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07/24/2020 11:48:34 AM


Rabbi Barry Gelman

What's Next

07/24/2020 11:14:41 AM

Rabbi Barry Gelman

What’s Next?  

Made famous by President Jedd Bartlet, the fictional President of the West Wing, this quip is a good measure of how to view this period of time; the nine day and Tisha B’Av.

What does it mean to mourn? 

Let’s answer this question by comparing two different aspects of the Halacht of Mourning.

In general, when it comes to Halacha (Jewish Law) we teach our children how to observe Mitzvot before they are obligated. We do this so that once they become adults (12 for a girl, 13 for a boy), and commanded to observe, they are well versed in the details of observance.

There is a strange and interesting exception to this rule. Mourning.

When it comes to the laws of mourning, children are not initiated as to how to mourn. (Their garment is torn in order to raise  the level of anguish among onlookers, not as an aspect of mourning for the minor.) Gesher Hachaim. (19:3:2))

On the other hand, when it comes to mourning for the destruction of the Temple, we do instruct minors to observe some mourning practices.

For example, the shulchan Aruch (Orach Chami 551:14) rules that it is forbidden for adults to cut the hair of minors during the week of Tisha B’Av. The Mishna Berura (81) explains that “chinuch”, educating a minor on mourning the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, applies.

Why is there a difference between our approach to a minor mourning for a loved one and mourning for the Beit Hamikdash?

The answer lies in the very reason we instruct minors on how to perform mitzvot to begin with. As mentioned, we do so that they know what to do once the rules become fully applicable to them. 

As children are raised, parents wait, longingly, to see their children perform Mitzvot. The desire to see them become full participants in the fabric of the Jewish community is profound. There is one exception - mourning. Noone wishes to see their children mourn in the proper fashion. We hope, that before our children reach adulthood that the prophecy of Isaiah (25:8) - בִּלַּ֤ע הַמָּ֙וֶת֙ לָנֶ֔צַח וּמָחָ֨ה אֲדֹנָ֧י יְהוִ֛ה דִּמְעָ֖ה מֵעַ֣ל כָּל־פָּנִ֑ים - He will destroy death forever. My Lord GOD will wipe the tears away From all faces... will come true.

This explains why we do not teach children to mourn for loved ones. So why DO we teach children to mourn for the Beit Hamikdash. After all, don’t we hope that the Beit Hamikdash will be rebuilt before the child reaches the age of majority? 

Rabbi Avigdor Nevenzahl offers an intriguing approach. He suggests that the purpose of mourning the destruction of the beit Hamikdash is to, not only feel sad about it, but to be inspired to fix it! Such inspiration can only come when the loss is internalized. We want even our youngest children to be inspired this way so that when they become Bar / Bat Mitzvah they will have the wherewithal to act. 

The point is that mourning for the beit Hamikdash is not meant to end at the feeling of loss, it is meant to help fully understand what is missing so that we can work to replace it. In contrast, the mourning for a loved one, is not meant to inspire any specific change. Of course, memories of loved ones and of their special characteristics and accomplishments can inspire us, but that is not directly related to mourning their loss.

So much was lost with the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash and the exile from Jerusalem and Israel. In addition to the loss of life and the terrible suffering, there was the exile of Torah from Jerusalem (forty years before the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash the Sanhedrin was removed from the Temple mount and later relocated to Yavneh), subjugation of our people to foreign powers and the shrinking of the reach of Torah as it could no longer be applied to national life. 

Thank God, we live in a time where some of those elements have been reversed. Once again the Jewosh people have achieved national sovereignty. We are no longer in exile from Israel or Jerusalem, and the study and application of Torah and Jewish values is thriving in Israel and around the world. 

Even as it is hard to internalize mourning for the Temple, I find it helpful to look at all of the wonderful things about Israel and imagine what our Jewish world would be without Israel - how impoverished our Torah  and national life would be. I mourn for what was lost to keep focused on how tragic it would be if lost again and to keep in mind what I can do to keep it up. 

Rabbi Nevenzahl’s approach is related to two character types that exist. Some people are constantly thinking about the past. Such a person, at each and every stage of life, looks back on what was before. When one is in college, the high school years are idealized and when one finishes college, well, then those years are considered the best.  This person is always looking in the rear view mirror. Rav Nevenzahl considers such a person to be “forever old” as they act older than their actual life which in their view, has passed them by.

On the other hand, there are those who are “forever young” - people who are always asking: “What’s Next”. These people are eager to assume the next challenge and instead of looking back on what was, look ahead and ask what can be.

This approach turns the entire idea of mourning for the Beit Hamikdash on its head. Of course, we ask why the Temple was destroyed, but we do not do that to harp on the past, we do it to set our course for the future

Rabbi Norman Lamm echoed this idea when he said: 

“However, nostalgia is often a dead-end road. We tend to choke on our tears, to be paralyzed by nostalgic overindulgence that borders on self-pity, that has too much bathos and too little pathos, too much sentiment and too little soul.  Jews must know that the Covenant is important not only as a past event which must be remembered, but as a definition of a relationship which must be implemented and perpetuated. The Covenant happened in the past, but it must govern the present and determine the future. And so, we must move past ordinary nostalgia, beyond mere sentimental recollection, to creative nostalgia; to re-creation rather than mere recollection.”

As we enter the week of Tisha B’av, we can ask ourselves how we engage in recreation. We can apply  creative nostalgia to many areas of life. Are there things we used to do and look back on in a “those were the days” attitude.  Do we recollect more intense and passionate relationships with our spouse? Was there a point in our life when we were more committed to Torah study and prayer (this may be especially true since we are not going to synagogue)? 

The creative mourning that we are supposed to practice this time of year reminds us that looking back is not good enough. We remember what was so that we can make it be again, and improve on it as well.

What can we do, what conversations can we have to recreate and move ahead? 

Try this experiment. Consider one an aspect of your interpersonal life ( I used to have more passion in my relationship with my spouse, I used to be closer to my children, I used to be very friendly with that person) and one aspect of your religious life (I used to pray more often, I used to regularly study Torah, I used to give more charity or do more chessed) that you look back on longingly and take steps to use that nostalgia to propel you to more.

It will be different for each of us, but we will all have something. 

We know that this worked. For centuries our people remembered Jerusalem, turned towards the Land of Israel three times a day and begged God for our return. In 1948 it finally happened. 

We teach our children to mourn for the Beit Hamikdash because it is creative mourning, useful mourning  -  a type of mourning that requires us to look ahead in order to recapture what was and create a better future.

May this be a Shabbat (and a week) of staying forever young and asking "What’s Next?".

Shabbat Shalom.

Tue, May 18 2021 7 Sivan 5781