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Rabbi Shaul Wertheimer Headshot

It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times

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"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." With these words, Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities.

I'm not sure why these acclaimed words popped into my head the other day, but they did.

I was thinking that they can be applied to this week on the Jewish calendar. This past Tuesday (July 16, 2013) was Tisha B'Av (the 9th of the month of Av), the saddest day of the year, marking the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem; indeed, our Sages tell us that all calamities to befall the Jewish people stem from this day. On the other hand, this Monday (July 22) is Tu B'Av (the 15th of Av), which our Sages tell us is the greatest day of the year.

It was the worst of times -- Tisha B'Av;

It was the best of times -- Tu B'Av.

While what is so horrendous about Tisha B'Av is readily apparent, what is so great about Tu B'Av?

While numerous joyous events took place on Tu B'Av, it may seem a bit strange that our sages relate that no other day even comes close. Actually, for the sake of accuracy, the Talmud tells us that, "Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: There were no greater festivals for Israel than Tu B'Av and Yom Kippur." How can Tu B'Av be as great as Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year?

The answer can be found in three Aramaic words in the Zohar, translated to mean that on the 15th of every month, the moon is full. You see, the Jewish calendar is lunar. This means that the beginning of the month marks the rebirth of the moon, which is not yet visible in the sky. As the month progresses, the moon waxes, until it is full on the 15th. It then wanes until it disappears from view at the end of the month. Thus, if you want to know when there will be a full moon, just find the 15th day on the Hebrew month.

OK, so Tu B'Av is the 15th of the month, and that's when the moon is full. But isn't the moon full every month? What is so unique about the 15th of Av that led Rabbi Shimon to tell us that there is no greater festival?

As we have said, the moon waxes and wanes; there are times of the month when we cannot see the moon at all. But then -- slowly, steadily -- it returns.

The Jewish people are likened to the moon, because we also wax and wane. A mere 65 years ago, we lost 6 million. Yet today, we are living in what many consider to be the greatest Jewish renaissance ever experienced.

It's not just about waxing and waning; it's about how far down you descended. The greater the descent, the greater the subsequent ascent. The more you pull back on a rubber band, the farther it will travel.

So after the destruction of Tisha B'Av, we had descended to the lowest place. Exiled from our land, slaughtered en masse -- unspeakable horrors. Just read the Book of Eicha (Lamentations) and you will shudder to think of what Tisha B'Av means.

But the moon comes back. To full strength.

Tu B'Av is about recognizing that our descents serve to propel us to even greater heights.

So, dizzy from our people's over-long descent and anticipating a long-awaited upward swing, here's wishing all of us many opportunities to proclaim, "It was the best of times!" May we merit to change the world for the good, and usher in the Messianic era. And may it come soon!