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Torah Attitude: Parashas Masei: Three weeks of mourning
This Torah Attitude is dedicated to Howard Deverett in honour of his birthday. May he and his family be blessed with all the best that life has to offer.
The three weeks between the two fast days of the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av is a period when Jews worldwide mourn the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people. Is this time of mourning not by now an empty custom that has no connection to our real feelings? Many calamities have befallen the Jewish people on the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. After the majority of the spies gave a negative report, the Jewish people became nervous and did not want to proceed into the land of Israel. G'd declared that the 9th of Av will be established as a time of weeping throughout the generations. How could the Jewish people even consider that G'd hated them, or, as our sages explain, that G'd did not have the power to conquer the land of Israel for them? The Sforno explains that because they had served idols in Egypt they feared that G'd hated them and He was going to deliver them into the hands of the Emorites as a revenge for their transgressions. Their evil inclination led the Jewish people to lose faith in G'd. There was a slight flaw in the conduct of the Jewish people by suggesting that they could not totally rely on being delivered by G'd. Had the Jewish people totally relied upon G'd to take care of them, Moses would have led them into the land of Israel and there would have been no exile at any time. We rectify the flaw by reading Eichah (Book of Lamentations) and special prayers, and conducting ourselves as mourners. Our mourning from the 17th of Tammuz till the 9th of Av, far from being empty customs, are very real expressions of our longing to return to the land of our forefathers, realizing that our destiny is totally in the hands of G'd, and only He can look after our needs.
Three weeks of mourning
We are in the middle of what is known as "the three weeks". This refers to the three weeks between the two fast days of the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, a period when Jews worldwide mourn the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people. The laws of mourning intensifies during the last nine days from Rosh Chodesh Av culminating with the 9th of Av. On that day we sit on the ground, reading Eichah (the Book of Lamentations), as well as special prayers, known as "kinnot", commemorating the exile and other calamities.
The obvious question is, what purpose and value is there in observing laws of mourning almost 2000 years after the destruction of the Temple? These laws are similar to the laws observed after one has lost a close relative. During the week of Shiva, one sits low, followed by 30 days of mourning. When one has lost a parent one observes some laws of mourning for a whole year as an honour to the deceased. These laws give the mourners an opportunity to come to terms with their loss and slowly develop an understanding of the situation, helping them to return to their normal, daily routines, as life has to go on. But what is the purpose of these three weeks of yearly mourning for the Temple? Can we honestly say that we feel a loss that we need to express, and that the observance of these laws of mourning help us to express our true feelings? Is it not by now an empty custom that has no connection to our real feelings?
Calamities on 17th of Tammuz and 9th of Av
It says in Eichah (1:3): "All her pursuers caught her between the boundaries." The literal meaning of this is referring to how the Babylonians caught the inhabitants of Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the First Temple. However, the Midrash explains that this can be also be translated as "All her pursuers caught her between the days of distress", referring to the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. The Talmud (Taanis 26a) relates that five calamities occurred on the 17th of Tammuz and another five on the 9th of Av. The first calamity happened when Moses descended Mount Sinai and saw how the Jewish people danced around the golden calf. He got so upset that he decided to break the Tablets he had received from G'd. The second one happened three weeks before the destruction of the First Temple. The Babylonians had already broken into Jerusalem, but the kohanim had fortified themselves in the Temple and continued the daily services. But on the 17th of Tammuz, they could no longer get hold of any sheep and had to stop bringing the daily offerings. Three weeks before the destruction of the Second Temple, the third calamity happened when the Roman General Titus and his army breached the walls of Jerusalem on the 17th of Tammuz. The last two calamities mentioned in the Talmud are that a Roman by the name of Apustumus burned a Torah scroll, and an idol was erected inside the Temple on that day. On the 9th of Av, says the Talmud, G'd decreed that the generation that had left Egypt would not be permitted to enter the land of Israel. Rashi (Bamidbar 14:33) explains that this decree was a punishment for both the golden calf and the sending of the spies. Both Temples were destroyed on that date, and 52 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, the rebellion of Bar Kochba was crushed with the conquest of the great city of Beitar, also on the 9th of Av. As a final blow, the entire city of Jerusalem was eventually plowed as a field. This degrading act also happened on the 9th of Av. Even after the exile, this pattern appears to have continued. Both the expulsion from England and Spain, as well as the commencement of World War I happened on the 9th of Av. It is obvious that there is a deeper connection between all these calamities, and our mourning relates to all of them.
Spies and a time of weeping
To understand the root of all of these calamities we must investigate the first event that the Talmud mentions. Every year we read Parashas Devarim on the Shabbos before the 9th of Av. In this Parasha, Moses starts his final speech to the Jewish people where he rebukes them for their various mistakes and shortcomings throughout the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. In the very first verse there is a hint to the sin of the golden calf (see Rashi Devarim 1:1). Later, Moses rebukes them for sending the spies. Upon their return, the majority of the spies gave a negative report. This made the Jewish people very nervous, and they did not want to proceed into the land of Israel (see Devarim 1:26-28).
