Tisha B’Av: Leaders are Accountable for Our Sins

Moshe Ben-Chaim

On Tisha B’Av we mourn the loss of the two Temples and other tragedies. The first Temple was destroyed on account of the Jews’ idolatry. God killed many in that generation and He actually commenced with the elders. Talmud Sabbath 54b-55a conveys some surprising details:

Whoever can forbid his household [to commit a sin] but does not, is punished for [the sins of] his household; [if he can forbid] his fellow citizens, he is punished for [the sins of] his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is punished for [the sins of] the whole world. R. Papa observed, “And the members of the Resh Galutha’s [household] are punished for the whole world. Even as R. Hanina said, why is it written, ‘The Lord will enter into judgement with the elders of his people, and the princes thereof.’If the Princes sinned, how did the elders sin? But say, [He will bring punishment] upon the elders because they do not forbid the princes.

R. Aha b. R. Hanina said, “Never did a favorable word go forth from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, of which He retracted for evil, except the following case where it is written: ‘And the Lord said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set the letter Tav upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof, etc.’ ” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Gabriel [Ezek. 9], “Go and set a Tav of ink upon the foreheads of the righteous, that the destroying angels may have no power over them; and a Tav of blood upon the foreheads of the wicked, that the destroying angels may have power over them.” Said the Attribute of Justice before the Holy One, blessed be He, “Sovereign of the Universe! Wherein are these different from those?” God replied, “Those are completely righteous men, while these are completely wicked.” The Attribute of Justice replied, “Sovereign of the Universe, they had the power to protest but did not.” God replied, “It is fully known before Me that had they protested the wicked ones would not have listened to them.” The Attribute of Justice replied, “Sovereign of the Universe, if it was revealed to Thee, was it revealed to them?” 

Hence it is written, “[Slay utterly] the old man, the young and the maiden, and little children and women; but come not near any man upon whom is the mark; and begin at my Sanctuary [mikdashi]. Then they began at the elders which were before the house.” Rabbi Joseph recited: “Read not mikdashi but mekuddashay [my sanctified ones]: this refers to the people who fulfilled the Torah from alef to Tav.”

This last quote states that God instructed His destroyers not to afflict the elders, “but come not near any man upon whom is the mark.” This is followed by a statement of elders being killed first, “Then they began with the elders which were before the house.” Thus, God appears to have recanted His former decree to spare the elders. But we must understand: God does not change His mind since all is known by Him. Nor does there exist a separate being – the Attribute of Justice – with whom God converses. This metaphoric portion requires interpretation. 

Idolatry is the worst sin. In a vision, God took Ezekiel to Jerusalem and showed him just how rampant idolatry had become. They worshipped the sun and idols even within the Temple. The Jews deserved death.


God Does Not Recant

However, there were elders who “sighed and cried” concerning the sins of the Jewish idolaters. Thus, they did not sin. How do we understand what appears to be a “change” in God’s mind regarding those elders? Why were they killed too?

The Talmud’s dialogue must be understood in human terms. The Rabbis – the authors of the Talmud – constructed this Talmudic portion as a metaphor. Their lesson is that although division is absent in regards to God, as are attributes; at times people are saved, punished or killed. Thereby, man perceives God as “merciful” and at times, purely “just.”  

In this historical instance many Jews deserved death. But some elders did not sin at all and actually fulfilled the entire Torah. God’s preference is not that man dies, but that he repents: “Do I truly desire the death of the sinner, says God Elohim. Is it not his repentance from his ways [that I seek] and that he lives (Ezek. 18:23)?” This is what is meant by God marking the elders for life with a Tav, the letter commencing the word “tichyeh“, to live. It refers to God’s “preference,” as if God “did this firs.”. But in this sin, God could not exempt the elders from the fate of death received by their brothers and sisters since the elders failed to rebuke the Jews. Thus, Ezekiel says “Then they began with the elders which were before the house.” Meaning, God commenced the killing with these elders. This is the one case where God’s preference of His mercy bows out to His justice. What is unique in this sin?


