Jews celebrated Tisha B’Av (9th of Av) with joy rather than mourning, with a feast rather than a fast, because the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av fell on Shabbat, a day when joy takes precedence. We postponed the day commemorating the Jewish people’s loss of sovereignty in its homeland, the destruction of the Temple, and all the tragedies that befell Jews in their long exile. We mourned and fasted this year on Sunday, the 10th of Av.
This year, we began reading Deuteronomy (Devarim), the last book of the Five Books of Moses, in synagogues worldwide on the 9th of Av, called Shabbat Hazon (Vision). Following the reading of the Torah portion Devorim (Words), we read the vision of the prophet Isaiah:
“Learn to do good, seek justice, relieve the oppressed, render justice to the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:1, 17)
In the Torah reading, Moses challenges Israelites to journey beyond theory heard at Horeb (Mt. Sinai) to its implementation in the Land they are about to enter where they are enjoined to create a culture of compassion and loving kindness, in Hebrew a culture of hesed.
“God our Lord spoke to us at Horeb, saying: ‘Enough of your dwelling by this mountain. Turn yourselves around and journey’…. ‘See! I have given the Land before you. Come and possess the Land that God swore that He would give to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, and to their descendants after them.’” (Deuteronomy 1:1, 6-8)
On Tisha B’Av, we mourn our ruin and exile for our failure to implement Isaiah’s vision two millennia ago. The Talmud teaches that mourning will turn to joy as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live lives of compassionate action when they regain sovereignty over the Land of Israel. “Whoever mourns for Jerusalem in her time of sorrow will rejoice with her in her time of joy” (Talmud, Ta’anit 30b). The mourners will merit an outburst of joy as they transform the theory of Horeb into practice and the vision of Isaiah into reality.
ISAIAH’S VISION IN ACTION
When my wife Miriam and I visited Achuzat Sara Children’s Home in Bnei Brak, we saw the vision of Isaiah in action in the Land of Israel. Headmaster Shmuel Ron told us that the aim of his work is to put smiles on the faces of orphaned, abandoned, neglected, and abused children. He and his wife created a community of loving kindness that 130 children consider their home.
Achuzat Sara’s educational and social programs help its children gain self-esteem, develop emotionally and spiritually, and grow into responsible and productive adults. The children are encouraged to cultivate their talents in areas ranging from art, music and theater to sports, computers and science. We documented our visit in our “Torah Tweets” blogart project http://bibleblogyourlife.blogspot.com.
We saw pictures of dismal pasts transformed into visions of bright futures through the loving kindness permeating Achuzat Sara. We met professional adults who grew up at Achzat Sara Children’s Home working there as teachers and social workers. It is a tribute to the vision of Emunah Women who have been making Isaiah’s dream a reality by having created Ahuzat Sara and many other projects of hesed in action throughout the Jewish State.
“Yours God are the compassion, the strength, the beauty, the success, the splendor, and everything in heaven and on earth.” (Chronicles 1:29)
The first of these six divine attributes is hesed – loving kindness/compassion. It is the emotion of giving and sharing. Hesed is the basic cosmic flow through which God created the world and gives it as a gift to humanity. God gives us our life, a world to enjoy, and people to love. God’s sharing the whole Creation with humanity is a model for us to emulate by sharing the divine gift that we received with others.
My book Photograph God http://photographgod.com, teaches how to aim your smartphone lens on acts of compassion, strength, beauty, success and splendor that you see in your everyday life. Judaism explains the multifaceted nature of each of these divine attributes by attributing each one to a man and to a woman presented in the biblical narrative.
The biblical personalities who exemplify hesed are Abraham and Ruth. Abraham, the first Hebrew, left his home and its idolatrous culture. He opened his home to all interested in learning about his radically new way of thinking about one universal God. His acts of loving kindness and compassion are legendry. Ruth also left her home and idolatrous culture. She chose to become part of the Hebrew nation and accept Abraham’s way of thinking about God. Her selfless compassion for her widowed mother-in-law evoked loving kindness in all those whose lives she touched.
I linked the biblical narrative to my life by adding events in the life of my father Abraham (Avraham Avi) to the lives of our father Abraham (Avraham Avinu) and Ruth. Av means father in Hebrew and is the name of the Hebrew month Av, the month that begins in sorrow and evolves into joy.
The month of Av begins with nine days of mourning that culminates with Tisha B’Av. Six days later on the 15th of Av, Tu B’Av, we rejoice. Tu B’Av was a joyous holiday in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, marking the beginning of the grape harvest. Eligible bachelors came to find a wife from among the unmarried girls dressed in white garments who went out to dance in the vineyards (Talmud, Ta’anit 30b-31a). That same section in the Talmud states that there were no holy days as happy for the Jews as Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur.
The prophet Zechariah predicted that the fast days observed by the Jewish people would eventually become “joyous and happy, good seasons for the House of Judah.” Maimonides wrote that fast days will be annulled in the days of the Messiah and become holidays of joy and happiness (Mishneh Torah). We recite the formula for bringing this messianic age on the Shabbat before the month of Av and every other month in the Hebrew calendar:
“May He who performed miracles for our fathers and redeemed them from slavery to freedom, speedily redeem us and gather our dispersed people from the four corners of the earth, uniting all the people of Israel; and let us say, Amen.”
