Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Meaning of Three Weeks
To dedicate this lesson

Black Fast Matters


Rabbi Stewart Weiss

Tamuz 24 5780
"Spit happens;" or does it?! It is a fundamental principle of Judaism that events in our lives, not only on a global or national level - but on a personal level as well – do not occur randomly. We believe that God is both timeless and transcendent; He takes an active part in the shaping of history and guides the world through its every moment. The Talmud succinctly expresses this concept when it says: "No one so much as cuts his finger in the world below, unless it is ordained in the world above."

We are now in the midst of the Three Weeks - Bein Ham’tzarim – as we commemorate the dreadful events which resulted in the destruction of both the first and second Temples, along with numerous other tragedies, such as the Inquisition. Yet these misfortunes did not occur haphazardly, in a vacuum. As we recite annually in the prayers of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot: "Because of our sins, we were exiled from our land." These sins are catalogued in numerous Talmudic tractates, and they include the neglect of Jewish education, the lack of respect for elders and scholars, and, of course Sinat Chinam, baseless animosity towards our fellow Jews.

All the accumulated flaws in our collective behavior combined to create Tisha B’Av, the "Black Fast" that is considered the low point of our calendar year.

I want to suggest that the underlying causes of the Destruction can be summarized in just one little word: Eicha. This is the title of the book which we read in its entirety on the night of 9 Av – fittingly, it is the only one of the 5 Megilot that is read exclusively at night – as we turn down the lights and sit mournfully in semi-darkness. But "Eicha" is not reserved for Tisha B’Av alone; it reverberates throughout history.

It appears when an overwrought Moses laments to the people: "Eicha - how can I alone bear your struggles?" (Devarim 1:12). Moses was never one to shirk from work or challenge, but he recognizes that, in the final analysis, it is ultimately the nation that must carry the burden, and not the individual. While we are fond of saying that "great leaders make great nations," Moses, in his unparalleled wisdom, knew that the truth is quite the opposite: A great People will invariably cause great leaders to arise.

We failed as a People when we allowed our national institutions to become self-serving, engaging in constant corruption and endless – even brutal – competition and conflict with one faction against the other. We failed when we neglected to call out the evil-doers and demand a high moral standard from our leaders; when we practiced rigidity rather than flexibility in the Law and, of course, when we – awash in our seemingly endless good fortune -showed cynical disdain for "the other." Only when a nation as a whole fails so miserably, says Moses, can a disaster as great as Tisha B’Av occur.

Later, the prophet Isaiah wails (1:21), "Eicha - how has this faithful city (Jerusalem) become as a prostitute!" Lusting after the practices of the nations, desperate to be loved, a harlot sells out her principles to the lover who offers the highest bid. A prostitute has no intrinsic identity; she is a body (politic) for hire, her passions directed solely by those who pay her fee. Isaiah bemoans that in spurning our true benefactor, our eternal soul-mate, Israel compromised its relationship with G-d, leading to our destruction.
He implies that as a nation, we must remain loyal to who we are; we must not allow our desire to find acceptance in the world at large cloud our historic vision and pervert our unique character. To be a leader – as Abraham the Ivri epitomized – you must sometimes stand "on the other side" of the divide, determined to represent a truth and a mission to which the entire world may object.

Finally, Jeremiah, the prophet of the Destruction, cries out in Eicha’s opening verse: "Eicha – how did Jerusalem become so alone, so like a widow?" Just as a woman who has lost her husband feels abandoned, deserted, defenseless, we left ourselves vulnerable to the insidious neighbors surrounding us. With the demise of our relationship with God – and our unwillingness to repent and so rekindle that sacred union - we became prey to our enemies. They sensed that we no longer had our partner to guard and protect us, and so we were decimated.

There is an expectation on the part of the nations that we will be a light, a guide to a more perfect world. That often creates a double – or even triple – standard, but like it or not, that is the creed we live by. If we have skewed all the graphs and survived throughout the ages against all odds, it is precisely due to our adherence to a higher – read: holier – calling.

This year will undoubtedly be known as the Year of Corona. But it should also be called the Year of the Protest. There have been massive demonstrations in Israel and worldwide – even under the ominous cloud of the virus – railing against all forms of hardship and injustice, real or presumed. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. The right to protest – along with the right to speak one’s mind and hold one’s own opinion, no matter how unpopular – is a fundamental right of all people.

Yet along with blaming others for our problems, we also have to look inward, at our own behavior. Using the same letters of Eicha (BR. 4:10), God calls out to Adam, and to Man in every generation: Eicha, where are you?!" That first Adam replied, "And I hid." But we know that we cannot escape or hide; we must look in the mirror and confront our actions, recognize our failings, and commit to correcting the national sins which resulted in our dispersion and degradation.

The Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) records that on the eve of the Temple’s destruction young priests ascended to the roof with the keys to the Temple in their hands. "Master of the Universe," they cried, "we did not merit to be faithful keepers of Your house, and so we are handing you back the keys." They threw the keys up in the air, and a Heavenly hand reached out and took them.

It is only when we realize that we hold the keys to our own destiny and the ability to right the wrongs of our society that the dark countenance of the Black Fast will turn into a great and shining light.

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