Mrs. Smiles - Tisha B'Av: Holiday of Distance 5770/2010

While Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av is a day of mourning the destruction of both Botei Mikdosh, our holy Temples, it is referred to in our holy writings as a moed, a holiday. How could a day of such sadness and tears, when God’s Presence left its earthly abode and became distant from us be designated a holiday? Even more troubling, the Alei Shor, Rav Wolbe exhorts us, although we mourn the destruction of the Temple, in the comfort of our everyday lives how many of us really feel a deep void because Hashem has distanced Himself from us?

Rav Wolbe’s question lies at the heart of our discussion. Our relationship with God was close and intimate. It was symbolized by the cherubim on the Holy Ark. When we acted in accordance with His will, the cherubim faced each other in an embrace, intimating God’s embracing Bnei Yisroel, so to speak. It was the manifestation of God’s will to live among us even while His permanent abode was in the heavens. It was the validation of our ability to bring His Presence down to earth through our own words and actions, to create this closeness.

When we acted not in accordance with His will, the cherubim turned away from each other and faced the wall, reflecting Hashem’s discontent with our behavior. Yet, in a surprising apparent anomaly, when the enemy entered the Sanctuary in advance of its destruction, they found the cherubim embracing. Hashem had given the enemy dominion over this holy place. Certainly Hashem was not acting lovingly toward His people. Why were the cherubim embracing?

In order to explain this anomaly, the Bnei Yissachar analyzes the different phases love goes through and how they manifest themselves in our behavior. Under normal circumstances, when two people love each other, whether parent and child, husband and wife, or good friends, their love is usually not open and conspicuous. However, when they need to part for some time, they become very emotional, embracing each other tightly and having difficulty letting go. (Just observe parents on the first day of school or when their children are leaving for a year of study in Israel.) This, posits the Bnei Yissachar, was what prompted the embrace of the cherubim. Hashem knew He was parting from Bnei Yisroel for an extended period of time. He wanted us to remember that embrace, that closeness we had felt during the time of the Beit Hamikdosh, so that the memory would sustain us through the long separation of our exile.

Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, the Sifsei Chaim teaches us that once Hashem removed His Presence from the Beit Hamikdosh and the enemy burned it down, His Presence was no longer openly manifest in the world. The Beit Hamikdosh devoid of Hashem’s Presence, remained an edifice of mere stone an mortar without the daily miracles that were a constant revelation and manifestation oh His Presence. As such, our awareness of His Presence in our lives became dimmed. It’s as if the clouds descended to obscure the sunlight. The sunlight of God’s Providence was still here, but we could not recognize it. Rav Dessler compares this to someone who remains indoors. He sees the sun, but experiences it in a much diminished manner because the walls and windowshades obscure the power of its rays. All of creation felt the distancing of Hashem’s Presence. While Bnei Yisroel cried by the waters of Babylon, Hashem Himself also cried.

The Sifsei Chaim continues. An archangel then approached Hashem and suggested that he cry and not Hashem, for he is the angel responsible for the manifestation of God’s Presence in the world resulting from the good deeds of Bnei Yisroel.  Bnei Yisroel was at fault for no longer being the recipient of God’s beneficence, not Hashem. But Hashem responds that He too needs to cry, for there is a vacuum and desecration in Hashem’s Presence on earth when He cannot rain down blessings of goodness, when Bnei Yisroel has destroyed the tools that bring the closeness of Hakodosh Boruch Hu to creation, and He is bereft of giving. I will go, says Hashem, to the innermost chambers to cry, where even you, the archangel, are forbidden to enter. I will go into heart of every one of My people. Perhaps they will again recognize My Presence within the sanctuary of their hearts and return to Me with love as I stay with them.

This is the cry of Hakodosh Boruch Hu, echoed in the first word of the Megillah. Rabbi Wolbe juxtaposes the two. Jeremiah cried, “Eicha – how is it possible…”, and Hashem cries out, as He did to Adam, “Ayekah – Where are you.” Where are you, where is your heart? Are you searching for the connection to your Maker? Are you a conduit for Hashem’s blessings to flow down to earth? Are you even aware that the distance is not a gap but a chasm? When we hear Eicha on Tisha B’Av, we should be asking ourselves Ayekah. We should be asking ourselves why we have left Torah, and how we can facilitate kiruv, and approach a closeness to the Ribbono shel olam again. We should recognize the intrinsic loss, and not just the trials and travail that golus has brought upon us.

