Fast Days, Eretz Yisrael, and Teshuva

The Selected Speeches by R' Shimon Schwab zt"l

The four fast days mentioned in the Navi are days of teshuvah, an opportunity to repent for past sins. Yet this matter is not as simple as it might seem. Why should we fast on occasions commemorating past tragedies? How does this spur us to do teshuva? And why do we still fast today in remembrance of events that happened two thousand years ago, or even more?

Fasting in itself means little but it can serve to prompt thoughts about the true purpose of life. When a person fasts in the proper spirit on a taanis, he is, in effect, saying, "I am unworthy to continue living. I went against the will of the Ribono Shel Olam, and I have no right to go ahead with my life as is." Thus, he stops eating and drinking, and does not partake of life-sustaining nourishment. His life cannot go on unchanged. Unless he improves it, there is no sense in its proceeding. In short, the fasting is only effective if it causes one to rethik the value of his life, and to feel remorse for his misdeeds. And it is only really successful if it eventually leads to major improvements. In this sense, every taanis is basically a day of teshuva.

The time period between the seventeenth of Tammuz and the ninth of Av, which we call the "Three Weeks", has been designated by our Chachamim as the timespan into which to conentrate all our mourning. For in reality, almost every day in the year is a memorial for some tragic event that befell the Jewish people. Yet we cannot mourn uninterruptedly throughout the year. We know that we must fulfill the admoition of "Serve Hashem with joy". We must not, therefore, make each day into a taanis. Instead the Chachamim have compacted all the various periods of Jewish mourning into the three weeks between the seventeent of Tammuz and Tisha B'av. This is why the Gedolei Yisrael did not officially sanction the observance of the so-called Holocaust Day, Yom Hashoah. There is no need to do so, because the mourning for the six million Jewish martyrs also takes place during the Three Weeks.

The focus of Jewish mourning, therefore, is centered on the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash, which took place on the ninth of Av. The loss of the Holy Temple turns us all into aveilim for Tzion and Yerushalayim, and this hangs over our lives. When a person goes on a shivah visit, he says, "Hashem shall comfort you among all the others who are mourning for Tzion and Yerushalayim." This means that the aggreived person is also mourning the loss of Tzion and Yerushalayim, and it is hoped that he will be comforted along with all the others who are similarly in sorrow over the loss.

This is seemingly a bit problematic. After all, the person is mourning a deceased relative, not Yerushalayim. They are sorrowful that Jews no longer enjoy the spiritual glory and splendor ot the Temple era. Any individual tzarah that a person, chas v'sahlom, may suffer is actually a part of and, in a way, an indirect result of the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash and Yerushalayim. The sins that led to the churban Bayis are still with us, and they are the obstacles which prevent our full spiritual reflowering. This is why we say that if the Bais Hamikdash has not been rebuilt in our lifetime, it is as if it were once again destroyed.

When I was a child, it was a simple matter to realize that we Jews were in galus. Eretz Yisrael was a distant land where few Jews lived. Those Jews were supported by contributions to the little red tzedakah boxes that were in evey house. The gabbaim collected the coins in these pushkes and sent them to the poor inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael: Eretz Yisrael was for poor people. The rest of us only had pictures in our homes of the Kosel Hamaaravi, the Wailing Wall. It was all so far away. So it was clear to us that the Jews were in galus, and it was only with the coming of the Moshiach that we would all go to Eretz Yisrael.

Since then, everything has changed. When I ask a seventh grade calss,"How many of you have visited Israel?", almost all their hands go up. They've been there already, even before becoming Bar Mitzvah! So, seemingly, we have already regained Eretz Yisrael. Most of it has been rebuilt, and there are now millions of Jews living there, in large cities. What, then, do we mean that we still mourn for Tzion and Yerushalayim?

I met a young man in Tel Aviv several years ago who was not very religious. Nevertheless, he fasted on Tishah B'Av, and he would go to the Kosel at night and have his picture taken there. He apparently thought it was some kind of ritual. Said he, "When I took my girlfriend to visit some of the shuls on Tishah B'Av, and hse saw the people sitting on the floor without their shoes on, saying Eichag, she said 'They're crazy! Why are they still mourning the loss of the Jewish state? We have it!'"

