Throughout most of the year, we are satisfied and grateful as we appreciate the redemption process unfolding before our eyes. The return of Jewish self-determination following nearly two thousand years of exile, the Land of Israel bearing her fruits after being barren for so long and the revival of the Hebrew language as a spoken vernacular are only three of the many wondrous feats that have graced us in the modern age. And although the re-born State of Israel is still far from perfect and often requires a deeper vision to recognize the Hebrew Kingdom developing to fruition beneath the surface despite all of the challenges that exist, our general attitude must be positive as we acknowledge the historic significance of our generation and express gratitude to HaShem for the miracles performed on our behalf.
But once a year we take time to recognize how much of the redemption is still incomplete as we mourn the destruction of our Temple and the Jewish people’s lack of complete national freedom. On the one hand, we see the goal – that amazing revolution in reality that is moving the world towards what it was always meant to be. We see the Divine Ideal from before Creation sprouting forth as Israel experiences a national renaissance on our native soil.
At the same time, however, during these sorrowful days, we remember how much of that absolute goal is still absent from our reality – how the Temple has yet to be rebuilt, how much of our country has yet to be liberated from foreign rule, how submissive our leaders behave to the demands of foreign powers, how socioeconomic injustices plague our society, how unbridgeable the gaps seem between Israel and our neighbors, how rampant corruption appears to permeate our political system and how many of our people still live in exile by choice.
This recognition of what is currently lacking is itself part of the appreciation we feel throughout the entire year. The true understanding of redemption can only be perceived when we are able to see where the process is going, what great historic objective is about to be attained and how much we still have to work for its completion. This understanding of the State of Israel’s deficiencies is what gives us the ability to value our achievements – to appreciate the foundations that have already been built.
Three weeks, nine days and then finally one day a year we remember and experience anguish for what is still not complete and how much of a struggle still awaits us. Because of how much the world is suffering today and how great and amazing Israel’s complete redemption will be, we are overcome with grief for what the world is still waiting for – that perfect, ultimate rectification of existence that will bring the world to levels of blessing and perfection beyond what humankind can even currently comprehend.
In his introduction to Musar Avikha, Rabbi Avraham Yitzḥak HaKohen Kook writes that “As long as a person does not learn for himself the lofty essence of the soul of man and the loftiness of the soul of Israel and the elevated value of Eretz Yisrael, as well as the longing and yearning every Jew must feel for the building of the Temple and the redemption of Israel, it is almost impossible to experience the taste of Divine worship.”
If one does not understand the true essence of Am Yisrael or experience a desire for the return of G-D’s Temple, he probably cannot help but find daily prayers somewhat monotonous. All of the requests in the Amidah are directed toward superior ideals – the full expression of the Nation of Israel in our land and the entire system of everything in this world as it was always meant to be. But if one does not appreciate the significance and true grandeur of these things and only drearily says the words because they are written in the book, he may justifiably wonder why tefillah feels so dry. If he has not learned and clarified for himself the value of these vehicles – what they do for the world and reality and all of humanity, then the words of the prayers will feel meaningless, as they do not genuinely stem from the depths of his soul.
When instructing us to serve HaShem with all of our hearts, the Torah is referring specifically to tefillah. As it would be ridiculous to assume that the Kadosh Barukh Huactually needs our prayers, the obligation to engage in the activity three times a day is clearly for the sake of something beneficial to us. Tefillah serves as a thrice-daily exercise session for our ratzon (will power) and an examination for the true quality of our lives. It is the essential instrument for measuring how much we link up to HaShem – how much our conscious will is aligned with the will of our Divine Source.
By exercising our will three times a day, tefillah helps us to properly internalize and direct our lives towards the national aspirations of the Jewish people. The true intensity and quality of our lives as Jews can be determined successful when that which we read from the siddur is actually close to our hearts. When healing for the sick, the ingathering of our exiles, the restoration of justice, the rebuilding of the Temple and universal peace are the concerns that regularly occupy our thoughts and deeds, we can be confident that we truly want that which HaShem wants and we are then able tol’hitpallel with true attachment and devotion.
Sincere tefillah logically stems from the emptiness we feel at the absence of that which we request. If one occupies himself with the study of Torah and clarifies for himself what is yet to be achieved, he will begin to feel pain for what is missing from our world. He will become thirsty with yearnings for redemption and recite the tefillot from the depths of his heart. In order to feel this emptiness, however, one must know and appreciate the true value of Israel’s redemption and what blessing and refinement it brings to Creation.
Rabbi Moshe Ḥaim Lutzatto writes in Mesillat Yesharim that a person should feel constant, almost physical pain for the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people. But how many of us are so consciously unified with Israel’s collective soul that in these days before the ninth of Menaḥem Av we feel the anguish of the Hebrew Nation and what is lacking from our reality? How many of us are so sensitive to the humiliation of Israel and to the accompanying concealment of HaShem’s Ideal for this world that we actually suffer this torment in the depths of our very beings? If we could understand the reality of what the world is actually missing, we would not be able to concern ourselves with what we can or cannot eat, buy or listen to during this period of national mourning.
To truly feel the deficiency in the world around us, we must learn to recognize the magnitude of the redemption unfolding in our times and be able to appreciate that which has already been accomplished. Only with this appreciation are we able to comprehend what is still missing from the process and what we must do to effectively participate in transforming the ninth of Av from a day of mourning to a festival of unparalleled joy.