Points to Ponder
by Rabbi Yehudah Prero
As we have mentioned, during the three weeks between the 17th of Tamuz and
the 9th of Av, we conduct ourselves as one would while in a state of
mourning. These three weeks commemorate the end of the existence of our Holy
Temples, and the last days before we were sent into exile.
The Talmud (Kesuvos 66b) relates that after the destruction of the Temple, R'
Yochanan ben Zakkai was riding on a donkey outside of the city of Jerusalem.
His students were following behind him. R' Yochanan saw a young woman
collecting barley kernels from the dung of the neighboring Arabs' animals.
When she saw R' Yochanan, she asked him for his financial assistance. He
asked her who she was. She replied that she was the daughter of Nakdimon ben
Gurion, one of the three wealthiest men before the Temple was destroyed. R'
Yochanan told his students that he remembered that when he signed her Kesubah
(marriage document) the dowry that her father provided was enormous. He then
started crying and said "How fortunate is the nation of Israel! When they do
the will of G-d, no nation can rule over them, and when they do not do the
will of G-d, G-d gives over them to other nations, and not just to the
nations but their animals."
The Maharal asks why R' Yochanan made the comment of "How fortunate is the
nation of Israel!" At that moment, R' Yochanan saw an awful sight: the
daughter of one of the wealthiest and most distinguished men of his time
forced to search for food in a degrading and humiliating fashion - by picking
through the dung of animals for barley. How was R' Yochanan's statement a
proper response to such a terrible spectacle?
The Maharal explains that the nation of Israel does not exist in a state of
mediocrity. The nation of Israel exists in a state of "Shlai'mut,"
"completion." Either they listen to the word of G-d or they do not. Either
they rise to the pinnacle of strength, to the height of greatness, or they
fall to great depths. There is no middle ground, no in-between the two
extremes. When R' Yochanan saw how great was the disgrace of the nation of
Israel, he wept. Simultaneously, however, he acknowledged the reality of the
situation - that this horrendous downfall was the flipside of the fantastic
heights to which the nation could rise.
R' Yochanan saw Divine Providence working in this situation. A nation, when
not at its height in power and splendor, need not be the object of scorn,
derision and persecution. It can be left alone and ignored. It can be left to
languish in its average status. But the nation of Israel is not average. The
depths to which the nation has sunk and the severity of the persecution the
nation has endured illustrates that the downfall is not ordinary. Only G-d,
because of the place he holds for the nation of Israel, could cause such a
downfall. Only because the nation of Israel is a nation of "Shlai'mut," a
nation which must always rise above mediocrity, could such a terrible
downfall occur. It is because R' Yochanan vividly saw that the nation of
Israel has the capacity for greatness that he uttered "How fortunate is the
nation of Israel."
R' Yochanan's actions leave us with several lessons to ponder during the
Three Weeks. R' Yochanan encountered a sight that shook him. He wept when he
saw the extent of the suffering and degradation of the nation of Israel. At
the same time, he remembered and acknowledged whatever there was positive
about the situation. This trait, acknowledging good amid the bad, is not
easily acquired. It is not enough to verbalize a positive "spin" on a
situation. A person should try to feel that good actually exists. While
recognizing the good may not eliminate the pain of a situation, it may bring
Remembering the source of the comfort is another lesson learnt from R'
Yochanan. R' Yochanan knew that such a terrible tragedy could only occur
through the hand of G-d. Knowing that G-d is nearby can and should be a
source of comfort during times of pain. Pain and suffering are not the result
of G-d deserting us. When a parent punishes a child, the child feels the
pain, as the parent is actively inflicting the punishment. The punishment of
a parent is to be out of love for the child, and should pain the parent as
much as it pains the child. Although the child suffers, if he or she
recognized that this punishment was done out of love, there is some comfort.
"Fortunate is the nation of Israel," R' Yochanan said, because of the close
relationship He has with His nation. He will not let a nation of kings and
queens act in any way other than that befitting royalty. R' Yochanan realized
that such a downfall happened only because G-d loves us. G-d was with us when
we fell, and is there to help us back up. We have to realize the same when we
suffer. (see III:10)
Recognizing that we can achieve greatness is another lesson to be learnt. G-d
only expects from us that which we are capable of. While we may not think we
can act up to a certain standard, the truth is that G-d gave us a great
amount of fortitude and strength. When we apply ourselves, and truly believe
that we can do something, that strength becomes apparent. G-d will not accept
mediocrity from the nation of Israel. The nation must exemplify Shlai'mut.
Rav Chaim Brisker explains that we find in the Kuzari (a book of Jewish
philosophy) five categories of existence on this earth: The inanimate and
lifeless; vegetation; those with life; those with the power of speech; the
people of Israel. These categories are mutually exclusive. When an animal
ceases to exist, it does not become vegetation. It becomes a dead animal.
When vegetation dies, it does not enter the realm of the inanimate and
lifeless. Rather, it is dead vegetation. When the nation of Israel ceases to
exemplify Shali'mut, they do not fall to the rank of the rest of mankind.
They are removed not only from their category, but from any categorization.
They remove themselves from their special ranking and fall to the opposite
extreme. We can rise above mediocrity. We can maintain greatness. All this
takes is true effort on our part.
The Rambam writes that fasting should be an impetus for repentance. (see I:
28) During the three weeks between the fasts of the 17th of Tamuz and the
9th of Av, we have an opportunity for introspection, for seeing how the
lessons of R' Yochanan fit into our lives. We have an opportunity to
strengthen our relationship with G-d. We have an opportunity to start our
climb to greatness. The Jerusalem Talmud says that every generation in which
the Temple is not rebuilt should consider itself as if the Temple was
destroyed in its days. Our generation should be the one to see the Temple
rebuilt. We have the capacity to make that happen. What we have to do is make
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For questions, comments, and topic requests, please write to Rabbi Yehudah Prero.