OUR FATHER ABRAHAM (Avraham Avinu)
“Abraham rushed to the tent to Sarah and said, “Hurry! Take three measures of the finest flour! Kneed it and make rolls! Abraham ran to the cattle to choose a tender and choice calf.” (Genesis 18:6, 7)
Legend tells us that Abraham ran after a calf that ran away from him into a cave. He saw intense light emanating from an opening at the far end of the cave. When he came close to the opening, he found himself standing at the entrance to the Garden of Eden. About to enter the pristine garden, he remembered that his wife and three guests were waiting for lunch back at the tent. The Bible tells us that he chose to return to the tent and join his wife in making a meal for their three guests
Abraham expressed his kindness by inviting strangers crossing the desert into his home, sheltering them from the sweltering sun, bathing their feet, and offering them drink and food. His need to express hesed, giving and sharing with others, made him choose a barbeque over paradise.
Abraham built an inn in the desert so he could bestow hospitality upon wayfarers. It was open on all four sides so that everyone would feel comfortable entering and engaging in dialogue with him. His chief aim in life was to teach the world his revolutionary ideas about God by connecting with others through loving kindness.
Although Noah was considered a righteous man in his generation who walked together with God (Genesis 6:9), Abraham was the first person to be chosen to reveal a divine message of loving kindness to all humanity. Noah was only considered righteous in a wicked generation. When he hears a divine voice telling him to build an ark to save himself and his family because God plans to drown everyone else in world, Noah just went ahead and built an ark without challenging God. He accepted God’s decree without any question or protest.
Unlike Noah who walked together with God, the Bible relates that Abraham walked wholeheartedly before God (Genesis 17:1). He took the lead and challenged God’s decision to destroy the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah. “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked? Perhaps there are 50 righteous people there. How could the Judge of the entire earth not act justly? And perhaps there are 45… or 40 .. or 30… or 20… or 10?” (Genesis 18;23-32). Abraham had the compassionate strength to debate God and bargain with Him as in a Middle Eastern market. He is called a Hebrew (Ivri), which means to stand on the other side, in opposition to those who lack compassion, even if everyone stands against him, including God.”
Like the patriarch Abraham, Ruth exemplifies hesed. She exhibits exceptional kindness and trust by dedicating herself to being God’s instrument for providing loving care for Naomi, her destitute mother-in-law. She chooses to leave her Moabite family and become part of the nation and religion of Israel without any personal advantage or self-interest, motivated spirituality from within herself.
The story that unfolds in the Scroll of Ruth, also known as The Book of Loving Kindness, tells of famine in the Land of Israel that makes Elimelekh take his wife, Naomi, and their sons to Moab from their home in Bethlehem. Both sons marry Moabite woman, Orpah and Ruth. Elimelekh and their two sons die, leaving Naomi with neither husband nor sons to care for her. Oraph and Ruth are also left childless widows. When Naomi decides to return to her hometown in the Land of Israel, her daughters-in-law plead to go with her. While Orpah is persuaded to return to her family in Moab, Ruth refuses to leave her mother-in-law. She says to Naomi, “Entreat me not to leave you and return from following after you; for where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die, I will die, and there will be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17) .
Ruth takes upon herself the care and feeding her elderly mother-in-law. Since they arrive in Bethlehem during the barley harvest, Ruth takes advantage of the Jewish tradition to leave fallen grain for the poor by gleaning in the field of Boaz, a wealthy relative of Naomi’s late husband. Hesed is contagious. Every act of benevolence and generosity engenders others. Boaz is so impressed by Ruth’s loving kindness to Naomi that he invites her to eat with his workers and instructs them to give her barley from the sheaves they harvest. Boaz eventually marries Ruth and they have a son Oved. Oved’s son is Yishai, father of King David. We wait eagerly for a time when Ruth’s compassionate acts of loving kindness will spread throughout the world and usher in a messianic age.
MY FATHER ABRAHAM (Avraham Avi)
My life was blessed to have been able to see hesed being enacted daily by my father Abraham. He was born in Woodbine, where his parents were founders of an agricultural village established in 1891 in New Jersey for Jews fleeing to freedom from the pogroms of Czarist Russia. After high school, Abraham left his birthplace and his parent’s home and moved to New York where he met my mother Jeanne, a rabbi’s daughter born in Boston. As the Great Depression was approaching, Abraham turned down admission to university and a pro baseball contract. Instead of realizing his dreams, he ran a housewares store in Brooklyn to support his extended family.
Jeanne told of the days when her parents and their five children shared a single roll as their sole meal of the day. While courting Jeanne, Abraham gave her unemployed father funds to open a Hebrew bookstore to feed his family. After marrying Jeanne, he gave his brother-in-law, a young rabbi, money for the down payment on a building to convert to a storefront synagogue with living quarters above. His brother-in-law named it Congregation Beth Abraham after my father.
When Jeanne’s father passed away, his wife with her two unmarried children came to live in my parent’s three-room apartment in Queens when I was seven and my sister five. Abraham took them in with opened arms. His hesed flowing through our crowded apartment transformed it into a welcoming home of love and tranquility. The daily acts of giving and sharing with compassion and caring between my parents, sister, grandmother, aunt and uncle seemed to extend the walls of the small apartment we all shared. Every word spoken in our home as I grew up was spoken with affection, thoughtfulness, and consideration.
After my father worked for forty years in his store in Brooklyn, he moved with my mother to Florida. He joined “Operation Grandfather,” a Federal government sponsored program in which retired people volunteered to work in elementary schools teaching reading and math to disadvantaged children on a one-to-one basis. After taking courses in child psychology and educational methodology, he worked in the program for ten years. When I would visit Florida and walk with my father in the mall, I enjoyed seeing excited African-American children call out “Grandpa Abraham,” run into his arms and hug him tightly.
My father passed away on the 10th of Av. At his funeral, people said that his life of hesed was summed up in the day he died. Since his memorial day immediately follows Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning for the entire Jewish people, it does not interrupt the joyous flow in the lives of those who remember him each year.