Tisha B’av & Eicha-2000
Transcribed by Daniel Goldman: You can be angry, just to get angry, or you can be angry because of a pattern in a relationship. So there is a difference between someone insulting me and someone preventing me from accomplishing
something with my life. Hate comes from someone who wants to annoy me, from sin’at chinam. But someone who is out to prevent me from accomplishing my purpose in life, that is not sin’at chinam. The same thing is true with bichiya chinam. If I cry out in pain, there a cry for freedom. It is a loss of a sense of direction. That is to say, “Here I am functioning, trying to do everything I can, but I don’t feel that all my efforts are congealing. I’m not accomplishing what I think I can with my life.
The thing to keep in mind in the evening prayer before the reading of Eicha is to reflect on all those prayers that were not as good as they could be, and did not take us from one point to another. Then, on the positive side, is to understand that any prayer, even one that seems to accomplish nothing at all, does one thing – which is to connect with God. First, we reflect on why we go through these motions so often where we feel that our prayers aren’t getting us anywhere, three times a day, and then to turn it around while we are davening and to understand that by the very fact that I am doing so takes me one step closer to God. So I get to see what I am doing is chinam – without direction – and then I try to impose some sort of direction on it. This is a good way to begin Tisha B’av – both in the act of bechira chinam – the crying, the loss of direction, and then the fixing of it – giving it some sort of direction.
* * *
I would like to suggest an exercise. One of the major themes in the Midrash on Eicha is the idea of HaIr Rabti Am – “The city that was very great.” The Midrash tells these almost ridiculous stories about how fantastic, how brilliant, and how wealthy the Jewish people were before the destruction.
One of the most famous stories is that of Marta bat Beisus. She was incredibly wealthy and she wanted some bread. She sent her servant out to buy some wonder bread. The servant came back and said, “There is no more wonder bread. There is only barley bread.” “OK,” she replied, “go get me some barley bread.” By the time the servant went out again to search he discovered there was no longer any barley bread. He returned to report that there was only black bread. “OK, fetch me some black bread.” He again returned saying, “There is no more black bread, but there is some week-old spelt bread.” It never occurred to him, whenever he went out, to get the best quality of whatever bread was there. Finally, in desperation, she herself went out to buy bread. As she was walking through the street she stepped on a pit that had been sucked on by someone who was starving. Rabbi Tzaddok, who used to fast, spat the pit out and she stepped on it. She was so disgusted by the pit that she died. That is a story of how great Jerusalem was. Contrasted with how terrible it became. This is supposed to give us an idea of how terrible the destruction was, and our hearts are supposed to be broken.
Quite frankly, I have trouble relating to Marta bat Beisus. But I think that the Midrash is bringing a tremendous idea that goes the to core of Creation, all the way to the first hint of Tisha B’av, which occurred in the garden in time called Garden of Eden, when God says to Adam, ayeca – “Where are you?” The word ayeca is the same as eicha. This idea is that human beings have tremendous difficulty being great. Jews have the same history of doing this. For example, when the Jews had sovereignty over Israel, they had the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem. They could see God’s presence play out right in front of them with the most unbelievable miracles. And they never noticed. Quite frankly, I don’t blame them. I remember, I would hesitate to go to spend time with my grandfather. It was great to see him; he was a great man. But I never realized that by being with him, I could be a lot better than I am. So I didn’t see him that often. I had the chance to go see some of the superstars of our generation with my grandfather. But I didn’t go, because I felt guilty. “I could be like Reb Moshe Feinstein, even taller!” But I was afraid. I don’t mean to categorize, but Jews in general have difficulty aspiring to greatness.
Greatness carries tremendous responsibility. There so many examples of this Tanach. Read the first chapter of Jeremiah. God says to him, “Listen, you’re a navi, you’re great. But the minute you accept your greatness, I want to let you know that you will be miserable. So you have a choice. You can be great and be miserable, or you can be comfortable.” This is a choice that confronts many people. And this really strikes at the core of what Tisha B’av is. All of us have this drive to accomplish great things. We all have potential to do so. But in acknowledging this potential, we realize the inherent responsibility. That’s where we get into trouble.
Sometimes we get so caught up in it, we can’t fix the situation. For example, look at Adam and Eve in the Garden. God said to Adam, “Where are you?” Why did they have to hide? All they had to say was, “We ate from the tree; we make a mistake.” Had they said this, they wouldn’t have been kicked out. Everything would have been hunky-dory. They didn’t because there was a set-up, and the set-up was called the Tree of Knowledge. If you read through all the rishonim, it’s quite clear. Basically, they were set up. A human being has tremendous drives. You can’t say to us that the whole world is ours, except for that one tree, and then command us to conquer the world, and not eat of that one tree. You can’t say that because he will go right after that tree – that is what the human being was created to do.