There are probably more Jews in Israel today than there were at the time of the second Bais Hamikdash. They have their own government, their own language, their own currency and postage stamps, their own consulates, and the state is a member of the United Nations. What more could we want ? So why are we mourning?

What that woman said is probably on the minds of many: What are we still grieving over today? Perhaps, you might say, we are still missing the Bais Hamikdash. The fact is, some people want to rebuild the Bais Hamikdash right now. They want to throw out the Arabs and just build it on the Har Habayis. Fortunately, there is a halacha that we're not supposed to go up there because we are unclean. But otherwise there's the feeling that Israel is the fulfillment of the hopes expressed in our prayers.

And then there's another aspect of life in Eretz Yisrael today. We now have yeshivos there, in which thousands of students learn Torah. There are religious, holy communities, with great gedolim. So we have also achieved spiritual progress there. What, then, is missing? What do we mean when we speak of aveilei Tzion and V'Yerushalayim? Do we mourn because two and a half thousand years ago Yerushalayim was conquered by the Babylonians? Why, the, our continued mourning?

The answer is this. Think of being invited to a lavish wedding. Hundreds of invitations have gone out to the most prestigious of guests, and the gala affair has cost the hosts a fortune. The wedding has been called for eight o'clock sharp. The musicians are playing, and the procession to the chuppah begins. The machutanim are there, and the rabbonim, and of course the photographer. The chassan has been escorted to his place under the chupah, and everyone is ready. What, then, are they all waiting for?

The Kallah.

The Kallah has not come. She was supposed to have arrived three hours ago. Everything is set for a wonderful ceremony and a joyous dinner, but nothing can proceed because the kallah is not there. Where is the kallah? You cannot have a wedding without a kallah. So instead of a happy celebration, you have a tragedy. A true horror story.

And so, yes: we have a Jewish state. We even have yeshivos, Torah and mitzvos. We seem to have everything. But, in reality, one thing is missing. The kallah is not there; the Shechina of Hakodosh Baruch Hu is not in evidence. As a result, we have no geulah. Geulah will come when Hashem reddems the Jewish people and, in the process of doing so, fedeems the whole world. Thsi will lead to the type of world that has been promised to us: a world brimming with peace and without evil; a world governed by truth, honesty and righteousness; a world where tzaddikim will blossom and resha'im will disappear. It is this world that we do not yet have, and which we yearn for every Tishah B'Av. We ask for a wedding at which the kallah will be present.

What, then, do we actually mean by geulah? Will this be some mystical, miraculous era? Not necessarily. The Rambam says that miracles do not have to happen. The Jewish people will be a holy people, a "priestly nation". Yet, this can come about in a very natural way. However, one thing is clear: The geulah will come about only through teshuvah. And that is why we are still waiting, why we have not yet achieved even the beginning of geulah. Simply put, we have not done teshuvah.

There are so many signs that Moshiach is close. In fact, there is a whole list of things that will happen b'ikvos Ha'Mashiach, in the days of the Mashiack. FIfty years ago, Rav Elchonon Wassermen zt"l advised me to write a sefer about the pre-Mashiach era, and told me exactly what to write. I composed it in Hebrew, entitled it Bais Ha'shoeivah, and published it anonymously. By this time, Reb Elchonon had already returned to Poland, and he eventually gave up his life al kiddush Hashem. About ten years ago, the sefer was republished, again in Hebrew, and it contains all the information available about the coming of Moshiach. Most of the conditions have come true, but Moshiach has not come yet. The catastrophes have occured, and the signs looked hopeful. But then they faded again. It is clear that our level of teshuva has not been sufficiently high.

The most promising sign of geulah today is, in my opinion, the baal teshuvah movement. That is osmehing quite new. When I was yong, there was only one notable baal teshuvah. He was Dr. Nathan Birnbaum, the former friend of Herzl, who coined the term "Zionism". First he was a Socialist and Bundist, then a Zionist, and finally he broke with his former associates and wrote books about teshuvah in German. In my yeshiva, there was only one baal teshuva, who also died al kiddush Hashem. Nowadays, though, there are thousands of men and women who have forsaken their previous lifestyles and adopted Torah ideals. This voluntary return to the fold is one of the signs heralding the coming of Mashiach. If this becomes a mass movement, then the geulah might indded be near.

What, really, is a baal teshuvah? In actuality, a peson who was never religious and becomes so is not a baal teshuvah, because it cannot be said that he is "returning" to something that he never knew before. A real baal teshuvah is someone who was raised in a religious atmosphere and sinned, and then wants to repent. If it were up to me, I would call those who adopt Torah Yiddishkeit, "Tzaddikim". But the term "baal teshuvah" seems to have been accepted, although it is a bit misleading.

Let us explore the concept of teshuva itself. We say every day in our tefillos: "Bring us back, our Father, to Your Torah; bring us close, our King, to Your Torah, and let us return in total teshuvah before You.... Who delights in teshuvah." Immediately afterwards, we say, "Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned; forgive us for we have rebelled against You; because you are a King Who forgives and grants atonement." Our teshuvah is based on the fact that a person can change his past deeds. What, exactly, does that mean?

The Chachamim say that teshuvah was created before the world was formed. This is a very strange statement indeed! How could anything have been created before the world itself came into being?

When we speak of the creation of the world, we believe that it was formed yesh me'ayin, a tangible reality out of nothing. This is possible obly for the Almighty, with His infinite powers. Yer even science, which does not believe in a Creator, admits that first there was nothing, and then something appeared. The earlier conditions no longer prevailed.

Now let us consider a grave sin like the murder of Hevel by Kayin. According to our sages, Kayin did teshuvah for his crime. But what does that mean? Can this teshuvah bring back Hevel? Certainly not; he is dead. It is not like a case of robbery, where the money can be returned. Here the act cannot be undone.

Yet this is the wonder of teshuvah. If someone fully and sincerely repents, then Hashem considers it as if the crime had never been done. Instead of yesh me'ayin, we have ayin me'yesh. He turns the yesh of the crime into an ayin - a negation of an act that has already taken place. So in this sense, teshuvah was created before the formation of the world. Because teshuvah returns conditions to where they were before the Creation to the status of ayin. The misdeed is considered null and void.

This explains the statement of Chazal that "Whoever says that King David sinned is mistaken." On the surface, it seems strange for the chachamim to have come to this conclusion. After all, the tanach is very direct in its descriptions of David's actions; it does not whitewash anyone. Certainly it is clear from the tanach that David committed some sin in regard to Batsheva. Why, then, is it wrong to think that David did do something improper?

The answer is that David sinned, but he also did teshuvah. And, as we have said, once someone has repented wholeheartedly and has committed himself to not repeating his mistake, it is as if he has not sinned at all. Consequently, once David did teshuvah, any sin he may have committed was wiped off the books. Therefore, Chazal can truthgully say that he did not sin at all.

This is the great miracle of teshuvah. One who truly performs teshuvah says viduy and demonstrates that he is sincere about being ashamed of his actions and will never repeat them. Then Hshem forgives him, and wipes out the fact of the action. Of course, if a person sinned because of lack of knowledge, and then became aware of his obligations, it is easier for him to do teshuvah than if he did the action deliberately. And if someone sinned because his desires overcame him, it is easier for him to repent than for someone who sinned spiterully and rebelliously. Yet, no matter what prompted his wrongdoing, anyone can do teshuvah, for there is no limit to repentance.

This was demonstrated to me through a personal experience that happened while I was in Baltimore. I was called to visit a Jewish man from Vienna who was in a hospital, dying of tuberculosis. The first thing he said when I came into his room was, "How much do you charge?"

I said, "I never charge anything."

"Oh, that's good. Because I have no money."

I said, "Don't even think about that. It costs nothing."

Then he told the nurse, "Please leave, I have to talk to the Rabbi alone." He started to cough violently, and the nurse stayed to help him. But then he asked her again to leave.

