Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Tisha B'Av: A Day of Tears, A Day of Hope, A Catalyst for Teshuvah Mei'ahavah

"Hashiveinu Hashem eilecha ve'nashuvah; chadesh yameinu kekedem". Although it is the penultimate pasuk in Eichah, it is the verse that we repeat to conclude our oral rendition of this harrowing chronicle of national loss and suffering. At first glance, this pasuk, a plea for Divine assistance to attain repentance and redemption, seems to be a surprising choice to culminate the intense, even relentless depiction of collective agony engendered by the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash and Yerushalyim. The fact that this unanticipated climax entails twin dialectics - a) hashivenu-ve-nashuvah that blurs the lines between Divine and human initiative in teshuvah (See Midrash Eichah ad loc on this point), and b) chadesh-kekedem that characterizes the restored relationship between Klal Yisrael and Hashem also as a chidush - something innovative, further commands our attention as we ponder this curious choice.

To be sure, the decision to end on a hopeful, positive note is understandable (Rashi, end of Eichah). This is psychologically consistent with other halachic norms and institutions, and specifically conforms as well with the transition that occurs at the end of kinot on Tisha B'Av day, leading also to the post-chazot phase of this time of national mourning. Moreover, the emphasis on teshuvah in this aveilut context, superficially puzzling, in fact could not be more appropriate. Rambam (Hilchot Ta'anit 1:5) characterizes all of the tzomot enumerated in Zecharyah and the very institution of ta'anit as "mi-darkei ha-teshuvah", as stimuli that provoke profound introspection and that motivate heartfelt repentance. As the most intense of the national tzomot, it is certainly fitting that Tisha B'Av explicate and accentuate the teshuvah theme. At the same time, Eichah, typically recited at night and according to some authorities again in the morning, is read at a time that precedes the appropriate injection of nechamah. Furthermore, the hashiveinu conclusion anyway is more a plea and prayer than an expression of consolation. In any case, as the final sentiment expressed in Eichah, this distinctive articulation of teshuvah requires closer examination.

The Targum's renders "venashuvah" - "venatuv beteyuvta sheleimta", a reference to the rare attainment of a maximal repentance. Evidently, the twin dialectical components, cited previously, connote a profound and ambitious spiritual program. Rav Cayim Volozhiner (Nefesh ha-Hayim 4:31, cited also in this context by Rinat Yitzhak, Eichah 5:21), posits that "teshuvah sheleimah" generally refers to the category of teshuvah mei'ahavah that, according to the gemara (Yoma 86a), transforms sin into merits! Perhaps this stunning paradigm also embodies the challenge of Tisha B'Av mourning.

Sin and suffering are inherently negative, yet the spiritual challenge they pose also presents an opportunity to redirect one's life and reprioritize one's values. The doctrine of teshuvah mei'ahavah acutely illustrates this spiritual axiom. If the experience of alienation and desolation triggered by irrevocable loss or by misconduct that compromises our most important bond - with Hashem - awakens a deeper sense of conviction, dependence, and especially ahavat Hashem then the entire process is redemptive and even constructive, notwithstanding the lingering pain that was engendered. In this sense, teshuvah mei'ahavah produces a net benefit without minimizing the calamity that produced it.

The dialectics of hashivenu-venashuvah and chadesh-kekedem formulated in this Eichah verse reflect this. Rabbeinu Yonah (Shaarei Teshuvah 1:1, cited also by Rinat Yitzhak ad loc) notes that typically the initiation of authentic ahavat Hashem mandates Divine initiative. Hence, this maximalist teshuvah begins with the plea - "hashivenu Hashem eilecha." At the same time, the cultivation of teshuvah mei'ahavah in a manner that is potentially transformative and redemptive, requires not merely a passive response, but an energetic counter-initiative - "ve-nashuvah". Moreover, when pursued with more cognizance of the stakes and greater appreciation for the magnitude of this relationship, the goal - to retrieve and restore a shattered past (kekedem) - invariably advances, even catapults the relationship and produces important new dimensions (chadesh yameinu) in this defining, indispensable bond.

Elsewhere (Tishah B'Av [and the Status of Tishah B'Av nidchah]: A Day of Intense Mourning and Intensive National Unity and Identification) we have suggested that mourning the churban tests our core identity and challenges us to cultivate deeper ahavat Hashem, greater ahavat Yisrael, and a more profound sense of common national destiny. The capacity to authentically experience anguish over millennia-old national losses by means of the halachic structure and vehicles of aveilut yeshanah u-derabim (Yevmot 40b), reflects spiritual progress and constitutes a redemptive achievement, a kiyum in its own right. As Eikah's catalogue of tragic loss concludes, there is no more appropriate coda than repeating the plea for the attainment of teshuvah mei'ahavah, and by extension, underscoring the capacity to advance by constructively overcoming and redeeming spiritual adversity. This final emphasis not only projects nechamah, hope, the promise of enhanced spirituality in the aftermath of and as a response to sadness and tears, but also paves the way forward to the singular teshuvah opportunity of chodesh Elul.

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