The Netivot Shalom uses this idea to understand why the Megillah says this day will be called a holiday. He explains that besides closeness and distance, there is yet another kind of relationship: the worst level is when you think you’re close and don’t even recognize that the relationship has deteriorated and God forbid no longer exists at all, when you rationalize your evil or sinful, or abusive actions into the belief that they are in fact righteous and beneficial.

Rabbi Shmulevitz in his Sichot Mussar provides a very telling example of this mindset. He discusses the medrash wherein Esau sent his son Elifaz to kill Yaakov as Yaakov fled to Laban. When Elifaz caught up to Yaakov, Elifaz had an inner conflict. On the one hand, he needed to obey his father who had commanded him to kill Yaakov. On the other hand, he had learned how terrible a sin murder is from his grandfather Yitzchak. He wanted to do the right thing, yet these two “right things” were mutually exclusive. Yaakov saved his life by resolving Elifaz’s inner conflict; Yaakov told Elifaz to take all his belongings, for by impoverishing him, Yaakov would be considered as a dead man and Elifaz could thus obey his father.

This, explains Rabbi Shmulevitz, is the paradigm of the greatest evil, worst than pure evil. It is the contamination of pure evil with righteous trappings, with claiming to fulfill a “mitzvah” through the evil act. After all, Elifaz could now claim he was obeying God’s command to honor one’s father while only symbolically murdering his uncle! By subverting the good to achieve the evil, he created a greater evil than evil alone. Darkness became not just an absence of light, but a powerful force within man that could corrupt the light and the good. He created the paradigm under which his descendent Amalek would function throughout the generations, a model in which evil is called a “mitzvah”.

The Sifsei Chaim cites the prophet Jeremiah in showing that this mindset had corrupted Bnei Yisroel. “How can you say I have not become impure, I have not followed Baal,” admonishes the prophet, when the evidence is right there. It is for this abnegation of responsibility, of “I have not sinned” that Hashem is punishing Bnei Yisroel and Jerusalem. With the destruction of the Beit Hamikdosh, the eyes of Bnei Yisroel opened up and they realized the extent of their sins. They had not yet reestablished the closeness with Hakodosh Boruch Hu, but at least they could now acknowledge their responsibility in creating the distance with Hashem and could yearn for the repair of the relationship. This awakening alone merited celebration as a holiday.

Our problem today is that we don’t realize what we are missing. Even the mitzvoth that we do, we do more through habit than as a means of facilitating Hashem’s renewed open Presence on earth. Our perspective in our daily life should be greater than performing the letter of the law. We should be focused on making Hashem’s Presence again manifest in the world as it was in the time of the Temple, by using our words and actions to this end rather than for rote observance. Even our seemingly mundane tasks, earning a living, caring for our children, can be viewed as doing Hashem’s work on earth and bringing His Presence closer. Our fast on Tisha B’Av should arouse this yearning within us. It should act as the precursor for the approaching Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe.

There is a total of twenty-two days included in bein hamitzarim, the period between the breaching of the wall of Jerusalem on the seventeenth of Tamuz and the destruction of the Temple on Tisha B’Av. This time span, says the Netivot Shalom, parallels the twenty-two day period between Rosh Hashana and Succoth, culminating in Simchat Torah. The embrace of the Cherubim at the destruction of the Temple on Tisha B’Av is meant to parallel the closeness and love between Bnei Yisroel and Hashem that we feel on Simchat Torah. We begin with the awakening of the yearning for the relationship on Tisha B’Av, and we hope to have reached a state of intimacy by Simchat Torah.

The Netivot Shalom cites the Maggid of Mezerich in offering a beautiful interpretation of the verse in Eicha, “Kol rodfeha heeseeguha bein hametzarim,” – All who have pursued her have caught her in this time of oppression. This verse usually is interpreted as meaning that the enemies have now overtaken Bnei Yisroel. But the Maggid provides an alternative interpretation. He takes the word rodfeha and divides it into two words, rodfe h-a (Y-K)… All who seek and pursue God shall find Him during this time. In this vein, the Netivot Shalom goes on to explain that there is yet a third level of love, a level achieved when both partners are suffering. The child is ill, for example, and his only hope is that his father take the scalpel in his hand and operate on him. What greater pain can there be, and yet what greater love. That is the love inherent in Hashem’s punishing Bnei Yisroel. The cherubim embrace, Hashem begins to heal Bnei Yisroel by removing the Beit Hamikdosh to stimulate the growth of restorative, healthy tissue, and Bnei Yisroel wakes up from its unhealthy spiritual stupor. The healing process begins. Full health has not yet been achieved, but this first step is cause for celebration.

May we next year IY”H participate not in the holiday of distance, but in achieving the holiday of closeness.

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