As we approach Tisha Be’Av, our tefilos for the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash deepen in intensity. But what chance have we that our tefilos will be answered, if we don’t listen to our nevi’im who told us the causes of its destruction?
In this week’s haftora, Yeshaya HaNavi gives a very powerful rebuke to the Jewish People. “Children have I raised and exalted, but they have rebelled against me.” “Why do I need your numerous sacrifices? When you come before Me, who asked you to trample on My courtyards? Bring your worthless meal offering no longer. It is an incense of abomination….My soul detests your Shabbos, your New Moons and your festivals. When you spread your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; even if you intensify your prayer, I will not listen.”(Yeshayahu 1:2-18)
What did we do wrong? It seems we were bringing korbonos according to halocho. We were observing Shabbos and Yom Tov with every stringency. What could possibly explain this awesome punishment — that Hashem does not want our mitzvos? That He does not answer our tefilos? Yeshaya goes on. “Learn to do good, seek justice, vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow.” Because of our callous disregard for the weaker members of society, Hashem says that we are “trampling on His courtyard” and “He hates our observance of Shabbos and Yom Tov.”
The Torah warns us, “You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in land of Egypt. You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan. If you dare to cause him pain, if he should cry out to me, I will surely hear his cry….” (Shemos 22:20-23)
In nineteenth century Russia, the poor, orphans, defenseless and downtrodden were the victims of communal unethical behavior under Czar Nicholas 1. The Czar had instituted the cantonist system in which a quota of child conscripts would be taken by force from each community to join the Russian army. Many of the children later died from malnutrition, beatings, disease and loneliness. Did the rich members of the community volunteer their children? Of course not. They organized Jewish kidnappers called chappers who stalked the streets in search of defenceless Jewish children, sons of widows or the poor, delivering them to the Russians for a fee. This aroused fury among poorer Jews against the rabbinic leadership who seemed to turn a “blind eye” to this disgraceful practice and later led to rebellion against the Torah itself whom the Jewish leadership represented. These dissatisfied people were now easy prey for secular Zionism and Socialism. (Triumph of Survival pp. 164-165, Rabbi Berel Wein). We see the long-term consequences of unethical behaviour within communities and we can understand better why Yeshayahu should be so strong in his rebuke. “Hashem abhors the Shabbos of a Jew who observes every stringency, who brings korbonos with great care about his ritual purity and davens with great fervour but is uncaring towards the widow, orphan and others who cannot defend themselves. And Hashem will not listen to his tefilos, certainly concerning rebuilding the Beis Hamikdash. “Lomo li rov zivcheichem?– “Why do I need your korbonos?….your trampling on My courtyards.”
Unfortunately a small number of reshaim threaten the spiritual and physical wellbeing of defenceless victims in our communities. But when the victims cry for help, committees of askonim make it their business to defend the criminals, in flagrant breach of explicit halachos which allow a community to do whatever is possible to protect themselves from those who threaten them. (Choshen Mishpat 388:12) They defame the victims and anyone who tries to help them. Often they resort to physical threats not only to the victims but to their children and grandchildren. Letters with forged rabbinic signatures appear on shul notice-boards. Amazingly, these people find supporters who succumb to financial and other threats, leading them to work on behalf of the guilty rather than defending and helping the innocent. They ignore the Torah’s warning that when innocent victims cry out, Hashem hears their cries. And we, forgetting Yeshaya’s warning, sometimes wonder why Hashem doesn’t answer our cries.
Yet Yeshaya comforts us that all is not lost. ‘If our sins are like scarlet, they can yet become white as snow. Even if they are as red as crimson, they can become white as wool.” Communal determination to right the wrong, to change direction, to transfer our allegiance from the criminal to the victim can alter Hashem’s perception of us. “He can restore our judges as at first and our advisers as at the beginning. Zion can be redeemed with justice and those who return to her with righteousness.” And Chodesh Menachem Av can be indeed transformed finally into a month of rejoicing.
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