Guilt and Reflections on Tisha b’Av

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem

Public Domain

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem. Creator: Rembrandt. Date: 1630. Institution: Rijksmuseum. Provider: Rijksmuseum. Providing Country: Netherlands. PD for Public Domain Mark

I

Sometime in the early 1980s my close friend and chavrusa Baruch Gartner moved to Safed. He had recently married and wanted to be part of a new Breslov community in the Safed’s Old City. I remained in yeshiva in Jerusalem but with close friends and a place to stay, I spent many Shabbatot in Safed in those years. On Shabbos we used to frequent a small synagogue in the Old City run by a man named Rabbi Leifer. Rabbi Leifer, probably then in his 60s, was a gentle and humble soul; he was a native of Safed and his father had run that synagogue before him. He enjoyed a bunch of twentysomethings davenning with him in his little prayer-house.

R. Leifer lived in a house that led to a courtyard which led to the synagogue. On Shabbos he went from his house to the mikveh (in the synagogue) to the synagogue and then back to his house. On Shabbos the mikveh always had a pungent smell of cholent because R. Leifer’s wife used the oil heater in the mikveh to keep the cholent warm. Hot cholent on a plata in a small basement room that contained a steaming mivkeh made for an interesting experience of devotional ablutions. It was a taste of an old world experience which is still hard to forget. In any event, R. Leifer was not a scholar but exuded an air of authenticity, of an older world of Safed, that attracted many of us. He was warm, kind, and welcoming. We often thought he was one of the 36 hidden righteous ones, but in those heady days, we mistakenly thought that of a lot of people.

In those years, Safed was a growing city and the municipality decided to build a new road that circled the city. One could see the new road from R. Leifer’s courtyard. The week after the road opened, we were sitting with R. Leifer in his courtyard on Shabbos after a small Kiddush and began to tell the following story:

“I have lived in this house my entire life. Every Shabbos I would walk from my house to the synagogue and back, and then spend time sitting in the courtyard looking out at the mountains. Last week they opened the new road and as I sat in the courtyard on Shabbos I saw cars driving by on the road.” With tears in his eyes, he said, “It’s the first time in my life I have seen hillul shabbos (Shabbat desecration).” He stopped for a minute or so, looking laconic yet also thoughtful, and said, “There must be something wrong with me.”

The moment passed quickly and we moved onto other topics, but the story, particularly his response to seeing hillul shabbos for the first time, struck me quite deeply and I often think about it around Tisha b’Av. This year in particular, I was reminded of the story when I read a verse in the prophet Jeremiah.

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II

Jeremiah 2 recounts God lamenting Israel’s abandonment. Much of the prophet shifts back and forth between Israel lamenting God’s abandonment, the focus of the Book of Lamentation, and God lamenting being abandoned by Israel. Jeremiah 3: 4, 5 reads as follows: Hear the word of the Lord, of House of Jacob, every clan of the House of Israel. Thus says God, “What wrong did your fathers find in Me, and went after delusion and were deluded.” God somehow sensed that Israel’s sin is somehow rooted in God deficiency saying, What wrong did your fathers find in Me, that somehow God was not worthy of their fidelity.

The Hasidic master R. Zev Wolf of Zhitomir (d.1800) was a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch and was the son of R. Yechiel Michel of Zlotochov. In his Hasidic compendium Or ha-Meir (Koretz, 1787) he engages this verse on Jeremiah with the following gloss:

The intention of this verse is to illustrate to Israel their stupidity. They blame their deficiencies on God, saying that their devotional lives are weak as a result of extenuating circumstances. Or, that they are just not of strong enough mind to overcome such obstacles. Rather they hang everything on God. On this God says [to Jeremiah] “What wrong did your fathers find in Me? That is, what did they find in me that they used as an excuse for their own deficient devotion, so that I should grant them peace of mind? (Or ha-Meir, vol 2. 156).

Zev Wolf suggests something here that epitomizes the shift in orientation Tisha b’Av requires. It is well-known that the prophets in general were reluctant to place the blame of Israel’s’ travails on their enemies; and in most cases, on God. The fragility, yet also the power, of the prophetic message is that Israel’s woes are the consequence of Israel’s faults, that its wounds, while they may be administered by others are, in the end, self-inflicted. The mourning, perhaps, is not of the destruction per se but the inability to see the destruction as a mirror of the self.

This orientation toward the world is inverse to how we normally understand, and respond, to our situation. We are quick to blame the other, to justify our position by showing how the other has unjustly acted against me. We even sometimes admit partial fault but claim the other’s response is somehow disproportionate. There is something dissonant in carrying the burden of tragedy on one’s shoulders. The prophets attempt to move us away from such an orientation by suggesting that however the other may be behaving, whatever they may be inflicting on you, its source begins with your own deficiency. By God saying to Jeremiah, What wrong did your fathers find in Me [that they distanced themselves from me]? God is suggesting that the very act of blame is the reason for the troubles they face. This is the trap of exile because blame is the shield against responsibility, the branches of teshuva have no sustenance to bring forth fruit when the other is always at fault. To be in exile is blame the other. At least, this is the way I understand how Zev Wolf reads the verse in Jeremiah.

