The month of Av, like the letter Aleph, is a paradox.

This month, which always falls in August, contains the most tragic of all days in the Jewish calendar: Tisha B’Av (Fast of the 9th day of Av), and its most joyous: Tu B’Av (the Celebration on the 15th of Av).

The letter Aleph likewise represents opposing ideas: physical power and spiritual humility, unity and multitudes, the divine and humankind.

What can we make of the dual natures of Aleph and Av?

How can the Aleph prepare us for the upcoming fast of Tisha B’Av? And how can this one letter lead us to a deeper understanding of Av in the course of the lunar year?

A Heritage of Memory

Year after year, Tisha B’Av is agony.

Tisha B’Av is a day on which we remember every destruction of Temples, Torahs, communities, and individuals that has been wrought upon the Jewish people in history.

We recite the names of those lost to Crusade, blood libel, Inquisition, pogrom, genocide, Holocaust, and Antisemitism. The collective death toll of our people over the past 70 years alone is staggering. Beyond comprehension. Add to that the religious and political persecutions of another 2,000+ years and you’ve got yourself some kind of ulcer.

A journey of memory into the pain of the past takes its toll on the soul.

One option, then, when faced with the choice to remember is to simply close our eyes to tragedy. Like the news cycle, people can opt out, move on, and forget what happened last week. Societal amnesia is an easy way out of grappling with painful events.

Yet ours is a heritage of memory. Forgetting the past is not an option for the Jew.

This year, I’ve grappled with the approach of Tisha B’Av more than any other year in the past. It might be because this past year was an incredibly tough one for me. It might be because of all the Jewish history I’ve studied since last Av, and all the additional tragedies I’m now aware of that I hadn’t known about before. It might be because of the fresh gun wounds of violence that have been visited upon our country this past week.

But something occurred to me this morning that is worth sharing: Av is a fiery Aleph.

I’ll explain what I mean after we explore the letter itself.

Who Knows One?

Aleph is the first letter of the month of Av and it is the first letter in the Aleph-Bet.

“Aleph” literally means “Ox”. It originated as a pictogram of the head of an ox: a triangular shape with two horns. As such it symbolizes magnificent strength and authority. It is also the ancestor of our English letter ‘A’.

 

Aleph evolution

Symbolically, the letter Aleph represents Anavah- humility of spirit – when it appears diminished in the Torah scroll. Little Aleph is an expression of Moshe, who according to our tradition, was the most humble man who ever lived.

Vayikra-small Aleph.jpg
In this verse, the Little Aleph of Vayikra stands apart from other normal-sized Alephs

Numerically, the letter Aleph is One. Because of this, and because it is the first of all Hebrew letters, Aleph represents the core belief of Monotheism: a single G!d.

When standing for uniqueness and unity, Aleph represents the Divine. Yet in the Zohar, the Aleph represents the form of humankind, as it is the first letter of the word Adam, man (human being).

But then the word Aleph creates a paradox because, when spelled the same yet pronounced slightly differently, Aleph means not one but One Thousand.

The letter Aleph is set apart in another way. Take a look at the Aleph-Bet: What makes Aleph different from all the other letters?

Imagine that each letter begins to walk…

aleph-bet

…what direction would each move in?

Every Hebrew letter, aside from Aleph, moves to the left. Aleph moves right. As a letter, he alone is facing forward. He walks counter to the path of the other letters.

In this way, the form of Aleph is a vision of duality: a bold diagonal stroke that separates (or does it join together?) two short vertical strokes in a counterpoint. Some say this is an image of the firmament with the waters above and the sea below. Others say it is the diaphragm in the human body. Aleph when writ large is the power of the Ox, representing mastery of the physical, and when writ small it represents modesty–mastery of the soul.

Still others say Aleph represents G!d above and human beings below, joined by the stretched parchment of the wisdom of Torah…

Screen Shot 2019-08-09 at 12.35.51 AM

However one views the strong, silent Aleph, this letter gives us insight into the power of the paradox. As an icon, it reminds us that we can hold two conflicting truths in our mind at the same time. So it is with the month of Av. Av is a month of paradox that contains both the deepest sorrow and the most transcendent joy of the entire year.

