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Tisha B'Av 5779 - Stand Up from the Ground

08/13/2019 01:47:26 PM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

I got a message this week that the Torah scroll that I wrote is ready to be picked up.  After writing the Torah scroll, I brought it to an expert sofer in Brooklyn who added the crowns (tagin) to the letters, sewed the Torah together, and also, reviewed my work to catch any mistakes.  He put it through a computer scan three times and proofread it twice.  

He corrected 273 mistakes.  This could be a letter written incorrectly or too much spacing or skipping a letter or letters touching.  The number 273 translates to a little more than one mistake per column (amud).

Two Hundred and Seventy-Three sounds like a lot of mistakes, but while the number is high, there is an aspect to it that is certainly a blessing. These scribal mistakes are fairly easy to identify and even more importantly, also easy to fix.  

I wish all of life were that easy!  It is usually not so easy to identify our own personal mistakes in life, and it is often even harder to fix those mistakes.  What a blessing to be able to so easily identify and fix our mistakes.

As we prepare ourselves for the reading of Eicha and the observance of Tisha B’av, I want to encourage us not to view Tisha B’av simply as a day to commemorate the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash and other horrific calamities in Jewish history.  The day cannot just be about the past, but must also be about the future.  It must be a day of fixing and moving forward.

This point was made clear to me when we came across a passage from the Book of Ezra in our daf yomi studies this week.  The Talmud (Temurah, 15b) cites the story from Ezra that discusses the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel at the beginning of the Second Temple.

To review some basic history: 

The last King of Judah, was Zidkiyahu, who reigned from 597-586 BCE.  At the end of his reign, Nevuchadnezer destroyed the first Temple, and exiled the remnants of the Jewish community to Babylon.  This event is what we read about in the Book of Eicha on Tisha B’av.  

After a period of seventy years, Ezra the Scribe, led some of the exiled community of Babylon and returned to the land of Israel and started to rebuild the Temple.

The Talmud (Temurah, 15b) cites the verses from the Book of Ezra that describes the mood in the land of Israel upon the rebuilding of the Temple.  We would expect after seventy years in Exile that the rebuilding of the Temple would be a complete and glorious celebration.  

But actually the verses tell us that it was a complicated story:

“Many of the kohanim and leveim and the heads of the tribes, and the elders who had seen the First Temple, wept loudly (bochim be-kol gadol) at the sight of the founding of the Second Temple.  Many others shouted joyously at the top of their voices.  The people could not distinguish the shouts of joy from the people’s weeping, for the people raised a great shout, the sound of which could be heard from afar – ve’ein ha’am makirim kol teruat hasimcha le’kol bechi ha’am” (Ezra 3:12-13). 

As the Temple was being built, many people were indeed joyously shouting and celebrating.  But there were many others crying at the sight of Temple being rebuilt.  The Book of Ezra tells us that their cries drowned out the laughter.

Why were they crying?

Rashi explains that they were crying when they saw the Second Temple being built because, “zochrim oto binyan gadol shel bayit rishon” (3:12).  They remembered the glory of the First Temple and they saw that this new Temple was going to in no way approximate the greatness of the First Temple.  

This is very jarring imagery.  Here they are returning to the land and rebuilding the Temple.  It is a great moment.  The Beit Hamikdash is being rebuilt.  And yet, the cries drowned out the joy.  

On the one hand, the people who were crying had a point.  The Talmud tells us that there were five differences between the First Temple and the Second Temple.  These were significant differences.  One of the main ones was that all the contents of Holy of Holies were absent from the Second Temple: there was no Ark, no Keruvim, no jar of man, and no Divine Presence (Yoma, 21b).  It would be almost like building a synagogue and not having an aron kodesh or a Torah scroll or a bimah or a chazzan or even a siddur.

We could understand why they were crying.  The new Temple was going to be so different, and from their perspective barely even a Temple.  

But on the, other hand, they were building a new Temple!!! And, still, all these people could do was cry for the old one.  

In fact, the people who were crying for the old one as the new one was being built, never actually even saw the glory of the First Temple.  The Talmud tells us that the Divine Presence departed from the First Temple, forty years prior to its destruction (Yoma, 39b).  Thus, even those elders who were able to see both Temples would not have been able to see the full glory of the First Temple.  And yet, their cries drowned out the joy.

This is especially ironic in that the prophet Chagai, tells us that glory of the Second Temple outshone the First Temple -- gadol yehiyeh kevod habayit hazeh haacharon min harishon (Chagai 2:9).  One reason given in the Talmud is because the Second Temple building itself was more beautiful; a second reason offered is because it lasted for more years.

But their eyes were so teary that their nostalgic cries couldn’t see the amazing opportunity in front of them.

This is human nature.  Our soul always imagines the past to be better than it actually was.  We do this at the expense of the present.  We yearn for what was instead of appreciating and working on the present.  And so the elders cried as the Temple was being rebuilt.  Instead of celebrating a new Temple, they cried for an old one, that they had never even seen.  

There is a second reason why the elders cried as the Second Temple was being built: they were overcome with guilt.
The Book of Ezra tells us that the benei hagola (the people of the exile) brought sacrificial sin offerings upon their return (8:35).    

The Talmud explains that their sin offerings were on account of the idolatry they worshipped during the reign of Zikiyahu, seventy years earlier.

But asks the Talmud that this too is a problematic answer as generally speaking a sin offering can only be brought for an accidental sin and their idolatry sin was intentional.  So the Talmud answers that it was a horaat sha’a, a special decree was made to allow them to bring a sin offering (Temurah, 15b).

