This Thursday, July 9th, is the 17th day of the Jewish month of Tamuz. This special day – a fast day – begins a three-week mourning period which focuses on the loss of our Holy Temple and the suffering of our exile, including our present suffering. This period concludes with Tisha B'Av – the Fast of the Ninth of Av, which begins this year on Wednesday evening, July 29th.. On Tisha B'Av, both the First and Second Temples were destroyed. The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, and the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans.
During these three weeks, we engage in sober reflection on the weaknesses and faults which caused the loss of the First and Second Temples, as well as our exile from Zion. The purpose of this sober reflection is to inspire us to engage in a process of spiritual return and renewal which can lead to our redemption. We therefore begin this period with a comforting reminder that we can attain this redemption. This reminder is found in the haftorah – portion from the Prophets – that we chant during the afternoon service of the 17th Day of Tamuz and most public fast days. This haftorah begins with the following passage which reminds us that Hashem is the Compassionate and Life-Giving One Who is awaiting our return; moreover, this passage contains a Divine promise that the Divine word will eventually accomplish its life-giving goal:
“Seek Hashem in His readiness to be found, call upon Him, for He is indeed near. Let the wicked one forsake his way and the iniquitous person his thoughts; let him return to Hashem Who will have compassion on him; to our God, Who is abundantly forgiving. For My thoughts are not your thoughts and your ways are not My ways, spoke Hashem. As high as the heavens over the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. For just as the rain and snow descend from heaven and will not return there without having refreshed the earth, fructified it, and furthered its growth that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so shall be My word that emanates from My mouth: It will not return to Me unfulfilled without having accomplished what I desired and having brought success to where I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:6-11)
The Prophet Isaiah then reveals that all of nature shall rejoice with us when the Divine promises of redemption will be fulfilled:
“For in joy shall you go out and in peace shall you arrive; the mountains and the hills will break out in glad song before you, and the trees of the field will clap hands. In place of the thorn bush, a cypress will rise; and in place of the nettle, a myrtle will rise. This will be a monument to Hashem, an eternal sign never to be destroyed.” (Ibid: 55:12,13)
In the next passage of this haftorah, we are told by Hashem to begin the process of return by guarding justice and fulfilling the mitzvah of “tzedekah” – the sharing of our resources with those in need. It also mentions the mitzvah to observe Shabbos, for this observance reminds us that we are the custodians, and not the owners, of the earth and its resources; thus, Shabbos also reinforces our willingness to fulfill the mitzvah to share our resources with those in need:
“Thus said Hashem: Guard justice and perform tzedakah, for My salvation is soon to come and My benevolence to be revealed. Praiseworthy is the person who does this and the human being who grasps it tightly; who guards the Shabbos against desecrating it and guards his hand against doing any evil.” (56:1,2)
The next passage of this haftorah brings a special message of encouragement and comfort to two groups within our people who may feel left out and isolated: the converts who join themselves to Hashem through accepting the Covenant of Torah, and the “barren ones” – those without children. The converts need this reassurance, for they may feel that they have no connection with the Jewish past, since they have no Jewish ancestors. The barren ones need this reassurance as they may feel that they have no connection with the Jewish future, since they have no children:
“Let not the convert who has joined himself to Hashem, speak, saying, ‘Hashem will utterly separate me from his people’; and let not the barren one say, ‘Behold I am a shriveled tree.’ For thus said Hashem to the barren ones who observe My Sabbaths and choose what I desire, and grasp My covenant tightly: In My house and within My walls I will give them a place of honor and renown, which is better than sons and daughters; eternal renown will I give them, which will never be terminated.” (56:3-5)
The passage then concludes with a Divine promise regarding the ingathering of converts at the Holy Temple, as well as the ingathering of all peoples:
