Monday, Feb 19, 2024

Three Weeks of Introspection and Chizuk

The next three weeks are the saddest in the Jewish calendar. Yet, there are 21 other days, which constitute the happiest days of the year, counting from Rosh Hashanah until Hoshanah Rabbah. Furthermore, the Arizal (Likkutei Torah, Parshas Ki Sisa) reveals that when the Erev Rav originally wanted to make the Eigel, Aharon Hakohein delayed them by declaring, “Chag LaHashem mochor – A festival for Hashem tomorrow” (Shemos 32:5). Just as Rashi teaches (Shemos 13:14) that “tomorrow” can mean a long time off, so did Aharon mean that the Three Weeks beginning with Shivah Asar B’Tammuz and ending with Tisha B’Av would someday be extremely happy days. In fact, those three weeks will become a kind of Chol Hamoed for Klal Yisroel. Let’s explore a bit, to the limits of our capabilities, the inner significance of these profound juxtapositions between tragedy and joy.

First of all, the Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 11:1) quotes from pesukim in Parshas Balak that there will be two people called Moshiach. One is Dovid Hamelech himself, who will establish the true monarchy of Klal Yisroel. The other will be his descendent, whom we await with such yearning all these centuries and millennia. Last week, many of us wondered why Balak, an evil man who had only the destruction, G-d forbid, of Klal Yisroel in mind, merited to have these celestial matters enumerated in the parsha that bears his name.

One answer is that Balak was the father of Eglon, king of Moav, who was the father of Rus HaMoaviah, the ancestor of Dovid and eventually Moshiach. More importantly, Balak built seven altars (Bamidbar 23:2) upon which he and Bilam offered 42 korbanos to Hashem.

Rav Moshe Wolfson (Sefer Emunas Itecha) adds that we lain Parshas Balak before Shivah Asar B’Tammuz because Boaz married Rus on that day, giving rise to Malchus Bais Dovid and Moshiach. Thus, we begin to see that the seeds of our best days were implanted by actions of our worst enemies at a time of great danger to our nation. This is the beginning of the rays of light that have been wrested out of the darkness itself.

Another perhaps better-known metaphor for this idea literally shines forth from the statement of Chazal (Yoma 54a) that when the Babylonians entered the Heichal of the Bais Hamikdosh, they discovered the Keruvim atop the Aron miraculously entwined in an embrace. The question that has been raised for centuries is that Chazal (Bava Basra 99b) also state that when Klal Yisroel is doing the will of Hashem, the Keruvim are facing each other. But when we are not, they face away from each other, toward the Bais Hamikdosh itself. How, then, could the Keruvim be so close to each other at the moment that Hashem is angry enough at us to destroy His home and send His people into exile?

The answer, given with slight variations by the Bnei Yissoschor, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz and others is that this powerful scene is actually a manifestation of Hashem’s great love, either because He is “pouring out His wrath” upon the physical building, but not chas veshalom destroying His people, or He is demonstrating His love through the embrace of the Keruvim. This even as a father would punish but give a hug to make clear that His love has never been removed from His beloved but wayward children.

There is still another explanation for the Three Weeks of Mourning leading to the Three Weeks of Rejoicing. The Three Weeks are known as Bein Hametzarim — “Between the Straits” (Eicha 1:3), but has been interpreted Medrashically to mean “Kol rodefei Kah – All those who pursue Hashem to come close to Him” can catch up to Him during these days. We all know that the culmination of the Three Weeks is Tisha B’Av, when Chazal (Yerushalmi Brachos 2:4) tell us that Moshiach will be born. Somehow, the Three Weeks, tragic though they are, will lead to the ultimate salvation and redemption. How will this happen?