Again, the scene is jarring.  As the Temple is being rebuilt, after seventy years of exile, we see an image of elders crying over the fact that their own sins caused the destruction of the First Temple.  They needed to enact a special rule just to allow them to bring an atonement sacrifice.  And so, because of their guilt, their ancient sins drowned out the joyous laughter of rebuilding.

Is this what our faith is supposed to be about? Always pining for the glory of the past? Always remembering our sins and crying over them?  Is this what Tisha B’av is about—crying for a Temple from two thousand years ago, and living in the past?

Actually, this is the opposite of what Tisha B’av is about.  

The main point of Tisha B’av is not to cry for the past—not to be overly nostalgic for a glorious past that is no longer-and not to overwhelm our community with guilt for previous sins.  

The point of Tisha B’av is not that our tradition demands that we cry for the past, but to teach us how to get beyond our past failures and to move forward in the present.  Tisha B’av is a spiritual tool to help us move forward as a community and as individuals.

Tisha B’av starts with all the trappings of mourning.  At night we sit in the dark, on the floor, and cry.  And the next morning we sit on the floor and recite kinnot all morning.  

But the day itself transforms once we reach the middle of the day (chatzot).

Here are some laws that show that once we reach chatzot the very nature of the day is changed:

  1. At mincha on the afternoon of Tisha B’av we recite nachem--the prayer of consolation.  We do not recite this prayer the night of or morning of Tisha Beav.  The afternoon is about consolation, more than mourning (Orach Chayim, 557:1).
  2. After chatzot, we do not sit on the floor anymore, and we are allowed to sit on chairs (Orach Chayim, 555:1).
  3. After chatzot, we are allowed to wear our tefillin.  In the morning, we do not wear our tefillin because tefillin represent glory.  By the afternoon, our glory has returned.
  4. After chatzot, we add the phrase titkabel tzlothon—accept our prayers—to the kaddish.  We had removed this phrase up until chatzot, because in Eicha (3:8), we say, satam tefilati, my prayers have been rejected (see Beit Yosef, 559).

On the afternoon of Tisha B’av our day is transformed from a focus on mourning to a focus on redemption and moving forward.  

According to the Talmud the actual burning of the Temple only started on the afternoon of Tisha B’av and then continued through the tenth day (Taanit, 29a).  So at the moment where we would expect our greatest cries, our tradition teaches us that that is the exact time where our focus shifts from mourning to redemption.

This is a recurring theme in our tradition.  We never allow someone to fully mourn.  As the shiva comes to a close we end the shiva on the mourning of the seventh day.  We say miktzat hayom kekulo, a portion of the day is like the entire day.  As the shloshim comes to a close, we end the shloshim early, as soon as it is the morning of the 30the day.

The Torah is teaching us that while remembering the past is important, what is even more important is understanding how to move forward into the future in a healthy manner.

That’s what Tisha B’av has to be about for us.  We can’t just be crying for a lost world.  That is not the point.  We need to be thinking about how we can rebuild our own world.  

Our own world is in major need of repair. We don’t need to go back in time 2000 years to see that.  We just need to open our eyes and look around us.  

This is why we are showing a movie on the afternoon of Tisha B’av about a homeless choir -- it is called, The Homeless Chorus Speaks, by Susan Polis Schutz.  It tells a beautiful story of a musician in San Diego who embraces homeless people and invites them to sing in a choir. The movie is a series of interviews talking with the homeless about how they became homeless and how the choir is an important part of their life.  I watched this movie and I was moved to tears and I said to myself this is exactly what we should be thinking about on Tisha B’av. 

And following mincha it is why we will hear from the editor of Street News and a vendor from Street News.  It is to help us open up our eyes in order to try and rebuild the broken, human temples around us.

Homelessness in our city is but one example of the brokenness that exists around us in our own lives that we all need to sensitize ourselves to.

There are many ways to work on repairing the brokenness we see.  

This past week I wrote the parshiyot of tefillin for a boy from our shul.  We made a deal.  I would write him tefillin if he promised to wear them every day for the rest of his life (excluding Shabbat and holidays).  

It was the first time I have ever written tefillin, and I found it challenging.  I wrote the tefillin and sent them off to a scribe in Brooklyn to check them.  The scribe called me up and said that there is a problem.  There is a word zachor (remember) in the tefillin.  He said that the chaf in that word is touching the vav and that maybe it now looks like a mem.  Instead of zachor, it now reads as zemer (song).  

Before we disqualified the tefillin, I showed it to a little girl from our shul and asked her what those letters are.  She said it is a chaf and a vav.  She saved the tefillin.  The halakha is that in this case, a child overrules the greatest rabbi in the world.

So the word was zachor, not zemer.

But that got me thinking.  On Tisha B’av our challenge is to turn our zachor, into a zemer.  We must work to turn our moments of pain into moments of song.  That is the purpose and direction of the day.  This is why we move from Tisha B’av into Tu B’Av and then into Elul—our most joyous moments of the calendar. 

But if we go through Tisha B’av only thinking about the past and not thinking about the present, we will have completely missed the message of Tisha B’av.  

Tisha B’av is more than a lament for the past.  It is a call to action.  We must arise from our crying.  Arise from our mourning.  And awaken ourselves to the problems in the world around us and help create more and more songs in the world!

Wed, May 27 2020 4 Sivan 5780