Cries that Reverberated Through the House and Through the Years
The mashgiach’s son, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, rosh yeshiva of the South Fallsburg Yeshiva, related, “I can never forget the Tisha B’Av during my youth when our family was away in Canada on vacation. I remember how my father went up to the attic on the morning of Tisha B’Av and stayed there the entire day. The cries we heard emanating from that attic will remain in my mind forever. My father was crying over the fact that ‘we children had been exiled from the table of our Father.’ When I think of his heartfelt crying so many years ago, I can’t help but think of the Gemara [Brachos 3] that says, ‘Once, I walked in an old ruin and I heard a bas kol moaning like a turtledove, crying, “Woe is to the children who have become exiled from the table of their father.”’”
The Gezeirah of America: Too Busy to Think!
One of the terrible gezeiros of the golus of America is the gezeirah of Pharaoh, who said, “Work them so hard that they will not have a second to even think about leaving Mitzrayim.” In America, people are always in a rush. They are constantly hurrying to the extent that they don’t have a second to contemplate, “Who am I? What am I doing here in this world? What is happening to me?”
If we can’t even think what it means to bemoan the churban, contemplate what we had and what we are missing, how will we ever be able to have a connection to the future, to the exalted time when Hashem’s presence will once again be among us?!
Imagining the Glory to Understand the Loss
How can we bring ourselves to experience aveilus for Yerushalayim if we never even saw the Bais Hamikdosh? The mashgiach would quote the Alter of Kelm, who said, “The only way is through the tziyurim, using our powers of imagination and trying to feel what we once had. For example,” the mashgiach would explain, “Try to picture the beauty of Yerushalayim as elucidated in the Gemara. The Gemara also describes the joy of the simchas bais hasho’eiva, the singing, the dancing, the juggling… the joy of those who brought the bikkurim, the ten miracles that transpired daily in the Bais Hamikdosh. If we don’t use our power of imagination to appreciate what we had, we can never properly mourn the Bais Hamikdosh.”
The mashgiach would cite the words of the Shalah Hakadosh who says, “When a person is healthy, he doesn’t realize what it means to be ill; when a person is rich, he doesn’t realize what it means to be poor. The only way to feel these things is by picturing what pain and suffering he would undergo if he would be hospitalized with an illness or the suffering he would undergo if he would lose all his money.”
To further explain, the mashgiach would relate a story that occurred in Kelm before the war. Rav Nosson once traveled from Kelm to Warsaw with his close friend, Rav Shmuel Shechter, also an American who had to take care of some paperwork at the American Consulate. They badly wanted to return to Kelm for Shabbos, so they paid $100 for a taxi to transport them in a timely manner. At that time, $100 was an astronomical sum of money. The mashgiach of Kelm, Rav Doniel Movoshovitz, hy”d, asked them, “Why did you spend so much money just to come back for Shabbos? You could have remained in Warsaw for Shabbos and taken a train after Shabbos for a fraction of the price?!” The two bochurim replied, “We didn’t spend that kind of money for Olam Habah, we spent it for Olam Hazeh! The sweetness and pleasure of a Shabbos in Kelm is priceless!”
The mashgiach would say, “That sweetness and pleasure of a ‘Shabbos in Kelm’ for which we were willing spend a small fortune, is absolutely nothing compared to the sweetness and pleasantness and beauty of Yerushalayim! A person must use his experiences and imagination for things that he has experienced in his own life to appreciate the loss of the churban.”
The mashgiach added, however, that in our generation, it is not too hard to mourn Yerushalayim if you notice what is happening to us in this golus. We see that no one knows what tomorrow will bring. A person could be healthy today, but tomorrow things can change. Once upon a time, a wealthy person remained with their money. Today, we see rich people becoming poor overnight. The spiritual nisyonos are tremendous. We see the churban everywhere!
In the Mashgiach’s World, Moshiach Was Tangible
No words about the mashgiach’s approach to Tisha B’Av and the Nine Days can be written without mentioning his complete faith and longing for the arrival of Moshiach. He lived, breathed and davened for Moshiach at all times. It was almost impossible to have a conversation with him without him mentioning Moshiach. He once related an anecdote to explain how we should relate to the coming of Moshiach.
When he was a young man learning in the Talmud Torah of Kelm, a local bochur who fell ill. Despite the best efforts of the local doctors, his condition worsened. The family, realizing that the local doctors could not help, decided that their only choice was to bring a great specialist from Berlin to examine the patient. As soon as the door to the house opened, people in the patient’s room craned their necks to see if the doctor had arrived, but it was not him. The next time the door opened, the same thing happened, but again, it was just a local person and not the doctor. This happened six or seven times, until finally people stopped looking at the door.
