Tisha B’Av – The Message from the Torah

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

We all are familiar with the tragic and despondent themes that present themselves in the megillah of Eichah – even the tone in which it is read evokes a tremendous sense of despair. And while it may be difficult to focus on the kinos, as their poetic style is complicated, we are still cognizant that they too are evocative of similar concepts. Much attention is paid both Eichah and the kinos and rightly so. But garnering a lesser degree of attention is the reading from the Torah, read at Shacharis on Tisha B’Av, that also contains many ideas to help shed light on our current state and how we got here. The sequence of events, as well as the nature of our sins and how we can begin to recover, are laid out pretty clearly in this portion. 

We see the chronology unfold as follows (Devarim 4:25-29):

“(25) When you have children and grandchildren, and have grown old in the land; and you will be corrupt and make a statue—an image of anything—and do what is evil in the eyes of Hashem, your Hashem, to anger Him. (26) I bring as witness against you today heaven and earth, that you will be completely and swiftly removed from upon the land, that you are crossing the Yardein there to inherit; you will not live long upon it, but will be completely destroyed.(27) God will disperse you among the peoples, and you will remain few in number among the nations that God leads you to. (28) There you will serve man-made gods of wood and stone that do not see, do not hear, do not eat, and do not smell. (29) You will seek from there Hashem, your God, and you will find [Him], when you seek Him wholeheartedly and with your whole being.”

Looking at verse 25 and 28, one might notice the fact that Bnai Yisrael engage in the prohibition of avoda zara twice. The first, in verse 25, relates how Bnai Yisrael will commit idolatry, as well as other evils, “lehachiso”, to anger Him. In verse 28, with Bnai Yisrael exiled amongst the other nations, the same prohibition seems to be in play, albeit with some descriptive differences (more on that in a second). This appears to be superfluous, as Bnai Yisrael already succumbed to this type of thinking. What changed here? Furthermore, as related in verse 29, it seems that the idol worship they engaged in while amongst the non-Jews is somehow the impetus to return to God. How so?

Another issue that needs to be analyzed involves the excessive descriptions in verse 28, how the idol does not see, hear, eat or smell. The Ramban notes these specifications, and offers two explanations. The first is an idea having to do with the honor of man. When he makes the idol, he sees the idol as having a “deficient” existence in relation to man. He first notes how the idol is incapable of seeing into the eyes of his worshippers, or listening to his tefilos, making it a flawed deity. He then notes how, in lacking any ability to eat or smell, the idol possesses “less of an existence” than a human. In the second explanation, the Ramban writes that this refers to the honor afforded to God, as God alone sees the eyes of His worshippers, hears their tefilos, accepts their korbanos (“eat”) and “smells” the fragrance of these sacrifices. 

As is quite common when analyzing the writings of the Ramban, at first glance things appear to be quite difficult to understand. Firstly, why is there a need for to offer two reasons? Second, what does he mean that the existence of the idol is somehow deficient in comparison to man? Of course it is! How does the Ramban’s second explanation provide a definitive rebuke to the idol worshipper? 

The first area to understand involves the seemingly duplicate acts of idolatry. What is the difference between the two? Rashi clues us in, noting (ibid 28) that once we are serving the idol worshippers, it is as if we are serving the idols themselves. What does he mean by this? It is important to note the ending of verse 25, where the act of idolatry is qualified as “lehachiso”. This refers to an act of rebellion by Bnai Yisrael against God. Blinded by these emotions, driven by their instincts, the nation chooses to leave God and enter the world of the idolatrous (as indeed took place). The clear and patent falsehood reflected in this system of worship is lost on the nation. This is the first type of idolatry described, and as God relates, we then become scattered amongst the other nations. This is where Rashi’s idea becomes so enlightening. We develop a dependent existence with the nations of the world, subject to their whims. Without the redemption, this dependency is a fixture of our present existence. As such, our dependency allows us to become more permeable to the surrounding ideologies. It is a natural by-product of the state of exile, a phenomenon that effortlessly takes hold. Since these ideas are not actively pursued, but rather slowly work their way into the mindset of the nation, we have the means of breaking away and returning to God. It is at this point that the Ramban’s explanations become pivotal.

The Ramban is actually pointing out two ways that the irrationality of the world of idolatry is demonstrable. At first, the Ramban focuses on the superiority of man’s existence over that of the idol. It seems quite obvious what the difference is, as the idol is not alive! However, the root of idolatry, on a psychological level, always involves expressions of human projections. The different idols and religions merely serve to satisfy man’s personal needs and insecurities. As such, once man sees no general response from the idol, and comes to see how these are all projections, he recognizes how absurd the whole pursuit actually is. This is the sequence from hearing and seeing, where the idol is the projection, to the eating and talking, where the truth becomes clear. However, it is important to note that these are not easy steps to take. People gain tremendous comfort and security from these distorted beliefs. Pointing out the absurdity of different idolatrous practices is the simple part. Getting people to accept that their beliefs are fallacious is much more difficult. 

The second explanation looks at this from a more philosophical perspective. The different examples offered by the Torah all relate to the idea of hashgacha – providence. It is not a question of probabilities, as one deity being more “responsive” than another. Instead, if one studies the chachma underlying the idea of hashgacha, he will come to see how God is qualitatively different. Normally, we turn to the idea of God being One as the defining feature separating God from all others. Instead, the Ramban is telling us that studying hashgacha can also demonstrate how God is essentially different from all others. Each of the Torah’s descriptions is a gateway to this area of knowledge. 

This leads us to a clarification of how Bnai Yisrael are able to seek out God in the second scenario. If we collectively decided to reject God outright, then the road to teshuva becomes difficult to find. Being that the exposure to other ideologies, and the subsequent effect, was not a decision by the nation but rather a natural by-product, the ability to reach the correct conclusion becomes simpler. The passive effect of idolatrous influence is unquestionably destructive. However, the method of its intrusion into our mindset creates a less obstructed potential to pull away. As Tisha B’Av approaches, it is imperative we understand our current flawed state, and know as well the avenue that exists to return to God.