Wednesday, July 22, 2009

To Laugh and to Cry

Today is the first day of the Hebrew month of Av – Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av – which catapults us into the saddest period of time on the Jewish calendar. It was on the 9th day of Av in the year 70 when the exile of the Jewish nation began with the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. All the many years of suffering, the inquisitions, the pogroms, the Holocaust, are traced back to that one single event, that one single day. It is a day marked by fasting and mourning.

If in the month of Adar, when the holiday of Purim is celebrated, we increase our joy, then in the month of Av we are to minimize our joy. In an interesting play on words we are taught that the way to minimize the effects of Av is by being joyous.

Today I experienced both. Joy and mourning.

Today I visited Jericho. Believe me, that's no small feat for an Israeli citizen. After the Six Day War in 1967 to visit Jericho was no big deal. For many it was simply the quiet Arab village one passed through when travelling north via the Jordan Valley. It was also a particularly popular location for archaeologists who have unearthed the remains of over 20 successive settlements dating back thousands and thousands of years.

It is also to the Jews that the city of Jericho is so important. It is mentioned over 70 times in the Torah. It is the key to the Land of Israel, the very first city in the land conquered by Joshua after having spent 40 years wandering in the desert with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob after their enslavement in Egypt. Who isn't familiar with the story of the crumbling walls of Jericho? Both Prophets Elijah and Elisha are here, as well as King Zedekiah at the tail end of the First Temple period who is captured in the area. Hundreds of years later the Hasmoneans as well as King Herod will be here too.

Sometime between the 5th to 8th centuries the "Shalom al Yisrael" (Peace upon Israel) synagogue was constructed in Jericho. The synagogue contained a mosaic on the floor with drawings of the Ark and Menorah of the Holy Temple as well as a Shofar, Lulav and the inscription "Shalom al Yisrael". After 1967, the ancient synagogue was used regularly for prayers. Later on, a Yeshiva was developed in the place.

On May 13, 1994 Israel withdrew from Jericho. According to the Oslo Accords, Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to keep free access to the synagogue and to defend it properly. In September of 2000, the building was desecrated and set fire to.

That's where I went this morning to pray. Under very heavy guard by the IDF, permission is being granted for monthly prayer visits to the "Shalom al Yisrael" synagogue in honor of Rosh Chodesh – the first day of the new month. Rosh Chodesh is a festive day. It's about renewal. Having the opportunity to pray in this ancient synagogue in this ancient city gave me great joy. It was in fact the very, very first time in my entire life that I had ever visited Jericho, let alone pray there!

But the circumstances can make one cry.

We are told that the saddest day of the year will one day be transformed into a day of celebration, that in the destruction there is already the seed of redemption. I would like to think that the place I call home today epitomizes that idea of being located somewhere between the depths of Jericho, the lowest city on earth, and the spiritual heights of Jerusalem.

Rabbi Mordechai Weiss lives with his family in the Judean Desert community of Mitzpe Yericho, Israel which overlooks the city of Jericho. He served as a community Rabbi in Bergen County, New Jersey for more than two decades. He is a licensed tour guide.