Monday, July 19, 2010

Tisha B'av, and whether the best you can is good enough

Via Mississippi Fred, an unearthed story about the German Hebrew scholar Franz Delitzsch and his practice on Tisha B'av. His was to identify with our people out of a love for Messiah

I wanted to say one or four things in response to this thoughtful, religious video from Aish. You may first wish to watch the whole video. Charlie Harary (a lay leader in the Orthodox Union) brings us back to the first Tisha B'av, when Ten Spies presented their God-defying report about Canaan, against the courageous minority. According to tradition, sorrow befalls the Jewish people from that day. Why does God bring to our people such sorrow, Mr. Harary asks, if He is a God of Mercy?
His answer: the spies considered themselves not good enough: "we were like grasshoppers in our eyes, so we were in their eyes" (Numbers 13:33). The idea is that considering yourself small is what leads to a small, sad life, full of useless tears. And it is so true that our own perception of ourselves can sometimes cause us to stray from our divine purpose. R. Shaul said, "For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline" (2 Tim. 1:7). How often do we mistake timidity for piety?

But, leaving aside the problem of basing the Tisha b'av horrors that have befallen the Jewish people to a self-perception of weakness (horrors which have a more complex root no doubt), the Scriptures are clear about something more basic: God alone is our redemption. Yet our hearts seek to rebel against Him and not trust in Him. The issue wasn't simply that people didn't think highly enough of themselves, but that they thought more highly of their own opinion of themselves than of God's opinion. Mr. Harary states, "God says ... the 'I can't' mentality will stop you from bringing your own redemption." But what about when the reality is that we, well ... can't save ourselves? At what point do we look to the Lord? We are urged to recognize that we are good enough, to stop considering ourselves weak, and to accomplish our own redemption. Thus Mr. Harary preaches a false hope. Idealism about oneself is not the solution to pessimism about oneself. For they both center on the self.

It is a high calling indeed to represent God in the world. Through Israel, God has revealed this calling to the entire world in the Messiah. But if we assume that God is simply 'in our corner', such that we bring our own redemption, that we only need to try harder, then we are looking to the wrong place. Rather the first matter is to turn from ourselves and believe God. He said to His people they were to take the land and they didn't believe Him. But unbelief in God's promises puts much more at stake than land. Consider the following story of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai. This is a long and heavy poem but it is appropriate to reproduce it in full.

כשחלה ריב"ז
נכנסו תלמידיו לבקרו.
כיון שראה אותם התחיל לבכות.
א"ל תלמידיו:
נר ישראל, עמוד הימיני, פטיש החזק,
מפני מה אתה בוכה?
When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was sick,
his disciples came to see how he was doing (lit., “look him over”).
As soon as he saw them, he began to weep.
His disciples said to him:
Light of Israel, Pillar on the Right [Yachin, in the Temple], Mighty Hammer,
on what account are you weeping?
אמר להם:
אלו לפני מלך בשר ודם היו מוליכין אותי
שהיום כאן ומחר בקבר,
שאם כועס אין כעסו כעס עולם
ואם אוסרני אין איסורו איסור עולם,
ואם ממיתני אין מיתתו מיתת עולם,
ואני יכול לפייסו בדברים
ולשחדו בממון –
He said to them,
If I were being taken before a king of flesh and blood,
who is here today and in the grave tomorrow,
who if he gets aggravated his aggravation is not eternal aggravation,
and if he incarcerates me his incarceration is not eternal incarceration,
and if he puts me to death his putting to death is not an eternal putting to death,
and I could assuage him with words
and bribe him with money (mammon) -
ואף על פי כן הייתי בוכה
עכשיו שמוליכין אותי לפני מלך מלכי המלכים
הקדוש ברוך הוא,
שהוא חי וקיים לעולם ולעולמי עולמים
שאם כועס עלי – כעסו כעס עולם,
ואם אוסרני – איסורו איסור עולם,
ואם ממיתני – מיתתו מיתת עולם,
ואיני יכול לפייסו בדברים
ולא לשחדו בממון,
ולא עוד אלא שיש לפני שני דרכים:
אחת של גן עדן
ואחת של גיהנם.
ואיני יודע באיזו מוליכים אותי,
ולא אבכה?
all the more reason I have to weep,
now that I am being taken before the King of kings of kings,
the Holy One, blessed be He,
who lives and abides for ever,
who if he gets aggravated with me, his aggravation is eternal aggravation,
and if he incarcerates me his incarceration is eternal incarceration,
and if he puts me to death his putting to death is an eternal putting to death,
and I cannot assuage him with words
nor bribe him with money (mammon) -
and not only so, but there are two ways before me,
one to the garden of Eden (=Paradise),
and the other to Gehenna (=Hell).
And I do not know to which I am being taken,
and shall I not weep?"
Its horrible to think about this, but R. Yochanan knew he could not accomplish his own redemption.  Not even by being really really good and strong. Did he not have enough of a "can-do" attitude? His words provide a real reason for mourning.

Rather than merely depending on ourselves, we must consider the only source of redemption in the universe. The same terrible awesome king who holds our destiny in His hands took the form of a Servant to rescue Israel and all the world from its terrible fate. As we mourn the many past destructions of our people, let us look to the God of Israel Who entered our world to redeem us, the true redemption of Israel and the world.

And if it is your custom, I wish you a tzom qal.

(source: Ancient Hebrew Poetry)

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