The three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av is a period of constriction and introspection. It is a time when we collectively mourn over the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the devastating events that led up to it. It’s a time when we are also forced to acknowledge the physical and spiritual galus left in its wake.
In fact, the three weeks are known as days that are Bein ha-Metzarim (ימי בין המצרים), which literally mean “between the dire straits.” The word, מצרים, is also related to the word צר, which means “narrow” and “distressful.”
But all of this mourning and introspection has an ultimate purpose– that of teshuva. The theme of teshuva is associated with the three weeks in a number of ways. For instance:
- It was on the 17th of Tammuz that the tablets were broken following Chait Ha’Eigle, the sin of the golden calf (Rashi, Shemos 32:1; 33:11). Moshe Rabbeinu’s shattering of the tablets was a necessary act that opened the door to the later reconciliation between Hashem and the Jewish people.
- According to the Shem Mi Shmuel, the month of Tammuz is itself connected to the act of teshuva. Tammuz is related to shevet Reuven. Just as Reuven showed that teshuva can bring about a powerful spiritual transformation, so too does chodesh Tammuz hold the potential for positive change (Rosh Chodesh Tammuz 5674).
- Even the afternoon of the Tisha B’Av, at the height of our national mourning, is associated with teshuva.
But if this is true then that leaves us with a question: how can a person even think of teshuva at a time of such mourning and sadness– especially since Hashem’s Presence will only rest on someone who is b’simcha— in a state of joy?
אין הנבואה שורה לא מתוך עצבות
ולא מתוך עצלות אלא מתוך שמחה
The Divine Presence does not rest upon a person
when he is sad or lethargic, only when he is joyous.
Mishneh Torah, Halachos Yesodei HaTorah, Ch 7
The Chasam Sofer provides us with the answer. According to Chazal:
משנכנס אב ממעטים בשמחה
One who enters Av reduces with simcha
During the month of Av, our mourning intensifies. It’s a time when we are ממעטים, we reduce activities that create distractions in our lives so we are free to reflect on our loss. We can thus better focus on and connect to the pain of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash as well as the cause and nature of our present galus. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, we can do this on both a personal level and a national level.
But, we must go through this process בשמחה, in joy, not in sadness!
The Two Types of Sad
It is important to understand what is the nature of the עצבות (sadness) and עצלות (laziness, lethargy) that pull us away from returning to Hashem.
There are really two types of sadness and bitterness:
There is a healthy response to the nisyonos of the world– sadness that leads to introspection, greater understanding, and eventually, positive action. Throughout the pain and confusion, we remain connected to Hashem and our inner Chelek Elokah Mimal.
Aztvus (sadness) on the other hand is closely connected with Atzlus (laziness). It is the sadness that leads to depression and lethargy. It is the throwing up of one’s hands, the struggle to get out of bed, and the doubting of our worthiness to receive good and Hashem’s desire to give us that good.
From here, it is a short jump to yeiush (יֵאוּשׁ), where one simply gives up and abandons all hope of change or improvement.
What is the Definition of Yeiush?
Yeiush appears a few times in Tenach. For instance:
So said the Lord… Return now, each one from his evil way and improve your ways and your deeds… But they shall say, “It is hopeless! [Literally, “We despair”] For after our thoughts we will go, and we will do, each one of us, the vision of his evil heart.
…כֹּה אָמַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֔ה …שׁ֣וּבוּ נָ֗א אִישׁ מִדַּרְכּ֣וֹ הָֽרָעָ֔ה וְהֵיטִ֥יבוּ דַרְכֵיכֶ֖ם וּמַֽעַלְלֵיכֶֽם וְאָֽמְר֖וּ נוֹאָ֑שׁ כִּי־אַֽחֲרֵ֚י מַחְשְׁבוֹתֵ֙ינוּ֙ נֵלֵ֔ךְ וְאִ֛ישׁ שְׁרִר֥וּת לִבּֽוֹ־הָרָ֖ע נַֽעֲשֶֽׂה
But what really is “yeiush”?
