Rabbi Mordechai Willig
Rabbi Mordechai Willig

In Dire Straits: Then and Now


It is a Torah commandment to cry and to sound trumpets when any trouble besets the community, as it is said, "Against an enemy who oppresses you" (Bamidbar 10:9).

This is a path of teshuva, that when trouble comes and they cry and sound (trumpets), all will know that because of their bad deeds evil was done to them as it is written, "your sins have overturned these [good things] and your transgressions have kept goodness away from you" (Yirmiyahu 5:25). And this will cause that the trouble will be removed from them.

However, if they will not cry, but will say this is the way of the world, and the trouble happened just by chance, this is a path of cruelty, and causes them to cling to their evil deeds, and the trouble will lead to additional troubles.

This is what is written in the Torah, "if you behave towards Me with casualness, I will behave towards you with a fury of casualness" (Vayikra 26:27, 28). When I will bring upon you trouble so that you should repent, if you will say that it is a coincidence, I will add to you the fury of that coincidence. (Rambam, Hilchos Taaniyos 1:1-3)

Why is it cruel to attribute troubles of Am Yisroel to chance? Because by doing so one causes additional troubles. It is akin to one who has been instructed by a doctor how to relieve pain. Failure to follow these instructions is cruel.


There are days when all of Am Yisroel fasts because of the trouble which befell them, in order to awaken our hearts to begin down the path of teshuva. It is a reminder of our evil deeds and the deeds of our forefathers that were like our present ones, until they caused them and us these troubles. By remembering these things, we will repent to do good (ibid. 5:1)

On two of these days, Shiva Asar B'Tamuz and Tisha B'av, five tragedies befell Am Yisroel, culminating in the destruction of the first and second Beis Hamikdash. The phrase, "Kol rodfeha hisiguha bein hametzarim - All her pursuers overtook her in narrow straits" (Eicha 1:3) refers to the period of the "Three Weeks" between these two tragic fast days. Some laws of mourning are customarily observed during this period (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 551:3,4).

These fasts are preparation for teshuva. Those who fast, but go on hikes and indulge in meaningless things, observe the secondary but ignore the primary purpose of the fast (Mishan Brura 549:1). The same can be said for the mourning of the Three Weeks and the Nine Days leading to Tisha B'av.


Indeed, the main theme of the Kinos is the relationship between our sins and our numerous troubles. The opening kina, recited right after Eicha, attributes our plight to baseless hatred and other sins indetified by Chazal. The final kina for Tisha B'av eve begins, "at that time, through our sins, the Mikdash was destroyed, and through our iniquities the Temple was burnt down."

During the day of Tisha B'av we refer to later tragedies as well, including the crusades and, more recently, the Holocaust. The classical kina about the crusades, "Mi Yiten Roshi Mayim" explains that Tisha B'av is a day of mourning for all Jewish communal tragedies.

Although we lack the divine inspiration of the neviim and the wisdom of Talmudic giants, we are, nonetheless, commanded, as the Rambam taught, to do teshuva by first acknowledging our misdeeds. Great rabbinic leaders offered suggestions as to the cause of their respective tragedies.

For example, the burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1242 was linked to the burning of the Rambam's philosophical works after its Jewish critics gave them to Dominican monks. In the wake of the Cossacks' brutal murder of thousands of Jews in 1648, the author of Tosafos Yom Tov called for teshuva in shul decorum.

Each community in each generation must, with proper rabbinic guidance, engage in an introspective effort to identify areas where improvement is needed. Greater respect for opposing philosophies and the sanctity of the shul, today as in earlier centuries, are areas in which we are deficient.


These themes apply at this time every year. How much more so when a terrible crisis engulfs Eretz Yisroel during this period. Our enemies in Lebanon and Gaza have killed and kidnapped brave soldiers, and have rained thousands of potentially lethal rockets that have claimed lives, destroyed property, and struck fear into the hearts of millions of civilians. Indeed we are in dire straits, bein hametzarim, between murderous hostile borders.

A few days after Shiva Asar B'Tamuz and the onset of the Hezbollah attack, we read in the haftorah, "mitzafon tipotach hara'ah al kol yoshvei ha'aretz - from the North the evil will be released upon all the inhabitants of the land" (Yirmiyahu 1:14). In last week's haftorah we were reminded of the Source of our embattlement, "lachein od ariv itchem, neum Hashem, v'es beni bneichem ariv - therefore I will yet contend with you - the word of Hashem - and with your children's children will I contend" (ibid. 2:9).

We correctly focus on the crisis in Eretz Yisroel, the military challenge and the global background. We earnestly pray for the success and safety of the heroic Israeli Army. We follow the tragic hits and Providential near-misses, and wonder how so many can criticize the Israeli incursions designed to stop murder and terrorism.

However, if we stop there, we are being cruel. It is our obligation to respond, as the Rambam teaches, by searching for our bad deeds which this crisis demands that we address. Every individual must focus on teshuva, tefillah, and tzedaka to annul this harsh decree.


Special emphasis must be placed on interpersonal relationships, for two reasons. First, the Mikdash was destroyed because of baseless hatred (Yoma 9b). Every generation in which the Mikdash is not rebuilt, it is as if that generation destroyed it (Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1).

Apparently, if we corrected the misdeed which caused the destruction, we can merit the rebuilding of the Mikdash. Hence, if our generation has not merited that rebuilding, we have, perforce, not sufficiently corrected the interpersonal flaws of our ancestors.

Second, even the righteous soldiers of David Hamelech fell (because of informants), whereas the idolatrous soldiers of Achav were victorious in battle because they were united (Yerushalmi Pe'ah 1:1). In a broader sense, if Am Yisroel throughout the world can achieve greater unity, our soldiers will merit divine assistance and return safely.

"Omdos hayu ragleinu b'sha'arayich Yerushalayim - our feet stood firm within your gates, O Jerusalem" (Tehillim 122:2). What caused our feet to be firm in war? That gates of Yerushalayim that were engrossed in Torah (Makos10a). Our war effort must include greater devotion to Torah study as well.

Indeed, the combination of Torah and unity can save us not only from our present crisis, but from our state of exile and destruction as well. "Tzom harevi'I v'tzom hachamishi...yihiye l'Beis Yehuda 'lsason u'l'simcha u'l'moadim tovim v'ha'emes v'hashalom ehavu - the fast of Tamuz and the fast of Av .. will be to the house of Judah for joy and for gladness and for happy festivals [only] love truth and peace" (Zecharia 8:19), i.e. on the condition that you will love truth and peace as I have commanded you (Radak).

The first Mikdash was destroyed because we forsook Hashem's Torah, the ultimate truth (Yirmiyahu 9:12, haftorah of Tisha B'av). The second Mikdash was destroyed because of baseless hatred, the opposite of peace. Only by correcting both of these errors can we merit the rebuilding of the Mikdash.

If we will do proper teshuva as we cry out for peace in Eretz Yisroel and commemorate the destruction of the Mikdash, Hashem promised to transform fasts into holidays and turn mourning into joy. May our proper response to current events and our genuine internalization of the lesson of Tisha B'av bring us peace and redemption.

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