From twilight to Redemption

The potential of the 9th of Av remains.

Tags: Tisha B"Av
Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

The Book of Deuteronomy, which we have just begun reading on the Sabbath, opens on the 1st of Shevat in the 40th year after the Exodus, with the Children of Israel encamped on the east bank of the River Jordan facing Jericho.

And after leading the Jewish nation for several months while still in Egypt, and for another 40 years as a free nation in the desert, Moshe (Moses) has reached the end of his ministry and his mission in life. With just 36 days of life in this world left to him, he begins his farewell discourse to the nation that he loved and had nurtured for so long.

“These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel...” (Deuteronomy 1:1).

The Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743) infers many and deep meanings from this seemingly-simple phrase:

The word אֵלֶּה, “these”, implies a break from all that had gone before. “These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel...” – these words are words which came from Moshe himself. Throughout the 40 years that Moshe had guided Israel through the Sinai Desert, every word he had said (or at least, every word that the Torah records him saying) was directly from G-d. Moshe faithfully transmitted everything that G-d told him, not changing so much as a single word or even letter.

Now, after 40 years, Moshe finally gets to speak his own words. “These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel...” – these words, and no others.

The Book of Deuteronomy is full of castigation, moral lessons, ethical doctrines, admonitions, warning of curses which will overtake us if we do not obey G-d and His Torah. The Ohr ha-Chayim cites the Talmud, addressing the admonition and warning of curses which occurs in Parashat Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:14-45) and in Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 28:15-68): “The first one [in Leviticus] Moshe said in the Almighty’s Name, the second one [in Deuteronomy]...Moshe said in his own name” (Megillah 31b).

We live in a veritable twilight zone, combining ever-increasing redemption and ever-increasing darkness.
And the Ohr ha-Chayim extrapolates from this that even when Moshe repeated what G-d had said earlier and expounded on it, he did this on his own initiative, not because G-d had commanded him to.

The Ohr ha-Chayim also infers from the words “these are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel...” that throughout the 40 years that Moshe was leading Israel through the desert, he never once spoke harshly to them all collectively. True, he reprimanded some of them, as when he said “Hear now, you rebels!” (Numbers 20:10), but such reprimands were invariably to small groups.

Only in the Book of Deuteronomy did Moshe ever speak harshly to the entire nation of Israel, which is why the Torah says that he “spoke to all Israel”.

The Ohr ha-Chayim offers several other implications of the opening words of the Book of Deuteronomy, but we will cite just one more: he notes that the gematria (the numerical value) of the word אֵלֶּה, “these”, is 36 (א=1, ל=30, ה=5, for a total of 36), which was the number of days yet remaining to Moshe to live.

The Book of Deuteronomy, and Moshe’s first discourse, begins “in the eleventh month, on the first of the month” (Deuteronomy 1:3); the Talmud (Kiddushin 38a) calculates from various Tanachic references that Moshe died on the 7th of Adar (compare Targum Yonatan to Deuteronomy 32:48, Megillah 13b, Sotah 12b, Vayikra Rabbah 11:6, Tanhuma Va-et’chanan 6, et al.). From the 1st of Sh’vat (the 11th month) until the 7th of Adar is 36 days.

Hence אֵלֶּה, “these are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel...”, implying “for 36 days Moshe spoke to all Israel”.

Moshe delivered four farewell discourses to the Children of Israel: the first is recorded in Deuteronomy 1:6-4:10, the second in 5:1-26:19, the third in 27:1-30:20, and the fourth in 31:1-6. These are full of moral charges, castigations, admonitions, warnings – hence the Ohr ha-Chayim’s reference to Moshe speaking “harshly” to Israel.

The Book of Deuteronomy depicts the Children of Israel standing at the threshold of the Land of Israel. Our 250-year exile (210 years in Egypt followed by 40 years in the desert) is about to end, our first Commonwealth, our first period of national sovereign independence in our Homeland, is about to begin.

As Moshe delivers his farewell discourses, we are standing at the dawn of a new era.

It is of course a tragedy that Moshe himself will not live to see this new era. He will die across the River Jordan, barred by G-d from entering the Land of Israel.

Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardized towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), we have invariably read Parashat D’varim, beginning the Book Deuteronomy, on the Shabbat of the Nine Days of mourning for our destroyed and plundered Jerusalem. In other words, Parashat D’varim is invariably read on the Shabbat which either precedes or else coincides with the 9th of Av.

(The Haftarah [the prophetic reading] for this Shabbat is the opening paragraphs of the Book of Isaiah , beginning with the words “The prophetic vision of Isaiah son of Amotz, which he envisioned concerning Judea and Jerusalem...”. The opening Hebrew word, חֲזוֹן [“vision of”], has given the name to this Shabbat: Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat of the Prophetic Vision.)

And the 9th of Av, too, marks the dawn of a new era: it is the day which was destined and ordained to be the day of redemption. The primordial sin, the sin of the spies in rejecting the good Land which God had given His people, caused the 9th of Av to become a day of national disasters, resounding throughout our history.

Though the Torah does not explicitly state the date of the sin of the spies, the Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) calculates the Torah’s chronology: on the 20th of Iyar we left Mount Sinai (Numbers 10:11); this was followed by a three-day journey (v.33) concluding on the 23rd of Iyar; a 30-day sojourn in Kibroth-Hata’avah (ibid. 11:20, 34) concluding on the 22nd of Sivan; and finally seven days in Hazeroth (11:35, 12:15-16) before reaching the Paran Desert (ibid. 12:16) on the 29th of Sivan.

Hence, Moshe sent out the twelve spies on the 29th of Sivan (compare Targum Yonatan to Numbers 13:20) on their 40-day mission, and they therefore returned on the 8th of Av and delivered their evil report, demoralising the nation. And that night when the nation cried in despair (14:1), it was the 9th of Av.

Instead of the 9th of Av being the day of the redemption, it became a day of tragedy. But nevertheless, this day was intended to be the start of a new era of redemption.

Indeed, among his first words to the nation, recorded in this week’s parashah, Moshe reminds them of that débâcle with the words, “I said to you: You have come as far as the Amorite Mountain, which Hashem our G-d gives us; see – Hashem your G-d has given the Land before you. Ascend, inherit, as Hashem, G-d of your fathers, has spoken to you! Do not fear, and do not quail!” (Deuteronomy 1:20-21).

The Children of Israel were poised on the brink of the dawn of a new era…but they ruined the day and turned it into a day of tragedy and mourning.

Nevertheless the potential of the 9th of Av remains.

Israel’s natural state is to live as a free and independent nation, sovereign in its own Land, obeying the laws of the Torah. A world in which the majority of Israel is in exile, scattered through the world, is a broken world.

And equally, the world’s natural state is for the 9th of Av to be a day of feasting and rejoicing, a celebration of redemption. A world in which the 9th of Av is a day of fasting and mourning is a broken world.

There is an interesting phenomenon this year: the 9th of Av fell on Shabbat, which means that this year, we were feasting and drinking wine on the 9th of Av. (This is in no way unusual: it is the 11th time in the last half-a-century.) So this year, as in about 22% of years, the 9th of Av will be as a foretaste of the time of redemption.

In our fixed calendar as adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), three fasts can interfere with Shabbat, a day on which we are normally forbidden to fast. One, of course, is Yom Kippur: when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, the commandment to fast on Yom Kippur overrides the prohibition on fasting on Shabbat.

The second is the 10th of Tevet: the fast of the 10th of Tevet lasts from dawn to dusk, so when it falls on a Friday (which last happened in 5774/December 2013), it continues into the beginning of Shabbat.

For those first minutes of Shabbat, from sunset until nightfall, the fast of the 10th of Tevet overrides Shabbat. Even though Shabbat has come in, the fast continues, we are forbidden to make Kiddush and to eat until the stars come out. In Israel, sunset to stars-out is about half an hour in the middle of winter. Further from the equator, the time is longer: in London, England, sunset to stars-out is about 40 minutes in the middle of winter.

And when the 9th of Av falls on Shabbat, then the fast overrides Shabbat at the end. Once the sun sets, even though it is still Shabbat, the fast has already begun. Even though Shabbat is still in, we are forbidden to continue with Seudah Shlishit (the Third Meal). In Israel, sunset to stars-out is about 40 minutes in Av. Further from the equator, the time is longer: in London, England, sunset to stars-out is about an hour in Av.

