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Something To Cry About

Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 )

by Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt

Understanding the roots of Tisha B’Av.

This week's portion recalls how the Jewish people cried when the 12 spies returned from scouting the Land of Israel (Deut. 1:45). They cried out of self-pity: "Israel is not going to be an easy land to conquer. To build and settle it will be even harder!" Instead of embracing the challenge, they cried.

As ever, the Torah is talking about something that is part of human nature. When things are tough, it's so much easier to wallow in our own self-pity than to embrace and overcome the challenge.

The Sages tell us that the date the spies returned was the 9th of Av. God decreed that because the Jewish people cried on this date for no reason, in future times - on this same date - He would give them good reason to cry. And so, on this date, both Holy Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, the Jews were expelled from Spain, and many other tragedies befell the Jewish people.

At first glance, it may seem a bit harsh and even vindictive on God's part: "You cried for no reason, so I will give you something to cry about."

I believe the point is this: If you are going to cry anyway, then better that you have a reason to do so. In other words, it is better to cry from pain, than from self-pity.

In Jewish thinking, crying is usually considered an important expression of emotion. If you cry to express pain, be it physical or emotional, that's healthy. If you cry in frustration at being unable to achieve what you want, that's also healthy. But crying in self-pity, at your hopeless situation in life, can only be destructive. It undermines your resolve to face the challenges of this world. And so, if you must cry, better that you have good reason to do so.

This is what God said to the generation of the spies: If you are going to cry anyway, I will give you a reason to do so - so that your crying can at least be productive.

The same is potentially true for us. If we cry for no reason, God may just give us reason to cry. When I returned from a trip to Poland, a place where Jews had reason to cry for hundreds of years, this point was all the more poignant for me. Having walked on the graves of over 600,000 Jews in Belzec, more in Treblinka and perhaps even more in Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was a reminder for me today of just how good we have it. Surely we have nothing to cry about. Surely we should celebrate how good our lives are.

Surely the Jews in the desert should have celebrated, too. But they chose to cry instead - just as we often choose to cry. And that is truly something to cry about.

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