Tisha B'av: Lessons about Joy and Sadness

    June 2010            
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Finding Sadness on Tish'a B'Av

By Mark Hoenig

When are we happy? Do we really understand the meaning of happiness, of true joy? And how about sadness? Often the Torah asks, even insists, that we be sad, mournful. We break a glass at a wedding, or we fast and sit on the floor on Tisha B’av, directed to recall with sadness our loss of the Temples and our long exile from the Land of Israel and the ideal service of G-d. At those times, as we reach for sadness, it is hard not to look around and count our many blessings; and so it is very difficult to deeply despair, or even just to appreciate the impact, of our loss from the distant past. In truth, many of us spend our lives with a sense that, by and large, we are happy. We have successfully navigated the world as we have come to understand it, we have created good and decent families, and we have provided for their health and well-being. Is that where joy comes from?

In a number of ways, Parshas Ki Savo offers lessons about joy and sadness, and points to the fact that the Land of Israel is a critical ingredient in bringing us true and meaningful joy. “And it will be when you enter the Land,” Moses begins, as he provides details of the Bikurim (first fruit) ritual in which every farmer dedicates his first fruits of the season, his most precious fruits, as part of a service of gratitude to G-d (Deuteronomy 26:1). The ritual includes a statement by the farmer that his ancestors had nothing and that he would have nothing but for the grace of G-d, and culminates in an expression of gratitude and submission to G-d. The entire procedure highlights an important feature of a Jewish person’s outlook. As explained by Rabbi Elie Munk (on Deuteronomy 26:2), at his moment of intense joy - the time when his months of hard work have borne fruit - the Jewish farmer is not overcome with chest-beating pride, not moved to kick back, have a beer, and relish in his personal accomplishment. Rather, he bows to G-d, humbly restating that his ancestors were “nothing” and that, but for G-d, he himself would be nothing. He openly recognizes that all he has, and all he ever will have, he owes entirely to G-d.

It is this understanding, this appreciation for the true order of things that causes the Jewish farmer to be joyous. At the end of his instructions on Bikurim, Moses says “ve’samachta,” you will be happy with all the goodness that G-d has given you (Deuteronomy 26:11). Once the Jewish farmer reflects upon and understands the fact that, appearances to the contrary, he himself could never hope to achieve anything and that only G-d can and does provide for his every need, then he rejoices. The farmer pauses, explains Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Rav Hirsch to Deuteronomy 26:11), and he absorbs the fact that he owes everything - his independence from other men and his prosperity - to G-d, and this moves him to submit totally to G-d. This realization and the resultant submission leads to happiness, unmitigated joy - joy in the knowledge that the path to goodness is clearly defined and attainable, that he needs only to submit to and follow G-d’s will. This is not a joy driven by temporary and short-lived excitement about personal achievement; this is a deep and meaningful joy that comes with an understanding of the natural harmony of G-d’s world. Understood this way, as taught by Rabbi Hirsch, “ve’samachta” is a description by Moses of a natural sequence of events: follow G-d’s law, reap G-d’s blessings, recognize and appreciate G-d’s grace, submit to G-d’s law, and be joyous.

This sequence, this cycle, is tied to the Land. We are given many commandments related to the Land. “The Land” that G-d has given to us, as Moses repeatedly says (for example in Deuteronomy 26:1), not any land. Only the Land of Israel can serve as the launchpad for us to achieve the true joy described by Rabbi Hirsch. For reasons we could only speculate about, G-d has identified specifically the Land of Israel, and has instructed us to follow His many laws that involve and attach only to that particular Land, no other. It is by submitting to these commandments that we are able to turn to G-d and say “hashkifah mim’on kadshecha” (Deuteronomy 26:15), inviting Him, as explained by Rashi, to look down and to see how we have followed His Law, to shower us with the blessings He promised. By giving us the Land, and by assigning the many laws attached to our life on the Land, G-d has created a system designed to yield for us the blessings of independence, security, and prosperity, and thereby to bring us the unmitigated joy that comes from submitting to G-d’s will. This is the ideal system designed by and prescribed by G-d, a system that would bring us a never-ending cycle of true joy, if only we didn’t break the cycle.

When we do break the cycle, though, we end up forfeiting the Land of Israel, which, it would seem, is cause for our deepest form of sadness. The parsha provides a number of hints that our loss of the Land must be at the heart of our greatest emotional pain. The Tochacha, the Admonition whereby Moses describes the curses that would befall the Jewish people if they fail to follow G-d’s Law (Deuteronomy 28:15-68), culminates in exile of the Jewish people from the Land, and Rabbi Munk (and others) note that the main thrust of the Tochacha is that the Jewish people would, as a final and most severe punishment, be expelled from and face exile from the Land. (See Rav Munk to Deuteronomy 28:69.) If we just follow the sequence of punishments described by Moses, we see that expulsion from the Land is the final blow at the end of an increasingly frustrating and heart-wrenching litany of punishments, strongly suggesting that, of all the curses, every one of which is terrible, losing the Land is the very worst.

