We are now in the throes of the 9 Days—the most intense mourning period of the Jewish calendar. It will culminate with the fast of Tisha B’Av this Monday night and Tuesday—the only full fast day of the year besides Yom Kippur. All the great tragedies that ever happened to the Jewish people either occurred on Tisha B’Av—the 9th day of the month of Av—or were a result of something that occurred on Tisha B’Av. Here’s a partial list:
- The decree to wander 40 years in the desert,
- the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples in 586 BCE and 70 CE,
- the defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion against the Romans in 135 CE, the establishment of a Roman City—Aelia Capitolina—on the ruins of Jerusalem in 136 CE,
- the declaration of the 1st Crusade in 1095,
- the signing of the Order of the Inquisition in 1492,
- the Chemilnicki massacres in 1648,
- WWI in 1914 with unparalleled Jewish suffering,
- the establishment of the Warsaw ghetto in 1941 and the deportations to the concentration camps in 1942.
All these and more occurred on Tisha B’Av!
The cry of the generations of suffering is, “Where was Gd?” The answer, of course, is found in the Torah—not coincidently in this parsha we read today before Tisha B’Av. Moses, before he dies, reviews with the people their history. He describes their sins and why it was decreed that they travel 40 years in the harsh desert. And then he tells them (Dev. 1:31): “And in the desert, as you have seen, that Hashem your Gd carried you as a man carries his son, in every place that you went.” It reminds me of that famous story, “Footsteps”:
Deep in his slumber, one night a man had a very real, yet surreal dream. He dreamt that he was walking along the beach with Gd. As he looked up at the sky, he saw all the scenes of his life flash by along with 2 sets of footprints: one set for himself, and another for Gd.
After all the scenes had flashed before him, he looked back at those footprints and noticed something quite disturbing: At the most difficult times in his life, he saw only one set of footprints.
This deeply troubled the man, so he turned and said to Gd: “You said that if I followed you, then you would always walk with me through thick and thin. In looking back, I see that during the most painful times there is only one set of footprints. Why did you leave me when I needed you the most?”
“I love you and would never abandon you,” Gd said. “It was during those times when you suffered the most that I was carrying you!”
Yes, as the Torah teaches: “Gd carries us, as a man carries his son, in every place that we go.”
The Talmud (Bechorot 8b) recounts the fascinating tale of a confrontation that occurred between 60 Wise Men of Athens and the great sage of Israel, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya. Let me share with you one of the last points of that debate:
The Sages of Athens showed Rabbi Yehoshua 2 eggs, and asked him, “Which of these eggs came from a white hen and which from a black hen?”
In response Rabbi Yehoshua presented before them 2 pieces of cheese and asked, “Which of these cheeses is from the milk of a white goat, and which from the milk of a black goat?”
The Talmud indicates this response silenced the Athenians. They were defeated. But why? What were they asking, and how were they answered? They came with eggs, he responded with cheese. What’s going on here? Are they showing each other their lunch?
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson points out that the Maharsha, the great 16th century commentator, maintains that the Greeks were making a dire prediction of the imminent extinction of the Jewish people. You see, it takes 21 days for a chicken’s egg to hatch. The “life-span” of an egg, therefore, is 3 weeks.
The 2 eggs represented the 2 21-day periods in the Jewish calendar: the 3 weeks between 17th Tammuz and Tisha B’Av—the annual mourning period for the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. These 21 days are represented metaphorically by an egg that was laid by a black hen—a 3-week period which brought darkness and gloom to the Jewish people.
But there’s another “egg” in the Jewish calendar, another 3-week period at the beginning of the Jewish year: from Rosh Hashana to the end of Sukkot. These are festive and purifying “white” days. On Rosh Hashanah our souls are renewed and made fresh. On Yom Kippur we are cleansed and whitened from our sins. On Sukkot we dance and celebrate, and on the final day of Sukkot, on the 21st day, Hoshana Rabba, we rejoice with the final judgment for a year of blessing. This 3 week period is like the egg laid by a white hen, a time of purification, whiteness, cleansing and positivity.
However, the egg that was laid by the black hen is identical to the egg laid by the white hen. The Greeks maintained that our 21 days of celebration and purification have been neutralized by our 21 days of mourning and blackness. This, they said, demonstrates that there is no hope for Israel, that Gd’s love of the Jews is a thing of the past.
This was the challenge the Athenian sages laid before Rabbi Yehoshua and they had a point. From the looks of things at that time in history, the majestic story of the Jewish people was coming to an end. The nation that left Egypt with miracles and wonders, received the Torah from Gd at Sinai, settled the Promised Land to create a kingdom of priests, and built the Temple as a home for Gd on earth…this once extraordinary nation was now beaten and exiled, their land conquered by a foreign invader, their religion outlawed and their Temple reduced to a pile of ashes. Millions of their people were massacred. The era of the white hen, the 21 days of holidays when Gd finds favor with the Jewish people, seemed to have been pushed aside by a new era, the era of the black hen.
But the Athenians were wrong and Rabbi Yehoshua showed them why. He took out 2 indistinguishable pieces of cheese—one from a black goat, the other from a white goat. The 2 goats alluded to the goats that were used in the Temple on Yom Kippur: One as an offering to Gd on the sacred altar and the other cast off a cliff in the desert, a symbolic casting away of negative energy and sin. One goat is an expression of the deep bond between Gd and His people—an offering of repentance brought on His holy altar on the holiest day. The other goat, cast away to the wilderness, represents the darker side of this relationship, the capacity to betray Gd. And yet, white cheese comes from both!
Here Rabbi Yehoshua revealed one of the great concepts that gave the Jewish people the strength to endure their 2,000-year exile. Just as the cheese from black goats is as white as the cheese from white goats, so too, the pain and suffering that the Jewish people witnessed at the destruction of the Temples during the black 3 weeks and all the tragic things that happened during this time over the centuries were not random and meaningless; it was not a demonstration that evil is as potent as good and that the sun has set on the Jewish people. No, beneath the pain there was a streak of whiteness; at the core of the “black hole” there was infinite light. The great lesson is that the black goats of life are there to produce white cheese; the hardships we face are there to help us get where we need to be—back to Gd and to our true selves.
Rabbi Jacobson relates about a friend who was a CEO of a large company who worked day and night with little time for himself or family. With the recent economic collapse, he lost almost everything—his vacation home, his yacht, his expensive car, his luxurious lifestyle. He now works at a much lesser job. His fortune is gone but he has time to enjoy life and his family. Now he says, “Thank Gd I went broke. Otherwise I’d be so rich, and yet so poor. I might have had everything, but I would have had nothing!” This is the white cheese that sometimes comes from the black goat, and the white egg from the black hen.
We have all seen it in our lives and in the lives of those around us. The illness that brings a deeper perspective in life, the relationship breakdown that allows us to find true love and humility, the passing of a loved one that gives us new appreciation of our short time in this world and the spirituality of life.
What Rabbi Yehoshua understood, what the Jewish soul understands, is that there are 2 forms of light: light that appears as light and light that appears as darkness. The good times are good. The tough times are there for us to make them good. And always remember the words of today’s Torah reading: “Gd carries us, as a man carries his son, in every place that we go,” and that means even into the darkness!
Tisha B’Av—with all its tragedies—is like the Black Hole of modern physics, which is filled with endless light, but does not allow it to escape its pull. Our job is to penetrate the black holes life throws at us and reveal its inner light. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis