Friday, May 17, 2024

The Three Weeks of Greatness

We quite correctly sigh upon the arrival of the Three Weeks. They are indeed a time of mourning and grief, as we are eased from the seventeenth of Tammuz into three weeks that have no formal joyous events, into the Nine Days, the week of Tisha B'Av, and, finally, the abject lamentations of the day of destruction itself. But the most we can usually accomplish is to stay out of trouble

We know that these are times of danger, so we try to be careful. Past events during this time of year linger in our memories, so we are fearful and nervous. But camps go on, vacations continue, and trips are taken, for the summer schedule always seems somewhat at odds with the spirit of the times.


And yet, the seforim hakedoshim teach that these are times of great potential. The Maharsha (Bechoros 8a) equates the 21 days of the Three Weeks with the 21 days from Rosh Hashanah through Hoshanah Rabbah. He explains that “just as the Yomim Noraim culminating in the final chasimah of Hoshanah Rabbah cleanse and bring us forgiveness, so do the Three Weeks represent the expiation brought about by suffering.” This parallelism, echoed in a multitude of sources, teaches us that the Three Weeks are not merely something to suffer through, but a hidden treasure of which to take advantage. But how?


The source of this secret seems to be the Mezeritcher Maggid, Rav Dov Ber zt”l (quoted by the Kozhnitzer Maggid, Avodas Yisroel, Masei, and Rav Tzadok Hakohein in Pri Tzaddik, Mattos). He quotes the classic posuk which defines the Three Weeks: “kol rodfeha hisiguha bein hametzorim – all her pursuers overtook her in dire straits” (Eichah 1:3). The term bein hametzorim has come to be a synonym for the Three Weeks, when our various enemies over the centuries have caught up with us. But the Maggid teaches us that rodfeha can also mean that “those who pursue the goal of coronating and revealing Hashem’s glory in the world can accomplish this best during the Three Weeks.” 


But we still don’t know how to do this. For that we turn to the Maor Vashamesh (Parshas Noach), who reveals to us that “tzaddikim regularly transform the middas hadin (justice) into rachamim (compassion) by transposing key letters. For instance, the word tzohar, which represents the window or illuminating stone on the teivah (ark), turned the tzarah (same three Hebrew letters) into a tzohar.”


He goes on to guide us that “during the Three Weeks, we should have in mind when we recite Retzei in Shemoneh Esrei that the tzarah be exchanged by compassionate acceptance – Retzei.”


We might add that this seems to be the simple meaning of the Retzei portion of bentching that we recite on Shabbos: “Retzei (May it please You, Hashem)…that there be no tzarah.” Clearly, this does not mean that we should work on exchanging the letters of various words and phrases. This is a mandate for our personal conduct and attitudes.


Now, on the surface, it seems that since during these summer days terrible things happened long ago, we should daven that it should happen no longer. However, the Sefas Emes makes clear that the power of the Three Weeks extends far beyond damage control. He writes (Parshas Masei 5664) that there are two time frames when Hashem is most inclined to answer our prayers. One is an eis ratzon; when things are good, we have ingratiated ourselves with Hashem and He is pleased to respond favorably to us. But the other is when there is unfortunately an eis tzarah, a time of danger, when our heartfelt cries min hameitzar cause our prayers to be more authentic and genuine than usual. It is then that it is propitious to ask for the fulfillment of all our needs, not only the immediate cause of our distress and concern. In other words, we can and should seize the moment of fear or terror to grow spiritually in prayer and other ways. As the Sefas Emes (Masei 5661) pithily concludes, “One should not run away from the calamity, but remember to be saved through it.”


This is also the teaching of Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin based upon a posuk in Michah: “Do not rejoice over me, my enemy, for though I fell, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, Hashem is a light unto me” (7:8). Rav Tzadok interprets this to mean that “because I fell I will rise. Because I sat in darkness, Hashem will be my light” (Tzidkas Hatzaddik 11). Chassidic seforim add the posuk, “There is an eis tzarah – a time of trouble, mimena yivasha – we will be saved through it.” Again the profound teaching that if we embrace our troubles, using them to achieve closeness with Hashem, that itself will bring about the salvation.


It is noteworthy that some Rishonim hold that one is only obligated to pray mide’Oraisa if there is danger or peril. As the Sefas Emes taught us, one of Hashem’s ways of drawing us to Him is through our sudden need to call out to Him. The meforshim also point out that the parshiyos we read during this period reflect this positive approach. The Shelah Hakadosh (Maseches Taanis) teaches, “These parshiyos are replete with Klal Yisroel’s triumph over its enemies, the conquering and distribution of the Land and even the festive Yomim Tovim in Parshas Pinchos. This reflects the direct opposite of the tragic time of the year, for eventually these fast days will all turn into holidays.” The Apter Rov zt”l goes even further in declaring that “these days are the root and source of all the holidays of the year” (Oheiv Yisroel, Parshas Pinchos).


This understanding of the essence of the Three Weeks is borne out most dramatically in the order of the haftoros assigned to these sad times. The first two are from Yirmiyahu. The last, which gives its name to the Shabbos it is read, derives from Yeshayahu, beginning with the famous words Chazon Yeshayahu. There is an ancient puzzle about these haftoros. It makes sense to read from Yirmiyahu because the Gemara (Bava Basra 14b) tells us that Yirmiyahu is primarily tragedy and reproof. That is certainly the mandate and tone of the season. However, the same Gemara defines Yeshayahu as being primarily consolation and comfort, as evidenced by the seven haftoros of consolation all deriving from this prophet. But why, then, does the haftorah introducing Tishah B’Av stem from the novi of consolation instead of from what appears to be the prophet of doom?


The Sefer Birchas Yaavetz (1:308) answers along the lines of our understanding of the Tree Weeks. “After Tisha B’Av becomes a Yom Tov, the haftorah will remain, for the destruction will have become part and parcel of the consolation.” We may add that true consolation should not attempt to erase an entire era of suffering. That would render the pain meaningless and eviscerate a major portion of our history by declaring it lost forever. However, if our suffering has produced growth, if our sacrifices were proven acceptable and worthy, the churban is encompassed into the new life of the nation and its survival becomes our triumph.


My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, used to quote the flaming words of the Vilna Gaon in his commentary on Shir Hashirim: “They found me, the enemy watchman patrolling the city. Hikuni – They struck me, petzauni – they bloodied me…” (5:7). The Gaon comments: “Hikuni refers to the murder of the great Torah scholars. Petzauni refers to the destruction of Eretz Yisroel itself.” My rebbi adds: “but even these terrifying words are in Shir Hashirim [the love song between Hashem and Klal Yisroel].” We must remember that for Klal Yisroel, the punishment and the reward, the praise and the rebuke are but two sides of the same precious coin. If we take the Three Weeks of tragedy to heart, they can turn instantly into the Three Weeks of Yom Tov, bimeheirah beyimeinu.



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