Thursday, June 17, 2010

It happened this Monday... or not? (Derashah: Chukat 5770)

[I wrote the following article for this week's Toronto Torah, and I liked it enough to post it here. Although it's not written as a derashah, I have labelled it that way because it could certainly serve as a foundation for a derashah.]

Some twenty-five hundred years ago this Monday, on the ninth of Tammuz, the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Babylonians.

Or not.

Yirmiyahu placed the Babylonian invasion on the ninth of Tammuz, declaring (52:6-7), “In the fourth month, the ninth of the month, the famine strengthened in the city and there was no bread for the population. And the city was breached…” The sages (Taanit 28b) were perplexed, since we fast on the 17th of Tammuz, but Rava replied in the Talmud Bavli, “There is no problem; Yirmiyahu spoke regarding the first Beit haMikdash, whereas in the time of the second Beit haMikdash the city was breached on the 17th of Tammuz.” The Tur and Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 549) cited Rava’s view as law, explaining that we fast for the second breach of Jerusalem because the destruction of the second Beit haMikdash is more severe for us.

Notwithstanding Rava’s explanation, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Taanit 4:5) offers a different version of events. This version addresses the conflict between Yirmiyahu and the tradition of fasting on the 17th of Tammuz, as well as the conflict between an indication by Yechezkel (26:1-2) that the first Beit haMikdash was destroyed on the first of Av and our tradition of commemorating the destruction on the ninth of Av. Clarifying this pair of prophetic passages, Rabbi Tanchum bar Chanilai contends that the calendar had become corrupted.

In brief: Rabbi Tanchum bar Chanilai argues that the Beit haMikdash was destroyed on the ninth of Av, and Yechezkel listed it as the first of the month because of “calendar confusion.” He continues to state that the Jews of Bavel knew that twenty-one days had passed between the invasion of Jerusalem and the fall of the Beit haMikdash. Therefore, with the destruction of the Beit haMikdash set as the first of Av, they considered the invasion as having occurred 21 days earlier, on the ninth of Tammuz.

All of the above leads to a simple question: Granted that the beleaguered population might have been confused, why did Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel record inaccurate dates? Can it be that these texts, canonized as prophecy, are simply inaccurate?

Tosafot [Rosh haShanah 18b] averred that yes, the prophets were handcuffed by popular perception. Chatam Sofer, though, writing on the Yerushalmi, contended that the confusion was actually the product of a proactive decision by those prophets to date the churban as the first of Av.

As Chatam Sofer explained, the destruction of the Beit haMikdash fulfilled Eichah 4:22, “The punishment of your sin is concluded.” Once the building was demolished, we entered a new world of consolation and re-birth, and so Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel dated the destruction as the first day of a new month [thereby necessitating the re-dating of the 21-day invasion as the ninth of Tammuz instead of the 17th of Tammuz], and indeed a new era.

Chatam Sofer’s suggestion is stunning in its presumption. Judaism views the calendar as sacrosanct, the very purpose of the creation of the celestial spheres; “He created the moon for the sake of the appointed times,” King David sang, building on Bereishit 1:14. We set our halachic lives by our days and months. Our first national mitzvah was the system of calculating the lunar month. And yet, Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel felt comfortable re-setting the clock, in clear defiance of the physical moon and the halachically infallible justices of the beit din, for the sake of making a philosophical statement about the new era we had entered!

This bold explanation should highlight for us the importance of new beginnings, a point also underscored by the arrangement of our own Tishah b’Av –centered mourning. Whereas normal mourning following a personal loss consists of consecutive, easing levels of grief, our mourning for the Beit haMikdash consists of intensifying levels, building up to Tishah b'Av. Then, immediately after the 10th of Av’s special commemorations end, the mourning ceases entirely and we being building anew. As the Chatam Sofer put it, “A new month, Menachem, begins.” This is a day deserving of the title, “Day One.”

Should Mashiach fail to arrive, we will soon enter the initial stage of mourning, on the talmudically corrected date of the 17th of Tammuz. May the value of our mourning up through Tishah b'Av, and our efforts at consolation in the new era thereafter, merit the rebuilding of our Beit haMikdash.

[For more on the Yerushalmi, see Yalkut Shimoni Melachim 249 and the explanation of Maharal to Rosh haShanah 18b. See also Tosafot Rosh haShanah 18b on the apparent Bavli/Yerushalmi contradiction and the approach of Gevurot Ari to Taanit 28b. And see Maharsha to Taanit 28b for a unique explanation of the calendar confusion.]

No comments:

Post a Comment