Av and Menachem

The Talmud tells us, “When the month of Av begins, joy decreases (mema’atin besimcha).”  This could be interpreted in many ways. One way is to understand that we should always strive to live life above a certain threshold of joy. Even when tragedy strikes, or a somber day of national mourning approaches, we decrease our joy, yet do not eliminate it. As a nation of hope, whose national anthem is the song of Hope, Hatikva, we maintain that glimmer even in the blackest night.

Perhaps that is why in the Jewish calendar, the month we are travelling through was given two names: During the nine days of preparatory mourning leading up to the intense sorrow and lamenting of The Fast of Av, this month is simply called Av, “Father.” But after the fasting and mourning concludes, the name of the month changes to Menachem Av, “Comforting Father”.

This is what I mean by describing Av as a fiery Aleph. Like the Aleph, the month Av balances paradoxes.

The diagonal slash of the Aleph is Tisha B’Av, separating and joining a period of trauma and national tragedy on one side (Av), and the period of consolation and intense joy of an entire nation on the other side (Menachem Av).

Both sides of Av are necessary in the cycle of the Jewish year. The fact that they are back to back is a mystery.

Now we are in the first half of Av, and the focus of the Jewish people is on mourning. Until world peace is achieved, we must continue to remember the names of those who have been taken from us in violence. Our sages teach us that on Tisha B’Av, the Mashiach will be born, and in that time to come, once we have lasting peace, this day of sorrow will be transformed into a day of pure joy. Until that time, our sorrows can never be forgotten.

We still know the names of our ancestors who died or were killed for being members of our nation – whether that person was felled this year, 70 years ago, or 1,000 years ago.

Lori Gilbert-Kaye
Lori Gilbert-Kaye a”h

We remember Lori Gilbert-Kaye who was shot protecting her rabbi in her Poway synagogue on the last day of Passover, and died on April 27, 2019.

Edith Frank
Edith Frank a”h

We remember Edith Frank, wife of Otto and mother of Margot and Anne Frank, who went to great lengths to protect her family during the Holocaust. After being betrayed by neighbors, the Franks were deported and Edith died in the Auschwitz death camp on January 6th, 1945. Her daughters Margot and Anne, our beloved diarist, died from typhus and starvation at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

We remember Dulcea of Worms, wife of Rabbi Eleazar Rokeach, whose home was broken into by a mob of Crusaders, and who died protecting her husband, children, and the other students in her home on the 22nd day of Kislev, 1196. The Crusaders also killed her two daughters Bellette and Hannah.

We remember them all.

There was once a Jewish Professor of Holocaust studies who traveled to Germany to give a lecture on his new book. At the lecture, an audience member called out, “It has been 60 years since the Holocaust. It’s time to forget!” The professor looked up and said, “We once had a house on a hill that was burned down 1,900 years ago, and we remember it in our prayers 60 times a day. We lost 6 million Jews during the Holocaust only 60 years ago and you expect us to forget?”

As painful as this memorializing is, and as much as it can feel like wallowing in victimhood to recount tragedy after tragedy, there is also a power in the realization that we are still here to remember them. It is our right to remember them. Our long memory is one of the qualities that sets us apart from other nations.

This Shabbat we begin reading a new book of the Torah, and the last in the Chumash: The Book of Devarim. I was struck by the theme of “turning around” in the opening two chapters of this book, a theme that is broadcast by the presence of numerous atypical Hebrew Letters and unusual spacings in the Torah scroll that is clear to anyone with a keen eye on the right text:

פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם

Says G!d, “Turn around and let yourselves journey” (Deut 1:7). This verse has a Pei Kefulah (doubled Pei) in the word פְּנוּ (“penu”), turn.

