A Month of Darkness
The month of Tevet seems to be ushered in with less fanfare than the other months of the year, as it always falls on Chanukah and is somewhat subsumed by the holiday’s energy. We’re already singing Hallel, enjoying festive meals and family gatherings during Chanukah so at the start of Tevet not much seems to change. One may look at the month as if it is “less than,” overlooked and unimportant. It is literally the darkest month of the year in the Northern hemisphere with the shortest days and earliest sunsets, as well as a time replete with depressing, dark calamities which befell the Jewish people.
On the first of Tevet, the Judean King Yehoyachin was exiled to Bavel along with officers, warriors and craftsmen. On the 8th of the month the Torah was translated into Greek, known as the Septuagint, which according to Megilat Taanit, brought darkness to the world for three days. The 9th of Tevet marks the passing of a great Torah leader, Ezra the Scribe, who was responsible for Jewish revival and return to the Holy Land from Babylonian exile as well as writing the Books of Ezra and Divrei Hayamim. A more well-known date in Tevet is the communal fast day on the 10th of the month which marks the beginning of the 30 month siege of Jerusalem, ultimately leading to the breaching of her walls and her destruction.
The Rambam teaches (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Fasts 5:1) that there are days that the people of Israel fast on account of tragic events- כדי לעורר הלבבות לפתוח דרכי התשובה – in order to arouse the hearts and open pathways to repentance. The goal of the fast is not grief and mourning, but repentance and change. So too, the goal of suffering on an individual or national level is to create positive growth. When seen through the eyes of emunah – faith, every challenge can be viewed as an opportunity. Once we have learned our lessons, fixed our ways and properly done teshuva, then the prophet Zecharia (8:19) assures us that the 10th of Tevet and the other associated tzomot will transform to be days of joy and celebration.
Perhaps for such a change to transpire we first need to transform our own perspectives. If we look anew at the calamities mentioned above with a heart filled with emunah we can lean into a life connected to The One Above. In such a state, we know that everything is precise, Divinely ordained with hashgacha pratit, and for the good, as Rabbi Akiva said (Brachot 60b), תנא משמיה דר’ עקיבא לעולם יהא אדם רגיל לומר כל דעביד רחמנא לטב עביד. One should develop the practice of saying all that happens is from Hashem and for our benefit. It is our job to develop this emunah by listening carefully to what Hashem is telling us, and choose to grow through our enhanced understanding, thereby turning our sadness into festive times.
Emunah Eyes: A Month of Light
While one can dwell on the darkness embedded in the month of Tevet, one can also see Tevet as a month born from light. It coincides with the last days of Chanukah, where the lights are getting brighter and there are more candles lit than not; it is ushered into the world when there is always more light than dark. Tevet is a month suffused with the power to lighten and enlighten, it is a month with great potential for spiritual light. As a flame always turns upwards, even if the candle is held upside down, so the flames which accompany the month of Tevet allude to the immense power we can tap into to reach greater spiritual heights by learning and growing from the historical tragedies which occurred in this month.
Exile and Siege:
When one thinks of Jerusalem under siege, she seems helpless and forlorn. She is a city under lock-down with no support from the outside world. Quarantined. People are searching and later starving for food. Yet while the Jewish people were under siege for so many months, we had a golden opportunity to listen to the voices of our prophets, to be kind to one another, to strengthen our commitment to Hashem and to bring more light to the world. Unfortunately, it became a missed opportunity, and so Hashem provides us time and again with many more opportunities.
In recent times, through Corona, we’ve certainly experienced elements of physical and emotional isolation and even exile. In response each individual can choose to turn inward, worry about their own needs and fret about their personal suffering. There was a choice then as there is now. Do we choose to look at our suffering through emunah eyes and recognize that this struggle comes from Hashem? If so, then we can choose to bring more light to the darkness, by reaching out offering emotional support to a friend, providing financial aid to community members in need, by kicking a ball with a neighbor’s child or helping pick up medicine or groceries for someone unable to do so. By stretching ourselves and looking out of our respective towers of isolation, we light up ourselves as well. The flame of kindness gets passed from one wick to another, never diminishing, only getting stronger and burning brighter.
