The Three Weeks: Breaking Barriers

During the three weeks a person can achieve the same level of forgiveness as on Yom Kippur by working on his inner life.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

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Young women study Torah
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Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

The Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch states that anyone who is yirei shomayim, truly God fearing, should mourn the churban, the destruction of the Holy Temple. the Beit Hamikdosh. If mourning the destruction of the Temple is the province of this elite group, how are we who are not on such a high spiritual level to relate to this tragic event? The deeper question the Paamei Moed points out is why are we not pained?

What is wrong with us that we do not mourn? If we realize that the Beit Hamikdosh was the medium of our connection to God through the korbanot (whose root means “close”), we will indeed mourn its destruction and be pained by not sensing Hashem’s presence close to us. As Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, theSifsei Chaim, writes, a person who understands that his focus in life should be to bring glory to God’s name feels the pain of not having Hashem, Hakodosh Boruch Hu, nearby.

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin explains in Nefesh Hachaim that it was not the enemy that destroyed our Temples, but our own actions. But a parallel Temple still exists in heaven, and even more so within our hearts, and our deeds on earth have the power to add bricks or remove bricks that will either help rebuild or continue to destroy the physical structure of the Beit Hamikdosh on earth. The power of the three weeks helps us access our inner Beit Hamikdosh. By strengthening that connection, we are adding to the not yet built Third Beit Hamikdosh. (I am reminded of the fund raising strategy of selling bricks prior to building an institution so that construction can actually begin.)

Citing Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, Rabbi Chaim notes that during the three weeks a person can achieve the same level of forgiveness as on Yom Kippur by working on his inner life. First, he must recognize and feel that something is missing from his life. Only then will he try to improve.

God was not always so distant, continues the Nefesh Hachaim. When Hashem first created the world, His presence was imminent and palpable. However, when Adam sinned, He removed Himself to the first heaven. After Cain’s sin, He removed Himself to the second heaven, and so on with each succeeding human failing, from Enosh who first began idol worship to Egypt where all was depravity, Hashem kept removing Himself degree by degree until He was so far removed from earth that mankind no longer recognized His presence and attributed everything to nature.

By contrast, there were righteous men who broke through the barriers and brought God’s presence back to earth in similar stages. Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Levi, Kehas, Amram and finally Moshe who, when he brought the Luchot down from the mountain, Hashem Himself came down in a cloud with him and stood beside him. The sin of the golden calf again removed God’s presence, but Hashem gave us the Mishkan in the desert and later the Beit Hamikdosh as a means of again bringing Him back within our midst and feeling His presence. Now, even when we perform mitzvoth and kind deeds, chessed, it’s still hard to feel God’s presence.

But God’s presence did not leave the Sanctuary suddenly, allowing the enemy to destroy in one fell swoop. Our Sages tell us that the Shechinah departed in ten stages, as Hashem hoped the nation would notice and would return to Him. It departed first from the curtain over the Ark to the Cherub, then to the threshold of the Inner Sanctum, and so on until it departed completely. The enemies destroyed the shell, for the “soul”, God’s presence had left the building. The whole purpose of the Beit Hamikdosh, and indeed of the entire world, was to have a place where God’s presence could reside, and we have lost it.

When will He return? Only when we return to Him. The first step in the process is articulated in the first word of Viduy, the confessional prayer – Ashamnu - We are guilty. We must take personal responsibility, not blame society or circumstances.

Megillat Eicha refers to the day the Temple was destroyed as being like a Moed, a festival. For this reason, we don’t recite tachanunon this day. Rabbi Wolbe in Aleh Shor gives us an interesting interpretation that fits in well with our discussion. Some festivals are festivals of closeness and some are festivals of distance. But there is yet a third category, as Rabbi Yonah notes, that of being in limbo, of not recognizing or admitting your true level. For example, do you consider yourself a good Jew because you celebrate Shabbat? However, is Shabbat merely a day of physical “rest” and eating, or is it a day when you are enhancing your relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. When Tisha b’Av is called a festival, it is a festival of distance, for on this day we admit our guilt and take responsibility for the distance we have created between Hashem and ourselves. Taking responsibility is the first step in repairing the relationship, and that step is cause for celebration.

The very first word of the Megillah alludes to this idea. As Rabbi Spero points out in Touched by Our TearsEicha with different vowels can be read Ayekah – Where are you? This was the question Hashem asked Adam after he ate of the forbidden fruit. And Adam, like so many of us, was hiding, afraid to admit his guilt. Hashem continues to ask us that question of us. Where are we? What has become of us?

