Rosh Chodesh Tammuz Torah Essay - Matan - The Sadie Rennert
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Rosh Chodesh Tammuz Torah Essay

Sarina Novick

While often Rosh Chodesh is greeted with excitement surrounding whatever festivities are anticipated in the month to come, I know very few people who look forward to Rosh Chodesh Tammuz. We feel the impending period of the three weeks, where we experience gradually intensified mourning, beginning with the 17th of Tammuz and culminating in the date of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash on the 9th of Av. And while the seriousness of these days is not to be overlooked, I struggle with thinking that we are doomed to the ominous feeling we get as these summer months approach. Because certainly, before the destruction, the month of Tammuz was not met with the same association. Yes, when Moshe broke the first set of tablets on the 17th of Tammuz after the sin of the golden calf, it set an unfortunate tone to the month. But is there anything we can learn from the events of Tammuz that can give us hope for a month of goodness and blessing, as we requested this past Shabbat in birkat hachodesh?

With this in mind, I want to focus briefly on an event in Tanakh that the Seder Olam Rabbah dates to the third of Tammuz – the miracle in Yehoshua’s time when he beseeched God to stop the sun with the famous words ‘shemesh b’Givon dom,’ and God obliged. As the verse states in Joshua 10:14 commenting on this astonishing miracle: “there was no day like it before or afterwards, that God listened to the voice of man.” What was the context of this miraculous event?

In the times of Yehoshua, as our nation involved itself in conquering the land of Israel, they fell for the Givonites’ trick of pretending to be a nation from far away, causing the Israelites to agree under false pretenses to a peace treaty with them. Despite the trickery, the Israelites nonetheless stood by their agreement, and came to Givon’s aid as an ally when Givon was attacked by a force of five kings. It was in this war to save the Givonites that one of the greatest miracles of all time occurred- the miracle of stopping the sun, a miracle with repercussions on the entire natural order. And yet, this astounding moment was not the only miracle in the context of this battle. We are told just a few verses earlier in Joshua 10:11, that as the enemy forces were fleeing “God hurled huge stones on them from the sky, all the way to Azekah, and they perished; more perished from the hailstones than were killed by the Israelite weapons.” Even before the stopping of the sun, God miraculously came to the Israelites’ aid.

If miracles were already incorporated into this war, I’m inclined to wonder – why did Yehoshua request the miracle of stopping the sun at all? Presumably his intention was to buy time in order to finish off the battle in broad daylight. But if we were to put ourselves in Yehoshua’s shoes, why wouldn’t he ask God to grant the ultimate goal – to miraculously wipe out the enemy in its entirety? Yehoshua could have requested that God finish off the entire battle quickly, perhaps ask for more hailstones, rather than buying more time to fight. In fact, this is indeed how Ralbag on Joshua 10:12 interprets the events – that ‘stopping the sun’ is a poetic description of God helping the Israelites complete the battle so fast, that it seemed as if the sun had stopped in the sky, and the day had not continued on. We can understand rationally why Ralbag was inclined to take this approach. And furthermore, he is troubled as to how Yehoshua could have brought about a miracle of greater stature even than Moshe, when Moshe was the greatest prophet of all time (Devarim 34:10). While miracles of Moshe’s generation were localized to the relevant area, stopping the sun impacts the entire world. While some opinions in Chazal resolve the concern of stature by listing incidents in which Moshe had previously also stopped the sun, Ralbag is troubled that a miracle as great as that would not have been recorded explicitly in chumash.

But perhaps this discussion sheds more light on the relationship between Moshe and Yehoshua. There is a midrash in which Moshe’s countenance is compared to the sun, and Yehoshua’s to the moon (Bava Batra 75b). From the beginning of Sefer Yehoshua we feel the heaviness weighing on Yehoshua that he is missing his dear teacher, and the greatest leader, whose light he personally reflected, as the moon does for the sun. Moshe is mentioned 11 times in the entire 18 verses of chapter one of Joshua, even though he is no longer physically present. The entire book of Joshua begins in verse 1 by reminding us that Moshe had died, and Yehoshua was Moshe’s attendant. In the second verse, the first words that God says to Yehoshua begin with “Moshe My servant is dead, and now you must rise up and cross the Jordan…,” leaving us with a feeling that Yehoshua may have needed God to remind him of the finality of Moshe’s absence. Perhaps he had been reluctant to move on from his grief to take on this new and major mission.