“However,” the mashgiach continued, “even by the tenth time, I noticed one person still looking at the door each time it opened. The bochur’s father! Because of the love he felt for his son, he still upheld the hope, that maybe, just maybe, this time it will be the doctor.” This lesson saturated the mashgiach’s entire life with the hope and emunah that “Efshar kumt er yetzt – Maybe he is coming now.”
Focus More on Rebuilding Than on Mourning
The Nine Days and Tisha B’Av are not only days to cry over the past but they are days when we must work on building and fixing the aveiros that caused the churban in the first place. Chazal teach that the posuk ‘Korah olai mo’ed’ in Megillas Eicha refers to the fact that Tisha B’Av is called a mo’ed, a Yom Tov. However, it doesn’t only mean that Tisha B’Av was a Yom Tov in the past; nor does it only mean that in the future it will be a Yom Tov. We must realize that now too, this year, it is also called a mo’ed.
Indeed, the mashgiach once noticed a yungerman walking around in a sad state. The mashgiach approached him and asked, “Where is your simcha?” The yungerman replied, “Simcha? It is the Nine Days!”
The mashgiach retorted, “The Nine Days must also be b’simcha. After all, Tisha B’Av is called a mo’ed.”
On another occasion, he explained himself by saying, “You should work on building Yerushalayim more than on the churban of Yerushalayim. A person can’t go through the Nine Days and Tisha B’Av and remain just with the churban. He must focus on the future. The whole avodah of bemoaning the churban is really with the objective of building for that churban and transforming it into a binyan.”
Rav Nosson would bring proofs to this concept from the well-known Gemara. After the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh, Rabi Akiva saw a fox coming out from the place that had once been the Kodesh Hakodoshim. While Rabi Akiva’s peers were devastated by the desecration, Rabi Akiva laughed. “Just as the prophecy that said ‘Foxes will walk on the place where the Bais Hamikdosh once stood’ has been fulfilled,” he explained, “so too the prophecy of the nechoma and the ultimate rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh will also be fulfilled.”
From here we see that even at the time of churban, Rabi Akiva was focused on binyan, rebuilding. When one of the talmidim heard the mashgiach urging everyone to not only focus on the churban but to also focus on binyan, he expressed his amazement that the mashgiach appeared to be discouraging excessive focus on the churban alone. The mashgiach quipped, “Do you also have taanos against Rabi Akiva?!”
Mourning the Resulting Disconnect Caused by the Churban
The mashgiach was once asked, “What is the avodah of the Nine Days?” He replied, “Ehrliche Yidden are accustomed to crying over the churban Bais Hamikdosh. Even though, in essence, Hashem’s presence is always with us, now it is with hester ponim – it is hidden from us. Thus, we are essentially crying that we long for Hashem’s presence to be with us in a revealed way.”
“Also, a person learning in yeshiva or kollel must realize that because of the churban his level of limud haTorah is deficient. Since the churban, our connection with Torah and Torah learning is incomplete. A person must therefore bemoan the churban, or at least engage in superficial aspects of mourning. From that chitzoniyus, that superficiality of crying or even utilizing a mournful tone, he will arouse his pnimiyus, his inner essence, to feel the gaping void in our spiritual lives that is still with us as a result of the churban.”
The Preparation for Elul Starts with Tisha B’Av
“Tisha B’Av is not a simple time of the year,” the mashgiach would say. “During the days of mourning over the churban, we need to prepare our spirituality for Elul. Why? Because we must understand that the greatest spiritual loss that we sustained and continue to sustain is a result of the churban and the loss of kedusha in the world. The whole avodah of Elul is to become closer to kedusha. Thus, bemoaning the churban brings Hashem to restore His hashpa’ah of kedusha in the world, an avodah that is integral to the success of the days of Elul and teshuva.”
The Ongoing Tragedy of the Churban Bayis Sheini
The churban of the first Bais Hamikdosh was a profound tragedy. Nevertheless, in comparison with the churban of the second Bais Hamikdosh, it was relatively mild. The golus following the churban of the first Bais Hamikdosh was only seventy years, whereas today we are still suffering from the ravages of golus as a result of churban Bayis Sheini.
The Gemara [Yoma 9] tells us that during the period of the first Bais Hamikdosh, people committed the three cardinal sins: idolatry, immorality and murder. During the second Bais Hamikdosh, however, the people observed the Torah and mitzvos with kedusha and tahara. Their primary was sinas chinom. The mashgiach said, “How can sinas chinom, which is a relatively ‘mild’ aveirah in comparison with the three cardinal sins, cause the enemy to succeed to such an extent that we have still not recovered, now, about 2,000 years later?!”
The mashgiach answered based on the Vilna Gaon, who says that in the time of the second Bais Hamikdosh, they were deficient in the mitzvah of bitachon. It was this lack of bitachon that caused them to require such a severe punishment. What the Gaon was telling us was that the sinas chinom, the jealousy and the hatred, all emanate from a root cause of… lack of bitachon!
