Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Spirit of the Law: A Meaningful Tisha B'Av

Introduction: Many people believe that it is virtually impossible to have a meaningful Tisha B'Av. Yet most do not make much effort to prepare themselves to receive the light of this holiday by learning about what it really means so that they can be emotionally moved both by what we mourn and what we have to gain on this special day. It is not for nothing that Tisha B'Av is called a moed by many Rishonim.

Rav Yisrael Salanter, zt"l, once said, "It is possible to advance spiritually on Tisha B'Av just as much as on Yom Kippur."[1]

But as the Zohar states, holiness can only be accessed through preparation…

Ben Ish Chai: Parshas Devarim

#18: It is forbidden to learn Torah after Midday on Erev Tisha B'Av. The only material which may be studied is that which is permitted on Tisha B'Av itself…

[Note some poskim permit on Erev Tisha B'Av until bein hashemashos, close to nightfall. It is important to note that it is permitted to learn works of Mussar on Tisha B'Av.]

The Yesod V'Shoresh Havodah, zt"l, teaches that we see from the prohibition to learn on this day despite our perpetual obligation to learn Torah, teaches the paramount importance of focusing on the mourning of the loss of our holy temple. The way one can manage this is to do his best to refrain from speaking unnecessarily to anyone. One who is truly careful from forgetting the tragic loss of the Beis Hamikdash for the entire day, will certainly merit to see the comforting of Tzion.[2]

But isn't that depressing? After all, the most disgusting defilement is sadness since this pushes away Hashem as we see in the Talmud?

We can answer this question with the words of Rav Nosson of Breslov, zt"l, in Likutei Halachos, who typically turns this entire problem around and makes what seemed to be depressing into a fight of depression and worry over one's sins.[3]

He explains that the three weeks are a time of terrible judgment as we find in countless sources. But dinim, judgments are actually an aspect of "fallen fears." Fallen fears are a panic-like fear or depression brought about by anything that is not Hashem.

The Ramak, zt"l, writes in Tomer Devorah, that one who fears punishment or the like is not afraid of Hashem. He is actually afraid of the outer forces that administer punishment. But that is not true fear of Hashem at all. True fear of Hashem is a feeling of tremendous awareness and alacrity to avoid anything that can make a person slip away from Hashem. [We find this definition in Likutei Halachos and it is later echoed by Rav Yerucham Levovitz, zt"l.]

In this context we do not merely mourn in a general fashion that we are so far from Hashem. Instead we should mourn the bad we have done and work assiduously to rectify what we have blemished and stop our negative behaviors. As long as we continue to act in a manner that we know is wrong, it is as if we are destroying the Beis Hamikdash right now since our sins prevent the Beis Hamikdash from being rebuilt.

But of course it is impossible to correct every bad at once. Rebbe Nachman advises picking one thing and working on that. It should be something that is not too hard for us to change. We must also realize that even the effort and desire for change is very precious to Hashem.

We must judge ourselves and truly notice how much this activity does not suit a person who wishes a spiritual lifestyle and the entire day we should mourn and yearn mostly regarding this problem.

The more we work on changing ourselves, the more we rebuild the Beis Hamikdash.

Now we can understand how a person can focus on the terrible losses of the Beis Hamikdash without being depressed or feeling despair. We only need to do what we can. Why should we give up without even trying hard? Just as the teshuvah of Yom Kippur helps even if we fall back into our negative behaviors, the same is true regarding the mourning on Tisha B'Av. In certain ways the mourning is even more powerful, since we are focusing on our actions "on the ground." On Yom Kippur we are lifted up to the highest heights. On Tisha B'Av we realize how far we have to go and that it is time to stop giving up on truly changing ourselves a little at a time.

19) [Discusses the well known halachos for the meal immediately proceeding Tisha B'Av]

But what is the point of such self denial?

We can understand what is behind this halacha from the words of the Yesod V'Shoresh Havodah.[4] He writes that even during the nine days it is fitting that we avoid any kind of delicacy, whether food or drink during these days. This is fitting since it brings home to us that we lack the holy Temple. It is so easy to just ignore this. We can mindlessly follow the halachos of these days (which is also very precious since it is an aspect of yiras Shamayim albeit a small one as Rav Yerucham Levovitz writes,) or we can try to connect to what is behind the prohibitions.

