From Mourning to Comfort

  • Rav Yehuda Shaviv
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Special Holiday Shiur

From Mourning to Comfort

by Rav Yehuda Shaviv

A. Mourning

The days between the seventeenth of Tamuz and the ninth of Av, the period known as "yemei bein ha-metzarim" (the days between the straits), are characterized by mourning customs which become increasingly stringent as we approach the bitter day on which we commemorate the destruction of the Temple. Since the destruction of the First Temple these days have been days of mourning, and to this day - close to two thousand years since the destruction of the Second Temple - the Jewish nation continues to mourn and lament. Let us examine this phenomenon from the point of view of the laws and customs pertaining to mourning.

B. The Dead Are Destined to be Forgotten

The words of the prophet Yirmiyahu (22:10), "Do not cry for the dead nor lament for him," provided Chazal with the basis for their limitations on mourning as stipulated in Mo'ed Katan (27b):

"'Do not cry for the dead' - excessively, 'nor lament for him' - more than is appropriate. How should this be done? Three days are [set aside] for crying, seven for eulogies and for thirty days one refrains from ironing one's clothes or cutting one's hair. From that point onwards God says (as it were), 'Are you then more merciful than I?'" And thus the halakha was set down (Rambam, Laws of Mourning, chapter 13:10-11): "One does not cry for the dead for more than three days, and he is not eulogized for more than seven days... A person should not be distressed more than is appropriate over the dead, for death is [part of] the way of the world, and a person who distresses himself more than is the way of the world is foolish..." The living fountain which is Torah cannot allow a Jew to spend his life wallowing in sorrow and sadness over those who have died. Man has been granted the facility of forgetfulness in order to allow him to live in the present. And yet it is the same Torah which commands us to mourn throughout our lives over something which took place many hundreds of years ago! The vow declared by the exiles led away to Babylon, "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning; let my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not remember you" (Tehillim 137) continues to reverberate in our consciousness, rendering any complete happiness in Jewish life impossible to achieve. Writing in Spain hundreds of years after the destruction of the Second Temple, Rav Yehuda HaLevi wrote the following, in his poem "Tzion Halo Tish'ali": "How shall my food and drink be sweet when I take it, for the dogs have dragged Your young lions. Or how shall the light of day be a sweet sight to my eyes while I see the carcasses of Your eagles in the mouths of ravens?" C. And He Refused to be Comforted

Our bewilderment at the behavior of the nation is somewhat mitigated by looking back at the behavior of our patriarch Yaakov. When Yaakov saw Yosef's coat dripping with blood, and realized that his beloved son had been torn apart by wild beasts, he sunk into a state of prolonged mourning (Bereishit 37:35): "And Yaakov tore his garment and put sackcloth upon his loins and mourned for his son many days. And all his sons and daughters rose to comfort him but he refused to be comforted. He said, 'I shall go to my grave mourning for my son.'"

Thirty days passed, a year went by, many more years followed, and Yaakov was still mourning. He did not experience the usual dulling of the pain; he made no effort to stop reliving the memories of the past or to behave as people usually do a long time after their loved ones have passed on. And all this despite the fact that Yaakov had other sons and daughters and even grandchildren!

D. One Is Not Comforted for the Living

Chazal explain this phenomenon as follows (Massekhet Sofrim, chapter 21): "'And he refused to be comforted' - for what reason? Because one is never comforted for [the loss of] someone who is still alive, whereas the dead are forgotten, as it is written (Tehillim 31), 'I have been forgotten from the heart like the dead.'"

Accepting the comfort of others means coming to terms with the loss, with the fact that the person is gone. A person's healthy natural instincts cause his soul to seek comfort in various substitutes, in order to fill the void left by the death of the beloved. (Compare "And Yitzhak brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rivka and he loved her, and Yitzhak was comforted for his mother" [Bereishit 24:67].)

The soul cannot be comforted for someone who is still alive, because in the depths of the soul there is a sense that the connection still exists, that the person is not really gone. On the surface, then, the pain of the separation never dulls. Moreover, there can be no substitute for someone who is still alive. The world that is each individual can never be filled by someone else, and so long as a person is alive there can be no substitute for him, nor can anyone fill his place.

Hence mourning over someone who is still alive but is considered dead is not an expression of sorrow over an event which once took place, but rather an expression of sorrow over the present, over the separation which one continues to feel, over the substitute which can never be found.

