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What is Tisha B'Av actually about?
I really want to write more about Rashi and raptors, but it will have to take a back seat for now. Because yesterday’s Haftorah was from Yeshaya, speaking on behalf of none other than Hashem Himself, and is supposed to set the tone for Tisha B’Av. And it seems to me that it is being deeply misunderstood.
Let’s start with how ArtScroll explains the haftorah:
This Haftarah, the final one of the "three of affliction," is always read on the Sabbath that precedes Tishah B'Av. As R' Mendel Hirsch points out, the prophet does not lament because the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed: rather, he laments over the underlying causes of that destruction. And this annual lesson serves to focus the national mourning of Tishah B'Av not to the past but to the present. It is not enough to bemoan the great loss suffered by our people with the Destruction of our Land, our Holy City, and our Holy Temple. We must use our mourning as a way of initiating an examination of our present-day feelings, thoughts and deeds.
What have we done to eliminate the attitudes and practices that thousands of years ago sent our ancestors into exile not once but twice? How have we improved our approach to the Divine Service as a way of life, a life devoted to duty rather than a substitute for it? Are our verbal offerings, like the animal offerings described by the prophet, merely perfunctorily performed rituals, never internalized, never spoken from the heart. just from the lips and outward? And, as R' Hirsch puts it, "Is our Jewish contemporary present already so deeply imbued with the Jewish spirit, so filled with the Jewish way of thinking, with knowledge of Judaism, with knowledge of the all-comprising and deep contents of the Torah that it could form a worthy environment for a Temple of God to be erected in our midst? Does not the gulf between Israel and its God yawn perhaps wider than ever?"
In summary, the message of Yeshayah is that we have to davven with more sincerity, fill ourselves with more knowledge of Torah, and become closer to Hashem. Which is consistent with the messaging about Tisha B’Av that is generally put out in the frum world today.
But let’s look at what Yeshayah actually says (translation taken from Sefaria).
Hear the word of GOD, You chieftains of Sodom; Give ear to our God’s instruction, You folk of Gomorrah!
“What need have I of all your sacrifices?” Says GOD. “I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, and suet of fatlings, and blood of bulls; And I have no delight in lambs and he-goats. That you come to appear before Me—who asked that of you? Trample My courts no more; bringing oblations is futile, incense is offensive to Me. New Moon and Sabbath, proclaiming of solemnities, assemblies with iniquity I cannot abide. Your new moons and fixed seasons fill Me with loathing; they are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them. And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; though you pray at length, I will not listen.
Your hands are stained with crime—Wash yourselves clean; put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.”
Hashem does not say that we have to increase our devotion to Him; He says that we have to increase our devotion to justice. He does not say that we need to learn more Torah; He says that we need to learn to do good (which is certainly an extremely significant part of Torah, but not the part of Torah that people generally mean when they speak about how people need to learn Torah). And He does not say that we need to davven with more sincerity; He says that it’s our actions that count.
Now, you might argue that in order for our actions to improve, we need to work on sincerity in prayer. But that’s not what God says. And that’s precisely the point. To quote Rabbi Sacks, and I will emphasize the critical phrase:
What Isaiah saw and said with primal force and devastating clarity is that sometimes (organised) religion is not the solution but itself part of the problem. It has always been tempting, even for a nation of monotheists, to slip into magical thinking: that we can atone for our sins or those of society by frequent attendance at the Temple, the offering of sacrifices, and conspicuous shows of piety. Few things, implies Isaiah, make God angrier than this.
Rabbi Yona Metzger no doubt sincerely believed that he was serving Hashem, even as he engaged in bribery, corruption, threatening others, and sexual harassment. And Rav Elyashiv no doubt also sincerely believed that he was serving Hashem when he (successfully) pushed for Metzger to be appointed as Chief Rabbi, even though reports about Metzger’s behavior had reached him.
I can hear it already. “Lashon hara! Badmouthing Gedolim!” But, again, that is exactly Yeshayah’s point. Judaism is supposed to make you into a better person and improve society. But it doesn’t always have that effect. And sometimes people can feel very holy because they are bringing offerings or talking about devotion to Hashem or the importance of kavod haTorah or denouncing lashon hara, but if there is corruption and oppression taking place, they are missing the point. In fact, they’re not just missing the point; it’s precisely their focus on such things which is enabling them to avoid confronting the problems.
There are important parts of Judaism which are about developing our relationship with Hashem, gaining more knowledge of Torah, and davenning with sincerity. But that’s not what the Haftorah of Shabbos Chazon is about, and it’s not what Tisha B’Av is about.
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