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    As We Approach Tisha B’Av

    In Masechtas Nedarim [81a], the Gemora cites a verse in Yirmiyah [9:11], “Mi ha-ish hechacham v’yavein es zos… al ma avda haaretz – Who is the man who is wise (enough) to understand (the reason) why the land perished?” The Gemora elaborates that this matter was asked of the sages, prophets, and even the celestial angels. They were stumped and unable to shed light on the disaster of the Temple’s destruction and Yerushalayim’s ruination until Hashem Himself revealed the secrets. As Rav informs us, Hashem explained that the disaster occurred because they didn’t make the blessing on the Torah properly.

    First, let us first understand the prophet’s question. Although we are taught that the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because of the heinous crimes of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed, we still should have had a saving grace because, as we are taught, Torah study is a shield before retribution. Therefore, since the generation of the churban was replete with Torah study, it should have been sufficient to afford us ample protection to avoid the many catastrophes of that era. It is this that bewildered the greatest sages, the prophets of vision, and even the most powerful heavenly angels.

    But only Hashem, Who plummets the very depths of people’s hearts, was able to discern that although there was plenty of Torah, there was something wrong with the blessing made on the Torah. Rabbeinu Yonah elucidates that a proper blessing is made when a person appreciates something and is excited to thank Hashem for it with a blessing. He goes on to say that, although Klal Yisroel learned plenty of Torah, they did not appreciate the Torah as a pleasure for which a blessing was worth offering. They viewed it more as a task and chore that needed to be fulfilled.

    Let’s ask ourselves how this relates to us. Are we learning just because we have to – or because we want to? Is the Daf Yomi a burden to be met – or a luxury to be enjoyed? Is the weekly review of the Torah portion a privilege – or a yoke? These are crucial questions we must ponder and work on as we approach Tisha B’Av.

    But there is more to be learned from Hashem’s diagnosis. A blessing is also critical in helping focus and channel our minds in the proper direction when we embark upon a mitzvah activity. For example, take the mitzvah of netilas yadaim, washing our hands before eating. Without a meaningful brocha, one can easily slip into the bad habit of viewing this washing as a mere exercise of dinner hygiene. However, when we thoughtfully say the words, “Asher kiddishonu b’mitzvosov vitsivanu…” it impresses upon us that this is a ritual of holiness and an expression of doing the command of Hashem.

    Thus, Hashem explained that the reason our Torah learning failed to protect us at the time of the churban was because it lacked the necessary amount of ‘lishma.’ What an important lesson! How easy is it to get into the routine of trying to finish a masechta and forgetting in the process that we are learning because it is the will of Hashem and the fulfillment of the mitzvah of ‘v’dibarta bam.’ What a vital lesson this is! In order to protect our families with the shield of Torah, we must train ourselves to preface our Torah study with the thought that we are engaged in this activity in order to fulfill the supreme command of Hashem – to occupy our time with the study of His Torah.

    This lesson of course embraces all areas of Judaism. It is a daily malady that plagues the Jew who is religious from birth. If one is not careful, it is so easy to go through the routines of religiosity – putting on tefillin, eating kosher, keeping Shabbos, all without thinking about Hashem. It is therefore of immense importance that when we say our brachos, we learn to train our minds on Hashem when we do His mitzvahs.

    As we contemplate this all-important lesson from the Gemora, I’d like to make one more comment. How contemporary the Gemora rings when it says the destruction of Yerushalayim puzzled and perplexed the sages, prophets, and angels! It shouldn’t cause us wonder that we are unable to explain the atrocities of the Holocaust when even prophets and angels were confounded by the similar disasters of yesteryear.

    Finally, another lesson to be learned from Tisha B’Av has been taught us by Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, zt”l, zy”a. He points out a similarity between the opening words of Megilas Eicha, “Eicha yoshva vadad – Alas! The city that is alone and desolate,” with the Torah directive to Klal Yisroel, “Hein Am l’vadad yishkon – Behold the Nation which dwell apart.” He explains the connection as follows. When the Jews fail to keep themselves distant and distinct from the neighboring nations, Hashem punishes us with the likes of Eicha. We’ve seen this to be true throughout the ages – assimilation and imitating the style of other nations bring about disaster! Such was the fate of the Jews in Egypt who embraced the ways of the Egyptians and desisted from circumcision. This resulted in enforced enslavement and all the travails of Mitzrayim. So also was the fate of the Jews in Spain, who became too close to the ways of their host nation and then suffered the dreadful consequences of the Spanish inquisition and expulsion from that country.

    Once, I had the pleasure of being together with Rav Lichtig of Queens. In his youth, he attended the legendary Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin founded by the great Rabbi Meir Shapiro, zt”l, zy”a. Rabbi Lichtig told me that Rabbi Shapiro traveled to America to raise funds for his great yeshiva. Upon his return to Europe, they asked him to describe the American Jew. He responded with the following capsulized assessment. ‘They know very well how to make Kiddush but they are lacking in the understanding of Havdolah.’ What he meant was they knew how to do beautiful mitzvos but were missing the discipline to distance themselves from the ways of non-Jews. More than a half a century later, this failing is still symptomatic of many of our people. How we must be weary of the influence of gentile culture upon our manner of dress, our method of speech, our behavior with our spouse, our treatment of our children, our attitudes towards our parents, and the respect we show our elderly and sages.

    Let us remember this golden rule: When we keep ourselves distinct from the nations, Hashem blesses us with His divine protection. On the other hand, when we strip ourselves of the proper boundaries, Hashem forcibly ejects us in order that we maintain our Jewish identity. Hashem will keep us apart – either by wearing a yarmulke voluntarily or by being forced to wear a yellow Jewish star as we had to wear at the time of the Nazis.

    In the merit of our attempting to better ourselves from the lessons of the churban, may we be spared from any further Jewish suffering and see the rebuilding of the Temple and the Final Redemption speedily in our days.