I suggest that the ways in which these two fasts – the 10th of Tevet and the 9th of Av – interfere with Shabbat can teach us something about the process of redemption.

Shabbat is “a foretaste of the World to Come” (Berachot 57b), “one-sixtieth of the World to Come” (ibid.). Shabbat is a foretaste of the time when “the fast of the fourth [month, i.e. 17th of Tammuz], and the fast of the fifth [month, i.e. 9th of Av], and the fast of the seventh [month, i.e. 3rd of Tishrei, Tzom Gedaliah], and the fast of the tenth [month, i.e. 10th of Tevet] will turn into rejoicing and gladness and festivities for the House of Judah” (Zechariah 8:19).

A foretaste, a sixtieth – but no more. Not yet, at least. So in the present era, in the world broken as it currently is, the fast of the fifth month, the 9th of Av, and the fast of the tenth month, the 10th of Tevet, can still interfere with the rejoicing and gladness and festivities of Shabbat.

But there is an important difference. If the 10th of Tevet interferes with Shabbat, it interferes with the beginning – the first half-hour or so. Appropriate, perhaps, for a fast which commemorates the beginning of the siege on Jerusalem when the Babylonians invaded.

If the 9th of Av interferes with Shabbat, it interferes with the end – the final hour or so. Also appropriate for a fast which commemorates the end of the destruction.

That final hour or so of Shabbat, the twilight zone between the rejoicing of Shabbat and the devastating sadness of the fast, is an uncannily accurate paradigm of the period of history through which we are living today. The strictures of Shabbat still apply, and public mourning is still forbidden. Yet the fast has already begun, and our private mourning has already seized us.

As today – the return to Zion has been accelerating for a century past; for the first time since the Second Temple period, more Jews live in Israel than in any other single country in the world. Extrapolating the demographics of the last few generations, an absolute majority of Jews will be in Israel in the next decade and a half. We have more Jewish sovereign independence than at any time since Queen Shlomtziyyon (Salome Alexandra), the last monarch to rule and die as the independent monarch of a Jewish nation, who died in 67 B.C.E. Israel has the most powerful economy and the most powerful military in the entire Middle East, and among the most powerful in the world.

These are changes of literally Biblical dimensions.

Yet simultaneously, our government shamefully, disgracefully, capitulates to rock-throwing savages; it crouches miserably on suppliant knee before enemies who swear by everything they believe in to exterminate us; it expends its greatest resources on hunting down Jews who dare to give physical expression to their love of the Land.

We live in a veritable twilight zone, combining ever-increasing redemption and ever-increasing darkness. Ever-more Jews living in Israel by the day – and ever-more enemies of Israel entering Israel by the day. “On Hashem’s returning the captives to Zion, we will have become as dreamers” (Psalms 126:1), and the characteristic of a dream is that is confused, combining opposites which are impossible in real life.

Indeed, such is our current reality. “Those who sow in tears will reap with joyous song; walking around aimlessly and weeping, he carries his basket of seeds; he will certainly come with joyous song, carrying his sheaves” (ibid. 5-6).

The confusion persists at the time of שִׁיבַת צִיּוֹן, the Return to Zion – tears with joyful song, ever-increasing redemption and ever-increasing darkness, aimless wandering and well-defined purpose, victories and defeats – contradictory elements which are impossible in real life, yet which can exist and even increase side-by-side at this time when we “have become as dreamers”.

Twilight, the time which mixes light and darkness. Twilight at the end of this coming Shabbat, mingling light with darkness, the joy of Shabbat with the mourning of the fast of the 9th of Av

Yet the characteristic of a dream is that once it’s over, it’s over. “We will have become as dreamers” – “the sufferings of exile will appear to us as a fleeting dream due to the tremendous joy that will be ours upon our return to our Land” (Radak, commentary to Psalms 126:1).

The twilight of Moshe’s life, beginning in this week’s parashah, marked the dawn of a new era of redemption for Israel. G-d has given the means to bring the final redemption into our hands – “today, if you listen to His voice” (Psalms 95:7, Sanhedrin 98a).

It is in our hands, in our power, to transform the twilight at the end of this coming Shabbat into the dawn of the new era of our redemption, to rectify the world and to transform the 9th of Av from a day of mourning to a day of rejoicing.