He Never Promised Us A Rose Garden

Tisha B’Av may not be anyone’s favorite, but it may be just what the Good Doctor ordered to treat a very modern malady.

Jewish calendar events, we are told[1], are never commemoratives. We don’t remember things past, but re-experience them. Each event puts us in close proximity to some spiritual commodity that ripens at the appointed time, and begs to then be plucked from its celestial tree. We avail ourselves of personal freedom at Pesach, Torah at Shavuos, bitachon at Sukkos. Yom Kippur could be termed the ultimate free lunch. In a bit over 24 hours, we can win a reprieve from death or disaster, and – more importantly – restore our innocence and relationship with our Heavenly Father. What greater payoff could there possibly be?

We would have a hard time arriving at a consensus about the holiday or event that does the most for us in modern times. We would find ourselves arguing, as Jews are wont to do, about defining terms. Who is “us?” Perhaps Chanukah should walk away with the “value-added” honors, since it has moved ahead of Pesach in keeping vast numbers of non-observant Jews loosely tethered to their religious identity. For those who place greater value on building up the core group that most likely will assure Jewish continuity, perhaps Pesach should remain in first place, since hundreds of thousands stagger away from the seder table, fatigued by the lateness of the hour, but exhilarated by the annual participatory review of all principles and ideas crucial to Jewish thought. Could this be the greatest take-away?

Maybe there is a new dark-horse contender: Tisha B’Av. We don’t expect it to leave us beaming and excited. But it may work like root-canal. We hate the procedure, but are grateful that it removes the rot that can be dangerous or even fatal.

The abscess here is not one we speak about too often. Maybe we have too many other things to worry about. But it has lodged in our national person, and seems likely to spread. Let’s consider a few high-risk populations.

For decades, many (not all!) prospective baalei teshuvah were recruited by promising them a garden of earthly and non-earthly delights. Becoming frum was the way to happiness, success, finding a spouse, and always, always being able to face each day with a smile. People joined, largely because it was the best deal that they heard about. Many, in time, found much deeper reasons to maintain an observant life style. But some didn’t. And some of those also found that what they got was not everything they had hoped to get. This was especially true of those who did not find the marital relationship they were looking for. They woke up years later with buyer’s remorse. More importantly, perhaps, those who joined up for cause, and were not disappointed, subtly transmitted a similar approach to their children. Too many second-generation kids are now dropping out because they have approached Judaism the same way. Consciously or otherwise, they have a check-list of what Torah is “supposed to do” for them. If it doesn’t, they are out of here faster than a new iPhone becomes yesterday’s antique.

People are motivated to convert to Judaism for all sorts of initial reasons. Often, it is connected with a Jewish significant other. Some are spiritual seekers. Yet others are what could be called cholent Jews. They come for the kiddush, stay for the warm-fuzzies, and sign-up for the promise of community and camaraderie. If the community later disappoints them, some of them check out.

Those described so far as leaving the fold all suffered dashed expectations. We might think that only a recently-minted connection to Torah Judaism could be severed by mere disappointment. Those who knew Yiddishkeit from the cradle are joined at the hip to its truth. They may show some signs of strain, and become vulnerable to new challenges by the yetzer hora. But they do not give up their core belief.

We would be wrong. It is happening all around us. It is happening in the Modern Orthodox community; it is happening in the haredi community. People who simply find Yiddishkeit unsatisfying – leave. They grew up with expectations and thoughts of entitlements – from the community, and from Hashem. If they and He don’t deliver, they are ready to take their neshamah elsewhere.

We could stop and analyze why the chinuch we have provided our children has been inadequate to keep them connected despite disappointment, but that is not the purpose of this essay. (Very different answers to that question apply to the MO and haredi communities.) One essential error underlies the thinking of all who use a check-list method of affiliation: Torah is binding because Torah is true. It does not have to “work” for us. HKBH created us, molded us into a people, entered into a mutual, binding contract with us. He is entitled to demand our obedience, and in fact does.