רַב-לָכֶם, סֹב אֶת-הָהָר הַזֶּה; פְּנוּ לָכֶם, צָפֹנָה.

“It is enough for you, circling this mountain; turn yourselves northward” (Deut 2:3). The letter Samech in the word סֹב, (“sov”), turn, is crowned with extra crownlets.

 מֵאֵילַת וּמֵעֶצְיֹן גָּבֶר;  {ס}  וַנֵּפֶן, וַנַּעֲבֹר, דֶּרֶךְ, מִדְבַּר מוֹאָב.

“So we passed from our brothers, the children of Esav…from Ezion-gever {break} and we turned and passed on the way of the Moabite desert” (Deut 2:8). This verse has a spacing break right in the middle of the sentence! Called piska be’emtza passuk, this unusual spacing bears deeper meaning, as does the double Pei and crowned Samech.

Turn around. Turn yourself. Turn and pass.

This theme of turning and facing something else, of pivoting, changing direction, comes through loud and clear. It reminds me of the Aleph, who turns to face a different destiny, perhaps, than that of his fellow letters. Even among Hebrew letters there is the Jew.

The Independent Aleph

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes of the Jew that he stands against empires and immorality. Even when everyone walks in one direction, the Jew is often found walking the other way. For example, when the first great powers of human civilization were gathering in Mesopotamia, where do you find the Jew? Walking away: Avraham walked out of Ur with his family towards what would become the Land of Israel. When the powerful, wealthy, and long-lived dynasty of Egypt was at its peak, where do you find the Jew? Staging a walk-out.

Our Exodus not only formed the Nation of Israel, it also reverberates throughout human history as a beacon of hope and triumph against evil empires. The Jewish Exodus from Egypt inspired the American Revolution. Ben Franklin therefore wanted the image of the Jews leaving Egypt as the official seal of the USA, bearing the words:

Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.

FirstCommitteeGreatSealReverseLossingDrawing
Interpretation of the seal proposal, made by Benson Lossing.

Our Exodus story also inspired the Abolitionist movement to end slavery in the United States. So afraid were slaveowners of our story of liberation, that they actually removed the Exodus narrative from slave bibles! (Read more about that here).

The Jewish perspective is to walk away from evil and pursue justice and good. It’s about doing the things that most people don’t do, like rebelling against tyranny and standing up for the vulnerable members of society. Being Jewish means having the courage to hold a counter opinion, even if it is unpopular, as long as it aligns with our deeply held, divinely ordained value system. We are called upon to be independent thinkers and movers, like the letter Aleph.

But we cannot walk away from pain. That is not our privilege. Until we pass through the fires of Tisha B’Av, we must remain in a state of sorrow. Once that time passes, though, “it is enough”, says G!d – we must turn ourselves around and move into the next phase.

“Comfort, Comfort, My People”

The second phase of Av is Menachem Av, a time of consolation, comfort, hope, and incandescent happiness. With the waxing of the moon, we begin to increase our joy once again until the fullness of time brings on the full-moon-festival of Tu B’Av.

Says the Talmud, “There were no happier days for the people of Israel than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, since on these days the daughters of Israel go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards. What were they saying? “Young man, consider whom you choose to be your wife!” (Ta’anit, Chapter 4).

After our day of intense national mourning, rather than becoming incensed and taking revenge on our enemies (as is sometimes the pattern with other nations), the way of our people is to rebuild the future in love, outdoors together in the bounty of the summer harvest.

I have had the privilege of meeting and learning from many Holocaust survivors in my life. Nothing mystifies or impresses me more that the courage that almost every single one of them had after the Holocaust to marry or remarry, and raise up children in the same world that put them through an unspeakable living hell where all but their very souls were stolen from them. Survivors who had lost spouses, children, siblings, parents, relatives, friends, their homes, livelihoods, dreams…these Jews turned around and built new families, new lives, a new country of Israel, and slowly yet surely learned to become happy again.

Shoshana Ovitz is such a woman. Yesterday, Shoshana survived Auschwitz and the evil doctor who experimented on children there. Today, on her 104th birthday, for her birthday gift she asked her 400 descendants to gather with her together at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem.

