I Am With Him in Distress

  • Rav Meir Shpiegelman

Yeshivat Har Etzion

The Virtual Beit Midrash


               "I Am With Him in Distress"
                  by Rav Meir Spiegelman

	The laws of aveilut (mourning) become ever more lenient
with increasing distance from the event which is mourned.  On
the day of the burial the laws are extremely stringent, and
thereafter there are lesser laws which apply to the next seven
days, the thirty-day period, etc.  During the "three weeks"
(between the 17th of Tammuz and Tish'a be-Av) the opposite is
the case: more stringencies are added as time goes on.
Moreover, after Tish'a be-Av we cease to mourn and on the
tenth - when the main part of the destruction actually took
place - only certain of the laws are still practiced.

	Tish'a be-Av is called a mo'ed (festival) and therefore
we do not recite Tachanun on that day.  This connection
between mourning and mo'ed also finds expression in other
areas.  Mourning lasts seven days, as do the festivals.  Also,
that a mourner is forbidden to engage in work is learned from
the parallel between festivals and mourning.  This connection
seems far-fetched - after all, the significance of mourning
appears to stand in stark contrast to that of the festivals.
Indeed, each of the three pilgrim festivals serves to cancel
the remaining period of an individual's mourning because of
the inherent conflict between them, and hence it is difficult
to understand why Chazal saw fit to draw a parallel between
them (we will not enter into a discussion here of whether the
source for the requirement of the first day of mourning is
biblical or rabbinic.)

"Rabbi Levi said: A mourner should see himself for the first
three days as though a sword is lying between his two thighs;
from the third until the seventh day - as though it is lying
opposite him in the corner; and from then on - as though it
passes in front of him in the market." (Mo'ed Katan 27b)

	The image of a sword obviously holds a negative symbolism
for man, but it also has a positive corollary: special Divine
attention is paid to the mourner.  Hashgacha peratit (Divine
guidance of the individual) is clearly something to be happy
about - although in this instance it had negative results.
Likewise, part of the idea which finds expression in the
festivals is that of God's involvement in our world.  Each
festival reflects a different aspect of this revelation (in
the same way that each individual person represents a
revelation of a sort).

	From this perspective, even mourning reflects God's
involvement in the sense that the "keys of life" were not
given over to angels but rather retained by God Himself.  The
midrash recounts the story of Rabbi Akiva laughing when he saw
a fox roaming about among the ruins of the Temple Mount.  To
him, this fox was living proof of God's intervention, and by
the same token he knew that God would again be involved in the
future re-establishment of the Temple.  Still, we desire a
different form of supervision than that which was manifest in
this era of history.  In Tachanun we recite David's prayer and
wish "to fall by God's hand" - without any concealment - and
not to fall by "natural means."  On Tish'a be-Av this prayer
is inappropriate, because Tish'a be-Av is an expression of the
hiddenness of God's involvement in the world.  Without His
providence no human hand would have had the power to conquer
the Temple, but on the other hand it was indirectly through an
emissary, that His design was fulfilled at that time.

	We find many instances which demonstrate that tum'a
(spiritual impurity) causes one to be distanced from God (for
example, someone who is tamei is forbidden to enter the Temple
precincts, etc.).  The converse is also true: Distance from
God causes tum'a.  It is for this reason that the person who
burns the inner sin-offerings becomes tamei, even though tum'a
is not explicitly mentioned in this context.  Unfortunately,
there is no room for elaboration here.)  Rav Soloveitchik (in
his "Shi'urim Le-zekher Aba Mori," part II) explains that the
significance of mourning is a distancing from God.  We may,
therefore, extend this equation in an associative fashion:
Mourning is parallel and comparable to tum'a.  According to
certain of the Rishonim, the principle of mourning is to be
learned from the obligation of a kohen to become tamei for his
relatives.  This becomes clear in light of the above, for the
two concepts are connected.  The prohibition of a kohen
becoming tamei is based on the prohibition of distancing
himself from the Temple.  When he is in mourning he is by
definition distanced from the Temple, and this permits his
exposure to tum'a.

	If we accept this comparison then it becomes easier to
understand certain prohibitions associated with mourning.  We
may at first find it strange that a mourner is not permitted
to wash himself.  Why is the withholding of this specific
pleasure heavier to bear than that of other pleasures and why
is washing defined as an activity which causes one joy? Yom
Kippur, too, with its ban on leather shoes and washing,
presents this difficulty, but there the basis for the
prohibition is the need for inui (self-affliction), while here
the laws of mourning seem to include no such requirement.  One
must therefore look elsewhere for the rationale underlying a
mourner's prohibitions.