Now, it is quite true that we would have little success convincing our children to subscribe to our beliefs if they were presented as darkly and austerely as the last few lines. Those lines certainly do not do justice to our mesorah! We need to explain to ourselves and our children that all of that is true – but so is Hashem’s unimaginable goodness, His love for Man, His patience and kindness. We need to allow our imaginations to luxuriate in contemplation of the eternal reward in an afterlife, and delight in the certainty of a messianic utopia still in this world. We need to understand, as best as we can, all the whys and wherefores of our Yiddishkeit that the human mind is capable of comprehending. We need to remind ourselves that nothing can enhance Him, and that everything He asks of us can only be for our good.

We also, however, need to realize that we are duty-bound to rigorously follow the precepts of the

Torah whether they seem to pay off for us or not, whether they are convenient or seem burdensome, whether they are in synch with modern sensitivities or clash with them. As Maharal explains,[2] knowing that Hashem’s demands upon us serve our interests does not conflict with our dealing with them mentally as Divine edicts.

Most of us know all of this. Some of us sometimes get deflected from the message through all the opposing stuff that we are exposed to.

Here is where Tisha B’Av comes in. To be sure, it has its own avodah.[3]It also brings with it a huge dividend. Reading the heart-wrenching kinos of death and destruction over centuries, supplementing them (as many do) with contemporary accounts of Holocaust survivors, we come to realize that our ancestors – century after century of them – did not follow the Torah because it was convenient. They did not indulge in the fantasy, “I refuse to believe in a G-d who did X,Y, or Z to me.” They did not treat belief in Him or His Torah as something volitional. They stuck with it through unimaginable suffering and adversity. They stuck with it because they knew it to be true.

Nefesh Ha-Chaim explains the nachash ha-nechoshes as an extreme exercise in bitachon. It was insufficient for those in the wilderness to daven to Hashem for help, looking to Him rather than focusing on the dangerous snakes that were set upon them. To the contrary, they had to stare at the mortal threat, look it straight in the eye, and tell themselves that it had no power over them at all, if they had Hashem in their corner. Tisha B’Av does something similar to us. We focus on all the misery that has befallen us as a people, and realize with pride that we are part of a people with loyalty to Hashem and His truth, no matter what hand He deals us. And we go right on.

The lesson, relived each year, could not be more powerful or more needed today. When all is said and done, when we revisit the question with which we opened this discussion, we realize that, on some level, the question itself is illegitimate. At times, we cannot ask what the take-way is. We remind ourselves that ultimately, it is not for us to ask.

[1] Maharal, R. Dessler, others

[2] Tifferes Yisrael, chapter 6

[3] See Nesivos Shalom, Bein Ha-Metzarim, 1

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19 Responses

  1. joel rich says:

    It would be interesting to know what portion of each population this affects and whether the purveyors realize what they are setting up for in the long run?  We won’t convert a child not being brought up in a frum home because the deck is stacked against him…….

    She-nir’eh et nehamat Yerushalayim u-binyanah bi-mherah ve-yamenu,

  2. mb says:

    Wonderful article.

    For me, the “event” that does it is Iyar 5th/ May 14th 1948. Nothing comes close to seeing God’s love and goodness on a daily basis ever since.


  3. Steve brizel says:

    What a powerful and insightful article!

  4. Alexandra Fleksher says:

    Thank you for this very important piece!

  5. Jake says:

    While I don’t disagree with the author’s sentiments, there are obviously other equally important lessons to be gleaned from the Churbanos:

    Avoiding sinas chinam, not embarrassing others, not standing by & letting others be taken advantage of, not bearing a grudge, being assertive when the moment calls for it, (Kamtza/Bar Kamtza/zecharya ben avkulis and the chachamim); appreciating the joys of Torah (shelo barchu…)

    … and obviously avoiding any shemetz of the Cardinal 3.

