Monday, July 19, 2010

Jewish Tragedies

Tisha B’Av as all observant Jews know is a day that we mourn for the destruction of the Batei Mikdash -the first and second Holy Temples in Jerusalem. In addition to fasting for a full 24 hour period -beginning tonight and ending tomorrow night - we also do (or don’t do) many of the things that apply to the Shiva period of a lost parent or child etc.

For example we are not permitted to learn Torah except for the Halachos pertaining to the day; subject matter that deals with the destruction of the two Temples; or other tragedies. We sit on a floor or a seat low to the ground and we do not wear leather shoes. But there are a couple of things we do that are specific to Tisha B’Av.

At night we read Megilas Eicha - The Book of Lamentations - written by Yirmiyahu ( the prophet Jeremiah) which laments the destruction of Jerusalem in the first Temple era and the suffering of its inhabitants - the Jewish people. It is also a somber confession of the sins of the Jewish people and its leaders that Yirmiyahu held had been the cause of it all.

During the day we read Kinos - a very lengthy set of poems which were mostly composed in the middle ages by R’ Eliezer HaKalir and includes sections written by R. Yehuda HaLevi and R. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, as well as R. Meir of Rotenberg.

The Kinos reflect our suffering as a people throughout the ages beginning with the destruction of the two Temples.

One of the problems I have with Tisha B’Av is saying the Kinos. Although well intended by its authors to properly mourn what happened this day and other tragedies in Jewish history it has become impossibly difficult to understand the words. Yet we spend hours on that day reciting them.

I have discussed this with various Avreichim I know and they privately confided that they have this feeling too. One of them actually said to me a while ago words to the effect of ‘I can’t believe this is what the Eibishter (God) really wants the Jewish people to do on this day.’

I really appreciated his honesty.

This brings me to a new publication by the OU Press: the Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot. It is a new translation of the Kinos by Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb, Executive Director Emeritus of the OU. It is described in a press release as focusing less on the literal translation and more on the expression of feeling of the Kinos.

This beautifully designed volume includes the Teffilos of the day as originally translated by Lord Jonathan Sacks and most importantly includes the many Drashos and insights of Rav Soloveitchik.

According to the press release Rav Soloveitchik spent the better part of the day on Tisha B’Av explaining the Kinos to his students. This book represents the results of culling all the taped lectures he gave between 1970 and 1984 – in which he he interspersed his insights between many of the Kinos as they were recited. It also contains a section on the lectures he gave on the Halachic and Hashkafic aspects of the 3 weeks, the 9 days and Tisha B’Av itself.

There are also forwards written by editor Simon Posner, publisher Mathew Miller, Rabbi Menachem Genack – and by Rabbi Haskell Lookstein, to whom this volume is dedicated.

Rabbi Lookstein gives a marvelous introduction to Rav Soloveitchik’s approach to Tisha B’Av in his forward which bears repeating here.

He had visited Israel in 1967 a couple of months after the victory of the six day war. He arrived very close to Tisha B’Av. And yet he noticed the spirit of near euphoria permeating the public at that time. The miracle of victory against all odds was fresh on everyone’s mind. And it was almost impossible to get into the spirit of the day. Though it was understandable - he was nonetheless disturbed by the euphoria in the air whichwas hardly dampened on the day of Tisha B’Av itself.

Ten months later Rav Soloveitchik gave a Shiur that spoke to his feelings on that day. The Rav asked the question that is on the minds of many people when it comes to Tisha B’Av: How can we mourn for events that took place two millennia before? These historic events are long gone from memory. How can we sit Shiva for events that happened 20 centuries ago?

The Rav proceeded to explain why in our day – even in the aftermath and euphoria of the six day war we should be conscious of the loss we suffered back then.

First he compared it to Pesach. The Haggadist tells us: BeChol Dor Chayev Adam Liros Es Atzmo K’elu Hu Yatza MiMitzrayim. ! Just like we are required to see ourselves as actually leaving Egypt on Pesach – So too are we required to see ourselves as experiencing the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash and Jerusalem right now! The Rav quotes the Jerusalem Talmud that uses a phrase about Tisha B’Av that parallels that of the Haggadist: Kol Dor SheLo NIvneh Beis Haikdash B’Yamav K’Elu Necherav B’Yamav – Any generation that does not rebuild the Temple in their day it is as though it were destroyed in their generation.

The Rav also asks the question about whether Tisha B’Av was observed between the period between the two Temples. After much discussion he concluded that it was. But then he asked how was it then possible to mourn the first Temple in the presence of the 2nd Temple in all its glory? It would have been absurd to go through the daily Temple service on that day and yet mourn its destruction? He answered that they observed it not in morning but in prayer that it should never happen again. The spirit of the First Temple destruction was in the air. As it applied to the time of the six day war, our attitude should also reflect the prayer that it should not happen to us a third time.

The Rav also offered another perspective on the mandatory observance and meaning of Tisha B’Av in our day. He pointed out that over the centuries Tiisha B’Av has been the day devoted to mourning all tragedies that befell the Jewish people. Our historic existence has been punctuated with many periods of despair and tragedy - one long experience of Eicha. Why have we suffered so much? When Moshiach comes the question mark of that day will be turned into a period. As long as Eicha has a question mark after it – we must observe Tisha B’Av.

I have not gone through all the Shiurim and commentary of the Rav in this new edition of Kinos. I plan to do so tomorrow. But if this forward is an example of what is contained therein - I will have a far better appreciation of what Tisha B’Av is all about.

An easy and meaningful fast to all.