The final stanza of Eli Zion, the last kinnah recited in many shuls on Tisha B’Av, reads, “. . . for Your Name, which was desecrated by the mouth of those who arose to torment her . . . .” Following the interpretive principle that the conclusion (chatima) is determinative, we infer that the greatest tragedy associated with Tisha B”Av is the Chilul Hashem caused by the destruction of the Temple.
That insight strikes with particular force today. What gentile looks at us and thinks, “Perhaps they really are the Chosen People?” What non-religious Jew looks to the Torah world and finds his curiosity aroused about the source of such refinement and simple mentschlikeit? The janitor in an Orthodox-owned factory recently asked his boss, “If you really are the Chosen People, why are you all so corrupt?”
We each carry around a set of adult pacifiers to grab onto at such moments. Who has not repeated many times Rabbi Berel Wein’s famous line, “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” But the Torah is judged, for better or worse, by the behavior of Torah Jews. Meeting a Torah Jew who exemplified something he or she has never before encountered serves as a major impetus for virtually every ba’al teshuva.
Rabbi Zev Leff likes telling a story of the Telshe Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai (Mottel) Katz. A non-religious Jew once asked him, “Rabbi, how do you explain all these religious Jews who lie, steal, and cheat on their income taxes.”
Reb Mottel replied, “I have the same question about all those religious Jews who eat on Yom Kippur, drive on Shabbos, and don’t keep kosher.” The man looked perplexed. “Those aren’t religious,” he said. “Well, neither are those you mentioned,” Reb Mottel replied.
Unfortunately, writing all those who lie, steal and cheat out of the ranks of Orthodoxy only takes us so far. For one thing, the former view themselves and are viewed as others as frum Jews.
Nor can their self-image be dismissed as simply a bluff. An Orthodox prison chaplain relates how he once brought a prisoner a set of the Four Species for Sukkos. The prisoner, however, rejected the esrog, telling the chaplain, “I’m makpid (strict) on a pitom.” The chaplain could not resist asking, “About a pitom you are strict, and about defrauding widows you are lenient?” But obviously the prisoner did feel some connection to Hashem. Otherwise, why would he have cared about the pitom either?
If we carried Rabbi Katz’s answer to its logical conclusion, where would we draw the line? Most of us are not candidates for federal penitentiary. But how many would feel comfortable having Rabbi Shimon Schwab, zt”l, examine our books, if he were still alive? A rabbi once called Rabbi Schwab and began his question, “A frum Jew who runs a cash business . . .” He had gotten no further when Rabbi Schwab shouted, “WHAT!”
Thinking that Rabbi Schwab was hard of hearing, the rabbi began again, “A frum Jew who runs a cash business . . .” Again, Rabbi Schwab shouted, “WHAT!” After the third try, Rabbi Schwab explained that running a cash business – i.e.., evading taxes – cannot be reconciled with being a frum Jew.
Even if we could pass the Rabbi Schwab bookkeeping test, how many of us can say that we have never lowered the respect for Torah Jews by our public behavior – e.g., the way we drive, reacting angrily when irritated by a sales clerk? I know I couldn’t pass that test.
NO DOUBT many Torah Jews could pass the Rabbi Schwab bookkeeping test. They just don’t happen to be the ones who receive any media attention. Someone raised in the Breuer’s kehillah of Washington Heights once told me that he had never ever experienced the slightest temptation to cheat on his income taxes. Just as the prisoner mentioned above could not imagine taking an esrog without a pitom, he could not imagine trying to short change the government.
That contrast suggests that much Chilul Hashem results from an educational failure. We are failing to transmit what Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv calls the central educational message for our time – i.e., the Name of Heaven should become beloved through your actions. In the Haftorah read on Tisha B’Av, the prophet Yirmiyahu offers Hashem’s explanation of the Churban: “Because they have forsaken My Torah, which I set before them, and have not obeyed My voice, nor walked therein” (Yirmiyahu 9:12).
If forsaking Hashem’s Torah meant failing to study Torah or observe the commandments, Rabbeinu Yonah asks, how can we understand the inability the Prophets and Sages to identify the causes of the Churban (Nedarim 81a)? Rabbeinu Yonah explains that the generations preceding the Destruction learned Torah and fulfilled the mitzvos. What they failed to do was give sufficient thought to what it means to obey His voice and walk in His ways – i.e., to inquire what kind of human being Hashem seeks to fashion through His mitzvos. Chazal express this idea by saying that they did not recite bircas HaTorah (the blessings prior to learning Torah).
German Jews raised in the Hirschian tradition, with its constant emphasis on Mentsch Yisrael and the educational message conveyed by every single detail of the mitzvos, are protected against viewing mitzvos as a mere checklist of commands, with no implications for our character development. Rabbi Schwab’s prophetic denunciations of all forms of Chilul Hashem, which are currently circulating widely, capture this aspect of the Hirschian tradition.
The Sfas Emes asks why Moshe Rabbeinu reproved the Bnei Yisrael at such length on the eve of entering the Land. After all, the perpetrators of those sins had already died in the Desert. He answers that it is the task of each generation to correct the failings of preceding generations and that requires knowing those failings.
When it comes to countering the Chilul Hashem represented by the destruction of the Temple, however, we seem to be adding to rather than repairing the damage. The need for each of us to dedicate himself to Kiddush Hashem in every action, large or small, public or private, is the most important lesson of Tisha B’Av 5769.
I would like to thank Rabbi Dovid Miller and Rabbi Zev Leff for the above insights.
This article was originally published in Mishpacha.