SARA SCHENIRER: A First-Class Option

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There was once a rabbi who would discard his Tisha B’Av prayer booklet in the genizah each year after the fast. The following year, when he would go to purchase a new one, the bookseller would ask him why he buys a new one every year. He responded, “I just couldn’t believe we’d need to fast again next year. I was so sure Mashiach would come.”

If we want to bring the redemption and cancel Tisha B’Av this year, we must reflect on the root cause of the destruction. Fortunately, our sages gave us guidance to help us identify the underlying cause of the calamity. They instituted three special haftarot, known as the shalosh d’puranuta (the three of calamity) to be read on the three Shabbats preceding Tisha B’Av. In the first of the series (Yirmiyahu 1:13-14), Gd shows the prophet Yirmiyahu a vision and asks him, “What do you see, Yirmiyahu?” He answers, “Sir nafuah ani roeh, u’panav mipneh safonah - A boiling pot I see, and its opening is facing toward the north.”  Gd tells him that indeed, “Misafon tipatah hara’ah - From the north the evil shall be unleashed.” The simple meaning is that the troubles of Israel will come from Babylonia in the north, whose armies will come to destroy the Temple.

However, there is clearly a deeper meaning to this prophetic vision. What does this boiling pot facing north symbolize? What is the navi trying to teach us here?

A Simple Question

In order to understand the deeper meaning of the prophecy, we must review a well-known gemarainYoma (p.9b).  The gemara attributes the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple to the three cardinal sins: idolatry, adultery, and murder. The gemara then asks what was the cause of the second destruction - and answers “sina’at hinam” (baseless hatred).

Based on this gemara, many teachers and rabbis give lectures before Tisha B’Av, decrying the terrible, destructive nature of sina’at hinam. It is automatically assumed that hatred is the most severe and destructive of transgressions.

Yet, I want to ask a very simple, yet disruptive, question: Why is sina’at hinam so bad? Why does it deserve to be singled out as the cause of the destruction?

From a halachic perspective, hating another Jew is a violation of the negative commandment, “Lo tisna ahicha bilvavecha -You shall not hate your brother in your heart” (Vayikra 19:17). It is also a violation of the positive missva of “Ve’ahavta le’reacha kamocha - Love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18). While these are certainly serious transgressions, they are not nearly the most severe transgressions in the Torah. For example, eating hames on Pesah is punishable with karet, whereas the transgression of possessing hames is not even liable for malkot (lashes). If the gemara would have said that they ate hames on Pesah or the women stopped going to the mikvah, I would understand, as these are most severe violations of the Torah. However, to say that hatred caused the destruction is tantamount to saying the second Bet Hamikdash was destroyed because of…wearing shatnez!

On the other hand, the transgressions that caused the destruction of the first Bet Hamikdash are readily understood. Each one of them is “Yehareg v’al ya’avor” [warrants martyrdom] and is punishable by death. Moreover, each of these three is found in the Ten Commandments.

Of course, I’m not advocating sina’at hinam. I’m just asking what makes it a reasonable cause for the destruction of the second Temple.

The Better Doctor

The answer to this question can be uncovered by analyzing the gemara in Nedarim (p.81a). The gemara there relates that after the destruction of the first Bet Hamikdash nobody could determine the cause of the destruction. They asked the prophets and the sages, but none provided an explanation, until Gd Himself revealed the cause. “Al ozvam et Torati - because they abandoned My Torah.” The gemara explains that this is not to say they stopped studying Torah. If so, the cause wouldn’t have been such a great mystery. The rabbis would have noticed if people stopped studying Torah. It’s obvious. Rather, it means they did not recite the birkot haTorah (the blessings on the Torah) which is done privately at home. That is why no one knew.

This gemara is difficult to understand. Didn’t we already establish that the cause of the first destruction was the three cardinal sins? They are obvious and noticeable. Why does the gemara seem to ignore these transgressions and pin the destruction on birkot haTorah, which seem so obscure and minor?

