Today is Rosh Hodesh Av, the new moon of the month of Av. In “Jewish time”, we are in the midst of the period known as the Three Weeks. According to the Talmud, it was during these three weeks in the year 70 C.E. that the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem and then, on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’av – Tisha means “9” in Hebrew) destroyed the Bet Hamikdash, the Holy Temple that had stood for centuries. Eerily, centuries earlier in 586 B.C.E. during these same three weeks of the summer Babylonian invaders similarly destroyed the original Bet Hamikdash, built during King Solomon’s reign.
These ancient tragedies aligned to make these weeks a period of mourning in the Jewish calendar. These events, and our ability as a people to survive them and remember them, also embedded the concepts of exile and return into our collective psyche. We are a people who have, against all odds, maintained our connection to our ancestral homeland over a period of 3,000 years despite repeated upheavals, defeats and dislocations. Our ancient prophets promised that one day we would be able to return home, and we never forgot their words.
Our perseverance is a mystery to me, and also a source of awe. In about 520 B.C.E., as the prospect emerged of return from Babylonian exile, the prophet Zechariah declared: “Thus says YHVH: There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing in the squares. Thus says YHVH: Though it may seem impossible to the remnant of this people, shall it also be impossible to Me? Thus says YHVH: I will rescue My people from the lands of the east and from the lands of the west and I will bring them home to dwell in Jerusalem.” (Zechariah 8:4-8)
2,500 years later, the crowds of old and young filling the squares of Jerusalem, 2015, certainly fulfill Zechariah’s prediction. Life and human history ebb and flow endlessly, exile and return, dispersion and gathering in, destruction and renewal, and somehow the Jewish people are still here.
One of the benefits of longevity is perspective. The older I get the more I understand the fundamental fluidity of human affairs. Just in my lifetime empires have collapsed, new nations have been founded, borders that seemed fixed to my young eyes, firm lines on a map, instead shift and even dissolve like lines drawn in the sand. Just in the past four years we have watched most of the borders in the Middle East, carved up a century ago by Britain and France, become meaningless in the aftermath of the now tragic “Arab Spring”.
If my mere decades have given me some perspective, think of the perspective that millennia can give the Jewish People. We have learned that every loss carries within it the seeds of renewal. The final word has not been spoken, and like seeds, hope and new life force their way upward through the darkness and towards the light.
With this expanded awareness our ancestors gave the month of Av, this month of historic tragedy, an additional name: Menachem Av – Av the Comforter. The Sages linked the 9th of Av to the coming of Rosh Hashanah, seven weeks hence. Turn your faces toward the New Year, they said. We will rebuild. Time will heal. The rains will come again to water the dry land.
Our tradition assigned this truth not only to our collective history but to our own individual journeys: every one of us will find ourselves at some time in a condition of exile, feeling cut off, disconnected from the wellsprings of life. Know that your condition is not permanent, know that everything ebbs and flows, shifts and reforms, and that life will indeed find you again. May it be soon!
Wishing you Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov (a good month),
PS In the spirit of ebb and flow, I will not be writing this column for the next several weeks and instead will be attending to other responsibilities and also, I hope, to the joys of summer. But you will still receive a weekly teaching from me drawn from my previous writings. I have been digging through them and have found some good ones that I look forward to sharing with you. And if you have been enjoying my teachings, I also encourage you to get a copy of my book Hineni: Essays and Torah Commentaries from Twenty-Five Years on the Bimah available in print or as a Kindle e-book.