Tuesday, 29 June 2010

17 Tammuz: What there is. What there Can be...

The 17th of Tammuz marks the date of the beginning of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It began with the breaching of the walls and continued, until ultimately on the 9th day of the month of Av the Temple was set alight, and burnt to the ground. Our main physical reminder of the Temple is the Kotel HaMaaravi – the Western Wall.

The Temple is the ultimate structure we all long for. A tiny blog post of just a few lines will surely do no justice to the loss we actually have. While the physical building is a certain loss, it is nothing in comparison with the power behind this "building" and its ultimate message – complete peace and freedom – for every single person and for every single thing. Our fasting represents in our efforts of mourning, but a spark in comparison to the fierce flames that burnt the building down. 

Many are surprised to hear that there are many outstanding and ordinary individuals that recite the entire Tikun Chatzot prayers every single evening at the correct time (6 hours after the stars come out – according to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Midnight (based upon timed-hours, not 12pm exactly) according to the Shulchan Aruch and other sources.) 

Yet others are surprised to learn that when building a new home, one must leave a patch of the inside area completely exposed, never to be painted properly – all as a remembrance of the destruction that occurred. And yet there are still others completely oblivious to the law in Jerusalem of not playing music at a wedding or Simcha (except for one instrument only i.e. a drum!) – in memory of the destruction around us. Still others ignore the fact that provided they pray as indicated by Jewish law, they will include at least three prayers every single day asking for the rebuilding of the Temple!

It may seem like we mourn this destruction for just three weeks of every year, but those that know what the real loss is mourn it every single day… every moment. Ever found yourself crying over not having enough money to pay the bills? You're mourning the destruction – and you may not even know it. Ever found yourself in physical pain? You're mourning the loss of the Temple without even knowing it! But these are really just the ice-breakers of what the pain to us is really all about when it comes to truly appreciating our loss.

I'd like to share a story. It could be written on any post, but it somehow fits in well with the general theme of loss, of destruction, of a lack of appreciation, of our readiness to humiliate, laugh and scoff at everything around us without a care in the world of appreciating true greatness. I think it gives us the ability to consider people differently, and ultimately realise what true growth is, what true greatness is, and perhaps even encourage us to take the necessary steps in building the Beit HaMikdash – today!

The story is told about the great Posek (ruler on Jewish law par excellence) – Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986). He grew up in Russia and by the age of 16 (according to at least one authoritative opinion) had already been through and mastered the entire Talmud and Shulchan Aruch – the basic keys to the entire Jewish tradition! He was said to have worked through these texts hundreds of times in his lifetime!

Times were exceptionally difficult for the Jews of Russia during the years that Rav Moshe was growing up. For those wishing to find out just what he went through, there is a published biography of his life by Artscroll publishers. In addition for even further insight – the 8th book of the Igrot Kodesh includes a comprehensive biography – not to be skipped!

In his late 30's Rav Moshe had to flee Russia and he had to do so fast! He did not know which place would be better for him – but he decided to flee to the USA. Ironically, though this would become the huge centre of Torah it is today – back in those days it was not an easy thing to get a job as a Torah teacher (of any kind) there! Friends and family convinced Rav Moshe not to come to the States. How would he ever get a job? Who would employ him? He was just a rabbi. Nobody wanted a rabbi in America!

Rav Moshe however knew well the danger of remaining in Russia. Not only was one's physical life at risk, but worse, one's very spiritual life was in danger. Staying in Russia meant, that even if one would be a great rabbi, it could be quite realistic to assume that one's children would lack a Jewish education – perhaps not even know what Jewishness meant!

Rav Moshe had his answer ready to all those that condemned his "irresponsible" decision to immigrate to the USA. He told them that as far as he was concerned, even if he would be required to sweep the streets (and not be able to focus on Torah learning or teaching ever again,) he would sooner be living in America and be able to give his children the chance of living as Jews, than to risk the dangers of living in Russia!

Of course, Rav Moshe could certainly have stayed behind in Russia and hoped for the best. However, he took the brave choice of moving to America just to give his children the opportunity to live as free Jews! To be able to learn Torah without the threat of immediate death. And even if it meant sweeping streets, this would be far better than not giving them any education at all.

The story is a beautiful one. But something is missing! We know how it all ended up. Rav Moshe became the Gadol HaDor – the giant of the generation in terms of Halacha. No serious student of Jewish law will begin to rule – without a thorough knowledge of Rav Moshe's Teshuvas (responsa) as published in his 8 volume Igrot Moshe – answers of questions dealing with just about every part of life one can imagine! Answers so encyclopaedic in nature, that one can only but marvel that the author must have had the entire Torah closer to his finger tips than any of the most modern computer disks with the entire Torah on a disk! The answers came out at speeds faster than a computer with quotations and relevant points being written much as one would write a letter to one's friend (without even the need for hours of thought!)

So what is the missing link in the story?! It seems like everything worked out well – didn't it?! The missing link is right there – in the thirties – those years that Rav Moshe was making plans to go to America. While Rav Moshe was preparing for the possibility of becoming great (the great man he was indeed to become) the rest of the world, friends and family – no less(!) were warning him that his Torah was not needed. Nobody would pay for it, and if he would have been lucky – he could have merited to sweep the streets to earn his way in life.

And what a loss that would have been to the world. Of course, in retrospect, everybody could clearly see just how great Rav Moshe was, but in the present, they were not prepared (sic). They were prepared for nothing less than insults, complaints, criticisms and a variety of other most negative statements!

Has the situation changed? Have we yet come to appreciate the value of a Torah scholar – or do we constantly feel him to be a waste of time? Would it indeed be better for him to sweep streets, pack shelves, and clean houses, than to study and be able to contribute something worthwhile to the world? Of course, not everyone is a Rav Moshe. But I guess… had Rav Moshe ended up sweeping the streets, the world might never have been able to make such a statement… because Rav Moshe would not have become Rav Moshe.

Our acknowledgment of the greatness of another and his desire to succeed in a given field not only gives him the encouragement to want to become that great person, but in addition, we quite often find that life turns around, and the one so encouraged, ends up bringing blessing to the entire world including the one who did the encouraging!

Of course, this is no less true of the Temple either. As we look at the "street sweeper" as it lies in ruins (right by the Kotel), we consider it too as nothing less than ruins – something old, something destroyed, something worthy of nothing. But in truth, the soul of the Temple is still there, and is waiting to be woken up. Our Torah study and our Mitzvot literally bring it to life.

When we encourage another instead of criticize; when we appreciate the other for who they are; when we see their greatness even where it does not yet show (and may never too!); when we begin to realise what there can actually be – then we begin the process of growth, one that builds mountains, one that builds lands and countries, one that builds the world, and ultimately builds the most precious of all buildings – the Beit HaMikdash itself.

Of course, we all have free choice. We can see another human being as a street sweeper. And we can see a building as a ruin. Alternatively we can be greater than the average Joe. Where others see street sweepers, we can see giants! And where others see ruins – we can see the beginnings of freedom, happiness, satisfaction and goodness. What a wonderful world – if only we could open our eyes.  

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