Selected Sermon/Article
2001-07-28 Parshas Devarim/Chazon by Rav Zeev Smason
Approaching Tisha B'Av
Recently, the expression that Jews traditionally wished each other before the start of the Tisha B'Av fast has changed. What was once "have an easy fast" has changed into "have a meaningful fast." While "easy" or "meaningful" are not necessarily contradictory, nevertheless, in order to make any fast meaningful, we first must understand why we are fasting. And in order to understand why we are fasting, we must think. A good place to begin is a verse in Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, composed by the prophet Yirmiyahu as he watched the Temple, and the society of his times, erode and crumble, and the Jewish people go into exile.

Despite suffering a terrible fate, seeing his leaders, his beloved people, and his cherished Temple all destroyed, he tells the nation: "Of what shall a living man complain? A strong man for his sins! Let us search and examine our ways, and return to Hashem" (Lamenetations 3:39-40).

The prophet's question, "Of what shall a living man complain?" is difficult to understand. People always complain. Didn't Yirmiyahu experience enough to complain about? Also why does Yirmiyahu ask about a living man? Dead men don't tell tales, and they don't complain either. So why the extra word?

The Chasam Sofer once met a very old man and asked him the secret of his longevity.

"I know that long life is a gift, the great sage said. Tell me, what unusual act did you do that merited you these long years?" The old man looked up and smiled. "Actually, I did nothing special. You see I have a different theory about long life. I stuck to my theory, and it worked for me."

"And what is that theory?" the great sage inquired. The old man wrinkled his deeply lined face. "Like myself, all my friends went through their share of tzorus and misfortunes. We all do. They are, however, not here any longer. I am."

"But why?" prodded the Chasam Sofer. That was exactly my question. What is the secret of your longevity? Yes! We all have our tzorus. But they didn't break you! You are still alive and in very good health. What is the difference between you and your friends?"

"You see," answered the old man. "my friends asked 'Why?' I, however, did not."

The Chasam Sofer seemed puzzled, but the man continued his monologue. "You see, every time tragedy struck, my friends would ask the Almighty, why did this happen? How did I come to deserve this? They would plead and prod the Creator for answers that no mortal mind could understand. And you know what happened?"

The Chasam Sofer shook his head, careful not to interrupt the man's train of thought.

"Hashem said, 'Do you really want to understand? Come, I will show you.' And so He took them to a place where all the mysteries of life are revealed, a place where the past and the future collide and today's actions are the answers to history's occurrences"

The man continued. "I, on the other, hand, was not so curious. And if I was, I did not turn to Hashem and ask, 'Why?' Rather, I accepted what happened."

Then the man's face began to glow. "And do you know what? He never invited me upstairs to explain anything!"

Perhaps the essence of our annual mourning service can be summed up with Yirmiyahu's words that analyze a mortal approach to immortal justice. "Of what shall a living man complain? A strong man for his sins! Let us search and examine our ways, and return to Hashem."

We may have questions, but such questions do not require us to obsess about finding new answers. Instead, the only answer we can have is---to 'be strong', and to search our own souls with introspection and return to Hashem.

Introspection -- introspection and return. There are so many areas we CAN and SHOULD focus on. I'd like to suggest just one.

The Rabbi's Gift

Once a synagogue had fallen on hard times. Only five members were left: all over 60 years old. In the mountains near the shul there lived a retired rabbi. It occurred to the five to ask the rabbi if he could offer any advice that might save the shul. One of the members and the rabbi spoke at length but when asked for advice, the rabbi simply responded by saying, "I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is, the messiah is one of you." This member, returning to the shul, told the four members what the rabbi had said.

In the months that followed, the old shul members pondered the words of the rabbi. "The Messiah is one of us?" they each asked themselves. As they thought about this possibility, they all began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off-chance that, one among them might be the Messiah ... and on the off-chance that each member himself might be the Messiah, they also began to treat themselves with extraordinary care. As time went by, people visiting the shul noticed the aura of respect and gentle kindness that surrounded the five old members of the small shul. Hardly knowing why, more people began to come back to worship at the old synagogue. They began to bring their friends, and their friends brought more friends.

Within a few years, the small shul had once again become a thriving congregation, thanks to the rabbi's gift!

Tisha B'Av is a time that we might feel that we 'want answers'. In truth, we are not put in this world to demand answers. We are here to improve ourselves and ultimately, the world. And we are here to understand when to turn to our own lives for answers, instead of to the Almighty with questions, so that we may survive the tragedies with both faith and life intact.

Good Shabbos