The Maharal writes that the Beis Hamikdash is the place where Hashem connected to the tachtonim, the Jewish people here in the physical world.[5]

That sounds so lofty, but what does it really mean? The Maharal explains.[6] The Beis Hamikdash lifted up the entire world to a higher spiritual reality, since it was a G-dly place that had an effect on the entire world. This is similar to a person who has true understanding. He is no longer only concerned with the material. This person understands that the material is very ephemeral, while the spiritual is forever. Naturally his actions show that the spiritual is paramount in his eyes. When there was a Beis Hamikdash, it was much harder to forget Hashem. And it was so much easier to elevate the material.

This is why no one understood how the temple could have been destroyed. Rav Nosson explains that the underlying reason why it was destroyed was because people took it for granted. They figured that with all the closeness afforded to them they could do whatever they wanted and that Hashem would never really destroy the holy temple. Even with all the warnings they were afforded, they never even thought to do teshuvah because why should they? Of course they were wrong since there was one thing that could destroy the Beis Hamikdash: apathy towards becoming more spiritual. It is our job to correct this by working to change for the better as much as we can.

Today, we are without a Beis Hamikdash and the world seems to be a completely material place to so many of us. How sad! Even the most religious have such a hard time remembering the real purpose of creation.

But if we miss the Beis Hamikdash, Hashem will return it to us. It all depends on how we comport ourselves on these most holy days…

20) We do not make a mezuman, during bentching.

The Ben Ish Chai himself explains why. Zimun shows a sense of permanence. But we do not want a sense of permanence during a meal to commemorate our mourning the holy temple, since we want this state to end. We still hope that our righteous redeemer will come and take us out of exile and rebuild our holy temple speedily in our days. Amen! Then we will make a meal of joy and gladness!

21) One should not go absolutely barefoot on Tisha B'Av. He should at least wear socks…

Rav Nosson of Breslov, zt"l,[7] explains that the main thing is what a person wants with his entire self. This is the identity of a Jew since although one can be forced to act in a certain manner his desires cannot be forcibly changed; although he sometimes can be convinced. (This concept also emerges from the Maharal.)

We cry on Tisha B'av because of Eisav's tears. Just as when Eisav cried it was because he lost absolute dominion in the physical world, when a person chases materialism with his entire self, he "cries the tears of Eisav" as it were, since the very name Eisav stems from the root, asiya, which means action and refers to the material world of action. This is the ultimate destruction of the holy temple since one makes an end in itself of materialism and completely fails to show an interest in spiritual attainments. What about holiness? What about goodness? In Rebbe Nachman's words, the sophisticate says, "There will be time for that." Yet we see that he never finds any time for an honest consideration of spiritual truths.

When we mourn the Temple, we mourn our having blemished our holy desire. Like Eisav we scream a mighty cry for our lusts and foolishness. But of course such attainments are empty since they do not at all satisfy the soul, our lasting selves. Instead overly much materialism merely leads to depression and a feeling of emptiness inside. We then try to fill this with another empty physical conquest and another but nothing really helps.

We deprive ourselves of shoes because we finally understand that we have been going places that are absolutely empty and we wish to mend our ways. But we should not go absolutely barefoot since this would pain us and pain is not the point. The point is to have a day to make a true evaluation: have I been yearning for holiness or is the material the most important element in my life? We halt ourselves and stop mindlessly wandering in the same old paths. From today we are going to stop destroying the Beis Hamikdash, the ultimate source of deep soul searching yearning for Hashem. We will stop crying for materialism and begin to truly search for a little more spirituality each and every day.

22) …We do not say the blessing, "who has fulfilled for me all my needs" on Tisha B'Av since we do not have shoes. [Most Ahskenazic authorities rule that we should say this blessing. Even those who do not, hold that one should say it that night when he puts on his shoes.]

