Monday, August 13, 2012

From Av to Elul – From Tragedy to Repentance

We are currently in the Jewish month of Av, the month devoted to mourning the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem – which culminates in the fast of Tisha B’Av – and to our faith that God will eventually comfort us – as expressed in the seven haftaros read each Shabbos between Tisha B’Av and Rosh HaShana. The month of Av is followed by Elul, the month devoted to teshuva (repentance) in preparation for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.

What is the meaning of this sudden shift from the month of tragedy and mourning to the month of penitence and rapprochement between Man and God? To understand this we need to gain a deeper insight into the basic message of Av.

The Midrash (Eicha Raba 1:1) states:
Three [prophets] prophesied using the term “eicha”: Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Moses said, “How (Eicha) can I bear this people alone…” (Deut. 1:12). Isaiah said, “How (Eicha) has the faithful city become a harlot…” (Isaiah 1:21). Jeremiah said, “Alas! (Eicha) She sits in solitude…” (Lamentations 1:1).
R’ Levi said, “This is analogous to a noble-woman that had three servants, one saw her when she was in comfort, one saw her in her licentiousness, and one saw her in her disgrace. Similarly, Moses saw Israel in their honor and comfort and said, “How can I bear this people alone…”, Isaiah saw them in their licentiousness and said, “How has the faithful city become a harlot…”, and Jeremiah saw them in their disgrace and said, “Alas! She sits alone…”
These verses of Eicha are all read in the month of Av – the verses in Deuteronomy and Isaiah are read on the Shabbos before Tisha B’Av and the book of Lamentations is read on Tisha B’Av – and, taken together, they give us a key to the basic message of Av. The Elef HaMagen (Commentary on the Torah by Rav Eliezer Papo, d. 1824, author of the Pele Yo'etz) draws a connection between these three verses of Eicha and a passage in the Talmud (Yoma 35b):
A poor man, a wealthy man, and a wicked man are brought before [the heavenly court for] judgment. They say to the poor man, “Why didn't you study Torah?” If he responds that he was too poor and was preoccupied with his livelihood, they say to him, “Were you more impoverished than Hillel?” [Hillel the Elder, one of the greatest sages of the Talmud, was also an extremely poor man.] … 
They say to the wealthy man, “Why didn't you study Torah?” If he responds that he was wealthy and was preoccupied with his financial obligations, they say to him, “Were you more wealthy than Elazar ben Charsom?” [Rabbi Elazar ben Charsom was a prominent sage who was also extremely wealthy.]…
They say to the wicked man, “Why didn't you study Torah?” If he responds that he was very good-looking and was [therefore] preoccupied by his desires, they say to him, “Were you more beautiful than Joseph HaTzadik (the Righteous)?” [Joseph, the son of Jacob, was extremely beautiful and was severely challenged in this regard when he lived in the home of Potiphar in Egypt.]…
Thus we find that Hillel obligates the poor, Rabbi Elazar ben Charsom obligates the wealthy, and Joseph HaTzadik obligates the wicked.
The Talmud gives three categories of rationalizations – the excuses of poverty, wealth, and temptation – that people rely upon to deny their responsibility for their moral failures. Almost every excuse that we make for ourselves falls into one of these three categories. These three excuses are paralleled in the three verses of Eicha. Moses spoke of the Jewish people in their time of success, paralleling the challenge of wealth; Isaiah spoke of the Jewish people in their time of sin, paralleling the challenge of temptation; and Jeremiah spoke of the Jewish people in their time of suffering, paralleling the challenge of poverty.

Rav Avigdor Miller
Rav Avigdor Miller
The Midrash (Eicha Raba 1:1) points out the connection between the word Eicha and the word Ayeka (both words are spelled identically) in Genesis 3:8, when, after the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, God calls out to Man, “Ayeka?" - "Where are you?” What exactly was God asking? God certainly knew exactly where Adam and Eve were hiding! Rav Avigdor Miller explains:
Every sinner hides from Hashem… behind self-justifications and self-deceptions. ...all sinners are actually hiding from Him behind their barricades of self-deception and self-justification. ... Hashem calls to the Man: “Where are you?” meaning: Reveal yourself to Me, by removing the barricades of self-justification and false reasoning behind which you attempt to hide from Me.
The cry of Eicha – How can it be! – alludes to that original call of Ayeka – Where are you? – in which God calls us to stop deceiving ourselves and return to Him. The tragedies we mourn in the month of Av are repetitions of that call, intended to shake us out of our complacency and force us to accept responsibility for our actions. The message of Av is precisely this, that it was our failures – failures that we continue to repeat – that brought about these tragedies, and that we must recognize this and acknowledge our own power to change our behavior. We are not slaves to our circumstances; as human beings we are fundamentally free to control our actions, and we therefore bear the responsibility to do so.

Maimonides devotes two full chapters of his laws of repentance to the topic of free-will (Hil. Teshuva 5:1-3):
Free-will is given to every human being. If he wishes to turn himself to the good path and to be righteous, he has the ability to do so, and if he chooses to turn himself to the bad path, and be wicked, he has the power to do so....
Do not think... that God decrees upon a person at the beginning of his existence whether he will be righteous or wicked. It is not so! Rather, every single human being has the ability to be as righteous as Moses our Teacher, or as wicked as Jeroboam....
This concept is a major principle and the pillar of the Torah and the Commandment, as it says (Deuteronomy 30:15), "See, I have placed before you today life and good, and death and evil." And it is written (ibid. 11:26), "See, I have placed before you today blessing and curse."
Maimonides concludes his discussion of free-will stating (Hil. Teshuva 7:1):
Since, as we have explained, every human being has free-will, a man should strive to repent and to cleanse his hands of his sins, so that he should die as a penitent and merit to the life of the world to come.
The recognition of our free-will and responsibility is of fundamental importance as we enter the month of Elul – the month of teshuva (repentance). As long as we deceive ourselves into thinking that our actions are not within our control, teshuva is impossible. It is only after we accept responsibility for our deeds that we can begin the process of teshuva.

1 comment:

Marthajoy Aft said...

Todah rabbah. Some of this was new to me, and I appreciate your synthesis of these interesting and important sources.

Marthajoy Aft