Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 29 July 2017 / 6 Av 5777

Consolation amid Destruction

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

The custom is to ease some laws of mourning after midday on Tisha b’Av. For example there is a minhag (custom) not to wear tefillin in the morning as a sign of mourning, but in the afternoon this becomes permitted (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 555:1). There is also a minhag to read verses of consolation in the afternoon. However, these customs need explanation in light of the gemara that says the Beit Hamikdash was set on fire on the ninth of Av during the late afternoon (Ta’anit 29a). According to this, why is it that we ease the intensity of the mourning specifically at that time? One would think that the mourning should be even more intense while the Beit Hamikdash was burning.

The gemara says that when the enemies came to desecrate the Beit Hamikdash, they removed the kruvim from the kodesh hakedoshim, and humiliated the Jewish people by dragging them through the streets. Chazal tell us that while this was happening, the kruvim were embracing each other (Yoma 54b). This gemara appears problematic, though, in light of another gemara that says that the kruvim only faced each other when G-d was happy with the Jewish People (Bava Batra 99a). During the time of the churban, the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, it would seem that G-d was rejecting the Jewish People. Why then would G-d show the Jewish People such a deep sign of love during this climactic time of destruction and devastation?

The commentaries explain that the Jewish People did not really believe that the Beit Hamikdash would actually be destroyed, and thus did not do adequate teshuva — they had been relying on the atonement, that the Beit Hamikdash provided them. In fact, some even felt that their spiritual state did not need any correction. The danger of being in such a situation is that one may easily end up destroying himself without realizing the repercussions of his actions. This is similar to someone receiving anesthesia at the dentist's office. The dentist warns the patient after receiving the anesthesia not to bite his lips. The dentist gives this instruction because the patient does not feel the pain from the bite, and may actually end up biting through his entire lip without noticing. G-d, therefore, destroyed the Beit Hamikdash to bring awareness to the Jewish People of the nature of their low status — and so they would do proper teshuva. Essentially, G-d brought the churban to make the Jewish People feel the pain of their low spiritual state.

Consequently, the Jewish People understood the lesson behind the harsh reality of seeing the Beit Hamikdash destroyed, and responded with teshuva. In addition, the suffering that they experienced from the churban also aided in cleansing them from their sins.

The commentaries explain that this is why the kruvim were embracing each other at the time of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. It was a sign that G-d was satisfied with the Jewish People’s response in doing teshuva, and achieving their new, elevated spiritual state (see Pri Tzadik, Rosh Chodesh Adar, 5 and Shem M'Shmuel, Devarim 5677). Seen in this light, we see G-d’s tremendous kindness by bringing the churban. In effect, He destroyed “physically” to preserve “spiritually”.

With this idea we can understand the following teaching of Chazal. The chapter of Tehillim that describes the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash starts with the words “Mizmor l’Asaf — A psalm for Asaf.” The Midrash asks: Why is this chapter called a song? Seemingly, it would be more fitting to call it a lamentation. The Midrash answers that when Asaf saw the Beit Hamikdash set on fire he understood that the Jewish peoples’ own lives were spared, as G-d had evidently decided to destroy the Beit Hamikdash instead of the Jewish nation, and that He had given them a second chance by conveying that they are in dire need of teshuva. That is why Asaf sang then, and that is why the chapter is a “song” (Eichah Rabbah 4:14).

We can now answer the question that we started with. When the enemy attacked, the Jewish nation was on the verge of annihilation, as decreed by G-d. Once the Beit Hamikdash was set on fire, however, the enemy was satisfied and stopped the killing spree. The reduction of mourning at precisely the time when the Beit Hamikdash began to become destroyed is to emphasize G-d's mercy amid the destruction. G-d chose to destroy the Beit Hamikdash for the Jewish People’s sins instead of actually destroying the Jewish People (see Kaf Hachaim 559:76 in the name of the Arizal and Mishna Berura 555:3 in the name of the Gra).

We may sill ask one more question: If the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash was for the best, as are all of G-d’s actions, then why mourn at all? Like all other tragedies that are for the best, the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash was the best thing for the Jewish People. G-d chose to give the Jewish People a second chance by destroying the Beit Hamikdash, and thus show them the need to change their ways. There is still mourning, however, over the sins that brought them to a state that the best thing was this very loss — the loss of the holiest place on earth, and our “meeting point” with G-d. The gemara says that any generation during which the Beit Hamikdash is not built is as though that generation destroyed it (Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1). Every year we mourn the very severe reality that the best thing for us is the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash today. May we be zocheh to spend this Tishah B’Av with rejoicings, instead of with mourning.

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