ou did it!”

“Oh, no, you did it!”

“It’s your fault!”

“No, it’s your fault!”

Sound familiar? We’ve probably all heard these words, or even said them ourselves. They sound so juvenile and petty. But such is human nature: we’re always ready to blame someone else, excusing ourselves in the process.

How different are the great ones among us. As the story goes (recorded in Sefer Shai L’Torah, Yamim Noraim), during the trying days around the establishment of the State of Israel, when so many neshamos were lost, someone suggested to the Brisker Rav that all the tzaros and yissurim were a result of and a punishment for the rampant chillul Shabbos in parts of Eretz Yisrael. The Rav responded with the following insight. Yonah Hanavi was on a ship filled with idol worshippers that was about to capsize in the sea. Yonah implored his fellow passengers, “Toss me into the sea and it will calm down, because I know this storm is because of me.” Wasn’t there an easier target for Yonah to blame for their plight: his idol-worshipping shipmates?

The lesson is obvious — before pointing fingers at anyone else, I must first point them at myself. Maybe it’s my fault. The message was not lost on the Rav’s petitioner.

The Gemara in Shabbos presents quite the list of reasons for Churban Bayis Rishon: “Lo charvah Yerushalayim ela bishvil…” desecration of Shabbos, neglect of Krias Shema, cessation of children’s learning, lack of shame and modesty, lack of respect for elders, failure to rebuke, disgrace of talmidei chachamim, and so on. Each opinion is based on a derashah from a pasuk.

Two questions arise: How could so many Amoraim have valid proof of such a wide range of aveiros, to the point that each one could say “ela bishvil” — this was the only reason for the Churban? Furthermore, how does this litany of reasons jibe with Chazal’s other teaching that the three cardinal sins were the cause of the Churban (along with sinas chinam, which was prevalent even during Bayis Rishon)?

My bechor suggested the following solution, which echoes the thoughts of the Chasam Sofer in his derashos (volume 3).

Certainly, the overriding cause of the Churban was the severe transgressions for which we are obligated to sacrifice our lives. However, individuals could have protected the entire nation had they been meticulous in the areas mentioned in the above Gemara. Scrupulousness in any of these areas could have served as a finger in the dike, holding back the destruction. Furthermore, the enormous variety of transgressions listed in the Gemara indicates that nobody should have been pointing fingers at anyone else, because there was certainly something each person could have done as a zechus for everyone. Had individuals risen to the occasion, they could have saved the entire nation from calamity.

Chazal repeatedly emphasize how an individual’s deeds can cause destruction for all of us. As the Gemara states, “Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Yerushalayim was destroyed.” Similarly, Chazal tell us that the fate of Yerushalayim was sealed over the despicable behavior of one individual who tricked his master into divorcing his wife only to marry her himself, as recorded in the Gemara in Gittin learned by many on Tishah B’Av.

Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro ztz”l insisted that if one individual can wreak such havoc, then certainly the meritorious deeds of even one person can stave off churban, and even rebuild the Beis Hamikdash. This concept can be inferred from the words of Yeshayah Hanavi (59:16), “Vayar ki ein ish — and he saw that there was not one man.” The Targum explains that there was not even one individual alive at the time whose deeds and tefillos could have brought about a yeshuah.

You might wonder: What good would it do if I strengthened myself in any of the areas listed by the Gemara? Would it really make a difference? Our attitude has to be, to modernize a description from the Chofetz Chaim (Sefer Chovas Hashemirah): Who wouldn’t want their name on a plaque in the Beis Hamikdash that reads, “Donated by [your name]” because you contributed one zechus that brought about its rebuilding? Even if it’s merely one brick that has your name on it, it’s an immeasurable zechus. You actually have a portion in the binyan haBayis!

When we observe the indiscretions of others, there is a common tendency to feel or even say: “That’s why we’re still in galus,” or “Things like that are preventing the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash.” It’s time to adopt Chazal’s perspective and start pointing fingers at ourselves. How is my shemiras Shabbos? How is my kevod chachamim? How is my sense of shame and modesty?

We can actually take this a step further. Not only should we examine where we are in our own avodas Hashem, but we need to understand that the quality of our shemiras hamitzvos influences others around us. Reportedly, the Chazon Ish was once walking with a talmid on the outskirts of Bnei Brak and asked, “Why do you think there are so many shomrei Shabbos in Bnei Brak and right next door in the neighboring town there are not? Because we are lax in our own shemiras Shabbos! Had we been more stringent in all of hilchos Shabbos as we should, the shefa of kedushas Shabbos would reach beyond Bnei Brak as well!”

Who’s to blame, him or me?

One of my most unforgettable memories of my rebbi, Rav Elya Svei ztz”l, was a conversation we had almost 40 years ago. He prefaced his words with the admonition that I should never forget what he was about to say.

It was winter in Philadelphia, where snow was a once-in-a-while event, but measurable snow was a rarity. One Thursday, we finally got a storm. How many inches it was, I don’t know, but it was deep enough for the bochurim to engage in a refreshing game of football in the snow after the weekly mishmar. It was already 2 a.m. and the chaburah was satiated with the kol Torah. What could be so bad if they had a little middle-of-the-zeman break? As fate would have it, one of the hanhalah members walked by the parking lot where the game was taking place. Who knew, and who cared? It was harmless fun. Then came Shabbos, and the Rosh Yeshivah’s weekly shmuess in his house. He lambasted the bochurim for their frivolity, and emphasized, uncharacteristically publicizing his own accomplishments, that when he learned Bava Basra (that zeman’s masechta), he would stay up all night each Thursday night. He couldn’t believe his talmidim could fritter away their precious time to “keikel in der shnei” (roll in the snow). He was quite disappointed, to say the least.

Unlike with most of his other words of tochachah, which were venerated and viewed as a catalyst for introspection, the oilem was not in the mood to hear or accept these words. Football became known as “keikelball,” and someone even scrawled that word on the mashgiach’s snow-covered windshield. Somehow this too made its way back to the Rosh Yeshivah, who understood that this shmuess was not hitting its mark, to the point of bittul and leitzanus.

After Monday’s shiur, I got to walk the Rosh Yeshivah home, and asked, in the spirit of “Torah hi v’limudah ani tzarich,” why this shmuess was not received as well as most others. And then he taught me my unforgettable lesson. “It was my fault. I hit the nail on the head.” He explained that if a person is too direct when giving mussar, his words will fall on deaf ears. You must speak in a somewhat roundabout fashion so the listener does not feel attacked and defenseless.

His fault? Shouldn’t the bochurim have understood the bane of bittul Torah? This was an elite yeshivah with a cadre of outstanding bnei Torah as its students! Yet the great ones don’t place the blame on anyone else. I could have given a better shmuess — it’s my fault.

Let us seize the opportunity to reverse the Churban by pointing a finger at ourselves and seeking room for improvement. Maybe each one of us can be that individual in whose merit the Beis Hamikdash will be rebuilt, bimheirah v’yameinu.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 718. Rabbi Plotnik,a talmid of the yeshivos of Philadelphia and Ponevezh, has been active in rabbanus and chinuch for 25 years and currently serves as ra”m in Yeshivas Me’or HaTorah in Chicago.