And the converts who join themselves to Hashem to serve Him and to love the Name of Hashem to become servants unto Him, all who guard the Shabbos against desecration, and grasp My covenant tightly – I will bring them to My Holy Mountain, and I will gladden them in My House of Prayer; their elevation-offerings and their feast-offerings will find favor on My Altar, for My House will be called a House of Prayer for all the peoples. Thus said the Master of All, the God Who reveals His love even in judgments, Who gathers in the dispersed of Israel: I shall yet gather others unto His gathered ones.” (56:6-8)
In honor of the approaching Shabbos, I will conclude this letter with a story of a noted convert from Vilna who was gathered “unto His gathered ones”:
There was a leading sage of the 18th century who lived in Vilna, Lithuania, and he was known as the Vilna Gaon. During his era, there was a ger tzedek (convert) from Vilna who was known as Avraham ben Avraham. He was a count from a leading noble family, and he was arrested by the Catholic Church when it was discovered that he had become a convert to Judaism. The church officials first tried to persuade him to renounce Judaism, and when he refused, they tortured him; nevertheless, he remained steadfast in his faith. The ArtScroll biography of the Vilna Gaon by Betzalel Landau mentions that the Vilna Gaon managed to send him messages while he was in prison. It also cites the tradition that the Vilna Gaon managed to visit Avraham ben Avraham in his prison cell. I heard the following story about this visit from my rebbe, Rav Aharon Feldman, and I later found this story in the “Talelei Oros Haggadah” (page 368, English edition). According to this Haggadah, this story is found in “Sefer Kovetz Yeshurun” – a collection of stories involving the Vilna Gaon, and the story is cited by Rav Baruch Dov Leibowitz, a leading sage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who was the head of the Kamenetz Yeshiva:
The young convert was crying, and he explained to the Vilna Gaon that he was not crying because he was sentenced to death, for he was willing to give up his life in order to sanctify the Divine Name. He told the Vilna Gaon that the reason he was crying is because he felt that he had no real connection to the Jewish people, for his parents were not Jewish and he has no Jewish children; thus, he was going to his death “not having set down any roots within the nation of Israel.” The Vilna Gaon began his reply by citing the following Divine statement:
“I am the first, and I am the last, and aside from Me, there is no God” (Isaiah 44:6)
Based on a Midrash, the Vilna Gaon conveyed to Avraham ben Avraham the following interpretation:
“I am the First” – This means that Hashem is the Father of all the fatherless who come under the wings of the Shechinah (Divine Presence).
“And I am the Last” – This means that if such a person has no children, Hashem is His child.
Hashem is therefore both the past and the future of Avraham ben Avraham, and others like him.
Avraham ben Avraham was executed by the church officials on the second day of the Festival of Shavuos – the Festival which celebrates the giving of the Torah. Every Shavuos, the Jews of Vilna would sing the melody and words that Avraham ben Avraham sang on his way to martyrdom. The words are:
“But we are your nation, the children of Your covenant!”
The above words are from the introductory morning prayer, “Ribon Kol Ha-olamim” – Master of All Worlds.
The converts that join our people through accepting the Covenant of Torah are a source of strength for our people, especially during this difficult and dangerous period of our history, when we are experiencing the birth pangs of the approaching messianic age. May their faith, courage, and dedication inspire all the members of our people to join together and sing to the Redeeming One:
“But we are your nation, the children of Your covenant!”
Have a Good, Sweet, and Strengthening Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. Information on the life and teachings of Avraham ben Avraham can be found in the following books which also have a picture of his tombstone in the Vilna Jewish cemetery:
“The Vilna Gaon” by Betzalel Landau
“The Chafetz Chaim” by Rabbi Moses M.Yoshor
I recommend both of these books. For information, visit: www.artscroll.com
2. A related article, “Our Spiritual Children,” appears in the archive on our website for our previous series, “My Firstborn Child.” It discusses how the Torah provides a meaningful path for those with life-challenges which prevent them from fulfilling the mitzvah to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). The following is a direct link:
A copy can also be sent to you via e-mail upon request.