Before our birth, writes Rabbi Pincus in Exile and Consolation, each of us took an oath to live as tzadikim and study Torah. Indeed, what has become of us. Tisha b’Av reminds us of how broken we are, how we have not been living up to our potential, and Hashem mourns over the destruction of the temple within each of us and the distance between us that that destruction has created. Thus the three weeks constitute a preparation for the teshuvah of the month of Elul and of Rosh Hashanah.

When we had the Beit Hamikdosh, our offerings on the altar brought us closer to Hashem and enabled us to start fresh. Now, without the Beit Hamikdosh, we are not set adrift. We still have prayer which is meant to serve the same purpose, to make us aware of God and reinforce our connection to Him. Rabbi Weissblum notes in Heorat Derech that no other generation has been as challenged as we are, with so many unholy pleasures beckoning us on all sides. Our youth, hungry and empty of spiritual content, search to fill themselves with these physical, fleeting pleasures. With true prayer, attention to the words, a desire for connection through the prayer, that emptiness can begin to be filled spiritually and can last forever.

The Rosh Chodesh insertion of the Yaaleh Veyovo prayer contains eight terms to  help us break through the seven heavenly barriers between ourselves and Hashem, Hakodosh Boruch Hu, barriers that were erected when the Holy Temple, Beit Hamikdosh, was destroyed, continues Rabbi Weissblum. First comes yaaleh, lifting ourselves out of our apathy and desiring change. Then comes veyovo, putting greater emphasis on the spiritual aspects of life, connecting to Hashem  through Torah learning and songs, zemirot, on Shabbos, and elevating the meals and rest to a spiritual purpose, for example. So one rises from level to level until he achieves wholeness and perfection. Thus one breaks through the iron curtains that separate us from Hakodosh Boruch Hu. This inner work is the work of the three weeks, to rebuild the sacred temple within oneself.

Just as each of us has our own mission, so does every creature, plant and inanimate object that Hashem created have a purpose, writes Rabbi Reiss in Paamei Moed. When they are able to fulfill their purpose, they are filled with joy and sing praises to Hashem. When they cannot fulfill their purpose, they mourn and cannot sing. When the Children o Israel, Bnei Yisroel were exiled, the paths upon which they traveled for the three Foot Festivals mourned, for they could not fulfill their purpose. And we mourned, for we could not fulfill our service to Hashem, Hakodosh Boruch Hu, as we had done in the Beit Hamikdosh. We could not bring God’s presence down into the world as we had done while the Beit Hamikdosh stood. We could no longer feel whole and complete. Is it any wonder that when our captors demanded that we sing by the waters of Babylon, we hung our harps upon the reeds and could not sing? We pray for Moshiach and the rebuilt Beit Hamikdosh, according to the Mesilas Yeshorim, because we want to be able to perfect ourselves through our service to God, not to solve personal problems. That lack should keep us in a constant state of mourning.

According to Rav Brazil, the destruction came as a result of our not fulfilling our particular missions. We are not clones of each other, but each of us has a unique mission that only we can fulfill. If I try to copy someone else’s service, or by rote, I am not serving Hashem in my role. I will be unhappy and unable to sing.

The Slonimer Rebbe the Netivot Shalom, goes so far as to say that if I try to copy someone else’s service and mission, I am guilty of serving Hashem through strange and improper ways. He then continues by explaining the well known story of the potential convert who approached Shammai and asked to be taught the Torah on one foot. According to the Slonimer Rebbe, Shammai did not push him away, but told him there was no shortcut or cookie cutter way to serve Hashem. The convert would have to find his own way, and that search is not necessary simple and easy.

When the convert then approached Hillel with the same request, Hillel’s response was, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend.” In essence, writes the Slonimer Rebbe, Hillel’s response was similar to that of Shammai. You are obligated to do what Hashem presents to you, not to someone else. How do you know what you need to work on, besides that which presents itself to you? That work on character which you find hateful and difficult, that is the precise area you must seek to improve. Copy from your friend only that which can help you in your quest for perfection.

We can now return to Adam and see how the Netivot Shalom interprets Hashem’s question of Ayekah. Hashem is not only asking Adam, “Where are you,” but is also asking him, “Ayeh ka – ayeh kaf shelcha – where is your hand.” Your hand is unique, as you are. Yet you decided to take on a different service that what Hashem gave you, and so you erred and fell.

We must recognize our uniqueness, take responsibility for our shortcomings and work on improvement so that stage by stage, level by level, we will rise up toward personal spiritual perfection and help bring God’s presence back to earth. Then our songs will burst forth together with the songs of all of God’s creation as His presence is again immanent on earth.

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