Av: This Too is for the Best


What is hiding under the serious face of the Month of Av and the Ninth of Av and how does it turn into a month of comfort? A journey in the wake of the ninth letter of the alef-bet and the treasure that is hidden in it

By contrast to every month of the year that we greet gladly, it seems that the month of Av is an unwelcome guest, as the sages teach, “When Av comes in we decrease in joy.”[1] But, the truth is that it is in this month in particular that a fascinating assignment awaits us that is more important than any other: turning our mourning over the destruction into comfort, as the Prophet promised, “The fast of the fourth [Seventeenth of Tamuz] and the fast of the fifth [Ninth of Av]… will become for the house of Judah [a time of] rejoicing and happiness and of good holidays.”[2] That is why we have the custom of naming this month “Menachem Av” (“Comforter of Av”), to infuse it from the start with joyful comfort. Moreover, in Chasidut the abovementioned adage is rendered to read, “When Av comes in we decrease―in joy!” i.e., we diminish our unwanted issues through joy.[3] This surprising interpretation requires further explanation: how exactly do we do that? What is there to be joyful about?

As usual, we can meditate on the essence of the month by contemplating the letter with which it was created, as taught in Kabbalistic wisdom. This method is particularly pertinent for this month, since Av (אַב), spelled alef-bet (א-ב) is the first significant two-lettered word created from the letters of the alef bet. This is a clear indication that the entire series of letters is significant here. It is also interesting to note that the book of Tanach associated with the month of Av – the Scroll of Lamentations – is the only book of Tanach in which the majority of its verses follow alphabetical order. The sages even took care to explain this phenomenon, “Why were they afflicted by the alef-bet? Because they transgressed the Torah which was given with the alef-bet.”[4] Furthermore, the number of days “between the straits” i.e., between the Seventeenth of Tamuz and the Ninth of Av (including those two days) is twenty-two, each day corresponding to one of the twenty-two letters of the alef-bet.

The Good Letter

The month of Av was created with the letter tet (ט). Simply speaking, this letter, whose numerical value is 9, alludes to the Ninth of Av, the most significant day in the month. But that’s not all. The inner significance of any letter can be gleaned from its first appearance in the Torah, since the Torah is the “blueprint” of Creation. The letter tet first appears in the verse, “And God saw that the light was good” as the initial letter of the word “good” (טוֹב). This proves that the letter tet is apparently a very good letter. Indeed, the Talmud states that seeing the letter tet in a dream is a good omen because its first appearance in the Torah is in the word “good.”[5]

This also explains why neither the word “good” (טוֹב), nor the letter tet (ט) appear in the text of the Ten Commandments as they appear in Exodus: “Why was the word ‘good’ not mentioned in the first Tablets? Because they would eventually be broken [and then] God forbid, goodness would stop for the Jewish People.”[6] By contrast, in the Ten Commandments as they appear in Deuteronomy, the word “good” does appear in the phrase, “In order that it will be good for you,”[7] since this is the version that was written on the second set of tablets, which were not broken. This means that the letter tet and the word “good” are suited to appear on something that has a continued existence, and not on something transitory that will be broken. This is also the literal meaning of the words, “And God saw that it was good”: God wanted Creation to exist.

So, it is rather surprising that the month of Av is the month that was created with the letter tet, the “good” letter, because on the Ninth of Av the severest events in the history of the Jewish People took place: the spies’ sin, the death of the generation of the wilderness for forty years, the destruction of both Temples and many other sorrows and troubles; even some that took place in our current generation. Everything is shattered and destroyed, like the first set of Tablets (which were already shattered on the Seventeenth of Tamuz), and what can be good about that?

Hidden Goodness

The explanation is concealed within a unique expression in the Zohar, “Its goodness is concealed within it.” This is the significance of the form of the letter tet (ט), which looks like an in-turning vessel that seems to be pointing at a hidden point inside it. This is the hidden point of goodness that we must become worthy enough to reveal.

So, something really good is hiding within the month of Av, but we need a special talent to be able to integrate it. Here we come to the spiritual talent of the soul that is associated with Av in particular— the sense of hearing. This is by contrast to the month of Tamuz that precedes it, which is associated with the sense of sight. In addition, of the twelve tribes, the tribe associated with the month of Av is the tribe of Shimon (שִׁמְעוֹן; from the root ש-מ-ע, “hear”), who was explicitly named after the sense of hearing, as his mother Leah stated, “For God has heard that I am despised.”[8]

