Often in life a whole world is contained in a single word or phrase. There is a particular word that encapsulates the times that we find ourselves in at the moment. Currently we are in the nine days of intensive mourning and sadness that lead up to the commemoration fast on the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av. It’s the 24 hour fast of Tisha B’Av. This fast recalls the destruction of the two temples, the exile, the persecution, the suffering and all the sadness our people have gone through. The Talmud relates that on the first recorded 9th of Av in history the spies came back with their negative reports about the land.
A single word
There are many different dimensions to the history of this day; historically, emotionally and religiously. The prophet Jeremiah uses one word to sum it up. It’s the word at the beginning of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, which is read as one of the laws and customs of the Tisha B’Av service. Jeremiah describes the invasion of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonian empire, the destruction, the burning down of the Temple and all of the contents of the Temple and Jerusalem being plundered and looted by the invading Babylonians and the people forced into exile, with the opening three words. It says, “Behold, she sits alone”.
At first glance it doesn’t seem to make sense. The city of Jerusalem has just been destroyed, its Temple is burning, people are being exiled, terrible calamities have taken place and he sums it up in that one word – alone. Why is that word used to sum up the essence of the suffering and the essence of what we are commemorating on this day?
The Talmud links the loneliness of the city of Jerusalem, the Temple and the people who were exiled at that time together with the loneliness of the person who was sent out the camp in the desert. The Torah describes a particular spiritual disease that manifested itself physically as a sign of a person’s wrong-doing called tzaraat which is often mistranslated as leprosy. It’s not actually a physical disease, it was a spiritual disease with physical symptoms which the Talmud says comes as a result of lashon hara, speaking badly about people. It only occurred during biblical times when people were on the right level to interpret it. If a person contracted what was called tzaraat he was sent out the camp to sit alone. “He shall sit alone outside the camp”. The Talmud links the sitting alone outside the camp with tzaraat together with the loneliness that is described of the city of Jerusalem at the time of her destruction.
What is the connection? The one is obviously that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was brought about by the wrong-doings and the sins of the people at the time as the Talmud records. And that’s why a major theme of this period is repentance, to undo the wrongs that were done in the past. But there could be something else, because there is another passage in the Talmud which says that a person who has this tzaraat and is sent out the camp, it’s as if the person is dead – that a part of them has died. And it similarly says that a person who lives in absolute desperate poverty where they can hardly survive, that kind of crushing poverty is also a form of death.
The need to give
How do we understand that? Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, one of the great Rabbis of the 20th century who was a great teacher and leader in the Mir Yeshiva, explains that the human being has a great need to give to other people. G-d implanted in our souls a need to give. When we are isolated from other people in such a way that we are unable to give to anybody then the human spirit is crushed. So the person who has tzaraat and is forced to leave the camp is alone and isolated, so they cannot give to anybody and, therefore, that is a form of death. A person who is living in crushing poverty also can’t give to anybody because they are so consumed with survival and finding the next piece of bread and the next coin in order to survive that they are unable to give to other people.
Using that explanation we can understand a little bit more about the city of Jerusalem where it’s described as she dwells alone. Jerusalem, the Jewish people, and the Temple dwell alone at that point of the destruction. Meaning: at that time the people were consumed with the top priority of survival. There was no opportunity to give, to shed light in the world as is the mission of our people. We were denied all of that in that terrible destruction and therefore the comparison to the person who contracts tzaraat becomes a very real one because it’s saying we didn’t have that capacity to reach out.
What’s interesting about the word badad – alone, is that it encapsulates the devastation and the destruction yet it teaches us something very important for our day-to-day lives. That a very important part of being a functioning, happy and productive human being is to be a person who gives to others. If you don’t give and reach out to others then an important part of our soul is not being nurtured and we never really are alive. That’s part of the very essence of what it means to be alive. And, therefore, the prophet could find no better way to describe the plight of Jerusalem than ‘alone’.
‘Alone’ is not about the physical company, it’s about actually doing, and this is a question that each one of us has to ask in our own lives – can we help others? Are we helping others and are we making a difference to other people’s lives? Because that’s when we really become alive and that is when we don’t feel isolated and alone in the world – when we are making a difference to others and we are needed and are helping others.
A world of loving friendship
There is another message which is connected to this word ‘alone’. Judaism has a philosophy and a message for life but it also has lots of rules. We have 613 commandments and each one of those commandments is divided into further instructions and rules. There were those which were mandated and legislated by G-d Himself through the Torah, and then there was the Rabbinic legislation that came afterwards – and that’s all of what makes up Judaism. However, what is the philosophy that holds all of these 613 commandments together?
The Talmud says, “Let the son of a friend build a place of friendship for the friend in the portion of the friend for the sake of his friends”. What does it mean by this? Who are all these friends? The explanation of the Talmud is as follows: One of King Solomon’s names was Yididayah, which means the friend of Hashem. So then it means let the friend of G-d, who is King Solomon, the son of the friend referring to Avraham as he is a descendant from Avraham, come and build the place of friendship – which is the Temple. It’s a place of friendship – for the friend. Who is the friend that you are building the place of friendship for? For Hashem. In the portion of the friend, which is the portion of the tribe of Benjamin in which the Temple was built because Benjamin is described as the friend of Hashem. And he should do it for the sake of all the friends, for the atonement of all the friends, which was the Children of Israel.