The answer can be explained with an analogy of the difference between two doctors. Both see the same symptoms, but one of them treats only the symptoms, while the other one realizes that the symptoms are a sign of a deeper problem lurking beneath the surface, so he treats the root cause. Which is the better doctor? The one who looks for the underlying causes, of course.

So too, in the case of the destruction of the first Bet Hamikdash. The three rampant sins, as horrible as they were, were only symptoms. The nevi’im and hachamim were like the good doctor, searching for the underlying illness. They were puzzled by the situation. “How can it be that the Jewish people are studying Torah, yet committing such horrifying transgressions?” It was a perplexing illness, reminiscent of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It looked like schizophrenia!

It could not be explained until Gd revealed that they were not reciting the beracha on learning Torah. Obviously, this has a deeper, symbolic meaning.

A Life Changer

What is the purpose of learning Torah? The answer is revealed by simply looking at the literal meaning of the word Torah-which means guidance. The purpose of the Torah is to serve as a teacher and guide to refine us. Without the Torah, we are like animals. To train an animal, it must be restrained. The Torah serves as our reins.

The hachamim teach, “Hochma bagoyim ta’amin. Torah bagoyim, al ta’amin - If you are told that there is wisdom among non-Jews, believe it. If you are told there is Torah amongst them, don’t believe it.” Why do the rabbis have to teach us not to believe that the non-Jews have Torah? Isn’t that an obvious fact?

Rather, the sages are teaching us here the critical difference between the wisdom and scholarship of the non-Jews and our Torah. Their wisdom is academic, remaining solely in the brain; it does not transform their personality. They have hochma, but that is not Torah. Torah has to change a person for the better. Learning Torah is a life changer.

They say that Aristotle gave the greatest derashot (lectures) on ethics. Afterwards, his students would see him doing the most immoral and corrupt acts. When they asked him, “Hacham, what’s going on?” he would reply, “What do you mean? The bell rang; class is over. I’m not Aristotle anymore.”

Contrast this to the insight of Rabbi Meir Shapiro. He points out that in Pirke Avot every ethical teaching has a name behind it. That is, the statement is ascribed to one of the sages of the mishna. On the other hand, the ethical proverbs of the non-Jews are unattributed. They can’t tell you the author’s name, because he lived like an animal. His lifestyle didn’t back up his wisdom. With us, the name represents an entire living personality that exemplifies and lives by the words he taught.

That’s what the mishna means when it says, “Baruch shebahar bahem u’vmishnatam - Blessed is Gd who chose them - the sages, not just their teachings.” In fact, the mishna introduces each teaching in Pirke Avot: “Hu haya omer - He would say.” This can be understood in a deeper way to say: “Hu haya-first he was,” and only then “omer-would he teach.” The sages of Torah practiced what they preached. And that only occurs when a person studies Torahlishma - with the explicit intent and goal of becoming elevated and refined.

Accordingly, if you see people learning Torah who are still unrefined and acting improperly-they are not learning Torah with the right approach. They are learning it as hochma-wisdom of the non-Jews. Torah must eventually transform a person.

Based on this, we can now go back and understand the gemara’sstatement that the underlying cause of the first destruction was not reciting the beracha on studying Torah. The rabbis saw people learning Torah, yet they were doing the worst averot (transgressions). They could see someone walking with a gemara under one arm and abominations in the other arm. They would ask him, “What are you learning?” He might reply, “Sanhedrin [tractate dealing with the high rabbinic court].” So they told him, “If the Sanhedrin would see you, they would give you the death penalty fifty times over.” The rabbis couldn’t understand the disconnect. That’s why Hashem had to reveal the root illness. “Shelo birchu baTorah - they didn’t recite the beracha on the Torah.”

What does it say in the Birchot HaTorah?Asher bahar banu - Who chose us.” But “bahar” doesn’t just mean to choose; it means choice-i.e. the preferred, premium product, like a choice cut of meat. We are not just the “Chosen Nation”; we are destined to be a “Choice nation”- exhibiting superior conduct and character traits. The generation of the first destruction did not fulfill that destiny. They did not become a choice people, because they were learning for ulterior motives, such as honor or money. That is why the Torah did not refine them.