The popular definition is “despair,” as in a feeling of hopelessness. But this translation is actually lacking both context and depth.
Getting this definition right is more than mere semantics. The nature of yeiush and the forces that generate it result in the biggest, most fundamental block to serving Hashem, having simchas hachayim, and maintaining our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
To get the necessary context and depth, we need to consider yeiush as it applies in the laws of returning lost objects, hilchos hashavas h’aveidah. The gemara discusses the situation of a Jew who loses an object (aveidah) and another Jew finds it.
The general halacha is as follows: When the person who lost an object is determined to have given up on ever finding it, so that he accepts that there is nothing that can be done and it can’t be returned (such as when an object is dropped in the ocean or in a public area with no distinct markings), then the original owner’s “yeiush” (giving up hope on finding the object) releases the object into the public domain. The finder of the object is thereby allowed to keep the item according to halacha while simultaneously being released from the obligation to return it to the original owner.
The halacha is different, however, in a situation where there is no yeiush. For example, the owner knows the lost object is in a particular area and could still be there. He thus still has hope that he will find it and will not initially accept the loss. In this case, the object is still considered his, and the finder must make an effort to return it.
There is a famous malchlokes (disagreement) between the two sages Abaye and Rava who were the leading scholars of the fourth generation (300-350 C.E.). of Babylonian Amoraim.
Abaye and Rava disagree over whether future yeush, counts as yeush regarding the return of a lost object (and accordingly allows the finder to keep the item). According to Abaye, future yeiush does not count as yeiush. It may be true that the owner, upon discovering the loss, will give up hope of ever getting it back. However, this fact is irrelevant at the moment the object is found by another, if at that point the original owner is unaware of the loss and therefore has in no way severed his or her connection to the object. In this case, the finder, in picking up the object, merely becomes the guardian of an object that belongs to another, and is obligated to try to return it.
Where Abaye and Rava agree, however, is in the case that the object has a siman (a distinct marking). In most cases, we must presume that at the moment the loss was discovered, there was no yeiush. The owner will likely have held on to hope of recovery based on his ability to identify the object– even if it was dropped in a public space. Thus, when the finder picks it up, he has no rights to it. Even when yeiush finally takes place, if it is after the object is already in the possession of the finder, the owner’s later yeiush is irrelevant and the lost object continues to belong to the original owner.
To summarize: a lost object’s status as a possession versus hefker (ownerless), depends on the original owner’s unbroken, internal connection to it combined with the sense of hope that it will be returned.
These two qualities are present in all forms of yeiush.
Of Despair, Disconnect, and Spiritual Death
The gemara recounts that when an unborn child is in the womb, an angel is tasked with teaching the child the entire Torah. As the child is about to enter the world, he or she is shown a vision of both Gan Eden and and Gehinnom. The angel then implores the child, “Become a tzaddik! Do not become a rasha!” before striking the child’s lips, causing all the Torah knowledge he or she had previously learned to be forgotten. (Niddah 30b)
Let’s examine this a bit…
The unborn child is shown a vision of Gan Eden, which is the ultimate experience of connection to Hashem and Divine Goodness. The child is also shown Gehinnom, which is the ultimate experience of disconnect from Hashem. This disconnect is expressed in the inability to receive the Divine Goodness that is now clearly visible and the feelings of remorse (for the bad choices that were made while alive) that can not be quenched (See Rav Dessler, Strive for Truth, “Gehinnom– Concept and Application,” p207-216)
The angel implores the child “Become a tzaddik!” This means, “Follow the path that is meant for you. Through Torah learning and mitzvos work get in touch with and express your true inner self. Use all the resources at your disposal to discover and reveal Hashem’s Divine Light in the world.” (Torah, תורה , has the same root as אור, which means “light”).
The angel also warns, “Do not become a rasha!” This means, “Do not allow yourself to be pulled by the physicality of the world so much that you forget the One Who continually creates, directs, sustains, and fills it. Even worse, do not stray from your path so much that you cut yourself off from the Divine Light– both within yourself and hidden within the world– that you are meant to reveal.”
