Tisha B’Av, 5768 / 2008

based on Zohar 3:158a

Everyone knows that Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av) is the lowest point of the Jewish calendar. HaShem’s protective aura thins, and we grow vulnerable to error and to harm. The downward tug of this time is ancient, and nearly impossible to resist. It started when Essav’s guardian angel attacked Yaakov on this day and dislocated his hip.[1] Since the hip area includes the generative triad (comprised of the three sefirot: netzach, hod, yesod) kabbala interprets this as an impurifying of the generations to come. The angel could not penetrate Yaakov’s protective aura, says R. Tsadok, but it was able to contaminate the seed-stock of the Jewish people with a smudge of its narcissistic filth.[2],[3] Most of the time we are able to prevail but in this month the balance tips and we are liable to succumb.

Since Yaakov is a forebear of archetypal status, his ordeals reverberate through the generations and play themselves out through our individual and collective lives. And so it is no surprise that on that fateful day (244 years later) the Israelites fell to their rock-bottom, lowest point in the desert (even worse than the Golden Calf) — they lost faith, doubted G‑d, and  despised His precious gift when they accepted the spies’ disparaging report about their holy Promised Land. (Num. 13-14).[4] And it is also no surprise that on that very same date both Temples burned and numerous other calamities befell the Jewish people.

The story of the spies is known:  After a year at Mount Sinai, having received their tablets and completed their Tabernacle, the Israelites set off for the holy land.  They arrived at the border and prepared to cross. Yet in a lapse of faith, they sent scouts to determine whether the land really was good, and how best to launch their impending conquest.  The spies returned with humongous fruits and reported that giants ruled the land. Their facts were straight but their interpretation was skewed. They implied that the Israelites faced certain death if they followed G‑d’s plan and commenced to invade.

Now these scouts who instigated this greatest sin in Jewish history were not the lowlife stragglers that had incited the Golden Calf.  These spies were gedolim, the most illustrious of their respective tribes. Their souls were of the stature of Mordecai, the courageous hero of our Purim tale.[5] How did they fall so low, misusing their power to influence the people to doubt G‑d’s word?

The Zohar explains a startling fact. The spies understood that crossing into the holy land would initiate a new era—the socio-political-power-structure would dissolve and reconstitute into a completely different form. Now they were princes, but across the border, in the new world, they’d become obsolete, for leadership there requires a completely different set of strengths.

The Zohar does not suggest that they wantonly schemed to sabotage HaShem’s plan. It seems more from a lack of self-awareness. The narcissistic taint (from Yaakov’s wound) welled up and distorted their perceptions. Their disowned anxiety about their own threatened status got projected outward and they perceived a lethal threat, where none in fact existed.  So cunning is the drive to preserve power that these who were distinguished by their fear of G‑d succumbed to corruption and broke the faith of the very ones they were charged to protect.

We expect falsifications to arise from “below” (from the lower self) but tend to suspend judgment when suspicious content issues from “above” (the higher self). The Baal Shem Tov explains that while wayward lusts ascend from below, power manipulations (i.e., the fruits of pride) descend from above.[6] This need to guard against crooked (and self-serving) interpretations that justify (or even compel) wrong action becomes the challenge of this time. And so it applies to each of our lives: The part of us that is most successful in the present, is also the part that is most resistant to change, progress and forward motion. Its interest is to preserve the present, which is an important value but, unchecked, its fear of rocking the boat can keep us from completing our journey, of crossing the border into an even more holy land, of examining our hearts and achieving an even more purified self. And this unrectified attachment to power and status is also the hidden agent of causeless hatred, the root of exile and the greatest barrier to Redemption.

Let it be that as individuals and as a nation, that we find the wisdom to know which of our options is truly the “path of life” and grant us the courage to pursue it. Let our leaders (both inside and out) always be willing to die for truth. May the merit of our striving for integrity and our fierce inner-work allow us to claim, this very day, without dispute, our precious Holy Land.

[1] Zohar 1:170b; R. Tsadok Hokohen, Kometz Mincha, (Yahadut, Bnei Brak, 5735 / 1975), p. 71-78 (*74); R. Natan Sternholz of Beslov, Likutey Halachoth, Orach Chaim, Hilchoth Hodayah 6:25.

[2] R. Tsadok Hokohen, ibid.

[3] Gen. 36:1 identifies Essav with Edom, and Gen. 36:31-39 describes the “kings that ruled in Edom before there was a king to the children of Israel.” R. Isaac Luria (Ari) reads this passage as hinting to the seven primordial universes created and destroyed before our own, or eighth in the sequence. These first seven kings (or primordial worlds) were riddled with narcissism and shared a lust to rule the world (“ani emlokh”). Consequently, in kabbala, Edom becomes synonymous with power-lust and narcissism.

[4] HaShem forgave the Golden Calf but would not forgive the sin of the spies.  As a consequence of their lapse of faith, the Israelites were sentenced to 38 more years of desert wandering before they entered their Holy Land.  This was in order that all the adults who succumbed to this hysteria of non-faith and rejection of the Promised Land would die in the desert, and only their descendents would actually enter the Land of Israel.

[5] Yedid Nefesh on Zohar 2:158a. In the language of kabbala, the souls of the spies came from the sparks that broke through the yesod of aba, and in Pri Etz Chayim on Purim, the Ari describes Mordecai’s soul in exactly this way.

[6] Torah of the Baal Shem Tov, Parashat Ki Tissa, 9, 10 and Makor Mayim Chayim there.

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