Rav Nosson of Breslov, zt"l, explains:[8] We remove our shoes on Tisha B'Av because this embarrasses us and embarrassment is an excellent catalyst to enable one to see his sins and do teshuvah. Through finally seeing our sins and doing teshuvah we are lifted up to the aspect of Binah, which is an aspect of a neder (vow). This teaches that we are enabled to finally let go of and absolutely reject the negative within. Through teshuvah we are rectified so we can put on our shoes.

Yom Kippur symbolizes the culmination of this process while Tisha B'Av is the start. We take off our shoes on Tisha B'Av to really recognize and begin to throw out our negatives and negativity. On Yom Kippur we finally reach true teshuvah and (hopefully) transform the sin into an asset since we work much harder to overcome our tendency to slip back into the abyss of spiritual descent. This ironclad commitment generally comes on Yom Kippur.

24) It is forbidden to do melacha, labor on Tisha B'Av [so as not to distract one from mourning]

The Yalkut Shimoni writes that when the Jews sat on the banks of the rivers of Bavel they saw that Yirmeyahu was going to leave them and they burst into heartfelt tears.

Yirmeyahu replied to them, "I call as my witness the heavens and the earth! If you had only cried one time when you were still in Tzion, there would have been no destruction or exile."

This is a very important day. Rav Pinchas of Koritz said that when we are on the floor we are very close to Hashem and it is a very auspicious time to ask for whatever we need.

There is so much that each of us needs! Let us take to heart the words of Yirmeyahu and beg Hashem to help us truly draw near to Him and His Torah. Let us ask for even our physical needs since He is the One who truly provides for us.

Let us not allow ourselves to be distracted on this most holy day. To paraphrase the words of Rebbe Nachman: although it appears to be a day of distance, the distance is actually completely to draw near and not to distance at all.

25) On Tisha B'Av it is fitting to put on Talis and Tefilin of Rashi and Rabeinu Tam and recite the Shema at home and then go to shul. [But the prevalent Ashkenazic custom is to put on Tefilin only during Mincha.]

Rav Nosson of Breslov explains[9] that tefilin specifically correspond to the Beis Hamikdash since both are refered to as our splendor. We do not wear tefilin during the morning of Tisha B'av [or at least publicly according to the sefardic custom quoted by the Ben Ish Chai] since both temples were destroyed on this day. (We refrain from wearing a talis as well, since our talis is generally paired with tefilin except on days when we do not wear tefilin at all, like Shabbos and Yom Tov. On such days we are lifted to a much higher level than tefilin and are therefore forbidden to wear them.)

But the moment the temple was finally destroyed, the splendor of the Jewish people was revealed in a very powerful way. This is the deeper meaning of the Midrash which states that Moshiach is born during the afternoon of Tisha B'Av.

The moment the Beis Hamikdash \splendor of the Jewish people was destroyed this showed that there was still a tremendous amount of good in the Jewish people. After all, Hashem chose to destroy the temple but not His chosen nation. This sweetened His anger as it were and revealed our tremendous good points in a very powerful way.

Similarly, immediately after the destruction of the temple it is our job to immediately focus on the good points and be comforted. We must believe that we have achieved the highest rectifications from this holiday and that the negative will turn to positive through the influence of Atik, the highest aspect of Kindness with which Hashem favors the Jewish people, His nation that is intrinsically connected to Him for all eternity.

26) Here in Bagdad, the custom is for people to skip Shiras Hayam, and say ha'azinu instead. Although I personally say Shiras Hayam and only say Ha'azinu after davening, and this is the custom of those who are wise, I do not protest this practice.

The Yesod V'Shoresh Ha'avodah[10] gives a striking parable to understand this day: This can be compared to a father who has lost a beloved child Hashem yishmoreinu! Surely the other children will do what they can to comfort the father of his suffering. Receiving comfort from the many is a well known to afford a mourner half the comfort he needs to continue with life and let go of bitterness. But if the siblings are indifferent this will surely add to the misery of the bereaved parent.

Similarly, it is our job to truly internalize that the Beis Hamikdash is a loss. How many lives were lost on this unfortunate day? How much terrible suffering came into the world because of this day?

