A New Essay by Rabbi Chaim Ingram
The three weeks leading up to the fast of Tisha b’Av, and especially the nine days of Av, are replete with restrictive customs. These restrictions are intended to bring home to us our loss: the loss of the Bet haMikdash, the Holy Temple, spiritual powerhouse for the whole of the Jewish people and ultimately the world. They also reinforce the need for us to approach with renewed fervour the Assessor Supreme to make good those losses. In so doing we remind ourselves of the reasons for these losses: primarily failure in interpersonal relations, a lack of outward-directed Ahavat Yisrael, in short the kind of self-centred indifference or, worse, sin’at chinam (gratuitous hatred) that is still with us, else the Bet haMikdash would have been rebuilt already. And “any generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt is reckoned to have destroyed it” [Jer. Talmud Yoma 1:1].
One of the restrictions of this period is that we do not bless Shehecheyanu. This is essentially an inward-directed blessing, recited when we are the beneficiaries of something new intended for our personal use or benefit: a new fruit, a new dress, an inheritance of which one is the sole beneficiary. In contrast, another blessing, ha-tov ve-hametiv, is made when others also benefit. This is an outward-directed blessing. It may be said on purchasing new household silverware or on inheriting a legacy also shared by others (siblings, etc.). We do not find that the recital of this latter blessing is explicitly restricted during this period. If it were, it would convey the wrong message. The lesson is that we should at all times find pleasure in others’ pleasure. This is part of ahavat chinam (boundless love). If loving means selfless giving (as it does in the Hebrew language) then hatred is manifested in extreme self-centredness Therefore only inward-directed, selfish pleasure is to be curtailed.
The eradication of selfishness is the key to understanding Tisha b’Av. After all, what could have been more selfish than the burning by the Zealots of storehouses of wheat, barley and wood sufficient to sustain Jerusalem for 21 years, thus forcing Judea to confront Rome with disastrous consequences. Or the perfidious betrayal by Bar Kamtsa of his people to the Caesar to avenge his own hurt.
The tragic history of the ninth day of Av goes all the way back to the slanderous report of the spies and the popular uprising against taking possession of the Land ruefully recalled by Moses in this week’s sidra. This sin too had its roots in the vice of selfishness. Our midrashic commentators explain that the men (and it was only the men who complained) had lacked the courage to go up and fight for the Land of Israel preferring instead to subject their wives and children to the tyranny of renewed foreign domination.
It took forty years of intense introspection and soul-searching in the desert to mend this selfish trait. But when Am Yisrael procrastinated mentally before embarking on the final desert war against Midian, it was for a very unselfish reason – because they knew Moses would perish afterwards [see Rashi to Num 31:5]. Moses himself is alacritous to go to battle against Midian even though he knows he will die thereafter. And when the people do go to war, as Rashi [31:4, citing Sifri] explicitly tells us, they are accompanied in this milkhemet mitsva (obligatory war) by the spiritual elite of Israel, not only the Levites but also Pinchas the Kohen who understood that his presence at the battlefield was essential for the morale of the nation. Possibly it was his inspiration that helped the Bnei Yisrael over the final hurdle and into the Promised Land.
The need to rise above selfish and self-centred interests challenges all strata of our people, whether ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ (and labels are invidious). The yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination) struts around among our nation indiscriminately and with differing degrees of false piety. Ultimately only a deep and abiding cheshbon ha-nefesh (soul-searching) among religious and secular alike (there were no distinctions in the desert) will alter ingrained attitudes which threaten to split our nation into two.
Mashiach awaits us – and only an abundance of ahavat chinam (causeless love), inter-fraternal understanding and outer-directedness will push us those final furlongs to our destination ensuring we will never ever have to fast again on Tisha b’Av.