To see what someone is really made of, observe the person in time of crisis.
Moses is in the news this week.
In the Torah portion of this week we read: Devorim – “these are the words that Moses spoke…” This is the beginning of the fifth book of the Torah, which in its entirety documents the words that Moses spoke to the people in the last 37 days of his time on Earth.
Knowing that he has a short time to live, Moses reviews all the events that the Jews had experienced over the last 40 years since they left Egypt, he discusses the relationship the Jews had established with G-d, G-d’s instructions to them, and he encourages them to carry on these teachings for the generations to come. In the Book of Devorim, Moses in effect is leaving the people his last will and testament.
Indeed, in his immortal words (devorim) Moses leaves us with eternal messages that are especially appropriate to this time of the year.
It is therefore no coincidence that this time period – when we read Moses’ words in the book of Devorim – coincides with the time that Moses spent on the mountain engaging G-d.
Time, according to Jewish thought, is a spiral energy flow that annually repeats its orbit. Events in history are actually forms of energy-experience that we relive when we reach the same point in time each year.
So though Moses climbed the mountain 40 years before he spoke his last words, yet in this time the prevalent ‘energy’ is that of Moses and his words.
This also coincides with the saddest part of the Jewish calendar. On the thirteenth day of Moses’ 40-day journey on Mt. Sinai, we enter the difficult month of Av.
This is the second segment of three 40-day periods that Moses will spend on the mountain. The first 40-day period (Sivan 6-Tammuz 17) is the time when Moses receives and is taught the entire Torah. He then descends, discovers the Golden Calf, destroys it, shatters the tablets, and then returns to the mountain for the second 40-day period (Tammuz 18-Av 29), beseeching G-d for forgiveness. Unsuccessful, he goes back for a third 40-day period (Av 30-Tishrei 10) and this time he succeeds and descends triumphantly on Yom Kippur with the Second Tablets in hand.
We know much about the first and third 40-day period. Both are well documented in the Torah: The first – when Moses receives the Torah; the last when G-d shows Moses “His ways” and reveals to him the Thirteen Divine Attributes of Compassion.
By contrast, we know precious little about the middle forty-day period. We know that they are called days of ‘wrath’ (Seder Olam ch. 6. Rashi Deuteronomy 10:10), because G-d is not receptive to Moses’ pleas (in contrast to the third 40-day period, which are called days of ‘compassion,’ when G-d welcomes the prayers of Moses).
As usual, human curiosity gravitates to the unknown and the mysterious. What happened in this middle 40-day period? How was Moses able to face an ‘angry’ G-d for 40 days on end? What did he say and what did he hear? Above all, what kept him going when he was not receiving any positive response? And how did he even venture to return a third time when he was rejected for 40 long days and nights?
What is so intriguing about it is that this is a true case study – perhaps the ultimate one – of human resilience and confidence. When faced with a formidable challenge, and the odds seem impossible, what are we people capable of? When do we give up and when do we persist? And above all, how do we hold on when everything is crumbling around us?
Had Moses succeeded in gaining G-d’s forgiveness with little or no effort, we would have been left with no lesson. Of course, the great Moses has G-d’s ear, so it’s no surprise that he can break through any door. But what about us ordinary people – what can we really expect to achieve when all seems lost?
–– This brings to mind a story, that either is or is not relevant here [but, hey, a good story is always timely…]: The Baal Shem Tov gathered ten great tzaddikim to pray for a very sick child, but to no avail. As a last resort, he went to the edge of town and gathered together ten thieves and asked them to pray for the child. Their prayers helped, and the child recovered. Later, when asked how is it that the thieves’ prayers could achieve that which the tzaddikim could not, the Baal Shem Tov replied with a smile: “I saw that all the gates in heaven were sealed, and I needed someone to break in”… ––
But Moses did not succeed easily in breaking through the gates of heaven. In this middle 40-day period all Moses’ efforts did not yield the results he wanted. And yet, it is precisely in this rejection that we can learn the most profound lessons in life.
