Parashat Devarim/Shabbat Hazon: Forward to the past

Every year there are those who ask why it's still necessary to mourn on Tisha Be'av.

temple destruction 224  (photo credit: Courtesy)
temple destruction 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Every year there are individuals who ask me why it's still necessary to mourn on Tisha Be'av, marking the destruction of both our temples. After all, we have returned to our homeland after almost 2,000 years, we have even returned to Jerusalem and re-established our Holy City as the capital of our re-established state. Yes, there are still Arabs who claim Jerusalem as their own; yes, there have been despicable acts of terror within our "City of Peace"; yes, Jews cannot pray at the Temple Mount. Nevertheless, our situation is incomparably better than it has been for the past two millennia. So why not tone down the mourning? My response always begins with the Mishna, which teaches that in ancient times agents would be sent out to inform the residents of Israel as to the exact day on which Rosh Hodesh (the new month) had come out, so that the populace would know when to celebrate the festivals and the Fast of Av. "And when the Second Temple existed," concludes the Mishna, "they would also go out in the month of Iyar because of the second Pessah" [for those who had been impure the month before]. The Rambam, in his Interpretations of the Mishnayot, correctly deduces that even during the Second Temple period the Israelites would mourn and fast on Tisha Be'av (B.T. Rosh Hashana 18a). And Josephus confirms this fact. Hence, even after the Temple was rebuilt, we still fasted. But this merely begs the question. Why continue to mourn when the reason for mourning has been largely removed, when Jerusalem - and even the Temple itself - has been restored? I once heard a majestic answer from my teacher Rav Soloveitchik: Even after the Second Temple was rebuilt, the question of Eicha (Lamentations) remains. After all, many righteous and holy individuals, many innocent children, were destroyed by the Babylonian hordes. Even the rebuilding of the Temple cannot remove the question as to why such pure people had to endure such torture. Rav Soloveitchik offered another response. We continued to recite Eicha and mourn even during the Second Temple period - and certainly during the "beginning of the sprouting of Redemption" - because we must learn the lesson of the destruction, because we must take three weeks out and sensitize our souls to the specter of defeat and the senseless hatred that caused it, lest we fall into a similar trap. Allow me to tell you how and why I personally mark Tisha Be'av. I mark the bleak fast day by reciting the Kinot (elegies) at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron - a custom I adopted from Rav Yisrael Shurin, a revered rabbinic leader in Efrat until his death two years ago. As many readers are aware, the ninth of Av was the day when the scouts returned with their evil report, and when the Israelites wept as they accepted the advice of 10 of their 12 princes not to attempt the conquest of the Land. This abandonment of Israel became the forerunner of our subsequent losses of national sovereignty, the desolations of Jerusalem and the destructions of the two temples (Numbers 14:1, additions to Rashi). But Joshua and Caleb managed to defy not only their 10 colleagues on the reconnaissance mission but also the popular vote (ibid. 7-10). What gave them the courage to do so? Joshua was the special disciple of Moses, and his link to the Jewish past and the Jewish mission emanated from an intense relationship with the greatest prophet who ever lived. Caleb received his inspiration from a visit to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron before embarking upon his scouting mission. (Numbers 12:22, Rashi ad loc). Allow me to explain what this side-trip meant. The Book of Numbers concludes with a catalogue of the wanderings of the Israelites, but with a strange introduction: "And Moses transcribed their places of origin toward their places of destination in accordance with the divine word, and these are their places of destination toward their places of origin" (Numbers 33:2). This verse seems to have gotten it backwards. The point of every journey is to travel from one's origin to one's destination; no one wants to travel backwards! But the Bible teaches that we must go home again. The Hebrew preposition lifnei is revealing: it can sometimes mean "before" as in "he was born one year before (lifnei) his brother," and it can sometimes mean "in front of," as in "he is walking a meter in front of (lifnei) his brother." Historically, the Jewish nation began in Hebron, with Abraham's election by God. This first Hebrew then received his mission statement, to teach "righteousness and justice" (Genesis 18:19), and his ultimate charge, "through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth" (Genesis 12:3). Jewish continuity became confirmed with Abraham's sacrificial walk (along with Isaac) to Mount Moriah and God's final confirmation, "through your seed shall be blessed all the nations of the earth" (Genesis 22:18). In time, Hebron and Jerusalem came first - but in space and in concept they must remain our ultimate destination. Our legs may wander the globe, but our minds, hearts and souls must always be linked to Hebron and Jerusalem, our destiny. This is the teaching of Caleb, the real message of Tisha Be'av. In order for the "beginning of the sprouting" to turn into the real Redemption, we must return to our places of origin - our biblical values - and then to our original places of habitation, committed to making the sacrifices necessary to transform our world into a place dedicated to righteousness, justice and peace. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.