This conclusion is supported by an insight offered by the Ramban. The Ramban notices that, when Moses details the blessings that the nation would receive, he lists children before prosperity (Deuteronomy 28:4-5), and he lists security before prosperity (Deuteronomy 28: 7-8), but when Moses details the curses, he reverses the order, predicting that prosperity will be lost first and then security and children (Deuteronomy 28:17-18). The Ramban explains (Ramban Deuteronomy 28:18) that when G-d blesses us, we are blessed first with that which is most precious, children and security. But when G-d punishes us, the punishment is designed to escalate, only culminating in the most harsh, the loss of our children and our security. With this understanding, we can conclude that exile from the Land - the very last punishment listed by Moses - is, in fact, the worst punishment of all, and represents the taking away of that which is most important to us. It hardly seems a coincidence, then, that the Tochacha comes at the end of a parsha that begins with the beautiful and joyous concepts of Bikurim and Tithing (Deuteronomy 26:1-15), concepts tied intrinsically to the Land and through which G-d’s ideal can be achieved. From these “bookends” of the parsha, we see that the Land is the source of our most meaningful joy, and we see that loss of the Land, the harshest part of our punishment and pain, is the source of our deepest sadness.

The irony, though, is that we struggle even to appreciate the enormous importance to us of the Land and the deep sadness that we should feel as we contemplate its loss. And this itself is part of the punishment described in the Tochacha, the part of the Torah that deals with reprove. We are so deeply lost in exile, our dispersion has such an immensely negative impact on us, that we struggle even to realize the depth of our plight. “G-d will make your blows extraordinary,” Moses tells the people (Deuteronomy 28:59), and the Maharal expounds (Netzach 58, quoted by Rav Munk to Deuteronomy 28:59) that we will not only be dispersed physically, but we also will have an intellectual and spiritual dispersion.

Because we are scattered and distracted, the exile brings with it confused and conflicting views, the absence of any cohesive understanding of Torah. Our anchor, our connection to a well understood and clearly defined set of rules, is gone. In short, as a result of the exile, we can’t even think straight. In exile, we “work for the gods of others” (Deuteronomy 28:36), which is not taken to mean we will become idol worshipers. Rather, as explained by Rabbi Hirsch (on Deuteronomy 28:36), when we are “guests” in countries run by others, we are naturally attracted to and begin to cling to the values of our hosts. In a society, for example, where financial achievement is held very important, we will be attracted to that ideal, displacing or creating an imbalance in our true, G-d-given values. These “false values” of our hosts are the idols we will serve. As we fall into this pattern brought by exile, as we lose our anchor and we lose sight of our true values, we become increasingly less capable of even grasping the incredible importance of the Land, and the opportunity it provides for us to create an ideal society and experience true and enduring joy. In exile, our superficial joys supplant and make us unable even to comprehend true and enduring joy.

Parshas Ki Savo teaches us that, as the proprietors of the Land, we are handed an opportunity to create the ideal society and the cycle of joy designed for us by G-d, and that without the Land, we are stripped of this opportunity. Unfortunately, a natural consequence of our exile and dispersion is that we struggle to appreciate these lessons; we struggle to see clearly that the Land is an integral part of our path to true and enduring happiness. As Rabbi Shlomo Riskin pointed out, we must understand the religious significance of the Land, we must appreciate the unique nature of the Land and the inseparable connection between the Land, G-d, and the Torah. Only that appreciation, Rabbi Riskin observes, will drive us to properly fashion our efforts to fight for and keep the Land.

The above essay is excerpted from the book BACK TO THE BEGINNING: Weekly Divrei Torah--Pathways to Jewish Identity, a compilation of essays exploring every sedra of the Torah.  The author, Mark Hoenig, wrote the essays throughout the year marking the tenth anniversary (yartzheit) of his father's passing as part of a year-long project undertaken with his brother and sister to remember and honor their father.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Hoenig is a Partner in the Tax Department of the international law firm, Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP. He attended Yeshiva University for his Bachelors degree, and received his law degrees from New York University. Hoenig has three grown children and currently lives with his wife and their youngest child in Teaneck, NJ, where he has resided for the past 25 years. 

Purchase: BACK TO THE BEGINNING: Weekly Divrei Torah – Pathways to Jewish Identity is available online: at Amazon.



from the June 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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