There was a Torah scholar in the town Medzibuz (presently in the Ukraine) who was not respected by the townspeople. Frustrated by this lack of respect, the scholar asked the great Baal Shem Tov (also known as the Besht) what he was doing wrong. The Besht did not immediately answer him. But later, during the winter, he told some of his students to visit the scholar and see if his house was cold inside. When the students visited him, they found that his house was freezing. The scholar made no effort to heat it properly even though he had the means to do so. When the students reported this to the Besht, he said, “A cold house, a cold Jew!” Asked to explain his remark, he replied, “He’s cold to himself and cold to others. So people are cold to him, measure for measure.” The scholar didn’t want to invest in himself, even when there was a real need. In the same way, he didn’t want to invest in others. Because of his stingy nature, people treated him accordingly. The scholar returned to the Baal Shem Tov, seeking guidance. The Besht told him, “Be a warm Jew, and others will be warm to you!” (Yitzhak Buxbaum, The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov)
This Wednesday evening, we enter Tisha B’Av, one of the darkest days on the Jewish calendar. Many terrible things have happened to Jewish people on Tisha B’Av (which means the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av) throughout history, including the destruction of Temple – the very heart of ancient Jewish life.
The Temple was destroyed on Tisha B’Av not once, but twice. The first destruction took place at the hands of the Babylonians on the 9th of Av 587 BCE. After being rebuilt by our ancestors, the Temple was destroyed again on the 9th of Av 70 CE by the Romans. While invaders technically swept into Jerusalem and pillaged the Temple, our sages teach us that the real reason the Temple came crashing down was because of sinat chinam – baseless hatred among Jews. People treated each other with disdain. Kindness, compassion, civil discourse was nowhere to be found. This led to a fracturing of the ancient Israelite community. Our ancestors were not united. They were vulnerable and those who sought their destruction took advantage of this. As a result, the Temple was destroyed and Jewish civilization was almost wiped off the face of the earth.
Unfortunately, the more things change, the more they stay the same. While many of us struggle with mourning for the Temple given that we do not seek a return to the sacrifices and hierarchical culture that defined the Temple, Tisha B’Av shouldn’t be overlooked by contemporary Jews. Sadly, to this day, sinat chinam still exists within the Jewish community. Tisha B’Av is a perfect time to step back and reflect on how we treat each other. Are we kind? Are we helping to unify our community? Or are we adding to the division that is pulling us apart? Are we contributing to modern day sinat chinam?
As folks living in South Florida sweltering in the heat, the frigid home of the Torah scholar might sound appealing. But, as we approach Tisha B’Av, now is the time to check our spiritual thermostat and ask ourselves, are we spiritually warm? Despite the physical heat we face, is our spiritual thermostat set to toasty? With everything going on in the world, many of us have turned our spiritual thermostats down. Some of us have turned them off. We’ve disengaged. We’ve allowed the nastiness out there to permeate our souls and affect how we treat each other. But our Jewish story, particularly the dangers of sinat chinam, call out to us, imploring us to turn our spiritual thermostats back on and crank them up!