When we see something, we have no doubt about its authenticity, we become an eye-witness to instantly perceive the essence of the matter, as is emphasized regarding the Exodus from Egypt and the Giving of the Torah, of which the Torah states, “You have seen,”[9] “You have shown us so that we know.”[10] But, hearing is not a direct experience; rather, it is the interception of a distant echo (i.e., the movement of sound waves which move through the air to hit our eardrums), like reaching conclusions from circumstantial evidence instead of from overwhelming proof before one’s eyes. Indeed, the Talmud states that, “Hearing should not be greater than sight.”[11] However, the letter tet and the word “good” (טוֹב) do appear in the context of sight, “And God saw that the light was good”! The sages explain that the Almighty saw that the world was not worthy of such a great light, therefore He “stood and buried it."[12] This proves that the true goodness of the letter tet is hidden and can no longer be seen. We can therefore only hear about it.[13]

When everything is clear and revealed, we can see the good light, like during the golden era when the Torah was given or during the era when the Temple was built. But, when we reach the dark days when the Tablets are broken and the Temple is destroyed and we are in exile, then the sense of sight is blocked, “In darkness He has set me, like the dead of the world,”[14] “Over these our eyes were dimmed.”[15] But, even at times like these, one can sense the hidden goodness, and even though we cannot perceive it, we can hear it, like a soft voice that echoes from within the ruins.

The Optimistic Sage

So, we believe that there is some good even at a time of destruction, but what is that good? To understand what it is, we need to relate a story about a great Jewish sage, who was called, “Nachum of Gamzu,” so called because he would say about everything that happened, gam zu l’tovah, “This too is for the best” (גַם זוּ לְטוֹבָה).[16] And so the story goes: Once, there was a need to bring a gift of appeasement to the Roman emperor. They chose Nachum of Gamzu as the emissary and sent him with a chest full of precious stones and pearls. On the way, Nachum slept over at an inn and at night the innkeeper stole the treasure and filled the chest with dust instead. When Nachum realized this, he said, “This too is for the best…” When he reached the emperor, the emperor saw the “gift” that the Jews had sent him and wanted to kill him. Once again, Nachum said, “This too is for the best…” Then Elijah the Prophet intervened, having been sent from Heaven in the guise of one of the ministers, and said to the king: “Maybe this is the amazing dust that Abraham, their forefather would fight with against his enemy, which would turn into swords and arrows. The emperor tried the dust and discovered that it was indeed a miraculous weapon. Then the emperor commanded that they fill the chest with precious stones and pearls and they sent Nachum away with great respect (the rest of the story and what happened to the scheming innkeeper can be found in the Talmud[17]).

Nachum of Gamzu believed with complete faith that at the very moment when everything seemed evil, it really was for the best, and that through this route in particular would come genuine goodness. It is further related that Nachum suffered from terrible pain, but rejoiced in it, because at his high spiritual level, he recognized the goodness that his pain granted him, and the goodness that was hidden in it. This is how it is too with regard to the destruction of the Temple and all the descents and the catastrophes of the month of Menachem Av. Comfort comes by seeing things through Nachum’s prism (from the same root as Menachem and “comfort”; נ-ח-ם), when we can wholeheartedly say that “this too is for the best.” There is a hidden goodness in the destruction of the Temple because it comes from God in order to “clear the stage” for the third and eternal Temple, as in the definition in Jewish law that forbids on Shabbat, “demolition with the aim of reconstruction”[18] i.e., demolishing a building to allow for the construction of a better building than the previous one.[19]

In Chasidic terminology, on the Ninth of Av we reach the point of “nothingness” by power of which a new level of reality is born, which, like the disintegration of a seed before it begins to grow, cannot appear as long as the old reality remains in existence. From this we can understand that the service that is required of each and every one of us in order to reach the hidden goodness of the Ninth of Av is to be at the level of “nothingness,” i.e., to completely adopt the attribute of positive lowliness, as we say at the end of the amidah prayer, “And my soul should be like dust to all.” This is the secret of Abraham’s dust, because he said of himself, “And I am like dust and ashes,”[20] and that is the dust that was revealed to Nachum of Gamzu. The destruction and death of the Ninth of Av bring us to the nothingness after which a new reality can flourish. However, if we act according to the attribute of lowliness like dust, we can save ourselves all these troubles and we will be able to truly renew ourselves without death and pain.[21]

Happy Birthday

We can complete our understanding of the hidden goodness by returning to the letter tet, whose numerical value is 9. “Who knows nine?” we ask on the Seder night and the reply is “Nine months of childbirth.” We can thus meditate upon the first nine days of the month of Av as if they are nine months of pregnancy in which each month is reduced into one day.

