we speak to people during this period and we seek to improve our conduct and repair the breaches that caused the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh and our disbursement among the nations in exile, we must do so with love and care. Even when we must admonish someone, it needs to be done in a way that does not hurt the recipient.
Let us get into the habit of being more loving and expressing the love through our actions and words. Caring about others, showing people that we have faith in their abilities, and always engaging in friendly conduct will help bring about the geulah quickly in our day.