July 31, 2003
The Big Question
We're now in the midst of a period called Bein HaMetzarim, a three-week period of national mourning for tragedies throughout Jewish history.
The most powerful of these tragedies was the destruction of the two temples in Jerusalem; these three weeks culminate with Tisha B'Av, the day that commemorates this tragedy.
While growing up, I resented that the Bein HaMetzarim fell during summer vacation. The summer was when we were out of school, unfettered by school rules and homework. Why did the rabbis have to put a damper on a kid's summer by sticking such a sorrowful period of three weeks smack in the middle? I especially disliked the rabbis for their ban on swimming during the nine days between the first of Av and Tisha B'Av (the ninth of Av). You want to restrict my swimming? Do it in February -- not during a searing August!
Part of the mourning process is the reading of the Book of Eicha (Lamentations) on the evening of Tisha B'Av (Aug. 6). This five-chapter dirge is Jeremiah's moving account of the First Temple's destruction. Eicha -- how? -- was the first word that Jeremiah used to describe the devastation. It expresses the horrified bewilderment of a person who has witnessed his entire world crumble all around him.
The Midrash (Torah commentary) introduces Eicha by noting that three prophets used the word: Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Moses said, "How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance?" (Deuteronomy 1:12); Isaiah said, "Howhas the faithful city become a harlot?" (Isaiah 1:21); and Jeremiah said, "How does the city sit solitary?" (Lamentations 1:1).
Rabbi Levi said, "It may be likened to a matron who had three groomsmen: one beheld her in her happiness, a second beheld her in her infidelity and the third beheld her in her disgrace. Similarly, Moses beheld Israel in their glory and happiness ... Isaiah beheld them in their infidelity ... Jeremiah beheld them in their disgrace; and all three exclaimed, 'eicha!'"
We can understand the connection between Isaiah's and Jeremiah's "hows." Isaiah was lamenting the Jews' spiritual nadir shortly before the destruction of the Temple, while Jeremiah was lamenting the consequent destruction. But when Moses exclaimed "eicha," he wasn't lamenting at all. He led the Jews during their spiritual apex, hundreds of years before the Temple era. He was saying, "Wow! What a colossal people. How can I, humble Moses, possibly bear the brunt of this massive nation?"
He was a doting parent, kvelling at the spiritual, emotional and physical growth of his children over the course of 40 years in the desert. Why, then, does the Midrash tie his "how" with the other two?
The fact that Tisha B'Av falls in the summer is not just a stroke of bad luck. God deliberately destroyed the Temple in the summer. Summer, when the world is outside their closed homes and offices, taking vacations, having fun. Summer, when there is the greatest propensity for calamity, because of our carefree attitudes. This is why it's worthwhile to take some time amid all the fun to contemplate our sad history; to remember that it was these good times that precipitated a carelessness in our spiritual devotion that escalated into the ultimate destruction.
What's the last thing we do at a Jewish wedding, under the chuppah? Break the glass. We deliberately put a damper on our simcha (celebration), to remind ourselves that our intense happiness should be channeled toward productive spirituality, instead of the narcissistic gratification -- prevalent in too many marriages today -- that leads to so much destruction. One thought of the Temple is all it takes to put our joy in the proper perspective. God, then, is not being a killjoy; He's just reminding us that our "summer fun" should be integrated with spirituality, not estranged from it. And that's precisely why Moses shouted "eicha." Remember, says Moses, use your joy and prosperity as tools in the service of God instead of tools for self-destruction.
I know it may be inconvenient to have Tisha B'Av during summer. It may interfere with your summer plans, be it a cruise, family getaway or just a day at the beach. But try to take some time to appreciate all the divine blessings in your life, and connect them to the tragedies that have occurred throughout history and still continue. Connect the "how" of a prosperous today to the "how" of yesterday's persecutions. Break the proverbial glass this year on Tisha B'Av. Appreciate that our heaven-sent blessings are tools for coming closer to our Maker. If we do our job correctly, next summer we'll get to swim on Tisha B'Av in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehila at Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park.