To understand, we must go back to the terrifying time just before the first churban and the prophesies of the novi Yechezkel. Hashem says to the novi: “Tell the house of Yisroel about the Bais Hamikdosh and let them be ashamed of their iniquities and calculate the Bais Hamikdosh’s design” (Yechezkel 43:10). What message exactly is Yechezkel conveying to Klal Yisroel? Rashi explains that he is telling them, “I am showing My people that I do not find them repugnant because of their sins.” Why would we have thought that this is Hashem’s attitude toward us? The answer may be found in another nevuah of Yechezkel (20:1): Some of the elders of Klal Yisroel had come to Yechezkel to ask what Hashem wants from His people. His answer was, “So says Hashem, ‘I will not relate to your inquiries.” Rashi explains this to mean that the elders were implying that if Hashem doesn’t respond to any of their requests on behalf of Klal Yisroel, they will consider it as if He has divorced us forever, G-d forbid, and we no longer have any relationship.

Those of us now learning Gittin in Daf Yomi can understand this very viscerally. We are about to learn the dapim about the churban, which are not only in Gittin, but in the perek about damages (Hanizakin). Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin often points out that the aggadata of every Gemara fits in closely with its halacha. Thus, since Gittin is about the husband who divorces his wife, so is the main homiletic material in Shas about the destruction in the tractate that discusses divorce. The Zekeinim were worried that if Hashem no longer relates to us with caring, then we must have indeed been rejected permanently. That was Klal Yisroel’s worry and concern, as articulated by our elders.

Where did this near yiush – despair and dejection – come from? We must understand that before the first churban, the idea that Hashem would allow the Bais Hamikdosh to be destroyed was unthinkable. It had never happened before, and the people thought that it never would. However, once the novi confirmed that the churban was coming, complete despondence set in immediately. Rashi (Yechezkel 33:10) describes the scene where the people thought that even teshuvah wouldn’t help. We thought that it was all over – our relationship, with Hashem, with His House, with His land. Therefore, when Hashem sent the novi to chastise and admonish them, but also to prepare to rebuild, they were ecstatic. It wasn’t over. There was hope. The Bais Hamikdosh would be destroyed, but there would be another. Even more importantly, Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky offers many proofs that Yechezkel was depicting not the Second Bais Hamikdosh, but the third and final one. This gave Klal Yisroel the chizuk and courage to push on, to change and survive the difficult days ahead, because much better ones were coming. Thus, Yechezkel told the people that Hashem had never found them abominable, nor considered for a moment rejecting them. These words were a balm for sore eyes and ears.

In truth, as Klal Yisroel soon recalled, this was not just the novel words of the novi of that time. It echoed the ancient words of Hashem at the end of the Tochacha, “But despite all this, while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not have been revolted by them nor will I have rejected them to annul My covenant with them” (Vayikra 26:44). Indeed, Rav Meir Simcha Hakohein (Meshech Chochmah on this posuk) cites this posuk as proof of the fact that Hashem will always whisk us out of any exile where we are in danger of assimilation and intermarriage. This is not as punishment, but out of His love of us and His guarantee of our survival.

Rav Shlomo Levenstein tells the amazing story of an Israeli secular woman on vacation in Thailand during the tsunami of 5765 (2005). She found herself drowning in a howling, frightening sea of flotsam and jetsam filled with animals, furniture and corpses all around her. Somehow, from deep inside of her, the words Shema Yisroel emerged, and suddenly a wooden board carried her to safety. She found her faith only after there was no one else to turn to but her Creator. Klal Yisroel as a whole had given up as well. But when the novi promised us that although there would be destruction there would also be rebuilding, we were relieved enough to turn back to Hashem and start over again. This has been both our history and our pattern of redemption. We may temporarily give up, but then we see that not only is there light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel itself provides the light.

Yes, the Three Weeks ahead are fraught with tragedy and destruction. But they carry the seeds of the Three Weeks of redemption, repentance and ultimate joy. May we use the days ahead for teshuvah and introspection, but also to take strength that Hashem loves us and will never abandon us. This should generate the greatest joy of all.

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