But the Beis Hamikdash was not only a loss for us collectively as Jews, but for Hashem since he "suffers" (as it were) whenever any Jew anywhere suffers.

One who spends his day internalizing this loss will merit great reward. Not only will he be rewarded for the mitzvah of actually fasting; he also mourns our Father's loss and also the suffering and loss of His children who are very precious to Him. (It is important to note that one who can fast and does not loses much more than a person who did all the avodah in the world but did not fast. It is better not to daven on Tisha B'Av if by doing so one will be unable to fast. Of course a sick person is an exception but that is the next paragraph in the Ben Ish Chai).

27) A sick person who must not fast should say nachem during bentching…

The Shem Mishmuel zt”l once wrote to his son-in-law Rav Yaacov Tsvi zt”l: “I heard from my daughter…that the doctor feels that you are recovering, may Hashem send you complete recovery. Yom Kippur is approaching and I want to warn you not to act overly righteous by fasting if the doctor tells you to eat. If he says that eating less than a shiur is not potentially dangerous to your health, then do so. If he says that this is not enough for you, G-d forbid that you should be stringent and endanger yourself. He who commanded us to fast on Yom Kippur commanded us to eat for health reasons. Do not think that only an immediate danger allows one to eat. Even when there is the shadow of a doubt, one must eat… This is the meaning of the gemara in Yoma: If the sick person says that he doesn’t need to eat but the doctor says he does, we listen to the doctor. This is even in the case of a sick person who himself understands the nature of sickness…even if he is a real expert, we still listen to the doctor.

“I am certain that you recall what you have heard from me many times that the main element of Judaism is to nullify one’s own understanding before that of the Torah and the chachomim. Even if they tell you that your left is really right. This is the most important avodah of a Jew, and by eating as ordered by the doctor you will be doing this distinguished avodah. Therefore you should feel no pain in the event of your having to eat, because in such an eventuality you will actually be doing a more precious avodah than one who fasts!”

This is why one who must eats says Nachem on Tisha B’Av, just like he says during Mincha. By not fasting he has achieved even more than fasting and can certainly say this holy prayer.

28) One should be careful to sanctify the moon after Tisha B'Av with joy and say, Dovid melech Yisrael Chai v'kayam!

Rav Nosson explains that the underlying character of Tisha B’Av is that we believe that Hashem will comfort us and redeem us from our exile. We should never allow the evil within to use Tisha B’Av as an excuse for causing despair. We must always remember: Dovid melech Yisrael Chai v'kayam!

[1] From Sifsei Chaim III:pg.294

[2] Yesod V'Shoresh Havodah 9:12

[3] Likutei Halachos, hilchos Shlichus V'harsha 3

[4] 12:9

[5] Netzach Yisrael, chapter 52

[6] Nesiv HaTorah, chapter 14

[7] Likutei Halachos Areiv #3.

[8] Ibid. Hilchos Yibum #3

[9] Likutei Halachos, Hilchos Reishis Hagaz #4

[10] Yesod V'shoresh Ha'avodah 9:11


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Thank you. These words will absolutely assist me in having an uplifting day. Tisha Bav is mostly dark and depressing but now it will be filled with light.

Ari said...

Great post! Do you know which Poskim that say that one is allowed to learn Musssar on Tisha B'Av?

Micha Golshevsky said...

Thank you both for your comments.
Ari: This is from the Meiri, Moed Katan 21a and end of Ta'anis.)
The Sdei Chemed (Maareches Aveilus, siman 25) brings numerous poskim to this effect even though they do not bring the Meiri (which they had not seen.)
Rav Ovadia Yosef, also permits this based on the Meiri (Yabia Omer, II: Yoreh Deya, 26 )
So does Rav Yosef Shalom Eliyashev (see below for source.)
Rav Karp brings a chidush from Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashev regarding learning mussar on Tisha BiAv: Even if the mussar work one wishes to learn has maamarei chazal and pesukim one is still permitted to learn it if his purpose in learning the work is to internalize the mussar thereby improving his midos and doing teshuva.(Hilchos Uminhagei Bein Hametzarim. pg. 148. See there for many excellent sources including the Gra.)