Despair tempered by hope
On the Sabbath preceding the fast of Tisha b’Av, the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, we read in our synagogues from Isaiah, and this reading is one of the three “Haftorahs of Rebuke.” The fast completes the cycle of the Jewish year and commemorates the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE by the Babylonians and, 656 years later, on the same date, when the
Romans destroyed the Second Temple.
The prophet Isaiah, from whose book we read, was the son of Amos, a native of Jerusalem. He came from a respected family that moved in royal circles and was a prophet in Israel from 740 to 701 BCE. These were stirring years, for the kingdoms of Syria and Israel both fell to the Assyrians in 721 and only by a miracle was Jerusalem delivered from their grasp 20 years later. Isaiah brought the message of the holiness and sovereignty of God, seeking to interpret the crises of history in the light of Divine guidance.
On Tisha b’Av, we read from Lamentations and the writings of another prophet, Hosea. In describing Jerusalem, he wrote: “for their mother hath played the harlot … she that conceived them hath done shamefully….” (Hosea 11:7)
There is an interesting story connected with Hosea. He was married to a woman called Gomer, beautiful but faithless, who eventually ran off with one of her lovers, later becoming a slave and a concubine. Despite her degradation, Hosea continued to love her and bought her back from slavery. He did not take her back as his wife, but as a ward who he hoped would one day repent and be worthy of his protection.
During this period, Hosea had a strange awakening. He felt that this traumatic personal experience was symbolic of God’s love for Israel. The loving husband who had been abandoned by a faithless wife could be compared to God’s beneficence towards Israel, who repaid Him by worshipping the golden calf. God had redeemed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and made them His special people. Yet, instead of keeping their part of the covenant made at Mount Sinai with God, they adopted the idolatrous practices of the Canaanites, forsaking their God for heathen idols.
However, just as Hosea continued to feel love for Gomer, he realized that God’s love for His people would not change. Just as he did not despair that his wife would one day repent, he believed that God’s everlasting mercies also encompassed His sinning people and that their exile would lead to self-knowledge and a return to God.
When Hosea realized the similarity between his wife’s conduct and that of Israel, he felt that his marriage to Gomer had been preordained and was God’s way of speaking to him.
So, while we mourn the destruction of the Temple and the many tragedies that have befallen our people through history, we can still take comfort in the fact that God’s compassion is ever available to us when we truly repent. In Judaism, despair is always tempered by hope. Because of this, we conclude the Tisha b’Av reading with the words: “Turn us unto Thee O Lord, that we may be turned. Renew our days as of old.”
Dvora Waysman is a Jerusalem-based author. She has written 14 books, including The Pomegranate Pendant, which was made into a movie, and her latest novella, Searching for Sarah. She can be contacted at [email protected] or through her blog dvorawaysman.com.