This past Monday we began the Jewish month of Av, which means “father.” Tradition refers to the month as Menacheym Av, “consoling father.” And yet the 1st 9 days of the month are the most intense morning period of the Jewish calendar, increasing in intensity until the 9th day of the month—Tisha B’Av—because on Tisha B’Av, every major tragedy that ever happened to the Jewish people happened or had its roots in something that happened on that day. You’ve all seen the partial list that I have distributed of these tragedies. It’s staggering! Here’s just a few. It was decreed that the Children of Israel would have to wander 40 years in the desert after the exodus from Egypt instead of proceeding directly to the land of Israel on Tisha B’Av. The 1st Temple was destroyed on Tisha B’Av. The 2nd Temple was destroyed on Tisha B’Av. Pope Urban declared the 1st Crusade where thousands of Jews were slaughtered on Tisha B’Av. The order of the Inquisition in Spain was signed on Tisha B’Av. The deportation of the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the concentration camps began on Tisha B’Av. The list is staggering. So how can tradition then call this month “consoling father?” What’s so consoling about it? It seems like it’s the month in which the Jewish people got wacked over and over again?
Perhaps the answer can be found in an obscure passage in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 2:4) that incredibly proclaims that the Messiah will be born on the tragic day of Tisha B’Av, teaching us that precisely at the darkest moments, there is a spark of hope, a spark of rebirth and the seeds of redemption are planted. (With thanks to Rabbi Avi Weiss Shabbat Forshpeis 8/8/97)
We find this idea in 2 mysterious stories in the Torah. Abraham unsuccessfully pleads with Gd to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Gd then sends angels to help Abraham’s nephew Lot—who was living in Sodom—escape with his family. Only Lot and his 2 daughters survive to the safety of a mountain top when all the world around them was destroyed by volcanic fire. It must have seemed to them that they were the last people on earth. So Lot’s daughters induce him to become drunk and each then has incestuous relations with their father. From the eldest daughter a child is born who is named Moav (Gen 19).
In the 2nd incident, after the sale of Joseph, Judah, who convinced the brothers to sell him to slavery, is deposed of being the leader of the brothers because of the excessive grief his suggestion caused their father. Judah moves away from the family in disgrace. He marries and has 3 sons. He marries off the 1st one—Eyr—to Tamar. Eyr dies, and Onan, performs the customary levirate duty and marries his brother’s wife. Onan then dies and Judah tells Tamar to wait till his youngest son—Sheyla—grows up. Well Sheyla grows up and she is not given to him to marry. Tamar then dresses as a harlot and seduces Judah, her father-in-law. Twins are born—the eldest is called Peretz (Gen. 38).
Both incidents take place at difficult times. The Lot story occurs just after Sodom was incinerated. In fact, as I said, Lot and his daughters probably thought that all of mankind had been destroyed. The Tamar story occurs when the family of Jacob had been decimated. Joseph had just been sold into slavery and the family seemed hopelessly divided.
And in each story, just when the world seemed like it couldn’t get darker—for Lot and his daughters it seemed that the world was destroyed and Judah reached his lowest point in impregnating his daughter-in-law—just when it seemed like the world couldn’t get darker, the forerunners of the Messiah were born. Moav was the ancestor of Ruth; Peretz the ancestor of Boaz. And of course, from Ruth and Boaz after a few generations came King David, who will be the progenitor of the Messiah. In other words, at the very moment when all seemed lost, Gd was busy weaving the tapestry of redemption.
This is why our tradition had the wisdom to name this month Menacheym Av, “consoling father.” Just as we remember all the terrible tragedies that happened to our people, we must remember that Gd cries with each pain His children suffer and at the precise moment of their pain He is already preparing the way to their recovery.
The Talmud relates a profoundly strange incident that occurred moments before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple:
When the pagans entered the Holy Temple, they saw the cherubs cleaving to each other. They took them out to the streets and said: “These Jews..is this what they occupy themselves with?” With this, they debased [the Jewish people], as it is written: “All who had honored her have despised her, for they have seen her nakedness.”
The meaning of these words is this: The innermost chamber of the Jerusalem Temple, the most sacred site in Judaism, was known as the Kodesh HaKedoshim, the “Holy of Holies” and seen as the spiritual epicenter of the universe. In the Holy of Holies were 2 golden cherubs—winged figures, one male and one female that represented the relationship between Gd and His people.
The Talmud teaches that when the relationship was sour the 2 faces were turned away from each other—like when spouses are angry with each other. When the relationship was healthy and loving, the 2 faces of the cherubs would face each other and embrace.
Now, when the enemies of Israel invaded the Temple they saw the cherubs embracing each other. This seems bizarre. When the enemies of Israel invaded the Temple to destroy it, the relationship between Gd and His people was at its lowest point, for that was the reason for the destruction and the subsequent exile. And yet, paradoxically, it was precisely at that moment that the cherubs were intertwined, symbolizing Gd’s love for His people. At the moment the Temple was being engulfed in flames, the dream of redemption was born. There was an intimacy in the flames and it produced a hidden seed that would eventually bring healing to a broken world. That’s why the sages declared that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av.
“I believe in the sun even when it does not shine.
I believe in love even when I am alone.
I believe in Gd even when He is silent.”
As we contemplate and mourn the tragedies of the Jewish people this Monday night, let us pray in the spirit of the prayer found in the weekday Torah service that “Gd have mercy upon us and remove us from distress to relief, from darkness to light…now, speedily and soon. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis