“The primary purpose of a man’s life is to constantly strive to improve break his character traits. Otherwise, what is life for?” Vilna Gaon – Even Shleimah (1:2)
Every year the Jewish People prepares for Tisha B’Av with the Torah reading of Devarim. The focal point is Moses’ final discourse to his beloved nation – an address that commences with a veiled rebuke that references (albeit obliquely) the various low-water marks in our nation’s fledgling career (the golden calf, Korach’s rebellion, the infamous reconnaissance mission to Israel). The purpose of Moses’ critique was to identify those areas in our national psyche – primarily belief and trust in God – that needed refortification in order to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
In this respect, our willingness to identify, rectify and rise above our imperfections has everything to do with the approaching Ninth of Av and the particular work of that unique day on the Jewish calendar. Along these lines, the Alter from Kelm, Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv (1829-1898) explained the well-known Gemara (Yoma 9B) that contrasts the severe sins which preceded the destruction of the First Temple with the seemingly less culpable sin of sinat chinam (baseless hatred) that brought about the destruction of the Second Temple and the ensuing 1900-plus years of exile.
The quintessential difference between those two eras, according to the Alter, is the degree to which the Jewish People stood ready to learn and improve. As such, the earlier generation’s sincere desire to change eclipsed even the most severe misconduct. In contrast, the latter generation lacked that genuine impetus to change, and thus even seemingly minor misdeeds loomed large and the consequences thereof rippled further into the future. Until this very day.
This Tisha B’Av we possess an opportunity (on both a national scope and on an individual level) to cultivate that sincere desire for genuine growth. For the Jew, self-help is a serious endeavor with the aim to turn oneself into a better person and, in turn, the world into a better place