Too often, we see a similar phenomenon in our day. People attend shiurim but do not listen with the right attitude. They listen like they were learning non-Jewish philosophy. Perhaps they come because they enjoy the intellectual rigor, or maybe they even come to give the rabbi a hard time.

Sometimes people come to a shiur for its entertainment value.  “Hey, it’s a long day. We’ll go to k’nees to kill a few hours. Let’s hear the rabbi to help pass the time…” I once noticed that one the regulars at seudah shelishit stopped coming. He was usually the first one there. I called him and said, “Abie - where have you been?” He said, “I stopped coming, because…I was starting to change. I’m scared; the Torah was starting to affect me.”

Different Symptoms, Same Sickness

We now understand that the gemara is teaching us a tremendous hiddush (new idea):  Averot (transgressions) did not destroy the first Bet Hamikdash. They were merely symptoms. The underlying root cause was learning Torah in the wrong way.

The same is true of the second Temple. It was not the sina’at hinam that caused the destruction. That was just the symptom. The people’s hatred and pettiness were the outer expression and outcome of not learning Torah with the proper attitude.

When they went to the hachamim for a spiritual diagnosis, again, it was a puzzling case. How could it be that Jews were learning Torah yet they were speaking loshon hara about each other? How could they be jealous of each other? How could they humiliate each other? The hachamim gave the same diagnosis as the first Temple. There were different symptoms, but the same sickness: learning improperly! In each case, the root disease led to different outcomes.

After almost two thousand years, the second Bet Hamikdash is still not rebuilt because we have not yet fixed the root cause. We have many people engaged in learning, but that is not enough. Torah learning has to make us better people. It is not even enough to apply our learning to practice new halachot and customs. The Torah has to penetrate and affect our character traits and moral behavior, as well.

Someone once came up to Rabbi Shimon Schwab and told him, elatedly, that he just finished shas (the entire Talmud). The rabbi replied,You did shas, but what did shas do for you?” Meaning, how did your Torah learning refine and elevate your personality?

This concept places a tremendous responsibility on the shoulders of those who learn Torah. It means that their conduct and thinking must stand out as exemplary amongst the non-Jews.

The Boiling Pot

We can now return to our original question: What was the significance of Yirmiyahu’s prophecy that the destruction would come from the “safon”?

The answer is that “safon,” which literally means north, also serves as one of the many names of the yesser hara (evil inclination). Each name of the yesser hara connotes a different quality and aspect of its destructive power. Safon means concealed. It represents the evil inclination that is hidden from the naked eye, lurking beneath the surface, impacting a person’s behavior from deep within.

The other type of yesser hara is called by the gemara in Sucah “har” (mountain). This refers to the evil inclination that appears overtly, with mountainous proportions, tempting people to violate the Torah in a blatant manner.

People wrongly think that when battling our yesser hara, we only need to go after the averah, which corresponds to the har. This is not true. The prophet is teaching us that the main trouble comes from the safon-the hidden yesser hara. We need to attack the root causes of the averot.

This is the deeper meaning of what Gd asked the prophet, “What do you see, Yirmiyahu?” He was prodding him to look at the national situation with penetrating vision, not just with a superficial assessment. He was asking him what was the root cause of the Jewish people’s troubles. Yirmiyahu correctly identified the problem of the boiling pot as coming from the “safon”- the hidden yesser hara.

So, while sina’at hinam is not the most severe transgression in the Torah, and it only has the status of a simple lav (negative commandment), it is the symptom of a much deeper problem. The sina’at hinam was the“har”- the outward mountain. The underlying root of the destruction, the “safon,” was that the Torah is not being learnt properly-and that is the downfall of our nation.

The hachamim have taught that the way to rebuild the Bet Hamikdash it to do teshuva for the causes of its destruction. If we take this lesson to heart and apply it to our lives, then we will be rectifying the root cause of the destruction. In this merit, we can hope that Tisha B’Av will be cancelled this year, and like the rabbi in the first story, we can put our books of mourning away forever.