Ezra the Scribe:
Ezra’s passing meant the loss of a great teacher of Torah who helped the Jewish people return to Israel and recommit to a life of Torah and mitzvot. We can take the occasion to learn about his messages in order to build our emunah. In a moving scene presented in the book of Nechemia (8:8-9), Ezra is reading the Torah to the Jewish people on Rosh Hashanah and as it is being explained, the realization of how far they have strayed from the Torah’s teachings begins to set in. The people are very upset and begin to cry. Ezra boldly and lovingly tells the nation to stop their tears and then he continues to encourage them to go and eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, send portions to the needy on this holy day, and lastly, not to be sad because the joy of Hashem, and the joy of doing His mitzvot, is their source of strength… וְאַל־תֵּ֣עָצֵ֔בוּ כִּֽי־חֶדְוַ֥ת ה’ הִ֥יא מָֽעֻזְּכֶֽם
It is so easy to drown in our sadness and feel badly about mistakes that we have made, to feel upset about how far we have fallen and then stay slumped in that place, sluggish and despondent. But in the month where we commemorate Ezra, we can also be strengthened by his teachings – that we should engage in this world with all of our senses, and enjoy delicious treats in celebration of holidays. We are meant to increase our joy by giving to the poor, and by increasing the quality of mitzvah observance know that our actions can bring us strength and bring Hashem joy! With emunah filled eyes we can feel Hashem’s presence, lighting up the way to forge ahead and move over the inevitable speed-bumps on life’s journey instead of getting off-course and lost in our own tears.
Translation of the Torah:
In Devarim 27: 1-10, we are told that Moshe Rabbenu and the elders are commanded to set large stones on Har Eval and write on the stones all the words of this law ‘be’er haytev’. Rashi explains this to mean, בשבעים לשון, that the words were written in the 70 languages of the nations. If this is somehow the case, then it is surprising that the translation of the Torah to Greek was seen as such a calamity if there is already a precedent commanded from Hashem and fulfilled by Moshe Rabbenu.
The problem with the translation of the Septuagint was that it became an entity unto itself, divorced from Hashem, the Land and the Jewish people and eventually being used as a springboard for the evolution of Christianity. Lacking the nuanced meanings of the holy tongue, and without the connection to God, it became a book like any other. When Moshe made the Torah accessible to the world, as it were, it was directly linked to Am Yisrael, to Hashem and to Eretz Yisrael. Removing all of that removes the dancing flame of the neshama, the soul that is in each of the holy letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The cold Greek letters fall heavily, creating darkness, and while using the shell of the text, they are missing the heart and soul of the holy words. Even though there was remarkable Divine providence with the 72 versions of the translations aligning under Ptolmey’s decree (Megila 9a), there is still a loss when the Torah becomes just another book on a shelf.
With this knowledge, someone with an emunah mindset strives to take these challenges in the month of Tevet and hear the deeper messages. One can choose to take this time as a chance to strengthen learning Torah, to increase learning in lashon hakodesh, to use one’s Hebrew name if that is not often used, and to expand our consciousness of the great power in the holy words found in Torah and Tefillah.
May we soon see the prophecy of Zecharia fulfilled, where he says:
כֹּ֥ה אָמַר֮ ה’ צְבָאוֹת֒ בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֔מָּה אֲשֶׁ֤ר יַחֲזִ֙יקוּ֙ עֲשָׂרָ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים מִכֹּ֖ל לְשֹׁנ֣וֹת הַגּוֹיִ֑ם וְֽהֶחֱזִ֡יקוּ בִּכְנַף֩ אִ֨ישׁ יְהוּדִ֜י לֵאמֹ֗ר נֵֽלְכָה֙ עִמָּכֶ֔ם כִּ֥י שָׁמַ֖עְנוּ אֱלֹהִ֥ים עִמָּכֶֽם׃ (זכריה ח:כג)
Thus said the LORD of Hosts: In those days, ten men from nations of every tongue will take hold—they will take hold of every Jew by a corner of his cloak and say, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”
Regardless of whether the Bible has been translated into their native tongue, they know (and we should know!) that there is something more lofty and unique which is with the Jewish people. For the other nations, something profound is lacking. Hashem’s presence is forever in our midst even in the darkness and sometimes most especially in the times of tragedy and hardship. Do we stop to listen, do we recognize that, ה’ עמנו, the Holy One is with us?
As our heightened emunah senses have taught us, there is always the option to seek God’s messages. We remember that Hashem is with us, speaking to us and urging us to add light to the darkness, to strive upwards and forwards, and to push forth even when things seem daunting. As the prophet Yeshayahu comforts us that Jerusalem will arise again and shake off the dust (52:2) and the redemption will come, it will be a time where the people of Am Yisrael will know the name of Hashem-
לָכֵ֛ן יֵדַ֥ע עַמִּ֖י שְׁמִ֑י לָכֵן֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֔וּא כִּֽי־אֲנִי־ה֥וּא הַֽמְדַבֵּ֖ר הִנֵּני
because indeed it was Him speaking to us all along.