By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
Little Johnny watched, fascinated, as his mother sprayed furniture polish on her old dining-room table. “Why do you do that, Mommy?” he asked. “To make the table beautiful,” said his mother, who then began removing the foam with a tissue. “What’s the matter?” asked Little Johnny. “Giving up already?”
While the Beis HaMikdash was standing, most locales had the mitzvah of lulav and esrog for only one day of Sukkos, but the mitzvah lasted for seven days in the Beis HaMikdash. Some commentators suggest that the mitzvah was seven days on the entire Temple Mount or even perhaps in all of Yerushalayim. After the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakai enacted that all locales should fulfill the mitzvah of lulav and esrog for seven days as a remembrance of what was the common practice in the vicinity of the Beis HaMikdash.
The mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 30a) lists another enactment that Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakai made at the same time as the aforementioned one. There is a biblical prohibition against the consumption of grain from the new crop until the Korban Omer was brought on the second day of Pesach. If one was not present at the Beis HaMikdash, he could begin to eat from the new crop of grain at midday on the 16th of Nissan. This is because one can safely assume that the Korban Omer was certainly brought by midday. Once the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, the new grain is permitted immediately on the morning of the 16th of Nissan (the second day of Pesach). However, Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakai instituted that for the duration of the entire 16th day of Nissan, the new grain should not be consumed.
This is to prevent possible confusion. People may grow accustomed to consuming the new grain immediately on the morning of the 16th. Hopefully, very soon the Beis HaMikdash will be rebuilt and the halachah will revert to its original version—that the new grain can only be consumed after the Korban Omer was brought. Therefore, if someone ate from the new crop of grain right away in the morning, he would transgress a biblical prohibition. Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakai was afraid that people would not realize that the halachah changed after the Beis HaMikdash was rebuilt. They wouldn’t wait until midday but rather eat a bowl of Cheerios made from the new crop of oats right after davening. To forestall this error, he instituted that no one should eat foodstuffs produced from the new grain crop the entire 16th day of Nissan. If someone continued this practice even after the Beis HaMikdash was built, no halachah would be violated.
What is the connection between these two newly instituted practices, taking the lulav for seven days and not consuming the new grain on the entire 16th day of Nissan, that they were both enacted at the same time? The Imrei Emes suggests that after Rebbe Yochanan’s first enactment, people became despondent. People wondered, “Why is Rebbe Yochanan making a takanah to remember the practices of the Holy Temple? Perhaps he suspects that it won’t be rebuilt for quite a while.” Therefore people despaired. They stopped praying for the Beis HaMikdash to be rebuilt. Perhaps they stopped repenting, reasoning that it was hopeless. Whereupon Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakai instituted a second practice that had the exact opposite implication. He instituted that people should not eat from the new grain crop on the 16th day of Nissan this year because perhaps the very next year the Beis HaMikdash would be rebuilt. People took notice. “Is this takanah really necessary? Is it really possible that the Beis HaMikdash might be rebuilt next year? Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakai must think so!”
Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakai was cognizant of the insidious nature of despondent thoughts. They are a monumental obstacle to avodas Hashem. A new takanah was necessary that countered these thoughts.
A similar idea is expressed in regard to another of Rebbe Yochanan’s takanos (according to Rav Nachman). On Yom Kippur, a piece of red wool was hung outside the Antechamber in the Beis HaMikdash. After the azazel ceremony, if Hashem forgave the Jewish nation, the crimson wool turned white. If, unfortunately, their sins were not cleansed, the red wool remained unchanged. The effect was that if the wool turned white, there was a celebration; if it stayed red, everyone was somber. Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakai deemed this result improper. He suggested that the wool be hidden from public view so that the masses would not know if it changed color.
The commentators are perplexed at the need for hiding the strip of wool. If the nation’s sins were forgiven, isn’t that indeed a cause for celebration? If their sins were not forgiven, the nation rightly should be somber! The Aruch L’ner explains that the wool only reflected on the status of the nation as a whole. It did not reflect on any individual. If the wool turned white, an individual might say “I no longer need to repent.” This might not be true; his sins might not have been forgiven. The wool only indicated that, judged as a whole, the nation’s sins were forgiven. To preclude this error, the wool was hidden from view, so that sinful individuals would still repent.
The Shem m’Shmuel suggests that the problem was when the wool stayed red. Perhaps the nation repented and fully expected the wool to turn white. The fact that the wool stayed red was a crushing blow. Perhaps in earlier generations the nation was able to galvanize and rededicate themselves after witnessing the depressing omen. But Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakai realized that in his generation, the negative omen was having a disastrous effect. Instead of repenting more, people simply gave up. “What use is there to repent, since Hashem will not accept our teshuvah, R’l? We are sinners and hopelessly wicked.” These depressing thoughts were counterproductive. Consequently, since the nation did not respond to the omen properly, it was necessary to hide it from view. Once again this illustrates the adverse effect of thoughts of despair.
Rav Henoch Leibowitz, zt’l, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, related that he once told his father, “I’m a good-for-nothing.” His father, a talmid of the Alter of Slabodka, responded, “Maybe you are right; maybe you are wrong. But do these feelings and thoughts help your avodas Hashem or impede it?” The rosh yeshiva conceded, “They impede it.” His father countered, “Then these thoughts are just a tool of the yetzer ha’ra.”
The way to determine the difference between inappropriate negative thoughts and appropriate ones is based on the consequences of them (Inyanei Hashkafah by Rabbi Shaya Bauman). For example, one facet of teshuvah is regretting one’s misdeeds. Appropriate thoughts of regret will lead a person to strive to perfect his behavior. If dwelling on one’s sins depresses him and immobilizes him, then those thoughts are inappropriate. This is highly subjective and one must determine the effect specific thought processes have on him.
Perhaps one may argue and say that Rabbeinu Yonah in Shaarei Teshuvah mandates thoughts of regret as part of the teshuvah process. Is it possible to suggest that one leave out that step? No one is suggesting leaving out any step. Rather, the preferred sequence of teshuvah steps may need to be changed. One can always return to that step later. Rabbeinu Yonah in his work Yesod HaTeshuvah suggests this very idea. He writes that on the day that one decides to sincerely repent, he should imagine himself newly born and free of sin. How can this be? True repentance means dwelling on one’s past misdeeds and regretting them. Rabbeinu Yonah wrote that regret is an essential part of teshuvah!
Apparently, Rabbeinu Yonah is teaching us that at times our past sins are like a heavy anchor. They weigh us down and immobilize us. The only way to move forward is to imagine a fresh start with a clean slate. At some point later, the individual will return and dwell on his past aveiros.
In this vein, Rabbi Avraham Weinberg of Slonim told of a general who received a report that the enemy had broken through his lines of defense. The general was visibly shaken by the message and his facial expression manifested despair. The general’s wife said to him, “I have just received a message that is worse than yours.”
“Please tell me what it is,” requested the general.
“Looking at your face I see that you have given up hope,” replied his wife. “Discouragement is worse than the loss of our lines of defense.”
“Similarly,” said Rabbi Avraham, “feeling discouraged because of failure is worse than the failure itself.” (Begin Again Now by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin)
When appropriate, we must focus on the future and our possible success rather than dwelling on our past. v
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.