But with Yehoshua’s leadership comes a new era for the Israelites in the land of Israel. Yehoshua summons in an era of fewer miracles, and a stronger engagement with the natural world. As the Netziv explains in his introduction to Sefer Bamidbar, where the Israelites in the wilderness experienced God’s glory in a way that totally transcended nature, in the Land of Israel their affairs accorded with nature, concealing God’s providence. Over the course of Yehoshua’s leadership, we see a gradual decrease in miraculous events, where each battle weans the nation off of God’s obvious involvement. With this background, the miracle of stopping the sun, a miracle of massive proportions, is even more astounding. It indicates that in Yehoshua’s gradual preparation of the nation for natural warfare while maintaining an acute awareness of God’s help in a more hidden way, he prefers the stopping of the sun – a tremendously grand miracle, because it is one that allows the Israelites to continue battling by more natural means. The alternative, of having God drastically wipe out their enemies in a miraculous way, would remove the natural input of the people in battle. By granting Yehoshua’s request, God essentially gives his approval that this goal of training the people to navigate the natural world, is worth performing one of the greatest miracles of all time. How symbolic that this miracle takes the form of stopping the sun, the imagery used to represent Moshe as opposed to Yehoshua. Perhaps we can understand on the one hand that the sun and Moshe’s era had come to a stop in these new times, but the light coming from Moshe – the teachings and lessons he conveyed —  were maintained.

In describing the shift from the desert’s miracles to more natural encounters in Israel, the Netziv quotes Bereishit Rabbah, parasha 3, as follows:

‘ “God separated between the light and darkness” (in the first chapter of Bereishit) refers to the book of Bamidbar, as it divides between those who exited Egypt and those who entered the Land of Israel. The affairs of the lives of those who left Egypt, had the open light of Divine providence appearing in the eyes of all, [revealing] God’s glory and the purpose of creation. Not so for those entering the Land of Israel; as for them the Divine Providence was concealed. Only one searching with a piercing eye could perceive [God’s providence] similar to how [it is difficult to perceive one’s surroundings] when walking in pitch darkness. Though at times the Divine Providence was apparent to all, similar to how the [fleeting] glow of lighting punctuates the night’s darkness.’” ‘

The Midrash’s comparison of the generations in the desert and in Israel to light and dark, where light refers to clarity of God’s presence versus the darkness of his hidden presence upon our entrance into Israel, dovetails beautifully with Yehoshua’s leadership being compared to the light of the moon – the perfect luminary to show us God’s light during the darkness of night.

In a fascinating midrash from Breishit Rabbah, brought by Da’at Zkeinim (Breishit 37:9) on Yosef’s second dream, he describes that when

“Yehoshua commanded the sun to stand still, the sun refused to accept his command until he added: “did you not bow down to my forefather already?” (Joshua was descended from Ephrayim, son of Joseph). Upon hearing this, the sun complied with Joshua’s command.”

Yosef was the ancestor of Yehoshua who modeled the impressive ability to engage with the natural world, saving Egypt from famine during a seven year drought as a governmental official, but all the while attributing his successes and wisdom to God throughout his life. For someone like Yosef, and later for Yehoshua, the sun and the natural world was a servant. It bowed down for Yosef and stopped according to Yehoshua’s instruction — a fitting relationship with those who brought out awareness of God even in the confines of nature.

As we enter Tammuz, when the summer sun is strong around us, we have an opportunity to take pause and consider our awareness of God’s presence in our seemingly natural lives. One of the tragedies of the 17th of Tammuz was that the Tammid offering in the Beit Hamikdash came to a stop. This was a sacrifice that was offered day in and day out, making it clear that our relationship with God had a consistent place in our lives. When something so consistent stops, it often shocks us into thinking about its significance. Sometimes that change can be for the positive – like the awe inspiring miracle of the sun stopping in its tracks. This miracle was a major deviation from our normal expectation, where the length of a day is perhaps the most consistent and reliable natural encounter in our lives, but its pause was indicative of God coming to our aid. Or, that such changes can be for the negative, such as in the 17th of Tammuz where the consistent manifestation of our relationship with God came to an end and we felt God’s absence so very profoundly.

May we merit to learn from these reminders to see God’s hand even in the moments of consistency, and receive blessing for a new month of Tammuz in which we recognize this reality from a positive vantage point in an even more obvious way in our lives.

Sarina Novick

Sarina Novick

serves as the Summer Program Director at Matan Jerusalem. She is also the Assistant Director of Midreshet Torah V’Avodah (MTVA), a Jerusalem-based seminary for post-high school women. Sarina, originally from the Chicago area, made Aliyah in 2014 after completing her bachelor’s degree in Biology and Jewish Studies from Yeshiva University, and her master’s degree in Biology Education from Columbia Teachers College. She continued her studies with the Matan Bellows Eshkolot Educators Institute for Tanakh and Jewish Studies. She lives with her husband and three children in Israel’s beautiful Judean desert.