I hope this note finds you well, resting, grateful and appreciative of all we have, and gathering strength and courage toward 2022. As I compose these lines, I recall my thinking and writing at the end of 2020 and anticipation of 2021. At this time last year, I hoped for a conclusive end to the pandemic, our country’s healing following a bitter, polarizing, and divisive elections campaign, and our recommitment to address national and global crises. I yearned for new opportunities to gather and build community in worship, in our learning and socializing, and in our caring for each other, and looked forward to building new bridges of collaboration and understanding with others around us. Many of these hopes and aspirations failed to materialize and proved unrealistic. Others required postponement, and some would come to be adjusted in one way or another. Yet, certain hopes and dreams have also exceeded our most optimistic and enthusiastic expectations. We live in a strange time – a time of hope on the one hand and of increasing concern on the other. A time of frustration and feeling of insufficiency, as well as a sense of agency, urgency and energy. The month of Tevet looms large.
Various biblical texts recall this month as a time of gathering danger and impending gloom. In the conclusion to Kings II we learn that “in the ninth year of [the] reign [of Zedekiah,] on the tenth day of the tenth month [the month of Tevet,] Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his army. He besieged it; and they [the Babylonian army] built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege…” The prophet Ezekiel, writing after the fact, commemorates this day writing these powerful and disturbing lines: “Put the caldron [on the fire] … and then pour water into it. Collect in it pieces [of meat.] Every choice piece, thigh and shoulder; Fill it with the best cuts … Thus said the Source of Life: Woe to the city of blood— a caldron whose scum is in it, whose scum has not been cleaned out …” And these images capture our attention this winter as well. In certain ways, we feel besieged by a persistent and seemingly irreconcilable and insurmountable antagonism in our country that threatens to alter our democracy and reshape our society’s values and direction. We can no longer remove our gaze from the stew of our choicest comforts and luxuries and recognize the growing and thickening environmental challenges that have been cooking, forming for decades, as we witness the harsh realities of natural disasters – from droughts and wildfires to floods, hurricanes, and tornados. Our country and world are changing around us, and we seem unable to change course in sufficient measure.
The rabbis and sages of Israel found other reasons to mourn the month of Tevet. According to the Shulkhan Arukh, the 16th Century code of Jewish law (OH: 580, 2,) on the eighth day of Tevet the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible in Alexandria was launched and darkness covered the land for three days. To the rabbis, this was a misguided, sacrilegious initiative, an effort bound to fail. In their view, our Torah, the word of God and its endless richness and implication for our lives, must defy any attempt at translation. Yet, this work of seventy scholars ushered a period of rich exchange between Jewish and Greek cultures that reshaped our religion and turned the Hebrews’ Bible into the legacy of humankind, the Book of Books – a central pillar of all monotheistic cultures and of our Western traditions. Also, according to tractate Megillah in the Babylonian Talmud (13a) the month of Tevet was the time of Esther’s arrival and ascendancy in the palace of Ahasverus. On the one hand, Esther found herself separated from her beloved Mordecai. However, this moment of crisis allowed the circumstances that would ensure the redemption of Israel from Haman’s genocidal scheme to emerge.
Sometimes in the midst of the siege, and as crisis brews around us, as we perceive the negative forces that act upon our world, the invisible sparks of redemption are kindled.
The prophet Zechariah taught: “These things do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and complete justice in your gates, and do not harbor evil thoughts in your hearts against one another, and do not love [or rely on] false oaths. The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the tenth month [that is, Tevet] shall all become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; but you must love honesty and peace” (8:16-19.) Seeking to understand how moments of fasting would turn to days of celebration and joy, the rabbis remarked: “When peace settles in the world, these days will be times of joy and gladness, on which eulogies and fasting will be forbidden; but as long as there is no peace, they are days of fasting.” To this, R. Papa added: “When peace will settle in the world and the Temple will again stand, these days will be times of joy and gladness. At times of persecution and troubles for the Jewish people, they are days of fasting; and when there is neither persecution nor peace, neither particular troubles nor consolation … if people wish, they fast, and if they wish, they do not fast” (B. Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 18b.)
As we welcome 2022 in the month of Tevet, let us speak truth and think well of each other. Let us muster the courage to see the world around us as it is, to recognize our challenges, and identify our fears and concerns. Let us also give thanks for the many gifts we enjoy and reinforce the hope, faith, and energy we need to support each other and continue to go about the work of healing, repair, and advancement that we are called to engage. As 2021 ends and 2022 begins, some of us may find ourselves neither fasting nor celebrating. Even so, let us recall the words of Zechariah and look forward to a month of Tevet filled with celebration and joy. With warm wishes for a better, safer, healthier, happier 2022 to all of us,
Rabbi Jonathan Cohen