This week’s double parshah of Matos-Masei finds Bnei Yisrael on the threshold of entering Eretz Yisrael. Many different preparations for entering the land are found in the pesukim. The journey through the desert is reviewed with all places of encampment named, different laws are given about inheritance and dividing up Eretz Yisrael amongst the tribes, the country’s borders are told, and positions of importance are distributed. But amongst all this excitement, the Torah gives us a somber and important lesson.
This Friday is ראש חודש אב, the first day of the Hebrew month of Av which, according to the pasuk in this week’s parshah, is the Yahrzeit of Aharon HaKohen. The Gemarah in Rosh Hashanah tells us, “שקולה מיתתן של צדיקים כשריפת בית אלהינו” “The death of righteous men is equal to the burning of the House of God” (Rosh Hashanah 18b). There is another day in Av which we commemorate, the ninth, for the destruction of both Batei Mikdash. The Kli Yakar says that the reason these two events happened in the same month is to show us this idea that the Gemarah teaches us.
He explains further that we already see from a pasuk in this week’s parshah that Av is a sad month. As we mentioned earlier, all forty-two places where the Bnei Yisrael camped are listed in the parshah. In the middle of this listing, the death of Aharon is mentioned at the camp of Hor Hahor, the place where he died. The final spot of encampment stretched from a place called בֵּית הַיְשִׁמֹת till a place called אָבֵל הַשִּׁטִּים. The word “הַיְשִׁמֹת” comes from the word “שממה”, which means desolate, which is also how Jerusalem is referred too after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. The words “אָבֵל הַשִּׁטִּים”, translate into “the mourning of the Shittim”, a tree that was used in the desert to build the Mishkan. This is in reference to Aharon as tzaddikim are compared to trees, a symbol of strength, throughout TaNach. These two places were put together to show how the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and the death of a tzaddik are equal.
The Kli Yakar brings a second Chazal that seems similar to our Gemarah, but is slightly different. The medrash says, “גדול סילוקם של צדיקים לפני מי שאמר והיה עולם מן...חורבן בית המקדש” “The removal of righteous men is of greater consequence to the One Who Spoke and There Was a World than the destruction of the Holy Temple” (Yalkut 29). There are three very big differences between these two quotations. First off, the Gemarah said that the two events are equal while here we said that the death of tzaddikim is greater! Secondly, the Gemarah referred to the Beis Hamikdash as “The House of God” and the medrash here referred to Hashem as “The One Who Spoke”, why the different ways of reference?
The answer lies in the exact understanding of these phrases. When the Gemarah says, “כשריפת בית אלהינו” “the burning of the House of God”, this refers to the burning of the actual physical structure of the Beis Hamikdash, while the phrase “חורבן בית המקדש” “destruction of the Holy Temple”, refers to the removal of Hashem’s Shechinah from the building, even without the actual structure being destroyed. Similarly, the death of a tzaddik refers only to his physical death. While a person’s physical body may die, his soul, his spiritual energy, can still affect the world. When the medrash says that the tzaddik has been “removed” from the world, it is referring to his spiritual influence.
A tzaddik is called, יסוד עולם, a foundation of the world. His Neshama, his soul, is carved from directly underneath the כסא הכבוד, Hashem’s throne. A tzaddik gives fortitude and strength to existence itself! Not simply in a metaphorical way, it’s the reality! And the reality is that he gives more spiritual value to the world than the Beis Hamikdash. So when it comes to the physical death of a tzaddik (מיתתן של צדיקים), it is equal to the physical destruction of the Beis Hamikdash (שקולה כשריפת בית אלהינו). While the physical demise of both is a terrible thing, if the spirituality still remains, then we can survive. But the spiritual removal of a tzaddik from this world (סילוקם של צדיקים) is even worse than the removal of the spiritual influence of the Beis Hamikdash from this world (חורבן בית המקדש). This is also why the Medrash calls Hashem “The One Who Spoke and the World Was”, since in terms of supporting the world, a tzaddik is worth much more than even the Beis Hamikdash. Therefore, the death of a tzaddik is of greater consequence.
Tisha B’av is approaching and we must begin to contemplate the loss of the Beis Hamikdash and what it means. After reading this, one might start to think that maybe we should focus more on the lives and tragic deaths of some of the great leaders that we have lost because, after all, they were much more important to our spiritual existence! We do discuss and mourn many of these tragedies on Tisha B’av but the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash is definitely still the centerpiece of this entire time period. I believe this is because it was the Beis Hamikdash that united us as a nation and connected us directly to Hashem in ways that a man, be he a tzaddik or not, could not.
I was thinking what exactly we could use this principle for and I came up with this: nowadays, thousands of years after the Beis Hamikdash stood, it is very hard for any one of us to relate to and feel remorse over its loss. We need something else to make us understand exactly what it means to have something like the Beis Hamikdash in our midst and lose it for so long. The answer is lies in our tzaddikim. We have all lived through times of great men who have passed on and we can all remember exactly how we felt at the time and what it meant to us. We have said here that losing a tzaddik is even worse than losing the Beis Hamikdash; therefore, if we want to truly understand the loss of Tisha B’av, a good place to start is by remembering that feeling of loss of our tzaddikim and let that inspire us to a moving and meaningful month of Av.
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