	In their treatment of mourning, Chazal wished to
emphasize the element of tum'a.  They therefore instituted a
mourning period of seven days, composed of two levels - up to
and including the third day, and from the fourth day onwards -
just as we find in the laws pertaining to purification through
the ashes of the para aduma (red heifer).  In addition, Chazal
stipulated that certain of the customs observed by the person
who is tamei also be observed by the mourner, and they
prohibited those actions which resemble the procedure by which
someone who is tamei becomes tahor (ritually pure).  The basic
process of ritual purity includes the washing of one's body
and clothes, and thus both are prohibited to the mourner.
(Our intention here is to explain why these specific
activities are chosen as representative of "joy;" we are
obviously not denying the fact that these prohibitions also
aid a person in the mourning process.)  The prohibition of
studying Torah makes sense as well.  Someone who is tamei is
also prohibited from studying Torah, according to a law
legislated by Ezra, because involvement in Torah study
reflects closeness to God - as we learn from the mishna in
Pirkei Avot (3:6).  In order to avoid a situation whereby a
mourner would be altogether unable to study Torah, he is
permitted to study those sections which reflect Divine
distancing and punishment.  Shaving is also one of the steps
involved in purification, as we find in the case of the
Levites and the metzora (someone suffering from tzara'at, a
physical manifestation of certain spiritual disorders usually
translated as leprosy).  In addition we find that a metzora
must let his hair grow and must keep his head completely
covered (only the former is incumbent upon the mourner
nowadays).  Sexual relations are also prohibited to those
falling under certain categories of impurity.

	Other prohibitions, too, are connected to tum'a, if only
indirectly.  A person who is tamei must overturn his bed and
sit on the floor in order not to cause his bed to become tamei
under the category of "tum'at midras," a situation which is
both serious in its own right and technically difficult to
reverse.  (The prohibition of wearing leather shoes is also
connected to this issue.)  A person who is tamei is also
divided to some extent from the community (for instance, the
metzora has to sit alone outside the camp of Israel), because
tum'a causes distancing or separation.  Furthermore, someone
who is tamei is also not permitted to greet others (the
prohibition of work is also connected to this, but for the
mourner the issue of work obviously also includes the problem
of his attention being diverted from his mourning.)

	Hence, the prohibitions which apply on Tish'a be-Av can
be divided into two categories.  The first group consists of
all those laws which pertain to a day of affliction and
trouble, like any fast day, while the second category includes
those prohibitions which pertain to mourning and reflect
distance from God, and are hence connected with tum'a.  Since
mourning is associated with distance from God, it is clear
that when we speak of removal of the Shekhina (God's presence)
from the Temple, we are required to mourn.

	However, this mourning is different from "regular"
mourning.  In the case of regular mourning the person is
subjected to a certain event, and as he comes to terms with
that event he learns to live with it and it disturbs him less.
The mourning over the Temple, on the other hand, is an
expression of the removal of the Shekhina.  This removal
increased gradually as the time of the destruction grew
nearer.  The Shekhina mourns, as it were, her exile, and Bnei
Yisrael mourn together with her.  Therefore the degree of
mourning grows with the approach of this day each year,
because what we mourn is the removal of the Shekhina rather
than the destruction of what was, after all, merely an edifice
of wood and stone.  For this reason the beginning of the
punishment was worse than its culmination, and we fast on the
ninth of Av (rather than on the tenth, when most of the
physical destruction took place).  The beginning of the
punishment involved a total removal of the Shekhina, and the
burning of the Temple did not add any qualitative dimension to
our mourning.

	We may note here that, generally speaking, any
manifestation of kedusha - holiness - brought about by a
person starts off with great force and then becomes gradually
weaker.  God, who is able to direct reality towards a certain
end, can create the opposite - a holiness which becomes
increasingly stronger.  (This is the difference between
Shabbat and the pilgrim festivals and between Shmitta and
Yovel [the Sabbatical and Jubilee years], but there is no room
for elaboration here.)  The physical parallel can be found in
the area of speech.  As man shouts his voice becomes weaker
and weaker, whereas God's voice "grows steadily stronger," as
we learn in the Torah's description of the Sinai experience.
In the same way, mourning which originates in man becomes less
stringent as we move away from the day of tragedy whereas our
mourning which reflects that of the Shekhina culminates at its
peak, on the day of tragedy itself.

	As mentioned above, the revelation of God's strict
justice has both a positive and a negative aspect.  The
positive aspect of Tish'a be-Av lies in our hope that on this
date we will in future be redeemed, and this positive motif
finds expression in our celebration of the holiday which falls
on the "seventh day of Tish'a be-Av" - i.e. the fifteen of Av
(Tu be-Av).  This day - the counterpart of Yom Kippur, the
revelation of God's mercy - concludes the seven-day period
("festival") beginning with Tish'a be-Av.  Tu be-Av reveals
the positive aspect hidden in Tish'a be-Av, allowing us a
glimpse of the seed of redemption which that tragic day holds,
the seed whose existence is made possible by the fact of God's
involvement in the world and in history. This same revelation
is what allows for destruction and mourning as well as for
redemption and joy.

(Originally appeared in Daf Kesher 142 Av 5748, vol. II, pp.
92-94.  Translated by Kaeren Fish.)


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