Time of weeping
Earlier (Bamidbar 14:1) the Torah relates the return of the spies and the reaction of the people: "The entire assembly raised their voice and the people wept on that night." The Talmud (Taanis 29a) explains that this happened on the night of the 9th of Av and G'd declared, "You were weeping without a cause. This night will be established as a time of weeping throughout the generations."
It is mind-boggling how a small group of Jewish leaders could cause a whole nation to lose their faith in G'd who had taken them out of Egypt, split the Red Sea, and revealed Himself at Mount Sinai. How could people who experienced daily miracles with the Mann falling from Heaven to sustain them, and the well of Miriam following them throughout their journey in the wilderness, as well as the Clouds of Glory protecting them from their enemies and natural dangers, suddenly lose faith in the One who provided all these constant miracles? How could they even consider that G'd hated them, or, as our sages explain, that G'd did not have the power to conquer the land of Israel for them?
A commentary by the Sforno may shed some light on this puzzle. The Sforno (Devarim 1:27) explains that initially the Jewish people did not lose faith in G'd at all. Rather, they feared that G'd was upset with them because they had served idols in Egypt and that He would deliver them into the hands of the Emorites as a revenge for their transgressions. However, this only raises additional questions. After forty years of G'd's protection and provisions, how could they even contemplate that G'd would now do such a thing to them?
In order to understand this we must first analyze the ways of the evil inclination. In some instances, the evil inclination will entice a person to act haughty and be proud to bring the person to sin. At other times, the evil inclination will use the opposite tactic and make the person feel inadequate with a low self-esteem, not being good enough to deserve G'd's lovingkindness. In a time of insecurity and danger such as the time of the Holocaust in our days, the evil inclination is well aware that it is prime time to challenge a person and influence him to lose his faith. If the person is lacking in fear of G'd, the evil inclination will encourage him to further develop the route he has already taken, and the person might question G'd's ability to look after him. On the other hand, if the person is righteous and G'd fearing, there is no way that the evil inclination can bring him to lose his faith in the ability of G'd; however, in this instance the evil inclination will cause the person to lose faith in himself and make him feel that he is not worthy of G'd's protection.
When the Jewish people approached Moses to send spies, their fear of G'd was on a very high level. However, there was a slight flaw in their conduct. By suggesting to send spies they indicated that they could not totally rely on being delivered by G'd. Rather, they felt that they should take the necessary actions themselves to prepare their entry into the land of Israel. On their high level this was considered a flaw and was sufficient to give the evil inclination an opportunity to enter their mind. This eventually brought about their major mistake, feeling that they were not worthy at all and that G'd would not be there for them.
Lower spiritual level
The sending of the spies brought the downfall of the Jewish people to the extent that the entry of the next generation into the land of Israel was on a low spiritual level. Had they totally relied upon G'd to take care of them, Moses would have led the older generation into the land, and there would have been no exile at any time. There would have been no calamity on the 9th of Av in Jewish history, no destruction and no expulsion from any country, no suffering in any war neither in the land of Israel nor in the Diaspora. When the Jewish people made the golden calf, it was an expression of insecurity that repeated itself with the sending of the spies. This in turn resulted in a lack of appreciation of the Holy Land and caused the Jewish people to lose their merit to stay there. This was expressed by King David even before the building of the First Temple (Tehillim 106:24-27): "And they despised the desirable land, they had no faith in His word. And they spoke evil in their tents, they did not listen to the voice of G'd. And He lifted His hand against them to throw them down in the wilderness and to throw down their descendants amongst the peoples, and to disperse them in the countries." King David had a prophetic vision in which he clearly saw the connection between the exile after the destruction of the Temples and the loss of faith at the time of the sending of the spies.
Rectify the flaw
On the night of the return of the spies, G'd said that since the Jewish people had cried for no reason therefore this night would be designated as a "night of weeping". Obviously, G'd was not taking revenge. Rather this would be the way how the Jewish people would be able to rectify the flaw that had taken place then. By reading Eichah and the special prayers, and conducting ourselves as mourners throughout these three weeks, we express our loss of the Temples and the spirituality of the Holy Land. Each of the calamities that took place on the 9th of Av throughout Jewish history reminds us of the original calamity with the return of the spies and their negative report. Rav Dessler quotes a famous historian who said, "Had King Ferdinand of Spain realized how much faith and trust he implanted in the hearts of the Jewish population, he would have regretted his acts. For by expelling them on the 9th of Av, it was a clear sign that this was a Divine decree."
Our mourning from the 17th of Tammuz till the 9th of Av is far from being an empty custom. It is a very real expression of our longing to return to the land of our forefathers, realizing that our destiny is totally in the hands of G'd, and that only He can look after our needs. In our days, when we see the dangers lurking around us, it becomes even more meaningful. As we approach the 9th of Av, we remember the message of this period, and strengthen our belief that only G'd has the ability to bring us the salvation that we long for. May we all merit to see, speedily in our days, the fulfillment of what our sages have taught, that when the salvation comes, the 9th of Av will be turned into a day of celebration. Amen.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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