The true baal bitachon, the person who truly trusts in Hashem, is not thrown off his tracks if someone behaves negatively towards him. Why? Because he understands that it really isn’t that person who is being unpleasant to him. It is Hashem Who is sending him a message through that person. Thus, it is to Hashem that he davens and to Hashem that his eyes and heart are turned, not to His messengers. The baal bitachon doesn’t have a bein odom l’chaveiro issue. Every issue is ultimately a matter of bein odom l’Mokom.
The mashgiach explained, “In the time of the first Bais Hamikdosh, the Yidden were true baalei bitachon. The only difficulty was that the yeitzer hora was tremendous and they were unable to overcome their desires so they lapsed and transgressed. However, even their transgressions were temporary. Therefore, that golus too was temporary and only lasted seventy years. During the second Bais Hamikdosh, on the other hand, their difficulty was a bein odom l’chaveiro issue. The bein odom l’chaveiro difficulty was a result of the fact that they didn’t have proper belief in Hashem. They saw each individual who slighted or wronged them as guilty. They didn’t look past the person’s acts to realize that ultimately it was Hashem sending them a message. If they would have, there would have been no place for jealousy and hatred.
“Because they did not have bitachon, because they didn’t realize or believe that Hashem was sending them a message, they lost everything. They needed a massive punishment, one from which we have not yet been able to recover.”
The Cause of Destruction: Detaching Torah from the Nosein HaTorah
The mashgiach would often mention the words of the Bais Yosef in sefer Avkas Rochel: “In the time of the first and second Bottei Mikdosh, there was enough Torah learning. Torah was learned and lack of Torah learning was not the reason for the churban. The reason was that they did not have enough of the Aggadata or Chazal, the words of the Gemara that encourage yiras shomayim.”
The mashgiach extrapolated, “You can never detach Torah learning from the Nosein HaTorah. If you learn cerebrally, without an attachment to Hashem — that is not Torah. When someone detaches himself from mussar and seforim that help one achieve yiras shomayim, his Torah will not be sufficient. He will ultimately be torn away from the Nosein HaTorah. That is how both Bottei Mikdosh were destroyed.”
Chazal [Chagigah 15] teach us that the beginning of the downfall of ‘Acher,’ Elisha ben Avuya, was that he sang Greek songs. Rashi explains that he shouldn’t have been singing Greek songs because of the aveilus on the churban Bais Hamikdosh. We see from here that the main claim that Chazal had against Acher was that he didn’t properly mourn the churban Bais Hamikdosh. If one separates Torah from the Nosein HaTorah, that is what happens. Acher learned Torah, but it didn’t protect him because he detached himself from Hashem by not recognizing the magnitude of the churban.
Awaiting the Geula
All who knew the mashgiach saw that he was perhaps a great metzapeh l’Yeshua. He lived with the idea of the coming of Moshiach and awaited his arrival every second. Every yom tov, he would say, “This is the last yom tov in golus, the last Rosh Hashanah in golus…” It wasn’t a manner of speech, it was the way he lived.
The mashgiach once said, “We are heading into the period of the arrival of Moshiach. We must prepare for his coming right now.” Someone in the room said, “Yes, we hope, we hope that he will come.” The mashgiach stopped him and said, “For 2,000 years, we have hoped. Now we are speaking l’maaseh!”
Is Awaiting Moshiach Any Less Important Than Awaiting a Shidduch?
The mashgiach once told a talmid, “I see that there are many who complain that I speak too much about Moshiach.” The mashgiach then explained, “You know that as mashgiach, many older bochurim come to my office to talk to me about the difficulties they are facing in shidduchim. One bochur trying to find a shidduch for many years once told me, ‘I just won’t give up until I find the suitable shidduch!’ Is awaiting Moshiach any less important than that bochur’s shidduch? We can’t give up either! We must keep trying, doing everything possible until we bring Moshiach!”
“Achakeh Lo B’chol Yom Sheyavo”
Every Lakewood talmid who merited learning in the yeshiva during the time that the mashgiach served there can never forget the way he danced when singing, “Achakeh lo b’chol yom sheyavo.” The entire yeshiva would sing in a circle around the mashgiach, who would dance with every ounce of his strength, singing the words intensely. Everyone could see the intensity of his longing, the intensity of his “Achakeh lo b’chol yom sheyavo.”
We daven that from his place in Gan Eden, he should continue to invoke Divine mercy and speed up the arrival of Moshiach, so that we should merit the fulfillment of the posuk that the mashgiach continuously invoked, “Pisom yavo el heichalo es ha’Odon asher atem mevakshim–Suddenly, the Master who you seek will come to his sanctuary.” Amen ken yehi ratzon.