The initiating moment of pregnancy is on the first day of Av (Rosh Chodesh), the memorial day of passing for Aharon, the High Priest, “In the fifth month, on the first day of the month”[22] (the only memorial day that is mentioned explicitly in the Torah). At first glance, this was a sad event, as the Torah relates how the entire Jewish People wept after Aharon’s demise. But, in truth, the death of a tzadik (righteous individual) marks the beginning of a new, even greater stage in their influence on the Jewish People. As stated in the Zohar that when a tzadik passes on from this world, they become present in all worlds more than they were during their lifetime, since their influence is no longer constricted by physical limitations. This is why we can see the day of Aharon’s passing away as the day that begins pregnancy.[23] At this point, the hidden goodness is present within the mother’s womb in the form of a developing fetus.[24] The one who is born on the Ninth of Av, after nine days of pregnancy is none other than Mashiach himself, as the sages teach us that Mashiach was born on the day when the Temple was destroyed.[25] Mashiach is the goodness hidden in the very destruction itself, because the destruction of the image that we were hooked onto previously releases us to wait expectantly for a new reality to appear. After the disintegration apparent from the Temple’s destruction, Mashiach, who is referred to as “a plant,”[26] can now begin to flourish.

Nowadays, we still observe the laws of mourning and destruction during this period of nine days, because in our eyes, we can still only see great destruction and exile (both materially and physically). But we must make an effort to “hear” the goodness that is hidden in the bitterness of the destruction and wish “happy birthday” to Mashiach who will come to comfort us, showing us how this too is really for the best, like Nachum of Gamzu. This is the service of “decreasing – in joy” – we diminish our mourning over the destruction by revealing the hidden goodness and the inner joy that will eventually come to the fore. “And even on the Ninth of Av, which appears as darkness, even though one must bitterly weep over all that happened to us on that day, nonetheless, one must rejoice the king’s heart with the future joy when Menachem [Mashiach] is born and he will redeem us quickly and God will rejoice in his actions and sovereignty will be returned to Him as the days of old.”[27]

The hidden goodness becomes even more apparent on the Shabbat following the Ninth of Av, which is called, “The Shabbat of Comforting,” when after reading the weekly Torah portion, we begin reading the first of the series of comforting portions of the Prophets, “Surely be comforted, My people.”[28] The goodness is revealed at its peak in the middle of the month on the Fifteenth of Av, when the full moon illuminates us with the “light that is good”. “There are no better days for the Jewish People like the Fifteenth of Av… on which the girls of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards.”[29] “Then a maiden will rejoice in dance [on the Fifteenth of Av] and young men and elders together, and I will turn their mourning into joy and I will comfort them and make them happy from their sorrow… and My people will be satiated with My goodness, says God.” May it be so, speedily in our days. Amen.[30]

[1] Mishnah Ta’anit 26:2.

[2] Zacharaiah 8:19.

[3] Maor Vashemesh, Parashat Vayeshev, on the verse, “And God was with Joseph”; Siach Sarfei Kodesh (Bein Hametzarim) in the name of the Seer of Lublin.

[4] Sanhedrin 104a.

[5] Baba Kama 55a.

[6] Ibid 54b. See also the Maharsha’s commentary, which explains that the Talmud is also referring to the letter tet.

[7] Deuteronomy 5:16.

[8] Genesis 29:33.

[9] Exodus 20:19.

[10] Deuteronomy 4:35.

[11] Rosh Hashanah 25b.

[12] Chagigah 12a.

[13] In Kabbalistic concepts, sight belongs to the faculty of wisdom, which flashes like lightning, while hearing is associated with the faculty of understanding.

[14] Lamentations 3:6.

[15] Ibid 5:17.

[16] Ta’anit 21a; Sanhedrin 108b (see Rabeinu Chananel’s interpretation that Nachum was from the town of Gamzu, and see the Maharsha ad loc.)

[17] Taanit 21a.

[18] See Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chayim 278:2.

[19] For more on this and the difference between the level of Nachum of Gamzu and that of Rabbi Akiva, who would say, “Everything that the Compassionate does, He does for the best” – see Torat Menachem, part 3, p. 268 and part 6, p. 125.

[20] Genesis 18:27.

[21] See Sotah 5a, how someone who is a neighbor to dust in his lifetime is worthy of the revival of the dead.

[22] Numbers 33:38.

[23] “Aharon” (אהרן) and “pregnancy” (הריון) share the same root (הר).

[24] As explained in Tanya, Igeret Hakodesh 26.

[25] Eichah Rabati 1:51.

[26] Zachariah 6:12.

[27] Avodat Yisrael, Parashat Masei.

[28] Isaiah 40:1.

[29]  Conclusion of Mishnah Ta’anit. One might say that until the Ninth of Av, is the level of Rabbi Akiva who said, “Everything the Compassionate one does is for the best” (as above, note 18), without it being revealed, just faith despite the darkness. But during the days of comforting that follow the Ninth of Av, we reach the level of Nachum of Gamzu, which is the revelation of the goodly light.

[30] Jeremiah 31:12-13.

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