    • S. Jacobs says:

      Absolutely!  And this bears out and adds another dimension to R. Adlerstein’s excellent piece – that in the final analysis, it is we who are ultimately to blame for our misfortunes.

      One of R. Avraham Twersky’s most powerful anecdotes  is what he was told by one of his alcoholic patients.

      She told him that  her drinking  came from feeling she was  the victim of circumstances and of other people’s treatment, which she was powerless to change, causing her to wallow in futile and enervating self pity.   She finally found the strength to rehabilitate her life when she realized that the ability to take charge of her life was dependent on herself.

      This is empowering, as it means we have it in our hands to influence our situation, if not reverse it.

      In one of R. Moshe Hauer’s lectures on the Yom Kippur tefilot, he theorizes that a reason we sing the “Al Cheits” in the chazarat hashatz in an upbeat tune ,  is that it is followed by  “אתה צדיק על כל הבא עלינו, כי אמת עשית ואנחנו הרשענו” .   In other words, by admitting that it is we ourselves who have brought about our predicament, Hashem has given us the opportunity to change it, and it is precisely the sufferings that we undergo that serve as a trigger for tshuva, just like an agonizing toothache will finally drive us to the dentist for treatment that we should have begun months ago!

      By reacting wisely to suffering, and by mourning on, and learning the lessons of Tisha Beav, we are given the opportunity to see the extent of Hashem’s chesed to us.

  6. Zvi Lampel says:

    our ancestors – century after century of them – did not follow the Torah because it was convenient. They did not indulge in the fantasy, “I refuse to believe in a G-d who did X,Y, or Z to me.” They did not treat belief in Him or His Torah as something volitional. They stuck with it through unimaginable suffering and adversity. They stuck with it because they knew it to be true.

    A serious reading of Tanach–starting with the lives of the Avos–would also help in recognizing that life is not meant to be a piece of cake.

    Zvi Lampel

  7. Shunamit says:

    What “warm fuzzies”? As a convert, I don’t recall getting any of those until years later.

    • Then I guess we owe you a few! I’m only echoing what I have heard from candidates who have appeared before us through the years sitting on a beis-din in a particularly gerim-friendly community. Unlike some others, we’ve actually kept tabs over the years on what candidates have expressed as their initial reason for exploring Judaism.

      • Shunamit says:

        Had I been looking for warm fuzzies, I would have become a Christian, because there were certainly enough of them around.

        My husband, who was raised in a very traditional family, sent to day school, summer camp, and Israel programs, has always said that he envies the accumulated experience that many gerim have, When you have to earn something, you can truly value it and know it is yours.

  8. Shunamit says:

    Come to think of it, many of us converts just assumed those “Warm Fuzzies” were for the ba’alei tshuva and for other people’s kids. Because otherwise they might not stick around. We were always told that the community and the rabbanim didn’t have the time, energy, or money to waste on us, so we generally become pretty self-motivating and self- reliant.

  9. Chuck Davidson says:

    Having worked with hundreds of converts in Israel and around the world over the last 10 years … not only as a member of a beit din but also, and primarily, pre- and post- conversion … I must take issue with the following statement in this post:
    “People convert to Judaism for all sorts of reasons. Often, it is connected with a Jewish significant other. Some are spiritual seekers. Yet others are what could be called cholent Jews. They come for the kiddush, stay for the warm-fuzzies, and sign-up for the promise of community and camaraderie. If the community later disappoints them, some of them check out.”

    From my experience, the “checking out” phenomenon does not generally derive from the community disappointing them. It all too often derives from the community never fully accepting them!
    Maybe, just maybe, the frum community, in trying to understand why a convert might “check out”, should look in a mirror rather than at the convert?

    • Not sure what your comment has to do with my piece, which was about Tisha B’Av. It is a very important point – one I agree with in part. But it is the more important part.

