There’s a Talmudic story that reveals a lot about how we should react when facing adversity, and it’s an appropriate one to focus on just days before Tisha B’Av, when both Temples were destroyed in Jerusalem.
The story goes as follows: Rabbi Yossi said, “Once I was traveling on the road and entered one of the ruins of Jerusalem to pray.” Elijah appeared and said, “My son, why did you go into the ruin.” Rabbi Yossi responded, “To pray.” Elijah then said to Rabbi Yossi, “You should have prayed on the road.” Rabbi Yossi answered, “I feared a passerby would interrupt me.” To which Elijah said, “You could have then said a short prayer.”
Rabbi Yossi said he learned several principles from the words of Elijah. First, it is important not to enter a ruin. Second, it is permissible to pray on the road, as long as the prayer is short (Berachot 3a).
What is the message that underlies these principles? Rabbi Shlomo Riskin argues that it’s important to recognize that Rabbi Yossi was a sage who was suffering, living as he did in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple. The prophet tells us Elijah will announce the coming of the Messiah. Elijah is therefore known as the teacher, par excellence, of how to achieve redemption. Thus, Rabbi Yossi states, “I have learned from Elijah important ideas concerning how to turn destruction into rebuilding, galut into geulah, exile into redemption.”
It is first of all important not to enter into rooms that represent tragedy and not to get sidetracked by wallowing in disaster. Elijah was teaching Rabbi Yossi to stay on the road, remain on the course of human action, and attempt to repair the Jewish people, an act through which the whole world will be repaired.
But Elijah also taught a second message. He was teaching that it is important to pray on that road to redemption. But the prayer itself should be short, in order to make time for investing incredible amounts of energy into human activity and initiative.
Life requires a combination of action and prayer. History is a partnership between human endeavor and divine intervention.
A story is told of Rabbi Isaac Blazer, Reb Itzele Petersburger. One day a rumor spread that he was a Zionist. The community decided he would be fired. After all, in the prayers we speak of God as the builder of Jerusalem. Yet Reb Itzele was declaring that he would do his share in building Jerusalem himself. Reb Itzele turned to one of the leaders of the community and responded, “But when your daughter was sick, did you not seek out a doctor, even though God is spoken of in the prayers as the healer of Israel?” And turning to another, Reb Itzele said, “Don’t you do all you can to make a living, even though in our prayers we speak of God as the provider of sustenance?”
One must act as if everything depends on us and pray as if everything depends on God. We must live a life where we honor both sides of these two seemingly contradictory directives –action and prayer.
As we prepare our prayers for Tisha B’Av we must make them meaningful and sincere, yet realize that full service of God is incomplete without action on our part.
About the Author: Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.
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