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Torah Attitude: Parashas Va'Eschanan - Shabbos Nachamu: From the darkness of mourning to the light of morning
During the three weeks of mourning and the seven weeks of comfort, there are special Haftorahs that relate to the themes of mourning and comfort. But where is the comfort? The fact that after close to 2000 years in exile, we still mourn the destruction of the Temple shows that we still have a close relationship with what we lost. Ever since the destruction of the Temples, the Jewish people cannot regain their former glory. The suffering and affliction the Jewish people went through during the Holocaust is the strongest that we have seen throughout the exile. The description of the period before the Messianic era sounds very much like the time we are now experiencing. We have the comfort of knowing that one day life will be totally beautiful. Rabbi Akiva laughed when he saw a fox coming out from where the Holiest place of the Temple had stood.
3 weeks mourning, 7 weeks comfort
The last three weeks in the Jewish calendar were a period of mourning, culminating with Tisha B'Av, the day when both the first and second Temple were destroyed. We have now entered the seven weeks of comfort. On a regular Shabbos we read a Haftorah, a selection from the writings of the Prophets that relates to the weekly Torah portion. However, during the three weeks of mourning and the seven weeks of comfort, there are special Haftorahs that relate to the themes of mourning and comfort, rather than the themes of the Torah portion.
No Temple, what comfort?
This Shabbos is named "Shabbos Nachamu", the Shabbos of comfort. But the question is, where is the comfort? Has anything changed since the mourning of the three weeks and Tisha B'Av? The Temple has not been rebuilt. Everything around us clearly shows that the Jewish people are in exile. All over the world, people live in fear of acts of terrorism. Every now and again we lose blood physically, and we are constantly losing blood spiritually through missionary activities and assimilation whose rates are at the highest levels ever. So how can we feel comforted?
The comfort in mourning
However, in a sense, the comfort is in the mourning itself. When, G'd forbid, a Jew loses a close relative, a parent, sibling, or child, one observes a period of mourning starting with the Shiva. The mourning is an expression of the loss of someone very dear. It is an outlet of one's innermost feelings. Subsequently, one observes the yohrzeit every year on the anniversary of their death. By observing the yohrzeit we acknowledge that the person, who passed away physically, is still there in a spiritual sense. In this way, we maintain a special relationship with the deceased. Every time we say kaddish and study Torah, or give charity in someone's merit, the deceased has a tremendous benefit. This conduct is reserved only for close relatives. It would not be appropriate to observe this kind of intimate mourning for distant relationships. The fact that after close to 2000 years in exile, we still mourn the destruction of the Temple, and having lost all the goodness that comes with it, this shows that we still have a close relationship with what we lost. That is in itself a tremendous comfort.
The glory of the Temple
Despite all the difficulties, we must appreciate the fact that Jews today can live in the land of Israel. However, at the same time, we must realize that with the destruction of the Temple, we lost a lot more than a piece of real estate. Both on a spiritual level and on a physical level, the blessings of G'd were showered on the Holy Land at the time when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. The glory of the first Temple was on a much higher spiritual level than in the second one. The second Temple never regained the Divine presence, the holy ark with the Tablets, and the heavenly fire on the alter. They had no prophets and were missing the spiritual part of the breastplate that would make the breastplate illuminate answers for questions of national importance. Ever since the destruction of the Temples, we have lost our former glory. We must wait until the third and final Temple is built.
The end of the exile
There are clear signs that we live in the time at the end of the exile. Our sages compare this period to the darkness before dawn. Like the darkness of the night is strongest just before dawn, and the birth pangs of the expectant mother are the strongest just before birth, so too, explain our sages, will the suffering of the Jewish people be the most severe in the final stage of our exile. This period, known as "Chevlei Mashiach", the so called "birth pangs of Mashiach", explains the Vilna Gaon, will last for 70 years and culminate with the coming of Mashiach. No one can say for sure when these 70 years started; however, no doubt, the suffering and affliction the Jewish people went through during the Holocaust is the strongest that we have seen throughout the exile. This is another reason for comfort. When we see the strongest darkness of night, we know that dawn is about to come. The best time of all is on the horizon, waiting to fill our lives with the beautiful light of the Messianic era.
The coming of Mashiach
The Talmud (Sotah 49b) provides a description of the period before the Messianic era that sound very much like the time we are now experiencing. There will be a lot of "chutzpah". People will do things in public without shame or fear of the consequences of their immorality. Prices will soar although there is plenty. Governments will be corrupt and there will be no one to give reproof. Immorality will be rampant. The wisdom of the Torah sages will not be appreciated. People who fear G'd will be despised. There will be a lack of truthfulness. The young will have no respect for their elders. This is a very accurate description of our time. But as the darkness gets stronger, one senses that the light of the Mashiach is imminent.
The comfort of knowing
Since the destruction of our Temple, the Jewish people have gone through many periods of immense suffering and our spiritual level has deteriorated gradually until this day. However, the fact that our sages of the Talmud, thousands of years ago, gave such an accurate description of our times is an additional reason for comfort and gives us strength to endure the darkness before the dawn. Our sages also spoke about the beauty of the era after Mashiach arrives, as described by the great prophets. The knowledge that sooner than later life will be totally beautiful and once the Temple is rebuilt, we will enjoy the glory and closeness of G'd as never before, all this adds to comfort us.
Rabbi Akiva laughed
The Talmud (Makkos 24b) relates that Rabbi Akiva was walking together with his colleagues, Rabbis Gamliel, Elazar Ben Azaria, and Yehoshua. On the way to Jerusalem, they came to Mt. Scopus. On viewing the ruins of the Temple, they tore their garments, as mourners tear their clothes at the time of the Shiva. As they came closer to the Temple mount, they saw a fox coming out from where the Holiest place of the Temple had stood. Rabbi Akiva's colleagues started to cry. But Rabbi Akiva laughed. The other rabbis asked, "Why are you laughing?" He asked back, "why are you crying?" They said to him, "this was the most holy place where only the High Priest could enter on Yom Kippur; otherwise anyone else who entered would be eligible for capital punishment. Now foxes run in and out from there. Should we not cry?" Said Rabbi Akiva, "for this very reason, I am laughing." The prophet Michah said (3:12), "Because of you, Zion will be plowed like a field". But the prophet Zacharia said (*:4-5), "there will come a time when old men and women, boys and girls, will once again sit together in the streets of Jerusalem". Said Rabbi Akiva, "Since the words of the one prophet warning of the destruction of the Temple has been fulfilled, the words of the other prophet telling us of the rebuilding of the Temple for sure will also be fulfilled." To this the rabbis exclaimed, "You have comforted us Akiva, you have comforted us."
The comfort of mourning
For three weeks we mourned the destruction of the Temple. Now for seven weeks we are comforted by our mourning. We are comforted by the close relationship we have maintained for thousands of years so that we still yearn to rebuild the Temple. Knowing that the end of the exile is imminent comforts us. And we are comforted by the reasoning of Rabbi Akiva that the Temple will be rebuilt. We are confident that just as all the prophecies of various punishments both in the Torah and the Prophets, clearly have been fulfilled, so too will the day come when the words of the prophets of the beauty and glory of Mashiach will be fulfilled in full measure. May it happen soon in our days.
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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