5766 - #29


       T.B. Ta'anit 29a discusses the date upon which the spies returned from their tour of the land of Israel and gave their negative report. The gemora concludes that it was the evening of the 9th of Av.1 Rabbah in the name of Rav Yochanan continues that, in fact, so was created the tragedies of Tisha B'Av, the Ninth of Av. In response to Bnei Yisrael's reaction of crying upon hearing the words of the spies, God declared: "You have cried a bechia shel chinum, a needless cry; and I will establish for you a crying for the generations." With these words, the gemora seems to be informing us, most interestingly, that the root reason for all the events and heartaches of Tisha B'Av, was, in fact, the nation's response of crying, upon hearing the spies.  This connection demands explanation.
    Simply and, perhaps, strangely, God seems to be saying that because the Jewish nation cried for nothing, He will respond by giving them something to really cry for. How can we understand such a response? To make such an assertion, the gemara would seem to believe that this crying had to be morally culpable. This reaction of crying was, simply, a sin2  - a sin so problematic that it necessitated, in retribution, the greatest tragedies that have befallen our nation. But can we describe such an emotional response as a sin? Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Bereishit 33:4, in describing Esav's meeting with Yaakov Avinu, upon the latter's return from Lavan, writes: "A kiss can be false but not tears...tears are drops from one's innermost soul." He derives this understanding from the word bocheh, the same root word used to describe the nation's response to the spies' report. To Rabbi Hirsch, the emotion connected to bocheh does not emerge from the mind. It is not rational thought that instructs one to summon this emotion. This emotion is an immediate and natural reaction to an event. As such, Bnei Yisrael's response of crying cannot be seen as conjecture. It was not a thought-out, mistaken reaction to the words of the spies. It was their natural and immediate emotion -- how can they thus have been deemed culpable and punishable for that which they had no control?3 Still, an emotional response, even if not under immediate control, could still indicate weakness. Such an approach, in fact, could explain why the consequence of the nation's action in the desert would effect subsequent generations. If God's response was simply a punishment, why should the generations of the Churbans, the destructions of the Temples, be punished for the actions of the desert generation? If, though, the crying in the desert was an indication of an inherent weakness in the national psyche that demanded correction in order for the nation to meet its destiny, a correction method over the generations could be better understood. Somehow, this reaction of crying indicated a problem that demanded a remedy. The remedy was giving the nation 'something to really cry for', the events of Tisha B'Av.
        A summary review of the Torah and the Tanach for words derived from the root bocheh will indicate that this term is tied to the human response to death and mourning. For example, in Vayikra 10:6, Aharon and his remaining sons are informed that it is the rest of the nation that will cry over the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. A further review will show that bocheh seems actually to be tied to hopelessness. It is when we perceive a situation to be hopeless, when there is no chance for a positive outcome, that we cry in this manner. Is death not the ultimate situation whereby there is no chance of victory?4 A review of various commentaries, in regard to the nation's crying in this case, will indicate that this indeed was the feeling of the nation.5 The nation felt hopeless; there was no chance. This feeling was their weakness. And the method by which to correct this weakness was to give them something for which they really could feel hopeless?
        If these feelings of hopelessness emerged from a rational conclusion, then it could be possible to understand why these feelings were culpable, even why they deserved such a punishment. If these feelings emerged from thought, to feel hopeless in the midst of the Divine Presence of the desert, indeed, would reflect a certain lack of faith. The word bocheh, though, seems to indicate that the feelings preceded thought. Is it, furthermore, even possible that this nation could actually believe that God could not ensure success in the conquest and settlement of Israel? Malbim, Bamidbar 14:1 does explain that the sin of the nation was their lack of faith in God but then explains how the nation developed this lack of faith. It was not a rational lack of faith. Of course they knew that God could ensure victory, the desired conclusion. Malbim implies that the problem was that the nation itself did not feel deserving of this positive intervention by God; herein lied their lack of faith. He writes that the nation saw that God sometimes brought great benefit to one deserving punishment so that when the penalty was finally given, the fall would be greater. The nation sadly believed that God had taken them out of Egypt and protected them in the desert so that they could face greater punishment in the defeat upon entering the land. No wonder they wailed: "if only they had died in the land of Egypt or if only they had died in the desert."6 This is not a perception and feeling that emerges from mistaken thought. This is a mistaken thought that emerges from a weakness in the psyche. The nation cried. They had an immediate reaction to the news of the spies. This was an emotion of crying, of hopelessness. This, in turn, was justified in thought through declaring themselves worthy of punishment and explaining all that transpired through this lens of hopelessness. Crying was not culpable itself. Crying, though, did reveal their psyche. As much as thought can affect our psyche, our psyche can affect our thoughts. >From the emotion of bocheh, the nation developed an entire perspective of life that could indeed be explained and justified. This was their weakness -- an emotion that could affect their entire perspective of life which they did not or could not challenge.
        Tisha B'Av can now be seen, remarkably, as the response to this weakness and the manner by which one can develop a proper perspective on life. On the surface, the gemora could be telling us that, from the events surrounding Tisha B'Av, we can learn when to truly be hopeless and when not to be. In working on our psyche, we can ensure that the tragedy of the desert -- where rooted feelings of inadequacy, it would seem, led to feelings of hopelessness -- is corrected through recognizing the proper rational indications of hopelessness. And indeed the dominant emotion of Tisha B'Av would seem to be hopelessness. Yet Tisha B'Av is also a moed, a holiday which would seem to indicate eternal hope. Is the Temple not the sign of eternal hope -- and does the redemption not begin with Tisha B'Av? Perhaps, through this day the nation was also to learn another paradoxical lesson -- to develop within our psyche the feeling to never lose hope.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


(1) There is actually much discussion in the commentaries regarding the gemora's calculation of this date and whether the return and report was on the eve at the beginning of Av 9 or on the eve at the end of this day. (2) 
(2) See, for example, the language of Torah Temima, Bamidbar 14:1, note 4.

(3)  Obviously, with this question, I am entering into the extensive, most significant and difficult debate about whether the human being can control his/her emotions and its corollary question of whether God can command in regard to the emotions, and if so, how. One way of maintaining culpability for emotion is by declaring that, perhaps, while one may not be punishable for a "knee-jerk", initial, emotional response, one is culpable in not analyzing the emotion in the aftermath of the initial response. This perception, indeed, would maintain culpability for the desert generation, in this case, however, this perception does not detract from the substantial message of the Insight -- in fact it may enhance it..

(4)  See, most on point, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Halakhah of the First Day, Jewish Reflections of Death where the Rav declares that the dominant emotion of aninus, the initial stage following the death of a loved one, is total defeat.
(5)  See, for example, Torah Shelaima, Bamidbar 14:1, note 3 which quotes a midrash that states that the nation felt as did a person encountering the death of a loved one. (6) 
(6) Bamidbar 14:2.

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