When we were alone, he began telling me his life story. He had come from a religious family in Vienna. Nevertheless, he gave up all his religious ties and lived a life without any restraints. Then his son married a non-Jewish woman, and he realized that he had done wrong. Now here he was, dying, and he wanted to say Viduy, to confess his sins.

Then he started to scream. He shouted out the name of Hashem. And the he spoke directly to Hashem: "I was the greatest sinner! I wasted my life! How can I appear before You?" It was so heart - rending. Whenever I remember it, I start to tremble. Then he started to cough violently again, and the nurse came in.

I tried to comfort him. "Don't get excite. I'll come again. You don't have to tell me everything today. I'll see you again tomorrow."

In fact, I saw him the next day, but not in the hospital. In the middle of the night the phone rang. "Can you come to a funeral? A man died and he was all alone, and there's no one to take care of things."

It was this man; he had died that night. We barely had a minyan for his funeral and none of those who came knew him. I was asked to make a hesped. "I knew this man for only a day," I said. Whatever his life was like, I do not know. But I know one thing: I know he did teshuvah. I never saw a man do teshuvah with such sincerity." And I meant it. Through this man, I could see what is meant by the power of teshuvah. We say in Neilah, "You wait until the day of his death." Hashem waits for man to do teshuvah, and then he accepts it. Then it is as if the man has done nothing wrong.

In his Hilchos Teshuvah, the Rambam states that no repentance is possible without Viduy, which means confession. This is the act of confessing one's wrongdoings to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

I remember waiting for a strret car once in Baltimore, in front of a Catholic Church. A lady emerged from the building and said to me, "Rabbi Schwab, you're probably surprised to see me coming out of a church."

I had no idea who the woman was or how she knew my name; I supposed she lived in my neighborhood. I simply replied, "Well, nothing really surprises me anymore."

"Actually, I'm Jewish," she continued. "But there's one thing that Catholics have over us Jews. They have Confession; it's such a wonderful thing. I can go to a priest and unburden myself. I don't see him, he doesn't see me, and he asks no questions. We Jews should have something like that."

I didn't want to tell her that if she wanted to unburden herself she could also have gone to a psychoanaylst. I did say, "But we Jews do have confession. We say it every day. It's called Viduy. On Yom Kippur we say Viduy nine times."

She said, "Yes, but nobody is listening."

"What do you mean nobody is listening? What you mean is, no human being is listening. And, in reality, it's no business of another person to hear my sins; he's no better than I. But Someone is indeed listening; G-d. And, in fact, we confess to Him every day, when we say the Tachanun prayer. We have special periods during the year, starting with the days of Selichos before Rosh Hashanah, and especially on Yom Kuppur, when we confess our sins. And every person is free at any time, either before he goes to bed, or whenever, to say confession to G-d."

The Rambam states that this is a mitzvah from the Torah: "And they shall confess their sins." But no other person should hear it. It is strictly a matter between you and Hashem.

For the geulah to come, all Klal Yisrael must become baalei teshuvah. The tzaddikim must do teshuvah for small misdeeds, and those who are not tzaddikim must do teshuvah for wieghtier sins. But each of us has to do teshuvah. And b'zchus hateshuvah, Mashiack will come. It is as simple as that. As long as Moshiach has not come, we have no geulah.

That is why we say "You grant a person intelligence and understanding" first in the tefillah. This is then followed by the prayer for teshuvah, "Return us to your Torah". First is understanding, and then teshuvah. One has to have the intelligence to learn Torah, to know what he did wrong. We repent, and then it says "Hashem will forgive us." Only then do we say "Re'eh b'anyeinu ........ Goel Yisrael." ONly then will the geulah come. This is why on a taanis the chazzan inserts the paragraph of "Aneinu" after "Goel Yisrael" because we are praying for the geulah.

We have no doubts that the geulah will come. Hashem has promised us that we will be redeemed. However, He did not tell us when. That is why we always add the words "speedily in our days". "Soon" could be a thousand years to Hashem. Therefore we make it clear that we ask Hashem to send the geulah quickly, "in our days."

With written permission from C.I.S. Publications, Lakewood, NJ

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