This week marks the beginning of the month of Av. And though we remember the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people this month - the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem primarily – the month has an additional name attached to it, ‘Menachem’ meaning a source of comfort.
This word ‘menachem’ referring to comfort and consolation, is phrased in the present tense and not in its future tense, implying that the advent of this seemingly sad month in the Jewish calendar somehow also contains within it the seeds of restoration.
Judaism is a very realistic and pragmatic faith. It does not guarantee fantastic rewards in this world or in the next. It is cautious in its commitments and sparse in its language and principles. Thus the question as to why this month of Av should also be the month of consolation is compounded and intensified. Yet the name ‘Menachem’ coincides nicely with the rabbinic idea that the day of Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of Av itself – the saddest day on the Jewish calendar – will yet be a holiday.
Not only will it eventually be a holiday, but even now the Halacha invests the day with certain holiday overtones in the ritual prayer service of the day. Piled on to the tragedies of that particular day are many other tragedies of many other days that have bitterly visited the Jewish people over our long history. Yet the feeling of optimism and hope for a brighter future permeates the day. A strange people, this Jewish people!
The month of Av needs to be viewed as not only a month of sadness and mourning, but equally as a month of commemoration. There are not many nations in history that remember and commemorate days of their defeats. These defeats are either expunged from the national record or they are rewritten as being the fault of others. Rarely do we see national acknowledgment of guilt or error and an acceptance of the true causes and consequences of national defeat and wrongdoing.
The main stumbling block to any type of successful peace negotiation between Israel and the Arabs is the refusal of the Arabs to own up to their many past errors of policy and action. As long as they continue to believe and propagate the myth that all of their misery and troubles, problems and weaknesses are the fault of others – Israel, the United States, world Jewry, etc. – there can be little or no hope for a lasting settlement of the conflict.
The month of Av commemorates the mistakes, errors of judgment and mistaken policies that the Jewish people made and, to a certain extent, continue to make. It identifies our disloyalty and stubbornness, our unwillingness to be true to ourselves and our tendency to always allow ourselves to be seduced by foreign cultures and alien faddish ideas and slogans.
The month of Av reminds us, in a ritualistic and psychologically powerful way, of our faults. It provides us with an honest look in the mirror of history. As such, it does begin to bring upon us a measure of comfort, the comfort of understanding, appreciating and internalizing the truth - unpleasant as that truth may initially seem to be.
The rabbis of the Talmud long ago advised us that true happiness comes with the removal of all doubts. The events of the month of Av certainly should dispel any doubts that one may possess regarding the necessity for Jewish responsibility and loyalty to God and Israel.
The Talmud further states that God’s wrath, so to speak, destroyed the Temples in Jerusalem, magnificent as they were, but did not destroy the people of Israel. The people of Israel have survived without the Temple, and have remained vital and productive over nineteen hundred years. That fact alone is one worthy of bringing us comfort and solace over the past, and determination and hope regarding our future.
This sense of realism and honesty, of being able and willing to accept blame and recognize past faults, is itself the beginning of the process of consolation and future faith and hope. It is what places the word ‘menachem’ in front of the name of the month of Av. Mourning without introspection is shallow and not productive. King Solomon taught us that the purpose of mourning is that “the living will take the matter to heart.” If Av can help us achieve that goal then it can truly serve its purpose of being ‘menachem’ all of us as well.