Failed Leaders is a Failed Nation

We have none others than our leaders to instruct Israel in Torah – God’s primary concern for mankind. The responsibility of all of Israel is on their shoulders. Although they did not sin but failed to rebuke others, they expressed a fear of man instead a fear of God. Even though God knew the sinners would not heed the elders, the elders did not know this. Failure to rebuke the nation will lead to the Torah’s end. There is nothing worse. Thus, they were punished together with the sinning nation. When the loss is the Torah and the nation of Israel, God does not show His mercy. 

Maimonides teaches[1] that if God were to recant on positive prophecies, prophecy would have no means of validation. By a prophet’s positive forecast coming true at all times, prophecy is thereby validated. But in this one case where leaders fail to rebuke, God will recant His positive prophecy.

These elders should have admonished their brothers and sisters. Despite God’s foreknowledge that it would have been useless in this case, the elders did not know that outcome. They should have rebuked the nation. But they failed to show greater concern for the Torah’s continuation and for the people. They were also killed, and the killing even commenced with them. There cannot be a concern that outweighs the guarding of Torah for the next generation. These elders placed some other concern as weightier, and thereby are to blame.

God did not say one thing and then change His mind. This Talmudic portion means that God has a preference for mercy, but not in a case where the sin is failed leaders. This dialogue between God and his attribute of justice illustrates this point.


What are Our Sins?

The greatest mitzvahs are accurate knowledge of God, denial of other powers and superstitions, and Torah study. If we do not learn and teach, we commit the worst crimes. The Talmud says any house wherein Torah study is not heard at night will be burned[2]. This refers to our more relaxed hours; nighttime. How do we spend our evenings? Free time is when man’s values are expressed most. Torah study is why we were created. If Torah study is not our main focus, if it is not studied at night, our leaders must urge the nation to return to study. “And you shall accustom yourselves in it day and night (Joshua 1:8).” For it is only through study that we might arrive at Torah truths and values. If we were studying, the foolish beliefs of the masses would be openly rejected as Torah violations.

And what of our ideas of God? Do our leaders confront the many falsehoods plaguing the Jewish communities today? Torah teaches us that God rewards and punishes based on our merit. Nothing else can prevent God from doing so. “Let us search and examine our ways and return to Hashem (Megillas Eicha 3:40).” Eicha is read on Tisha B’Av. Will our leaders teach Eicha’s message, that it is our own flaws that cause our problems, or will they dismiss people from introspection and blame? Allowing segulos, keys in challas and Amen and Tehillim groups to be accepted as effective practices is a lie. Communities believe these acts ensure certain outcomes so their leaders must correct this falsehood. In fact, it is “Teshuva, Tefilla u’Tzedaka“ – our repentance, prayers and charity – that have any value before God. Wearing red strings cannot secure success, health or marriage. Repentance from false notions and our sins finds God’s favor. An honest Rabbi will teach his congregants these are all idolatrous practices.


We just read of a Rabbi who was murdered when his guaranteed blessings failed to materialize. Shamefully, a few Rabbis did not ridicule the murdered Rabbi’s deception through selling his blessings. They showed more pity for him, than those he deceived and robbed. But an intelligent leader who is honest and God-fearing will use this case to educate others that Rabbis are unnecessary: we are to pray to God, who alone can answer our needs. How unforgivable are leaders who cower to the masses and fail to address these unopposed and destructive beliefs in God. God’s blessings cannot be purchased from humans. Rachel desired children and asked Jacob to give them to her. Jacob responded (with anger), “Am I in God’s stead (Gen. 30:2)?”  

If our nation imagines a god who is weaker than man made amulets and idolatrous superstitions; where leaders endorse Rabbis’ blessings, and a god who cannot hear our prayers…then we are in a sorrowful state. Leaders will be punished for failing to try and correct the sins of the nation. Leaders can either maintain the ignorance of our nation by failing to rebuke, or they can teach truth, rebuke falsehood, and urge Torah study so Israel realizes God’s Torah truths and abandon foolishness.

I look forward to the Messiah who will stand for truth and have no concern for what is popular. He will surpass Solomon’s wisdom and be close to Moses in prophecy[3]. He will teach the unparalleled beauty of God’s truth and unveil the stupidities Israel has adopted from others. May this day arrive now.

[1] Maimonides’ Introduction to the Commentary on the Mishnah

[2] Sanhedrin 92a

[3] Maimonides’ Laws of Teshuva 9:2