It is an easy lesson to hear, but a hard one to learn, in part because we are so accustomed to evaluate an entrenched situation through the fault of the other side, even when the other side seems to be of divine making. When R. Leifer looked out and saw cars driving on Shabbos, witnessing hillul shabbos for the first time in his life, he did not find fault with the municipality for building the road, nor those who drove on their Shabbos outing. Rather, he thought to himself, the fact that God has decreed that in my 60s I am seeing hillul shabbos for the first time in my life, “there must be something wrong with me, it must be something I did.” He didn’t know what that was, and it really didn’t matter. The deed was done. But in his admission, there also was a tikkun.

Perhaps more than mourning for the loss of the Jerusalem Temples, Tisha b’Av is about thinking “otherwise.” That is, taking a day, or nine days, to look at one’s individual and collective fate as a reflection of one’s own imperfections rather than viewing oneself as a victim of another’s wrongdoing. Moses Maimonides seems to have had this in mind when he resisted the notion that fasting on Tisha b’Av is categorically different than on Yom Kippur. The conventional wisdom has it that on Yom Kippur we fast as an act of repentance and atonement, whereas on Tisha b’Av we fast as an exercise in mourning. Resisting that distinction, Maimonides holds that mourning on Tisha b’Av is also about repentance, that is, on this reading, about seeing one’s dark situation as the consequence of one’s own shortcomings and not the reaction of one’s enemies or, in Jeremiah’s case, God simply making life too difficult. This is the hidden dimension of teshuva in the fast of Tisha b’Av. 

The Vilna Gaon allegedly said that changing one character trait is more difficult than memorizing the entire Talmud backward. This may also be true of what Tisha b’Av is asking of us as well. So much of our natural inclination seems to be about the comfort we take in being victims of other’s deficiencies. Or, “I may be at fault but I didn’t deserve this.” In the very midst of the darkness of losing our homeland, as the sages aptly put it “being banished from one’s father’s table,” in that very moment of despair we are being asked to voice R. Leifer’s question, “There must be something wrong with me?”

III

In today’s polarized world, from protests, to accusations of “cancel culture,” to a political battlefield where our social ills always seem to someone else’s fault, R. Leifer’s words resonated with me quite strongly this year. One of the most damning aspects of Trump’s presidency is not his inhumane polices or his racism or his politics of division. What will likely remain after Trump is gone is his politics of blame. Everything is someone else’s fault. Here I think Trump has hypnotized us, he has drawn us into a vortex of blame that we now use to explain our situation. Trump blames all his foibles on Obama, and we blame all out foibles on Trump. “If we just rid ourselves of this divisive figure, we can return to normalcy.” I do not think it will be that easy in part because doing so would require us to excise ourselves from the vortex of seeing our national deficiencies as the fault of the other side. If we really want to re-start this nation, and for the Jews, if we really want to find our way out of the Israel/Palestine conflict, we need to begin thinking the way Zev Wolf understood Jeremiah. Or the way R. Leifer thought when he saw hillul shabbos for the first time. How often do we hear, “This is Trumps fault,” and “If the Palestinians wanted peace, there would be peace.”? This is exilic thinking; this is the kind of thinking that brings about our destruction. This is the kind of thinking that keeps us exactly where we are.

R. Leifer, may he rest in peace, was no Torah sage. He was a simple Jew from Safed, unencumbered by the self-righteousness and moral certitude of so many of us who frequented his synagogue. He lived with the belief that the Master of the World is behind his simple life. And thus when he saw those cars on Shabbos, he knew there must be a reason. And the reason must be him.

If only we could, for a day, think the way R. Leifer did that Shabbos morning, perhaps we could return to a place where we would merit the lifting of the cloud of darkness that now envelopes our world, and our souls.

  • An abridged version of this was delivered at the Fire Island Synagogue, Shabbat Hazon, 2020

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One thought on “Guilt and Reflections on Tisha b’Av

  1. Dear Shaul,
    You wrote: “ If only we could, for a day, think the way R. Leifer did that Shabbos morning, ”
    I think that the third part of your article testifies that you personally couldn’t even in the text. I don’t expect anyone will be able to follow your advice in real life.
    It’s a war in the United States. I lived long enough in Russia to see how radical left here uses the same tactics that were used there to ruin the country and it’s people. My two grandfathers were part of this new and just world and eventually were sent to GULAG and died there.

    Other than that it’s a good read and teaching to adhere in personal relationships with other people.

    Best,
    Uri

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