"He who believes he is close to God is really far, while he who believes he is far is really close.” Baal Shem Tov

This enigmatic statement of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, has troubled me for some time. How can it be that the ostensibly near is really distant, while the distant is near?

We read The Book of Lamentations on Tisha B'Av where this most tragic and sad day on the Jewish calendar is referred to as a “mo’ed,” a festival. This is rather an odd description, one normally reserved for joyous holidays such as Sukkot and Passover. How can the day on which both Holy Temples were destroyed, and countless other tragedies, be labeled as a festival?

I recall once driving from my home in Baltimore to New York when I looked up at a road sign proclaiming “40 miles to Washington D.C.” I couldn’t believe it. I was driving in the opposite direction! On one hand, I was incredibly frustrated with myself that I had been speeding south, away from my destination. But on the other, I was happy to recognize my error before I strayed any further.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, zt”l, one of the great Mussar thinkers of his time, writes that one of the most damaging mentality a person can have about himself is to think that he is spiritually complete. This thinking leads to complacency and doesn’t allow a person to open themselves up to new avenues of growth.

Waking up and realizing that we are not as spiritually perfect as we may have imagined is the essential first step to growth. Only when we cast off our self-deception are we ready to change course.

In this light, we can see the element of joy that is part of the Tisha B’Av experience. Recognizing our devastating loss and realizing that we have hit rock bottom shows us that we are far from whole and wakes us up from our stupor. It’s the warning the sign that tells us we need to change direction. And while reflecting on how far we have strayed, we can also take heart that we have caught ourselves before descending further, and channel our energies into correcting the shortcomings that got us so far off course.

Perhaps this is what the Baal Shem Tov was saying: as long as a person considers himself close to God – i.e. spiritually complete – he has no chance of improving and developing beyond his current station. But by perceiving himself as distant, recognizing his imperfections and lack of completion, he will feel a sense of urgency to change and grow.

Tisha Ba’Av provides one of those rare moments in Jewish life that jolts us from complacency and demands that we do a spiritual accounting and confront reality head on, as difficult and painful as it may be. And in that way it is a “mo’ed”, a Jewish festival that compels us to grow, in our relationship with God, with each other and within ourselves.

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