by Daniel Feldman
[Editor’s Note: We continue to receive quality contributions answering our call for material regarding the recent tragedy that has befallen us]
It has been an awful week for the Jewish people, an awfulness compounded and aggravated by the fact that what has happened is known to anyone on the planet with a newspaper, a radio, or an internet connection. It is further exacerbated by the fact that the events of this past week, while extreme, are certainly not the only causes of embarrassment in the eyes of the world that the Jewish community has suffered recently.
While many facts are not yet known, and we can certainly hope and pray that the truth will prove to be less egregious than it seems, it is undeniable that, in the aggregate, we of the Jewish community have been given an overwhelming call to introspection and self-assessment, as in any case is called for with particular urgency as we approach Tishah B’Av.
The terrifyingly explicit relevance of the haftarah of Shabbos Chazon is one part of a thematic link that unifies the entire liturgy of this period. Linguistically, Chazal noted that the word Eichah – which is in literal translation an innocent “How?” but in impact, a haunting “How can it be?” – is common to the prophecies of Moshe (Devarim 1:12), Yeshayahu (1:21), and Yirmiyahu (Eichah 1:1). The Midrah Rabbah contrasts the three usages: “Three prophesied with the expression Eichah: Moshe, Yeshayahu and Yirmiyahu. …Moshe saw Israel in its tranquility, Isaiah saw them in their anxiety, Yirmiyahu saw them in their disgrace.”
It might be suggested that, broadly speaking, Chazal are identifying here three different mindsets that call for rebuke; three different attitudes which demand a shift of focus, a redirection at the urging of a prophet.
The first, the mindset of tranquility, can be understood as the yetzer hara of complacency. It addresses the trap one falls into when one believes that the existing commitment they display to the values of the Torah is always sufficient. This commitment can range from mere affiliation to much more, but can always fall short when it comes to replace and supplant a constant awareness of whether or not our actions adhere to the standards of the Torah’s demands.
The Talmudic description of the churban – found on the short list of Torah sources permitted to be studied on Tisha B’Av – opens its account (Gittin 55b) with a citation from Mishlei (28: 14): Ashrei adam mifacheid tamid, u-maksheh libo yipol bi-ra’ah; “Happy is the man who fears always; but he who hardens his heart falls into evil”. Tosafos (s.v. Ashrei) raise the question that elsewhere (see Berachos 60a), fear is taken as an indication of a lack of faith in G-d. The answer they provide is that the reference here is to a fear that one’s actions fall short, in contrast with an unwarranted confidence in one’s goodness and rectitude that would inoculate one from sin. In the Talmud’s account, it was this contentment, the lack of this appropriate type of “fear”, which led to events of the churban beginning with the infamous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza.
Starting Sefer Devarim as we do this week is a reminder of one of the central guidelines for how our behavior is to be measured. Sefer Devarim, identified in rabbinic literature as devoted to mussar and reinforcement, is one of the candidates for the alternate title “Sefer HaYashar” (Avodah Zarah 25a). This title places central focus on one verse that typifies its message: “V’asisa ha-yashar v’ha-tov (Devarim 6:18), and you shall do that which is right and good” (see comments of the Maharsha to Avodah Zarah). As the Ramban explains in his comments, that mitzvah comes to express a fundamental truth of Jewish living. If one comes to the conclusion that his actions are permitted by the Torah even if they lack in basic decency, even if they are not good or upright, then that person is by definition mistaken. It is fundamentally impossible for lack of yashrus to coincide with the Torah’s vision.
The second mindset that requires rebuke is that of “anxiety”. In contrast with the recommended “fear” mentioned above, this anxiety is very dangerous. This might broadly refer to an attitude that ostensibly is motivated by piety, but in consequence takes a different direction. It is the mindset that says that the Torah’s mission can only be fulfilled by disregarding whole elements of that very mission itself. Whether it is the viability of a Torah institution that is at stake, or the threat that comes from others not endorsing the message as we see it, this mindset leads us to believe that relief can only come from a broad abandonment of major ideals of a Torah Jew. This abandonment may manifest itself in the form of monetary offenses, or in the manner in which we express our disagreements with others, or in other action that causes chilul Hashem. While it is true that the halakhah contains its own rules for managing values in conflict, as well as the mechanism for Jewish leadership to make extraordinary decisions in response to extraordinary challenges, it can never be the case that we are required to abandon who we are, in the most fundamental sense, in order to fulfill G-d’s mitzvos. We are required to have enough faith in G-d to believe that that is not ever necessary.
The third mindset is one that is particularly compelling as we become numb from reading of scandal after scandal. This is the attitude of “disgrace”, of degradation, which pushes us to give up hope in the face of ever-increasing Chilul Hashem. If prominent people, rabbinic leaders, major segments of the Jewish population, can disappoint us, what hope is there for the Jewish people? How does the nation, and its members, overcome such challenge?
We are reminded that this, too, is a yetzer hara. It is noteworthy that Yirmiyahu was the prophet of the churban, and his words serve as the haftaros of the three weeks and the liturgy of Tishah B’Av. However, on Shabbos Chazon itself, the haftarah comes from the words of Yeshayahu, the prophet of nechamah. It would seem, on the surface, that it is too early yet for Yeshayahu. However, the message is just the opposite. To properly experience Tishah B’Av requires some hint of the future nechamah (See, for example, R. Eliyahu Shlesinger’s Eilah Heim Moa’adai, p. 222-224).
First, we must remind ourselves that as much as we believe that humans can be transformed by encounter with Torah, the Torah always retains its integrity apart from the behavior of any human being. The navi, quoting G-d directly (Yirmiyahu 9:12), blames the destruction on “leaving the Torah”, making it abundantly clear that one can study the Torah, can practice it outwardly, and yet still, in whole or in part, be guilty of leaving it. It is in this spirit that Yirmiyahu can also ask, not only literally but figuratively as well, Eichah yashvah vadad…how can it be that G-d’s city is “alone”. Just like a person can be alone in a crowded room, so too can G-d’s city be both inhabited and “alone” at once. Whatever has happened, the Torah awaits, unchanged and eternal, looking to welcome us back.
The experience of Tishah B’Av requires the knowledge and belief that redemption and rebirth remains not only a possibility, but a necessity. We are promised that there will be a geulah. At the same time, as the Semag reminds us (mitzvas aseh 73), the redemption can only happen when it is clear in the eyes of the world that the Jewish people are obvious symbols of morality and rectitude. As such, the two statements taken together can only mean that there continues to be a potential for the Jewish people to assert that theme. It means that every time there is an instance of chilul Hashem, there is the possibility for us, individually and collectively, to create a Kiddush Hashem of such proportions that it overwhelms and dominates the narrative. As challenging as that may be, it becomes the central mission, one of overwhelming urgency and moment.
It has been an awful week, and an awful few months, and that places growing obligation on us to change the direction. To do so, we must combat complacency with both introspection and outrage; we must combat anxiety with faith in G-d; and we must combat despair with renewed belief in and commitment to our Divine mission. In doing so, may we come sooner rather that later to the time when we shall know no more crying.
[Rabbi Feldman is a Rebbe in the Stone Beit Midrash Program, Yeshiva University, and Director of Rabbinic Research at CJF/YU. He is the author of Binah BaSeforim (3 vols); plus The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations; and Divine Footsteps: Chesed and the Jewish Soul. He is mara d’asra of Cong. Etz Chaim of Teaneck, NJ]