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Torah Attitude: Tisha B'Av - Shabbos Nachamu/Parashas Va'Eschanan: From the darkness of mourning to the light of morning
These words are dedicated to the loving memory of Bella "Bubbie" Hoffman (Baila bat Shmiel) on her yohrzeit (19th Sivan).
Two days after Tisha B'Av we enter a special Shabbos named "Shabbos Nachamu", the Shabbos of comfort. So what 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. Even Napoleon Bonaparte understood that if Jews worldwide can still feel connected and mourn the loss of the Temple, G'd will no doubt help them to build it again. 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 come out where the Holiest place of the Temple had stood. This Shabbos, and for the coming six weeks, we are comforted by our own mourning.
This Thursday we observe the fast of Tisha B'Av. We mourn the destruction of both the first and second Temple, as well as many other calamities that took place on this day. Two days later we enter a special Shabbos named "Shabbos Nachamu", the Shabbos of comfort. This seems odd. How can we switch from one day to the next, from mourning to comfort, and what comfort are we talking about? Has anything suddenly changed since the mourning of the three weeks and Tisha B'Av? The Temple has not been rebuilt. Everything around us clearly shows that we are far from perfect and we still suffer from our exile. All over the world, people live in fear of acts of terrorism, and the government of Israel is under tremendous pressure to make more and more concessions without getting much in return. From a spiritual point of view we are losing thousands of our brothers and sisters to missionary activities and assimilation whose rates are at the highest levels ever. So what is the comfort?
The comfort in mourning
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 losing someone who is very dear. It gives an ability to express one's innermost feelings. And following the passing of a dear relative, one observes Yahrzeit every year on the anniversary of their death. This shows how the person, who passed away physically, is still there in a spiritual sense. In this way, we maintain a special kind of spiritual relationship with the deceased. 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 having lost all the goodness that comes with it shows that we still have a close relationship with what we lost. This is a tremendous comfort.
An interesting anecdote is told about the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon, with his ambition to conquer every country and his vision of emancipation, saw himself as the redeemer of mankind. As such, he felt a special connection to the Jewish people. One summer day, the emperor was going for a walk in the streets of Paris. Suddenly, he heard some painful wailing from the open windows of one of the buildings. He enquired what had happened to cause such a large group of people to be clearly in distress. He could hardly believe his ears when he was told that this was a Jewish synagogue where Jews had gathered to mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In utter amazement, he exclaimed, "A nation that can still mourn the loss of the Temple after so many years for sure will merit to be redeemed and rebuild the lost Temple." Even this gentile ruler understood that if Jews worldwide can still feel connected and mourn the loss of the Temple, G'd will no doubt help them to build it again.
The end of the exile
We are clearly living in the time at the end of the exile. Our sages compare the end of the exile 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 of all times 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 coming of Mashiach that sounds 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 will be 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, gives us comfort and 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. This is an additional reason for comfort knowing that one day life will be totally beautiful. Once the Temple will be rebuilt, we will enjoy the glory and closeness of G'd as never before.
Rabbi Akiva laughed
The Talmud (Makkos 24b) relates that Rabbi Akiva was walking together with his colleagues, Rabbis Gamliel, Ben Azaria, and Yehoshua. On the way to Jerusalem, they came to Mt. Scopus. When the ruins of the Temple came into view, they tore their garments, like mourners who lost a close relative. As they came closer to the Temple mount, they saw a fox coming out 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." One prophet said, "because of you, Zion will be plowed like a field" (Micah 3:12). Another prophet said, "there will come a time when old men and women, boys and girls, will once again sit together in the streets of Jerusalem" (Zacharia 8:4-5). Said Rabbi Akiva, "since the words of the one prophet, warning of the destruction of the Temple, have 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. This Shabbos, and for the coming six weeks, we are comforted by our own mourning. We are comforted by the close relationship we have maintained for thousands of years so we still yearn to rebuild the Temple. Knowing that the end of the exile is imminent is an additional comfort for us. And we are comforted by the encouraging reasoning of Rabbi Akiva that the Temple will be rebuilt. We feel 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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