Av – Maayan Chai
The months in the Jewish calendar are not simply arbitrary ways of marking time. Each contains a distinct flavor, a commemorative association, a unique opportunity and message for our people.
This week, we entered a new month. It opens the darkest period in the year, the culmination of a designated time of mourning for the violent tragedies that occurred over Jewish history, most notably the destruction of both Temples and resulting dispersion of the Jewish people across the globe. The name of this month conveys its nature, and an underlying message about our suffering.
To understand this message, let’s first discuss how the names of the months emerged. Biblical references to the calendar include months identified only by number (or season). During the Babylonian exile, the current names were adopted, as the Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 1;2) states: “the names of the months came up [to Israel] with [the returnees] from Babylon.”
The exact meaning of this statement is unclear. Many commentaries explain that the names of our months are actually taken from Babylonian (Persian) language. This seems strange, leading others to maintain that many (if not all) of these names are actually Hebrew words, but the practice of calling months by names, instead of their numeric position, originated in Babylon.
Either way, this month called “Av” has an obvious association with the Hebrew language. For Av is a Hebrew word, meaning father. In fact, the widespread custom is to call the month by two Hebrew words: “Menachem Av.” This custom even has legal implications. For example, if a contract or document, under evaluation in a Jewish court, is dated with the seemingly ambiguous heading “Menachem,” it is nevertheless valid, since it is common knowledge that the month of Av is widely referred to as “Menachem.”
Returning to examine the message in this title, the Hebrew word Av, ‘father’, alludes to “Our Father in Heaven.” The word ‘Menachem”, meaning ‘comforter’, was added after the destruction of the second Temple. Taken together, these two words superficially convey that during this month we, the Jewish people, are mourning, and seek G-d’s comfort (a term reminiscent of the blessing entitled “Menachem Tzion’ where G-d comes to comfort Zion.) Naming a month with the above phrase signifies a father-child relationship, which is somehow uniquely expressed in this month.
But if we examine the literal meaning of this phrase- Menachem Av, the order is puzzling. Grammatically, it suggests that we comfort “the father” (not that the father comforts us, as in the reverse order.) This is a peculiar message. After all, the concept of condolence is when a psychological void becomes filled through some reassuring words or action of another. But here, how so we comfort G-d, when it is we who have been exiled, who mourn, suffer, and lack?
One of the answers can be viewed through a verse in last week’s Torah portion (Bamidbar 35;34) which declares: “And you shall not defile the land where you reside…for I am the Lord Who dwells among the children of Israel.” The commentaries point out that within this seemingly harsh warning lays an expression of deep favor, communicating the idea that wherever the Jewish people go, whatever they endure, even in the pits and midst of impurity, the shechinah (divine presence) still accompanies them.
In more abstract terms, this means that our exile is not simply an exile for the Jewish people alone, but for G-d himself. It is a loss that provokes a double mourning as the Talmud declares: “Woe to the father who had to banish his children, and woe to the children who had to be banished from the table of their father!” It is a twofold wailing that demands a twofold condolence.[This idea is not a statement about why the innocent or good suffer, an age-old question which has no palatable resolution for any sensitive human mind. Rather it is a comment about the fate of the Jewish people and their unwavering connection. It subtly reminds us that through our struggle, our suffering, and the bumpy journey toward ultimate recovery and deliverance, we are always given the tools to regroup and reunite.]
Keeping with the metaphor, the greatest pain of a father is to see his child suffer. The greatest joy of a father is when the child perseveres. Furthermore, the highest level of comfort is not when the father swiftly saves the child, but when the child struggles with his own means to emerge triumphant. Knowing that his personal loss is also loss for the father, and likewise that his personal recovery is an even greater comfort to the father provides the extra motivation to overcome the challenges. And this is the powerful message hidden within the two word name of this month.