Sack and Ashes?

I don’t know if everyone is aware of how the current sack and ashes movement began.

A few months ago, I came out of the Beis Medrash of my kollel, and as usual, there were a number of different books for sale. One book caught my eye. It was Daniel‘s book. Daniel is an autistic man who lives here in Israel, and had some current and frankly shocking things to say. I had read some other messages in a book I already owned called Galia, and I was interested in what the autistic kids were saying now, especially since they had been pretty quiet for a few years.

The book lead me to Daniel’s website, which I devoured with intense interest.

After following his posts for a few months, he introduced his father (and all of us) to the concept of sack and ashes. He proposed that Klal Yisrael is in tremendous danger, and we must do teshuva, lowering our pride with this symbol of sack and ashes that was employed so many years ago by our ancestors in the Purim story.

I was intrigued. I was ready to be there at the kotel for the first gathering.

I went first to my rav for advice. I am very fortunate to have found a wonderful and empathic rav who is tremendously insightful in general, and especially intuitive and in tune with the individual needs (and quirks) of each of his congregants. The shul in which I daven consists of an eclectic group of people, aptly called Ahavas Shalom (or Ahavat Shalom), ranging from Dati Leumi and modern orthodox to its American and Israeli Charedi constituents. He somehow knows what to say and how to deal with everyone.

I have asked him numerous questions in the past, and he knows my spiritual leanings, and has surprised me a number of times with his responses. In any event, I gave him some background and asked him if he would recommend going to this gathering. His almost immediate answer was that I should not. He said that as long as our gedolim have not encouraged this course of action, and until the time that they do, it would be best to avoid it.

I was disappointed, but I have trusted him in the past to guide me to do Hashem’s will, and boruch Hashem have seen success with his advice. I trusted him here as well.

But it bothered me. Why were the gedolim not endorsing this? Didn’t they see how desperate the situation here is? Didn’t they see how our ‘friendly’ Arab neighbors were amassing arms in order to completely destroy us? Didn’t they hear Ahmadinejad’s comments about wiping Israel off the face of the Earth? Even if they trusted in Hashem, wasn’t it time already for some drastic steps and for national teshuva?

The truth is that these questions were not new questions I was asking, because I had voiced similar questions to some of my rebbeim on visits to the States a few years ago. And the response I received then was interesting. My Rosh Yeshiva asked me, “Well what do your friends say? Do they feel it is dangerous to live in Israel?”

I didn’t know the answer, but when I got back here, I started asking people what they felt, and there was this unanimous feeling that we are living in the safest place in the world.

I debated in my mind if this was naivete, or if it was real bona fide trust in Hashem. The sack and ashes gathering coupled with Daniel’s and Ben Golden’s rather disturbing messages just added to my insecurity.

The question remained for me. Why were the gedolim not encouraging national teshuva nor endorsing this sack and ashes movement?

At some point, I was searching on the internet and came across some message thread quoting a statement of Ben Golden’s. The person who quoted him was very firm in their feeling that it was imperative that we heed Ben’s message. Rav Ahron Leib Shteinman was quoted as having endorsed the words of the autistic children, giving them credence, and thus it was imperative that we not avoid their direction.

This enthusiastic statement led me to return back to Galia’s book, which quoted the approbations of some leading rabbonim. I decided to take a closer look at what the Gedolim had said about these messages of the mentally incompetent.

There, indeed Rav Shteinman was quoted as saying in regards to the messages that he “sees in this phenomenon the great mercy of Heaven to wake up the sleeping who forget the truth… It is also a source of moral inspiration for the Torah community, who are also in need of strengthening.” It also said that Rav Shteinman “personally attended communication sessions with the mentally incompetent and was very impressed by the answers that they gave to his questions. In Rav Shteinman’s opinion, it is very important to contemplate these messages and search one’s soul. One should not disregard the messages.”

There were other similar statements from Rav Nosson Wachtfogel and Rav Gavriel Krausz among others.

The nagging question remained, why was there no endorsement from these rabbonim for the sack and ashes gathering?

This question was especially exacerbated by the fact that all of those who endorsed the autistic messages ended their approbations with words of warning.

Rav Shteinman said, “One should not use the statements of the mentally incompetent for any specific purpose or halachic ruling, and one must not ask them about the future.”

Rav Wachtfogel said, “A person should not act upon what they say without referring to a Rabbi. For as is known, only Torah sages may guide our nation.”

Rav Krausz siad, “One should not ask them questions which can lead to making decisions, for example in matters of halacha and medical affairs, since they do not serve as a substitute for sages, rabbis and doctors.”

Recently I realized that if one looks at the people who indeed wore the sack and ashes in their efforts to do teshuva, there is a striking and obvious prelude to this practice. Most notably, we find it used by Mordechai and the Jewish people in the story of Purim, as well as by the people of Ninveh in the story of Yonah. In both of these stories, the entire nation of Israel or Ninveh was faced with an immediate and imminent threat of national decimation that shook them to the core. Their shock was so complete that they naturally turned to immediate repentance. This repentance was enhanced by their donning sackcloth to signify their humility and sincere teshuva.

It became clear to me that although we are living during tumultous and trying times, nevertheless we do not feel the type of imminent threat that warrants national teshuva. I can attest to the fact (as I’m sure many of you can) that the type of teshuva that we can do now is at worst forced, and at best inadequately sincere. Not to say that we can not do teshuva. We must do teshuva – all the time! But the type of natural teshuva that Klal Yisrael can do in times of need requires a certain prelude. I firmly believe that we will do complete and national teshuva. All of us. Rebbe Nachman teaches that every single Jew will be redeemed in the final Geulah, unlike Egypt. (More on that in another post.) We will merit unbelievable miracles and perhaps we will all don sackcloth at the right time to inspire us further.

My purpose with this post is not to heaven forbid discourage teshuva in any way shape or form. My purpose is to give a little reality check on what our goal in life is. Our goal is to serve Hashem and to do His will. Hashem Himself told us how – follow the ruling of the Gedolim of your generation. They are the eyes of the people.

The Gemara in Rosh Hashana (25B) brings down the verse (Devarim 17):
“ובאת אל הכהנים הלוים ואל השופט אשר יהיה בימים ההם”
“You shall come to the Kohen, the Levite and the judge that will be in that time.”

The Gemara asks, “Would it enter our minds that someone would go to a judge that is not in his time? One can only go to the judge in his times! [To this the Gemara brings the verse in Koh
eles 7,] ‘Do not say, oh what was! The earlier days were much better than these!'”

Hashem gives each generation precisely the Gedolim and leaders it needs. We must trust them to guide us. Hashem Himself gives them special Divine assistance. If we can not depend on them, who can we depend on?

The bottom line is that we need to look to Daas Torah for advice. We need to know that Hashem does not leave us with no where to turn, but rather we must trust that the advice He gives us through our personal rabbonim is especially meant for us. When facing decisions like whether one should don sack and ashes, or more drastic decisions like whether one should make an immediate move to Israel, we must turn to the place Hashem has designated for us. We must daven for guidance and know that Hashem will lead us on the proper path if we really want it.

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