“Seek Hashem when He can be found. Call upon Him when He is near.” – Yeshiah 55:6
So begins the haftarah we read at Minchah on fast days.
Let’s try to understand what happens on fast days. During Shacharis we say special tefillos recalling terrible events that took place on that date. By Minchah, the shock of contemplating these events has begun to be digested by our intellect. It dawns on us that we have gone through all these events and miraculously survived.
At that point we begin to understand that fast days provide us with a great gift: the chance to become close to the King of the Universe.
I find it amazing that the Holy Ark contains the broken luchos, the Tablets Moshe Rabbeinu smashed after the incident with the golden calf. Why should the holiest spot on earth contain a vivid reminder of Am Yisrael’s rebellion against Hashem, a reminder of our degradation, our embarrassment, our ingratitude?
That may be exactly the point. Only when we remember our utter degradation can we rise to the heights. Only when we are broken can we cry out to Hashem. When we are filled with arrogance, we have no room for Him. Only when we are crushed are we ready to beg Him to save us. It’s not that we desire to be crushed, God forbid, but this is a fact of life.
“Let him put his mouth to the dust – there may yet be hope.” – Eichah 29
A few weeks ago, I was driving near a Jewish neighborhood. I saw a car mount the sidewalk and park in front of a store. In America this is unusual, so I watched as the door opened. A “religious-looking” Jew got out and entered the store. This is dangerous. The perception exists among non-Jews that we believe ourselves to be above the law and above other people.
“Dina d’malchusa dina – the law of the land is the law” (Gittin 10b; Nedarim 28a). But more than that: it is just plain stupid to antagonize the surrounding culture, especially at such a violent time in history, when nations are looking for excuses to attack us.
A fast day comes to remind us that our only hope for greatness and redemption is to humble ourselves and cry out to our Father in Heaven. Every day we begin our tefillos with the words:
Master of all worlds, not in the merit of our righteousness do we cast our supplications before You, but in the merit of Your abundant mercy. What are we? What is our life? What is our kindness? What is our righteousness? What is our salvation? What is our strength? What is our might? What can we say before You, Hashem, our God and the God of our forefathers? Are not all the heroes like nothing before You?
We really must try to incorporate this into our being.
The Three Weeks are not only the most tragic days of the year, they are perhaps our greatest opportunity to come close to Hashem. This is how we can turn tragedy into simcha. Tisha B’Av is called a moed (Eichah 1:15), which implies that its intrinsic identity is positive. It should have been the day on which our eternal entry into the Land of Israel was assured, but it became twisted into a day of tragedy.
The nature of the Jewish people is that we do not give up, even under conditions of deepest grief and catastrophe. We use these events – even if they arose through our own errors – to elevate ourselves to a level that would not have been possible without them. The lowest day becomes the highest day; that is exactly the nature of Redemption.
At the very beginning of history, Adam and Chava had every reason to give up. As I put it in my book Worldstorm: Finding Meaning and Direction in Today’s World Crisis:
How could Adam and Chava live with the burden they had introduced into the world? How, I ask, did they live? For quickly they knew. Quickly they sought clothing because suddenly their innocence was not good enough for them. Before their rebellion they had nothing to hide because they had no guilt. But now no amount of clothing could cover their guilt. Where could they run to escape from God? Nowhere! It is God’s world.
So the banishment was self-inflicted; they had sealed their own doom. Can you imagine their burden on that day, the hot tears flowing as their feet walked out of that perfect world and passed the sword of the angel guarding the entrance through which no man has ever returned? Can you imagine what rested upon their shoulders? Already then they must have felt the guilt of thousands of future generations of their own children, the accumulated pain which was to befall every individual who would ever exist in the future world. It would all come about as a result of their one “tiny” error in Gan Eden.
How could they bear it? How could anyone bear the responsibility for such untold suffering? The truly amazing thing is that they did bear it. Their greatness is shown perhaps more by the way they bore their exile than by their actions inside the Garden.
Adam and Chava did not commit suicide. That same Adam and Chava – whose introduction to life outside the Garden included the murder of one son by another – walked onward through life. They did not give up! They lived to become the parents of yet another son, Seth, who carried the knowledge of God onward to the next generation and through whom the hope of the world was to survive.
Generations later, Avraham and Sarah did not give up. Even though Avraham was one man against the entire world, he did not waver in his belief in the existence of Hashem and from his quest to learn Hashem’s Torah. When they were already “too old” to conceive children, they gave birth to a child who changed the world.
Am Yisrael was released from slavery in Egypt at precisely the moment we reached the lowest level, “mem tes sha’are tumah.”
At the Yam Suf we had every reason to give up, surrounded as we were by the sea on one side and the Egyptian army on the other. But Nachshon ben Aminadav trusted Hashem, entered the water and Am Yisrael was saved.
When we as a nation wandered through Midbar Sinai, we perpetrated rebellion after rebellion against Hashem. We were our own worst enemies and – because of our own stubbornness – had every reason to give up, but we did not. Because we did not give up, we were saved.
The list goes on and on. “Ani ma’amin b’emunah sheleimah.” When you are desperate, you cast all your hope on Hashem, and only then are you going to find Redemption. If you know there is nothing else besides Hashem Echad, your life is going to change.