In fact, this is the deeper message of the month we are now entering, the month of Av: On the surface, Av is the saddest month of the year, being the time when many tragic events took place in history, largest of which is the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem. The Nine Days (from Av1-9) is traditionally a period of mourning, when we avoid celebrations and entertainment. The sadness intensifies as we get closer to Tisha B’Av (9th of Av), until the ninth day that is a 25-hour fast day, when we dim the lights and sit ‘shiva’ – in mourning of the destroyed Temples.
What are we to make of these sad days?
The Arizal tells us that in the throes of Tisha B’Av afternoon, as the raging fires were consuming the Temple, Moshiach is born. Redemption is conceived from the ashes of destruction.
In the deepest darkness lies the strongest light. However, from our limited perspective we can only see one dimension at a time: either we see dark or we see light. Someone with deep eyesight and strong focus can see the light within the dark.
Moses was such a person. When G-d refused him during the second 40-day period, Moses did not see rejection; he saw opportunity. Where others saw ‘wrath,’ he saw challenge. Where others saw hopelessness, he saw potential.
Moses had this vision because he had unwavering faith in the essential goodness of G-d and absolute confidence that good will always prevail. Moses did not have the word “no” in his lexicon, nor the word “impossible” or “hopeless.” Armed with such confidence, nothing, absolutely nothing, could shake Moses. He didn’t even accept G-d telling him that his request was impossible. Moses was supremely resolute, persistent – absolutely sure that his cause was right, and that which is right will triumph.
Rabbi Akiva was another such man, when he laughed as he looked at the desolate Temple Mount. And so was the Arizal, when he saw redemption in the darkest moments.
Our eyesight may not be quite on the level of these great souls. Yet, we are blessed with the ability to look at life through their eyes. When we read the words of Moses, we are essentially being given the gift to see life through his eyes. The same with Rabbi Akiva, the Arizal and others of that caliber.
Ask yourself: How do you deal with rejection? With disappointments, with shattered dreams and broken promises? How do you look at the darker moments of life, at failures and losses?
Moses’ seemingly unsuccessful 40 day journey to Sinai in these days was actually very successful in that it allows us a deeper glimpse into a man of G-d under pressure; it empowers us with the ability to see the process, not just the results.
Above all: it gave birth to the compassion of the next 40 days, culminating with Yom Kippur. The Shaloh writes that Aryeh (the mazal/sign of the month of Av) is an acronym for: Elul, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Hoshana Rabba. The compassion of Elul; renewal of Rosh Hashana; forgiveness of Yom Kippur; and sealing of Hoshana Rabba – all are born out of the energy of Av.
It’s true that we are not satisfied with these 40 days of ‘wrath’ – and neither was Moses; what we want is to have compassion in our lives, and consciously feel the triumph of hope that was finally achieved on Yom Kippur. Yet, at the same time, Moses’ later success was determined by how he dealt earlier with rejection, better said: how it left him unperturbed, and more resolute than ever.
The saying goes: There are people who are like teabags. You don’t know strong they are until you put them in hot water…
When you think about it, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to say that this 40-day period carries the secret to life, the secret of Moses, the secret of eternity.
How you deal with crisis, with rejection, with failure will determine how successful you will ultimately be. One can say that success is actually born out of failure. Some people are demoralized and crushed when they fail. Others allow the failure to educate them and to motivate them, to build in them a deeper fortitude, which gives them the power to succeed in the future.
Yes, there are those who see this month as Av – the saddest month in the calendar. Some have even mastered the methods to mourn and grieve.
But there are others who see the Menachem (in) Av (the complete name of the month) – they see the comfort and the consolation within the pain.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev tells us that on Shabbat Chazon (the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av) each one of us is shown the Third Temple from afar, in order to evoke in us the desire to have the Temple with us. Hence, the name Shabbat Chazon – Shabbat of Vision.
There are those that see the vision of Isaiah (read in this week’s haftorah) which describes his vision of destruction; and there are those that see the rebuilt Third Temple.
We were given the power to choose our visions.
Why should you not be one of those that see the Menachem in Av?