The soul’s desire is to find and reclaim the Torah it once learned. According to Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, this Torah represents “all that [the person] needs to do, labor at, and achieve in this world,” (in other words, his personal spiritual tafkid), and one must continuously “search and seek out that which he lost” at the time of birth. (Likutey Moharan #188)
So, this Torah was something that we once had and then lost, and our job is to go through life searching for it, reclaiming it, bit-by-bit.
The finding will always be possible as long as the person agrees to search. It doesn’t matter how far someone has fallen nor how much one has strayed from his or her path in this world. Even the slightest desire to reconnect to Hashem and his or her own inner light by definition means the connection still alive.
But what about those who are not Torah observant?
This is like the person who is unaware of his or her loss and therefore has in no way severed his or her connection to the lost object.
Deep down, the Jewish soul continues to long for the Divine Light it once enjoyed before its entrance into the physical world. The individual, however, does not recognize the source of this longing nor the spiritual “object” of its desire. Such people can spend their whole lives searching… searching for inner peace… for true love and connection… for spiritual enlightenment… for a sense of purpose, meaning and completion within physical experiences and enjoyments… yet they never seem to feel satisfied. This happens even if they have achieved much physical success. Deep down, after all of their efforts, they remain sad, depressed, anxious, restless.
This is clearly evident to anyone who looks into the matter.
But this sadness and depression is not yeiush.
By definition, yeiush can only occur within someone who already believes in Hashem and lives a Torah life. Such a person may have emuna in the fact that everything in his life is the will of Hashem and is exactly the way it should be. He also is familiar with the idea that he has a unique spiritual tafkid in the world.
But, the person despairs of ever fulfilling it. Instead, he “accepts” his “fate” in life. He loses hope that he will ever be able to change, to be better and break free from that which holds him back, to stop being pulled by his desires and bad middos. He has convinced himself that he is a victim of circumstances– both internal and external.
In order to block out his soul’s persistent inner cry to wake up and return, the person becomes numb. He avoids thinking deeply about his pain or about what Hashem may want from him in his current circumstances. Deep down, he may believe that Hashem will not accept his teshuva or that he lacks the mental and emotional strength to make the journey back.
Such yeiush has plagued Clal Yisroel throughout history:
From the days of your fathers you have departed from My laws and have not kept [them]. “Return to Me, and I will return to you,” said the Lord of Hosts, but you said, “With what have we to return?”
Even today, HaShem implores the Jewish people: “Return to Me and I’ll return to you…” And how do we respond? “With what shall we return?” With what strength… with what clarity… with what conviction that we will actually succeed… with what guarantee that Hashem will accept our teshuva? There is no hope; we are too far gone
In this place there is lack of vitality. Instead, we find apathy, anger, anxiety, severe depression and ultimately withdrawal from life. This is what spiritual yeiush looks like.
To be alive, whether physically or spiritually, means to move and grow, and for that to happen there must be a constant connection to the Source of Life– to one’s neshama, to the Ribbono Shel Olam, and to one’s unique role in the world. Just as an uprooted plant cut off from the soil’s nourishment will stop growing and die, without positive spiritual movement, growth and the connection that enables it, there is a kind of spiritual death.
The resulting downward spiral of disconnect, despair, and numbness, if not halted, can lead a person to the darkest of places.
