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Thursday, 1 August, 2019 - 5:59 pm

The Jewish month of Av begins tonight. This is the beginning of the nine-day mourning period leading up to the day of the destruction of the Holy Temple on Tisha B’av. This year, since the ninth of Av is on Shabbat, we fast on the day after, so it is a ten-day period. During this time we observe laws of mourning. We don’t launder any clothes and don’t even wear any freshly laundered outer clothes. It is customary to change our clothes several times today in order to have clothes that have been warn at least for a few minutes to wear over the next week. This restriction does not apply to Shabbat. We also do not eat meat or drink wine or grape juice, except on Shabbat when it is a Mitzvah to do so. Showering or bathing is permitted for health and sanitation but not for pleasure. For more on the restrictions during the Nine Days see here


On the other hand, during this time it is customary to study the laws of the building of the Holy Temple in Mishna and Rambam, as well as Ezekiel’s prophecies regarding the building, in order to transform the mourning into a positive step forward toward the rebuilding. It is also customary to celebrate the conclusion of a tractate of Talmud, an event that brings joy and is permitted, and encouraged, during these days of mourning. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the purpose of the mourning is not to get depressed but to propel us forward to do what is necessary to bring about the transformation of the darkness to light.


We find this theme also in the Parsha this week. We read the double Parsha of Matot and Masei. The word “masei” means journeys, and the first section of that Parsha outlines in detail the 42 places that the Jews camped in the desert on their way from Egypt to Israel. “The Jews traveled from Raamses to Sukkot…, they travelled from Sukkot to Eitam…, 42 stops until the last stop in the plains of Moab. Every word in Torah is exact and part of the lesson on how to live our lives according to our Divine mission. Sometimes a word seems to us to be out of place or even inaccurate, and study reveals that it is intentionally so in order to send us a message. Here we have such an example. The Torah enumerates 42 places where the Jews camped in the desert, yet these camps are referred to as “journeys.” Since the focus of the Parsha is to tell us each place they camped, it would seem more accurate to say: “These are the places where the Jews camped” and the Parsha may have been named “Machanot” (camps). Why are these camps called journeys?


There are several explanations given by our Sages, here is one that is relevant to the theme of the Nine Days. Although  at each of the camps the Jews set up the sanctuary and “dug in” for as long as they stayed there, in one place for as long as 18 years, each of the camps was part of the journey toward Israel. 

In other words: If you are aiming to reach a destination and along the way you decide to stop for a while to live in another place, the time you spend at the stop is delaying your journey. However, if you are stopping to pick up supplies for the rest of the journey, the stop is actually part of the trip. Another analogy: Imagine you decide to walk from point a to point b, and instead of walking forward you take a few steps back. You have delayed your arrival to your destination and you can’t say that you have started moving forward. Now imagine you are standing in front of a large obstacle that you have to jump over and you take a few steps back in order to make the jump. Those steps back are not delaying you, they are indeed necessary for you to make progress.

The decision to stop at each place in the desert, we are told previously in the Torah, (Shemot 40:36-37) was by Divine decree. Each stop was a necessary break for the Jews to prepare for their next journey ultimately reaching their destination in Israel. So rather than considering each stop a delay, the Torah tells us that in fact these camps were “journeys,” because they were necessary preparatory stops for the rest of the journey. 


This is also the way we should see the mourning of the Holy Temple and our bitter, long exile. In the journey this universe has been on since Creation, moving from a place of darkness to the revelation of the Divine creative source of everything, we have had to endure many stops and setbacks, including the current state of exile and the lack of the Holy Temple. But we learn from Masei that each seeming setback is actually a step closer toward reaching the goal. It is in the dry, parched desert that we truly learn to appreciate the value of water. Light is so much more valuable when it emerges from darkness. 


By fulfilling the Mitzvot of mourning during this period, by focusing on ways to enhance our connection to the light of Hashem, and by bringing the light of Torah to the world, we are ensuring that this time in the last few moments of exile is being used as a journey toward redemption. As Rambam says, when Moshicah comes, the days of mourning will be transformed into days of celebration, because then we will see how the temporary darkness led to the much greater light to come. Our attitude, and more important our actions, matter.

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