“Min ha meitzar…from the straits I called upon God; God answered me with expansiveness. Hashem is with me; I have no fear; how can man affect me?”(Tehillim 118).
Hashem was with Dovid because he called “from the straits,” when there was nothing on earth that could help him. Hashem took Dovid out of the straits, but he had to hit rock bottom first.
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I will recall for you my personal story. On January 10, 1966, my life was falling apart. I did not believe in God and I did not want to believe I was Jewish. My marriage seemed to be disintegrating. I was in graduate school and couldn’t concentrate. I woke up at 2 a.m. crying. It was all over. I had tried “everything” and nothing worked. It looked to me as if I would spend the rest of my life in a mental institution, God forbid.
But wait! Maybe there was something else other than the pit. Only then, under the terrible pressure of a decree of death, did I come to realize that if I was going to survive, I had to believe God is real. And that’s where it all began. That moment of absolute despair was the moment that changed my life. It was God or Gehennom.
I was so stubborn that it took that terrible moment to force me to humble myself enough so that I could believe I was not God.
The Three Weeks is that period of excruciating pain through which we are reminded that Hashem Echad is the One Source of Life. If we want to live, we have to surrender ourselves to His guidance and mercy. The secret and the seeds of Redemption lie in the pain we feel as we plummet to the utter depths during these terrible days of tears and tragedy.
In our own time, the suffering is prodigious. In Eretz Yisrael, Jewish blood is flowing. Outside Israel, tzouris upon tzouris. Each day, you think you have heard the ultimate – until the next day, when you hear something worse. How far can we be from mem-tes sha’are tumah, the straits from which we are going to cry out to God (Tehillim 118) “Ana Hashem hoshia na – please Hashem, save [us] now!”
Our son told us a beautiful thought from the Chofetz Chaim. Why did the miraglim become despondent? They knew Hashem was able to bring them into Eretz Canaan, but they felt they and their generation were not worthy of His help because of their sins. Their sense of shame caused them to doubt they had the merit to enter the Land.
This is the way of the yetzer hara: to try to cause us to forget our innate nobility and focus instead on what we did wrong. Hashem is waiting to help us, but we feel unworthy. (Based on Sefer Shmiras Haloshon, chelek beis, Parshas Shelach.)
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Just this morning, as I was writing this article, I did something so stupid. I began to berate myself and feel as if I were hopelessly dumb with no hope whatsoever. Why do I keep making the same mistakes over and over again? This is the same thought many people have before Rosh Hashanah, when they tell themselves it is hopeless to do teshuvah because “each year I regress after all my promises to improve.”
In general, the present generation is extremely depressed. We are so steeped in the ways of the surrounding culture that the innate meaninglessness of its lifestyle has affected us deeply. But we really do not want to give up.
This morning, after my stupidity, I spoke to a trusted rabbi who gave me a way out. I started to feel that – perhaps – there is hope for me, and that is what we need to know: even though the yetzer hara will tempt us endlessly to become depressed and hopeless, there is hope and help from Above that will never desert us. Hashem loves us and will certainly bring Mashiach. No matter the problems that weigh down on us, Hashem will surely fulfill all His promises.
We begin every day by saying, “My God, the soul You placed within me is pure. You created it, You fashioned it, You breathed it into me, You safeguard it within me….” Contrary to the belief systems of other cultures, we know that Hashem created us with intrinsic kedushah.
The fast day haftarah continues: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts and My ways are not your ways…. As high as the heavens over the earth, so are My thoughts [higher] than your thoughts.”
We are being guided by a Power infinitely higher than we can comprehend.
During the Three Weeks, the rejuvenation of Am Yisrael begins, because we are not going lower than this. This is the end … and the beginning. On Tisha B’Av, Mashiach is born. We read in Midrash Eichah Rabbassi 1:59: “On the day the Temple was destroyed the Messianic Savior was born. What is his name? Menachem [Comforter].”
Midrash Eichah explains: An Arab passed a Jewish farmer plowing his field. The Arab heard the farmer’s ox mooing. The Arab, who understood the language of animals, told the Jew that meant the Holy Temple had been destroyed. While they were conversing, the ox mooed a second time. The Arab told the Jew this meant the Redeemer had been born.
Amazingly, the news of Mashiach’s birth came through the mouth of an Arab. Today the Arabs are also telling us something. Their activity shows they are, on some level, aware of how little time they have before their power is nullified by the arrival of Mashiach.
The ArtScroll commentary to this Midrash is illuminating:
Before the Temple’s destruction, it was not possible to have Mashiach, as that which is already perfect cannot perfect itself. It is only from the imperfect state of a destroyed Temple that this nation may ascend and eventually merit the Mashiach…. All seeds in the ground first disintegrate and decay and only afterward begin to grow into new plants…. A similar principle exists in the spiritual realm: sprouting must emanate from decay. The sages teach that us that only one who mourns over the…destruction of Jerusalem will merit to see its consolation. This, explains Maharal, is because the eventual rebuilding of Jerusalem and the rebirth of the Jewish nation can only come about after there existed a state of destruction…. But how will we be consoled? We will realize that all those years of pain and travail were not for naught and were not purposeless. They were part of the process of decay that caused the brilliant light of the Mashiach to shine.
May we see it soon in our days.
Roy S. Neuberger