      I guess we must be colleagues. I also sit on a beis din for giyur, and have for many years. I’ve listened to more explanations of what attracted candidates to Yiddishkeit than I can remember. (We go the extra mile. We actually keep records on a number of criteria, including initial impetus to explore conversion. I’m just reporting what I hear.

      There are multiple reasons for disappointment, including unreasonable expectations of a model community. Our beis din has a very good track record, but it is not perfect. There are those who drop out of practice years later, and some whose halachic standard shows precipitous decline shortly after the conversion, almost always when they live in communities with lesser expectations.

      Your point, however, is well taken. There is no question that in many communities, a hateful isolationist attitude makes life miserable for geirim – and not just when it comes to shidduchim. I really believe that there are fewer of those horror stories in Los Angeles, which is more laid back than some other places. LA has been blessed with many, many geirim who have become beloved, fully established figures in both the haredi and Modern Orthodox communities.

      And yes, I could write an entire volume just on the exotic stories of geirim from far-off places like China and the Congo whose motivation to convert had nothing to do with cholent, kugel, or expectations from the community. They sought out HKBH because they understood Who He is, and fiercely came to love Him. It remains true, however, that we see candidates who at least initially speak overwhelmingly about community and warmth – often encountered in part over the cholent pot at the Shabbos kiddush. BH, most graduate to something more significant. Those who don’t, however, are candidates for disappointment down the line, whether through the inuy ha-ger of communal rejection, or any of a host of other reasons.

  10. dr. bill says:

    i tend to disagree that not asking may be the ultimate answer.  during our long history, we have always asked about individual, communal and national tragedies.  the answers have included fundamental, esoteric, philosophical, mystical, profound, primitive, etc. responses.  the sources, biblical and talmudic, are subject to diverse interpretations.  some would argue those attempts at why have been strongly inconsistent.  as a rationalist, Rambam’s why, and the Rav ztl’s guidance to ask how to react NOT why, have been most appealing.

    • mycroft says:

      I have heard those influenced by the Rav and Rambam speaking after tragedies and modesty about understanding Gods ways is apparent. Remember Bilaam tried to understand Gods ways and he couldn’t even control his donkey. Vayidom Aharon . Or in my accounting expression- people can’t even understand GAAP-Generally Accepted Accounting Principles-yet they believe they can understand CAAP Celestial Accepted Accounting Principles.

  11. Arthur says:


  12. Meir Bulman says:

    Wonderful article.

    I think this might explain why Sefer Iyov is a “Tisha B’Av sefer”. After all, according to most opinions in the Gemara he was not Jewish, and he may not even have existed. His suffering has seemingly nothing to do with the churban or our national suffering.

    Yet the theme of the sefer is the absurdity of man’s attempt to understand G-d.

    ויען ד’ את איוב מן הסערה


    איפה היית ביסדי ארץ?

    May we not have to observe Tisha B’av this year. There’s still time.

  13. Mike S. says:

    While it is certainly true that “Torah is binding because Torah is true. It does not have to “work” for us.” God does, conditionally, promise us a rose garden.  As we recite twice a day in the second paragraph of Shma.   We just have to keep improving our behavior until we meet His condition.

  14. Jake says:

    The Batei Mikdash were destroyed because Jews of those Eras transgressed the Big 3 and Sinas Chinam, as well, of course, as the free will decisions of the Babylonians/Romans to actually do it.[Parenthetically, is there historical evidence/examples – in Chazal/Josephus or elsewhere – of Jews committing the Big 3 – ? I would be interested in seeing that.]

    In that vein, how are we supposed to approach Tisha B’av nowadays? We are far from perfect, obviously and do fall short in many areas, BUT many of us do not commit the Big 3, nor do we hate other Jews for no reason. Is it therefore reasonable to say that the Jews of those Eras messed things up for us? If so, how do we understand the teaching if we don’t “rebuild” the Temple in our days, it is as if we destroyed it? We are not doing the things that caused it’s destruction!

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