E. The House of Our Life

The Beit HaMikdash is our very life. It was burned - but never went away; it was destroyed, but continues to exist - whether in the heavens or buried underground. It continues to exist for us in the present, but is not with us - or, rather, we are not with it. For this reason the mourning and pain will never cease until its rebuilding. And each year when the season of the destruction comes around, we feel the pain anew as though it had just happened in front of us.

"Every generation in whose times the Beit HaMikdash is not rebuilt is considered as though that generation was the one in which it was destroyed." (Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1) F. God Cries

As mentioned above, the reason for a limitation being placed on mourning for the dead is, "From then onwards, God says, 'Are you then more merciful than I?'" When it comes to mourning for the Beit HaMikdash, however, no matter how hard we look, we can find no measure of mourning that would indicate an excess. God Himself mourns over the destruction.

"Therefore I say, 'Let Me be, I shall weep bitterly, do not try to comfort Me for the pillaging of the daughter of My people'... And the Lord God of Hosts called on that day for weeping and for mourning and for baldness and for the wearing of sackcloth." (Yishayahu 22:4,12) The following painful description is given by Chazal (Introduction to Eicha Rabba, 24): "At that time the enemies entered the Temple and set fire to it. When it was burned God said, 'I no longer have a dwelling place on earth...' At that moment God cried and said, 'Woe to Me! What have I done? I allowed My Presence to descend to the world because of Israel. Now that they have sinned and I have returned to My original place, I have become a laughing stock to the nations, a mockery to all humanity'...

"And when God saw the Temple He said, 'Surely this is My house, and this is My resting place, that the enemies have entered and done as they pleased.' At that moment God cried and said, 'Woe is Me for My house, My children - where are you? My priests, where are you? Those who love Me, where are you? What shall I do for you - I warned you, but you did not repent.'

"God said to Yirmiyahu, 'Today I am like a person who had a single son, and he made his son a wedding canopy, and the son died under the canopy. Have you no pain for Me, nor for My children?"

This was not a one-time mourning. From that time on until the present, the Divine cry has echoed through the universe (Berakhot 3a): "Rabbi Yitzhak bar Shmuel said in the name of Rav: the night is divided into three watches, and during each watch God sits and roars like a lion, saying, 'Woe to the children for whose sins I desMy house and burned My Hal, and exiled them among the nations of the world.'"

G. Exile is the Reason for the Redemption

The crying and shouting, from on High as well as here on earth, serve as a standing protest against the state of mourning - the feeling of loss, the inability to come to terms with the situation and an unbending demand for its correction. It is no coincidence that the verse with which we conclude our recitation of Kinot on Tisha Be-av is "Return us, O God, to You - and we shall return; renew our days as of old."

The Maharal (Netzach Yisrael, ch. 203) explains as follows:

"... Where there is mourning for Jerusalem, by that we show that there is some loss and deficiency in the world. For this reason the order is repeated in the Tanakh: 'Rejoice with her, all those who mourn over her' - this refers to those who mourn over her because of the deficiency which came to this world, for that they mourn... But if they do not mourn, as though there were no deficiency, then since there is no deficiency then there will also be no return." From here we learn that anyone who desists from mourning over Jerusalem delays the final redemption, and he is even worse than those who were the direct cause of the destruction. The Maharal continues: "Therefore a person is obligated to mourn over the destruction of the Temple, and must cry and weep for our destruction and must pray that the Temple be rebuilt. And if a person does not do this, it is as if he is the reason for the destruction, as we learn in the Yerushalmi: 'The early generations shifted the foundations and the later ones destroyed them' - why is this so? Because the later generations failed to repent. This means the following: The early generations, because of whose sins the Temple was destroyed, represent just the "shifting of the foundations," but the later generations, who did not repent, represent uprooting from the very source. Why? Because the later generations saw before them the destroyed Temple and made no effort to repent and thereby restore the Temple. This can only mean that they did not desire to have the Temple restored, since they had tangible proof of the deficiency and they did not repent to repair the situation." It may be that this is the real meaning behind the Maharal's statement: "The exile is the reason for the redemption." The feeling of exile, the suffering of the soul because of its languishing in exile and the will to change the situation, to be saved and redeemed - these themselves are the reasons which bring about the redemption.

From our first exile we learned that only when Bnei Yisrael cried out to God from their labor did God reveal Himself to Moshe and send him to save the nation from the Egyptian bondage. This idea may underlie the legend which describes Mashiach as being born on Tisha Be-av. It teaches us that it is in the very depths of our feelings of pain over the exile and destruction that the seeds of the future redemption are sowed.

(Translated by Kaeren Fish.)

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