The Gemara (Chagigah 14b-15a) recounts the fall of Elisha ben Avuya, one of the four scholars who attempted to ascend to heaven in order to comprehend G d and G dliness. :
The Sages taught: Four entered pardes [ literally, “the orchard,” a state where they involved themselves in loftiest secrets of Torah], and they are as follows: Ben Azzai; and ben Zoma; Acheir, [“Another,” a name for Elisha ben Avuya]; and Rabbi Akiva…
Ben Azzai glimpsed at the Divine Presence and died…Ben Zoma glimpsed at the Divine Presence and was harmed [he became demented]… Acheir chopped down the shoots of saplings. [he became a heretic]. Rabbi Akiva came out in peace…
A Divine Voice went forth saying: ‘Return, rebellious children’ (Jeremiah 3:22)— everyone except for Acheir. [יָצְתָה בַּת קוֹל וְאָמְרָה:’שׁוּבוּ בָּנִים שׁוֹבָבִים – חוּץ מֵאַחֵר (Shuvu bonim shovivim– chutz mei’Acheir)]
[Elisha ben Avuya heard this voice and] said: ‘Since that man [meaning himself], has been banished from that world [The Next World], let him go out and enjoy this world.’ [So] Acheir went astray.
When Elisha ben Avuya heard the proclamation from Above, he interpreted it to mean that he was so far from Hashem that his teshuva would not be accepted that Hashem no longer wanted a relationship with him. Convinced that his situation was hopeless and that any attempts to return would be futile since Hashem would not accept it, he then proceeded to commit one transgression after another.
The great sage, Rabbi Meir, was his student. He loyally and unflinchingly remained by his master’s side hoping to convince him to mend his ways and return to the proper path.
Rabbi Meir asserted that Elisha ben Avuya’s interpretation was incorrect. The real message was, “Return you backsliding children, [and the way to do so is] ‘chutz mei’Acheir’ — ‘to detach yourself from acheir’ — rid yourself of the “stranger” within you, the voice of yeiush that stems from your evil inclination, and return to your true self.”
Unfortunately, Elisha ben Avuya was unable to accept Rabbi Meir’s words before he passed from this world.
There is No Yeiush At All!
The truth is, even when a Jew has given up hope, deep down there is always a spiritual place inside, the so-called pintele yid, that longs for the light the person is meant to reveal to the world. It’s this unending, unyielding spiritual longing deep below the surface that keeps the possibility of teshuva alive. Even those who have committed the worst evils nevertheless still possess this point up until the day they they die.
In contrast to the story of Elisha ben Avuya, there is the account of Elazar ben Dordaya. This is a classic example from the gemara (Avodah Zarah 17a) of an individual who overcame his evil inclination and rose up from the depths instead of succumbing to yeiush:
It was said of Elazar ben Dordaya, who left out not one prostitute, [that] he was once informed that there was a prostitute in one of the sea countries, who received a pocketful of dinars in reward, and he took this amount and passed seven rivers until he reached her.
As he was with her, she blew forth a breath and said: As this blown breath will not return to its place, so will Elazar ben Dordaya never be received in repentance [even if he were to try to repent].
[This statement deeply shocked Elazar ben Dordaya], and he went and sat between two mountains and hills and exclaimed: Mountains and hills, pray for mercy on my behalf [so that my repentance will be accepted]. They replied: How shall we pray for you? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, ‘For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed!’
So he exclaimed: Heaven and earth, plead for mercy for me! They, too, replied: How shall we pray for you?… Sun and moon, plead for mercy for me! .. Stars and constellations, plead for mercy for me! [But all of them responded]… How shall we pray for you? We stand in need of it ourselves…
[Elazar ben Dordaya said to himself]: The matter depends upon me alone! Having placed his head between his knees, he wept aloud until his soul departed. Then a bas kol was heard proclaiming: ‘Rabbi Elazar ben Dordaya is destined for the life of the world to come!’
Though the situation may appear hopeless from all angles, and a “sword is already resting on one’s neck,” as long as one is connected to the Source of all creation, it is possible for a yeshua to come. Every single Jew at any moment has the potential to connect to a point of emes and Divine light and in the process open the very door to his or her own yeshua.
The gemara (Brochos 10a) recounts the story of King Chizkiyahu who saw through ruach hakodash (Divine inspiration) that his future children would not be righteous. He thus refused to get married, and shortly thereafter fell deathly ill.