This is also hinted at in many Midrashim. Remember the story of the creation of the Sun and the Moon. They were both the same size. The moon said, “We have to be different.” So God said, “Make yourself smaller.” The moon responded, “Why should I make myself smaller? I didn’t do anything wrong. I just want to be different. I want to be me.” God appeases the moon by bringing a sin offering, to say that He needed the moon’s forgiveness for making the moon smaller. Yes, I created you with a drive to be different, but the moment you wanted to be different, I made you smaller.
There are certain basic contradictions in the world. Among the most painful is that we have a drive to accomplish, but we feel limited, and we limit ourselves. That is where we tend to trip up. And that is where the Jews tripped up in the desert. They were about to go into Israel and accomplish tremendous things. But they were terrified. It is easier in the desert, than when you have your own country. It happened at the First Temple, at the Second Temple, and by Bar Kochba. Imagine, you have the Messiah, right there. That’s where we trip up. We don’t appreciate our greatness. This is what we mourn for on Tisha B’av. We have tremendous potential that we don’t reach.
The best way for me to keep this in mind is to picture if I had everything I needed, if I didn’t need to work for a living, and all my needs were taken care of, and I could dedicate my life to one thing, what would it be? And if that picture fantasy that you have is something that changes the world and doing something really significant, then you know that you have that potential. Then you have to ask yourself, what am I doing about it? – At least on a smaller scale. And if I am not doing anything about it, then I know that I have what is called a “Tisha B’Av Issue.” There is one part of me that believes I have this potential, and there is another that isn’t really doing anything about it. That is the frustration that is related in the first part of Eicha.
* * *
Where is the most dangerous place to live in the country? If you lived in Israel, where would that place be? – At the border. Another name for the Three Weeks is Bein Hamitzarim, which means “Between the Straights,” or right at the borders, at the edge. You know the expression of “living on the edge?” That’s the feeling of never knowing what is going to happen. Imagine living in a relationship where saying the smallest thing can trigger a major fallout. You can’t afford the smallest mistake; otherwise something terrible is going to happen. That’s exactly what is described in the first chapter. The Jews were living on the edge. Because of this, little things took on a much greater significance than they needed to. In such a case, everything quickly becomes so confusing. Let’s say I made a mistake. I sinned. Because I live on the edge, I begin to think of myself as a sinner, and I might as well not try anymore. Now this may sound ridiculous, but this happens all the time. A person may make a mistake, fall off the edge, and then think there is no more hope.
But then again, there is an advantage to living on the edge. Remember that book, Passages? Things can change to being the opposite in an instant. In the first chapter, we have the words karai alai mo’ed. The nations were going to declare holiday when they were about to destroy Jerusalem. So because they were going to declare a holiday, we too treat the day as a sort of holiday. This is why we don’t say tachnun. We learn from that verse how to look at the day as a holiday. Since we are living on the edge on that Passage point, we turn one perspective into another.
The first Tisha B’av was when the generation of Jews that left Egypt was sentenced to die in the desert. After that generation died out, before entering the land of Israel, the Jews reaccepted the Torah. The second Tisha B’Av occurred with the destruction of the First Temple. But between the destruction of the First and the building of the Second came the Purim story. On that very first Purim, we are told in Megilat Esther, they were kimu v’kiblu ma’she kimu ________. They reaccepted the Torah. And after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Oral Torah started taking hold. We experienced tremendous creativity in Halacha. For example, we started to shake lulav at home or blowing a shofar at home, so to create the environment of the Beit Hamikdash in one’s home. Even within the destruction we have a rebirth, reaching an entirely new level. This is the Passage point. So while we have great intensity here within the observance of Tisha B’Av, there are tremendous things that can happen by turning the other way.
Last year, my father died, and of course it was devastating. But then, there were positive things that came out of it. While a parent is alive, it’s much easier to feel like a kid. But when a parent dies, especially one whom one relies on very much, I and my siblings began to feel much more like adults. We started to take responsibility for things none of us wanted to do so before. It was a terrible passage, but within it, we were rising to a new level where something good could come out of it. The worst thing to do however, when coming into that kind of advantage, is to stagger.
We had this situation in Jerusalem with the First Temple; Jeremiah was going around telling everybody, “You guys are in big trouble. There’s going to be an invasion, the ten tribes will be exiled, and then the Temple itself will be destroyed. You have to change.” People knew there was instability, that there threat of war from Egypt, Babylon, Sancheriv, and the Assyrians. The people didn’t want to hear it. Rabbi ________ wrote it up in the daily newspaper, but they burnt it. So Jeremiah took Eicha and rewrote it. He added the third chapter. The third chapter was added for people who are staggering. They want to protect the status quo, even it is miserable. And because they are tense, they are not able to take advantage of passage.
