Unfinished Business

Rabbi Reuven Mann

There are a number of Fast Days on the Jewish Calendar all of which are of Rabbinic origin except for Yom Kippur. All Jews are obligated by the Torah to abstain from food and drink (and other bodily pleasures such as bathing and applying lotions etc.) on the Day of Atonement. 

Interestingly enough a significant amount of Jews including the non-religious take this obligation seriously and refrain from eating and drinking on Yom Kippur and even make efforts to visit a Synagogue on this day.

I believe that the reason for the popularity of this Fast is because it is associated with atonement from sin. Judaism believes that yes, there is such a thing as sin and that (if left untreated) it taints the soul. The key question is; can sin and its effects be expunged from the soul? Is there anything which can make it go away as if it “never happened”?

Judaism is founded on the notion that it is virtually impossible for humans not to transgress as errant behavior is built into man’s nature. However no other religion affirms the spiritual efficacy of Teshuva as much as Judaism. It maintains that no sinner is so evil and despised that he is beyond the realm of repentance.

The Rambam teaches that one should do Teshuva as soon as he becomes aware that he has sinned and should not put it off until tomorrow. However there is no statute of limitations regarding this matter.  Even after many years one does not forfeit the opportunity to return to Hashem. Even if he has been a sinner all of his life but does Teshuva at the end it is accepted and he has a place in the World To Come.

In my opinion it is this feature that provides the reason for the widespread observance of the Fast of Yom Kippur. Even non-observant Jews are mindful of the fact that their behavior is not always morally acceptable and they are troubled by a consciousness of guilt.  They may not be ready to initiate sweeping alterations of their lifestyle in order to conform to Judaism’s religious requirements but they don’t want to miss the opportunity to take advantage of Judaism’s “special”  Day of Atonement offer.

However the summertime Fast of Tisha B’Av is not a popular event for those who are not Torah observant. It simply does have the same “curb appeal” as the Day of Awe. The main theme of Tisha B‘Av is mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple which took place over two  thousand years ago, an event which does not disturb the tranquility of most Jews.

Indeed we should ask; why is that calamity so important that we have to spend so much time and energy remembering and mourning it? Isn’t the Holocaust so much more devastating  and closer to home and yet we have no public Fast and day of mourning to commemorate it?

Rabbi  Soloveitchik explained  that, indeed, Tisha B’Av is the day on which we afflict ourselves and engage in Aveilut (mourning) over the tragedy of the Shoah. That is because the Genocide of the Nazis and all the other major calamities of our history can be traced back to the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion from our land.

One of the Kinnot (elegies) that we recite on Tisha B’Av says that (in destroying the Temple) Hashem “acted first and later regretted” and called for public crying and eulogizing. At first glance this seems strange.  The Torah  attests that “Hashem is righteous in all His ways”.  If His wisdom decreed that the Churban had to happen then  how is it possible that He “regretted” it?

According to the Rav  this is asserting that Hashem’s intention was not to break His connection to His chosen nation. This is a  significant point  because the other world religions maintain that the Jews, although once favored, have subsequently been rejected by Hashem. Indeed they justify their historically evil persecution of the Jews on the basis of their contention that they were rejected by G-d.

But the Kinna is refuting that. It is saying that Hashem regrets what He had to do to His children because He still is attached to them as  the covenant He made with them is unbreakable. And that’s why He called for “crying and mourning” to mark the great catastrophe. For He is still their G-d and waits for them to return.

If it were Hashem’s intention to cast away the Jewish People there would be no point in mourning for, in effect, the Jews would be gone from history and we would simply have to accept that and move on. What would be the point of mourning?

Mourning for the Temple is rooted in the idea that the “game is not over” because we are still G-d’s People. We are temporarily estranged and in exile but are destined to return. Therefore we mourn, and search for the severe moral and ethical failings that brought down Divine punishments upon us. So that we can repair them.

We can now understand Rabbi Soloveitchick’s assertion that we must mourn the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av. It is based on the understanding that the real tragedy of the Churban  was that it caused an estrangement between Hashem and His People which is the real source of all the tragedies which befell us. Estrangement yes but divorce no! 

It would be beneficial for the leaders of the world’s religions to take special note  of the passage in the Book of Leviticus which comes at the end of the section which lists, in  gruesome detail, the terrible sufferings ( including exile) which  will befall the Jews for disobeying Hashem’s commandments.  Can they be understood to mean that G-d wants nothing further to do with the Jews?  Says Hashem: “And in spite of all this, while they are in the land of their enemies, I will not have despised them nor will I have rejected them to obliterate them, to annul My covenant with them- for I am Hashem their G-d.” This verse should be required reading, three time a day, for all spiritual leaders of whatever religion who are troubled by the fact that we are still here!

But we cannot  be complacent. We must make every  effort to return to our rightful place in Hashem’s scheme of things. The road to recovery begins with the recognition and acceptance of our identity as the chosen nation of Hashem. We have been handed a special mission by the Creator of the Universe which is irrevocable. The purpose of Tisha B’Av is to remind us that there is unfinished business between ourselves and Hashem. Our task is to mourn and strive to honestly and wisely discern our sins, those between man and G-d and those between man and man. And to repair them and thus merit to restore our rightful eternal relationship with the Eternal One Of Israel.

In that sense Tisha B’Av should be seen as a day of great, though muted, joy as it celebrates the fact that we are an eternal People whose covenant with Hashem can never be revoked. Since that is the case we should  strive to render our relationship to Hashem into a positive one. If we renounce our sins and return to righteous performance of His commandments He will return to us and “renew our days as of old.” May this happen speedily and in our time.

Shabbat Shalom V’Tzom Kal