Let’s try and understand what this means, because seemingly what is the repetition of this notion of friendship and loving friendship? Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, one of the great Rabbis of the 20th Century who passed away a few years ago, said that in this passage is contained the philosophy of Judaism. That Judaism is not about the laws, although it is about those laws; it’s not about the rules, although it is about the rules; it is not about the details, although it is about the details. It is all of these rules and details and laws that are contained within a broader philosophy of two Hebrew words that he says sums up the essence of Judaism – Olam HaYedidut, the world of loving friendship. It is a loving friendship between us and G-d. That the commandments, the mitzvoth, that we fulfill are commandments which are part of a loving relationship that we have with G-d, and to enter into that world is to enter into a world of loving friendship with G-d. He draws this whole philosophy out of this passage. The Temple is a place of loving friendship between G-d and the world. And that’s why the ultimate vision for the Messianic Times is a time when all the nations of the world will come up and serve in the Temple in Jerusalem recognising and engaging in this relationship with G-d.
Within this is then contained that whole philosophy of Judaism. And Rabbi Wolbe says every component of Judaism fits into this. Some of the commandments are Bein Adam L’Chavero – between one person and his fellow, which are commandments about interpersonal relationships – how to speak to people, what one needs to do for the poor and how to engage with sensitivity, kindness and compassion with every person. Then there are the commandments between Adam Le’Makom which deal with the relationship between us and G-d. Rabbi Wolbe says that all of this is about the world of loving friendship. There is the world of loving friendship between one person and another and there is the world of loving friendship between a person and G-d. But even the laws between one person and another are also part of the loving friendship with G-d because G-d includes every dimension of all of these different commandments of Judaism. For example, the Shabbat day is a day dedicated to G-d. But it’s also a day of dedication to family and to community and to spiritual emotional upliftment.
And that is why he says idolatry, the service of false idols in Talmudic terminology is called Avodah Zarah which means the strange worship. Why strange worship? A stranger is the opposite of a friend. When one engages with G-d as we should do in accordance with His Will then we are in the world of loving friendship. When we move away from that then that is the world of strangeness. And that’s why he says that in Hebrew the word for cruelty is achzar –which is related to the word zar meaning stranger – because cruelty is where you behave as a stranger to another human being. When one acts with cruelty then one leaves the world of loving friendship and goes into the world of strangeness and alienation because the Torah commands us to act with kindness, compassion and sensitivity. When we are disconnected from G-d and disconnected from the purpose which we were sent into this world to do then we feel strange and isolated from ourselves.
At a circumcision, the blessing we say is, “We bless G-d who has sanctified the young friend, the friend from the womb”. Since when did the baby become everyone’s friend? Hardly anyone knows him. But it means that this is the baby who is born into the covenant and born into this world of loving friendship and therefore he is called the yidid.
Returning to G-d
We can understand now why the prophet chose the words, “Behold she dwells alone”. Because the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple and the Jewish people at that time was really a removal and a stepping back from the world of loving friendship. The Temple that represents this loving relationship with G-d to the extent that it is called the house and the home of friendship had become destroyed because the people were alienated from G-d. And the destruction only came about because of the alienation. That’s why the major theme of these days, and even more so on Tisha B’Av itself, is not just mourning or what we call availut, but also teshuvah, repentance – reconnecting with G-d and returning to that world of loving friendship.
There is a magnificent passage in the Talmud where it compares the emptiness of Jerusalem at that moment to the emptiness of a nest. It says that the Divine Presence hovered over the city of Jerusalem at that point of the destruction and it compares it to a bird that hovers over its nest when the young have been taken or killed and the eggs have been removed. And it says that it hovers over alone.
So the word ‘alone’ in those opening words of the Book of Lamentations, according to the Talmud, could also refer to the aloneness, so to speak, of G-d. That He hovers over the nest, the holy city of Jerusalem and it is deserted and empty of its people because of the destruction.
So not only were the people alone, but G-d was alone too. And it makes sense because if you are in a relationship of loving friendship, if one party is estranged from the relationship then the other party is alone as well. You can’t be together and alone at the same time. If the one party steps back from the relationship and they are alone, then so too is the other party.
Tisha B’Av really is an attempt to find each other. We go into this day of the pain and mourning and we sit on the floor and fast with the lights dimmed while mournful dirges are recited. And we attempt to find G-d to say that we want to rebuild that loving friendship and find our way back to Him so we can rebuild our lives. Today, thank G-d, we have seen great miracles as the Jewish people have returned to Jerusalem and the city is bustling with people. Yet at the same time we realise that we do live in times of destruction as well, that there is so much that we long for in terms of peace in Israel and for the true spiritual glory of Jerusalem to return for the rebuilding of the Temple and the final redemption to the world. So while we take cognizance of the great miracles that have been done in our times, we realise with a heavy heart how much pain and destruction there still is and that we long for the end of that.
That’s what the 9th of Av and these days of mourning are all about – to realise what is lacking in the world; that the Temple which stood in its glory in Jerusalem, symbolic of loving friendship. We long for its rebuilding as a symbol of the regeneration of this loving friendship. Yet we know that we can rebuild this relationship with G-d in our own lives and that G-d is waiting to embrace us in that loving relationship.
But we realise at the same time that the ultimate redemption is when G-d’s relationship with the world as whole is restored , not only as individuals or communities, but the world as a whole. And the Talmud says that one of the questions we are asked when we come to the next world is, did you long and yearn for the redemption? We realise what we are missing, the lacking of the current situation. This Shabbos before Tisha B’Av has a special name – it is called Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbos of the Vision. The Great Vision of Isaiah the Prophet who gave direction to our people all of those generations ago and whose message, given to him by G-d, still rings with clarity today. As we go into that Shabbos of vision, we pray that we will be able to see with clarity the vision of G-d for the world, and we pray for the final redemption to come to the world so that indeed all human suffering can come to an end. As the famous verse says “May G-d cause death to vanish and life eternal and may G-d wipe away tears from all faces and may we see the redemption speedily in our days”.
I look forward to being with you again next week.