Shoshana-Ovitz-offspring kotel
The 400 descendants of Holocaust survivor Shoshana Ovitz, 104, who gathered together at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to fulfill her birthday wish, July 2019. Source: JNS website.

Yet before the reapers gather in gladness we sow our tears of sorrow. Before the comfort of Menachem Av we must face Av itself.

But now we can approach Tisha B’Av a little differently. We have learned that like the Aleph, there is a duality in the month of Av and the day of Tisha B’Av. We have learned that even in the deepest sorrow we must maintain a little joy – a little glimmer of hope.

The Shabbat before Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Chazon – the “Shabbat of Vision”, named after the first words of the Haftarah of Devarim from the prophet Isaiah. This Shabbat, teach the Hassidic masters, every Jewish soul is granted a vision of the rebuilt Jerusalem, complete with the Third Temple.

The Aleph of Av teaches us how to achieve this vision.

Honor the memories of those who came before. Sew the fabric of the future with the threads of the past. Remember. Weep, yet understand: Tragedy yields to triumph. Tyrannies topple to freed men. Mourning and destruction give way to comfort and consolation. Av will become Menachem Av. The fierce Father will turn to comfort his children. That which has been destroyed may be rebuilt in joy.

We just have to keep moving forward.

Star of David Alephs


Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Tzemach Cunin a”h – an individual who welcomed my family into his home, where his wife Ada introduced us to Pirkei Avot and taught us the ethics of our forebears. It was in the joyous-souled company of Rabbi Cunin that I learned what it means to walk the path of kindness as expressed by Michah,

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ 

“It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the LORD doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” (Michah 6:8)

May his memory be for a blessing.


Selected Sources

In Memorium

“Rabbi Tzemach Cunin, 43, Chabad-Lubavitch Emissary in Los Angeles”. Chabad News. July 7, 2019. <https://www.chabad.org/news/article_cdo/aid/4431843/jewish/Rabbi-Tzemach-Cunin-43-Chabad-Lubavitch-Emissary-in-Los-Angeles.htm&gt;.

Staff, Toi. “Chabad shooting victim named as Lori Gilbert-Kaye, said to have shielded rabbi.” April 28, 2019. The Times of Israel. <https://www.timesofisrael.com/victim-in-synagogue-shooting-named-as-lori-gilbert-kaye-a-true-woman-of-valor/&gt;.

“Edith Frank”. Anne Frank House. Accessed August 9, 2019.<https://www.annefrank.org/en/anne-frank/main-characters/edith-frank/&gt;.

Baskin, Judith R. “Dulcea of Worms.” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. February 27, 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/dulcea-of-worms&gt;.

Further Reading

“104-year-old matriarch celebrates birthday at Kotel with 400 descendants”. August 8, 2019. Jewish News Syndicate. <https://www.jns.org/104-year-old-matriarch-celebrates-birthday-at-kotel-with-400-descendants/&gt;.

Glatt, Benjamin. “Today in History: Benjamin Franklin and the Bible”. January 17, 2016. The Jerusalem Post. <https://www.jpost.com/Christian-News/Today-in-History-Benjamin-Franklin-and-the-Bible-441781&gt;.

Richmond, Ken. “Lifting Each Other Up: Preparing for Tish’a B’av with Joy as well as Sorrow”. The Huffington Post. July 25, 2017. <https://www.huffpost.com/entry/lifting-each-other-up-preparing-for-tisha-bav-with_b_59773842e4b01cf1c4bb733d&gt;.

Zehavi, Ben. “19th-cent. Slave Bible that removed Exodus story to repress hope goes on display”. March 29, 2019. The Times of Israel. <https://www.timesofisrael.com/19th-cent-slave-bible-that-removed-exodus-story-to-repress-hope-goes-on-display/&gt;.


Have a meaningful Fast of Tisha B’Av and a Shabbat Chazon Shalom.