There is another chapter written for someone else. Josiah was a little kid when he became king. He decided to be a good guy. He undertook a complete remodeling of the Beit Hamikdash. He removed the idols that literally filled the walls. One day they were cleaning the tiles on the Temple floor, when one of them came loose. They lift it up and lo and behold, they find a sefer Torah. Not just any sefer Torah, but the one written by Moses. At that point, it is the only Torah to be found anywhere in Israel. It would seem to be a good sign. They are all excited. And you can trace this out today in the City of David. Archeologists found the seal of one of the scribes of the king. They ran to the room of that particular scribe. They open the Torah, but immediately they see that it opens to the section of the curses. Not a good sign. Talk about mixed messages!
They don’t know what to do. They go up to Hulda. She confirms that the Temple is going to be destroyed. There is nothing Josiah can do to stop it. However, because he is a tzaddik, it won’t happen while he is alive. King Josiah hears about this and hires policemen who go to every single house to search and destroy every idol they can find. He brings everybody to Jerusalem to do Teshuva, has them reaccept the Torah, and bring the korban Pesach. He founds the first Baal Teshuva movement in history, and a massive one at that. He threatens people with death if they don’t do teshuva. He digs up the graves of idol worshippers, burns the bones of their priests, and smashes the altar to Baal that was built. He was just told that there is nothing he could do, yet he refuses to go lying down. When he died (and he died because he didn’t listen to the navi)…On one hand, you have Josiah who decides he has to do what he has to do. On the other hand there were kings who didn’t do anything even when everything was falling apart around them.
The third chapter is directed to those who just don’t want to change and are unwilling to hear that anything needs to change. You find this echoed in verse 8: Even when I cry out and plead, He has shut off my prayer. Or, in 44: You have covered Yourself with a cloud that no prayer can pass through.
That is what Jeremiah was trying to address. Stagnation means that all avenues for change have closed. And the Josiah approach is that the worst situation of all can be changed to its direct opposite.
* * *
The Gemara tells a story about a man who found about the world’s best professional. She was very expensive and had a very long waiting list. But he scrimped and saved and made an appointment to see her. Finally the day came and when he attempted to close the ‘transaction,’ he passed some gas. She giggled, and said to him, “In the same way that you will never recapture that air, you will never be able to do teshuva!” He said to her, “You’re right.” Since he wasn’t in the mood anymore to finish what he was doing, he went outside. He was desperate to do teshuva. He cried out to the stars and the moon. “You’ve got to help me.” They said to him, “Before we can pray for you, we have to pray for ourselves.” He cried out to the hills and the mountains. “You’ve got to help me do teshuva.” They said to him, “Before we can pray for you, we have to pray for ourselves, sorry.” So he cried out to the trees. “Somebody’s got to help me. The trees, grass, the flowers?” They replied the same as the mountains and the hills. Desperate, the man put his head between his knees and began to cry. He cried until the heavens shook. His heart was so broken, he died crying. A bat kol, a heavenly voice sounded forth saying, “Rabi Elazar ben Rudai has a portion in the World to Come.”
This is a very strange story. The point, however, is the Jewish idea that everything we do affects all of Creation. The world was created for human beings to come closer to God. If you don’t use the world in the proper way, or don’t use all that the world has to offer, then the world itself is suffering, it is being damaged. The world itself needs to cry out to God. A cow is just a cow, but it can be elevated to the level of a karban. An apple is just an apple, but it becomes lunch that is eaten in the presence of God, by reciting a bracha beforehand. On the other hand, eating the apple without a blessing takes it from being a vehicle for the manifestation of God in the world to denying that.
Therefore, one of the ideas of the story is that everything we do affects the entire universe. At the end of his life, Rabi Elazar ben Rudai understood. I don’t think he ever lived under the impression that he was a tzaddik. But once he was confronted with the metaphor that this woman used, he realized that even the grossest thing reflected the reality. Everyone in the story was telling him the same thing. People who don’t understand that cause a tremendous amount of destruction. This is what happened with the destruction of the Temples. Everyone in the world knew that we used to bring forgiveness for the whole world. To lose that opportunity didn’t only affect us in our immediate vicinity, in Jerusalem, but it affects the rest of the world, and universe as well. This idea helps us appreciate the positive aspects including what we could hope to accomplish. The last of the kinot that we say at night speak of how the constellations cry out and how they, too, mourn for the destruction of the Temple.