It is the night of Tishah B’av, and I am sitting in my dorm room in one of Columbia University’s residential halls. Looking out the window, I see lights, and a myriad of buildings that all characterize our century. But one thing I can’t see in my mind’s eye, and that I can’t feel is the destruction of the two Temples. Perhaps the barrier is temporal because it happened so long ago. Perhaps it’s special because I don’t live in Israel. Perhaps it’s spiritual because I am a newcomer to orthodoxy Judaism. I begin to conjure up thoughts to produce the aforementioned feeling of nostalgia, but it doesn’t work. And then, I think of the fact that so many Jews are robbed of a Torah education, and a tear begins to shape itself in the corner of my eye.
My parents were raised in Communist Russia, a place in which a man wearing a yarmulke could be shot on the street and never seen by his parents again. Orthodoxy Judaism was forbidden, and its practice was a disgrace. Instead of bowing down to Hashem, the Russian Jews bowed down to the idols of jealousy and anger erected by the government. Instead of singing the Shema, the Russian Jews sang songs to glorify the leader at the time. Their reading, evening, morning, and afternoon, consisted of the Communist newspaper, Pravda, meaning, “truth” in Russian, when they should have been reading the real truth, the Torah. Perhaps there were a couple of people who resisted the brainwashing, but they were derided. For the average person at the time, Orthodoxy Jews were people who thwarted all education. They were uncultured people who were not conducive to the nation’s progress. However, what the average person did not know was that many of our sages held high and respected offices in the palaces of kings. Examples include Reb Moshe Hamon, who was a physician for a Turkish sultan, and of course, Rambam, who served as a physician to the sultan of Egypt. Moreover, education does not always entail knowledge. For instance, let us consider the Enlightenment, the age of ‘reason..’ Somewhere between 1751 and 1766, Diderot completed his Encyclopedie in an attempt “to change the way people think.” Though the Enlightenment was initiated in France, the movement found its locus in Germany. However, if one were to read Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, etc, one could trace a genealogy that leads right up to the rise of Nazism. The writings of the ‘Enlightenment’ made Nazism not only possible, but inevitable. So, now, we return to our question, “why be frum?”
Germany, the ‘enlightened’ nation has initiated a holocaust in attempt to obliterate us from the face of the earth. Yet, there is another Hitler that is exterminating us all over the world, and this fuhrer’s name is “Intermarriage.” Consider a story from the Talmud: there once lived a man whose weakness was women. One day, he heard of a beautiful courtesan in another city, and set out to see her. When he arrived at her door, he gaped in wonder. Her beauty was ineffable. He came in and saw seven beds, one higher than the other. The first six were made of silver, and the seventh was made of gold. He climbed up the beds, reached the seventh, and was preparing to lie down when suddenly, his tzitzit slapped him on the face. He immediately ran down to the surprise of the courtesan. “By Rome, I swear that no man has every rejected me. What blemish did you find in me?” she said. “And I promise by the Temple that I have never seen anyone more beautiful than you are. But my tzitzit have just reminded me not to stray after my heart” said the man. In consequence, being frum does not only mean following the laws, it means preserving one’s heritage. If one can teach his children to wear tzitzit, he can be sure that ten generations later, his children will still be Jewish, and will not intermarry. The tzitzit will teach the males not to follow their hearts, and not to look at women of other religions.
An examination of our laws would reveal that our religion is based on kindness. For instance, we keep kosher because the animal is killed in the most painless way and because of the ensuing meticulousness with which its blood is drained. We cover the challah so as to prevent it from feeling embarrassed because we bless the wine before the challah. Our Torah begins with the letter “beis” and ends in “lamed.” Putting these two letters together, we get “lev,” or “heart.” Thus, in writing the Torah, G-d wanted us to develop a compassionate heart. In concomitance with this fact, the Torah begins and ends with kindness. In Genesis, G-d makes clothes for Adam and Eve, and in Deuteronomy, G-d buries Moshe Rabbenu. It is also important to note that both of these acts of kindness are directed toward humans. Often, however, Hashem does not readily grant our requests, and the following story will illustrate why: There once lived a king who had two daughters. One was impertinent and selfish, and the other was soft-spoken, considerate, and modest, and kind. Whenever the impertinent daughter wanted something, the king always told his servants to attend to her before she came to him to ask for it. He didn’t even want to hear her voice. On the other hand, whenever his second daughter wanted something, the king would hesitate to grant it to her. He wanted her to come and ask him for it personally in her sweet voice, and often, she had to come many times! G-d is the king, and we are the sweet daughter. Therefore, if He ever hesitates to respond to our prayers, it is only because He wants to hear them again. You might ask why G-d needs our prayers, and why He needs our mitzvoth, and why, in Genesis, did the grass sprout only after the creation of Adam? It is because through avodah and mitzvot, we develop a relationship with Him, and it is this relationship He wants. Thus, the harder the religion is to practice, the deeper the relationship with G-d becomes. Another question that hovered in my mind as I was becoming frum concerns the authenticity and validity of the Torah. How do we know it is really the truth? Aside from the fact that there was no other prophet to contradict Moshe Rabbenu, Judaism is the only religion that was given in public. All the other religions (including Islam) were given in private to one person (Rabbi Yossi Mizrachi in his lecture, “Finding Your Soulmate”). We stood near Mt. Sinai as a nation when G-d gave us the 613 commandments. They were revealed to everyone in the same way.
I have once observed that there is a striking similarity between the words, “Tishah B’av” and “teshuvah,” but the reason for the connection never occurred to me until I heard a lecture by Rebbetzin Jungreis. According to the Rebbetzin, the first time the Hebrew letter “t” is seen in the Torah is in Genesis in the word, “tov,” meaning “good” when G-d says, “And it was good.” Suddenly, the connection became clear! If we do teshuvah and if we rebuild the beis-ha-mikdash in our souls and homes, Tishah B’av will someday become a good day. It’s all up to us! I wish success in their Perestroika (Restructuring).