Yeshayahu the prophet came to visit him and announced an ominous decree from Above:
Thus says the Lord of Hosts: Set your house in order, for you will die and you will not live” (Yeshayahu 38:1). [Meaning: You will die in this world, and you will not live, you will have no share, in the World-to-Come]…The decree has already been decreed against you, and this judgment cannot be changed.
Chizkiyahu said to him: Son of Amoz, cease your prophecy and leave! I have received a tradition from the house of my father’s father [from Dovid HaMelech]: Even if a sharp sword rests upon a person’s neck, he should not prevent himself from praying for Divine mercy.
Then he turned to the wall and began to pray from the innermost recesses of his heart and went on to live another 15 years.
Perhaps this is what Rebbe Nachman means with this declaration:
!אֵין שׁוּם יִאוּשׁ בָּעוֹלָם כְּלָל
There is no yeiush in the world at all!
Of Yeiush and Tisha B’Av
It is told of Napoleon Bonaparte that once, while passing through a town, he noticed that all of the Jews had gathered into the synagogue and were sitting on its floor weeping. Napoleon asked, “What has befallen the Jews of this town that they are mourning so?” “Today,” he was told, “is Tisha B’Av, the day on which the Jews mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple.” “How many years ago did this tragedy occur?” Napoleon inquired. “Many years ago, almost two-thousand,” was the response. Impressed, Napoleon exclaimed, “A people who recalls its past so well, and continues to mourn the destruction of its sanctuary, will undoubtedly one day be redeemed and return to its homeland.”
The rebuilding the beis Hamikdash simply cannot happen unless there is a cli (a vessel) to hold it, and that cli is built when when enough individual Jews work to become a personal miniature Sanctuary for Hashem’s Presence. This means using Torah and mitzvos to seek out, find and eventually come to know aspects of Hashem and how He runs the world, and as mentioned above, to reveal that Divine Light to others.
In other words it’s our internal connection to the Beis HaMikdash and the geula it will usher in, combined with our hope that everything can be “turned up-side down,” regardless of what it looks like now, that makes the redemption possible.
At this very point in time, the pull to towards yeiush has never been stronger among the Torah observant community. As one writer eloquently put it:
Modernity has detached us from past generations, as we live in a condition of historical discontinuity. The world has changed so dramatically, and modern man views his contemporary situation as a complete “break” with previous generations… At no time in history has this shift been more dramatic and never has humanity felt more severed from the past.
…[It] is difficult to mend history unless you feel empowered to repair the transgressions of the past. The prevailing concept of yeridat hadorot asserts that study of Torah and general religious levels… deteriorate with the passing of generations. Regrettably, this concept is [today] often exaggerated, and… [many of us] view ourselves as helpless and hapless compared to the past.
When taken to an extreme, this enfeebling myth perpetuates our own sense of historical inadequacy. How can we hope to repair the past crimes of Jewish history and redress their breakdowns if we are so inferior to the past generations? How can we be held accountable if we are powerless? If the spiritual giants of previous generations “fell,” certainly we can’t rise. Spiritual midgets can’t renovate.
But it is a fundamental concept in the Torah, that Hashem does not give a test to those who cannot pass it, and He does not require more than one can realistically do.
As small and as unworthy as we may seem compared to our ancestors, in some respects it’s actually quite the opposite!
During the three weeks, and on Tisha B’Av in particular, we need to stay as far away from yeiush as possible. Our job is to break through the bonds of despair, to have the courage to see ourselves as we are now with all of our imperfections and truly believe in who we could be, to admit our mistakes and shortcomings and be prepared to rectify them. And most of all, we must recognize that our success depends not on our own strength, but on how much Sciata D’Shamaya we have. We need to take a stand, to cry out to Hashem for assistance at every step with the firm belief that Hashem is always right there waiting to help us no matter how far away we are– whether we see Him or not, whether we feel Him or not.
In truth, during these days, Bein ha-Metzarim, Hashem is teaching us how to walk. The stumbling is just a part of the process. When we agree to get back up and keep trying to move forward, we may end up in beautiful places we never thought were possible.