Beyond the Walls (Matot)

By Reb David

This post is part of a series culminating in Tisha b’Av, entrance gate to the High Holy Days. These weeks of Bein Metzarim (“between the straits”) represent a diminution of our usual spiritual voltage and joy as we approach Tisha b’Av, the lowest day of the Jewish spiritual year.

With July’s heat comes a gradual shortening of days and autumn’s distant approach. The almost imperceptible turning of summer light hints of another turning – a turning inward that heralds the High Holiday season. This first hint appears now in the summer sky and this week’s Torah portion (Matot).

Why turn our focus to the High Holidays now, seemingly so early? For answers we must roll the calendar forward a month and back 2,000 years.

Destruction of the Temple, by Francesco Hayez

In the year 70 C.E., on Tisha b’Av (the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av, corresponding roughly with August), Roman troops destroyed the Temple and exiled the Jews of Jerusalem. The Tisha b’Av destruction ended the Temple period, squashed Jewish independence, and sparked 2,000 years of Jewish wandering, struggle and re-invention. All we now know as modern Judaism is a response, in one way or another, to the destruction and exile that Tisha b’Av commemorates.

In time, Tisha b’Av became the lowest day of the Jewish spiritual year. Not only was the Temple destroyed on Tisha b’Av, but the 1492 Alhambra Decree exiling all Jews from Spain – where Jews and Muslims once flourished together peacefully – took effect around Tisha b’Av. Uncannily, many destructions, exiles and other events of Jewish suffering are dated to Tisha b’Av: no wonder that Tisha b’Av has become Judaism’s darkest day.

At the same time, Tisha b’Av has become a spiritual checkpoint en route to the High Holidays. The High Holiday path of teshuvah – returning to ourselves, each other and God – wends through artifices of ego, assumptions and preconceptions that sometimes must be taken down. Tisha b’Av is that “taking down,” inviting us to feel the inner exile that fuels our inner journey – our response to the call of teshuvah, the call to return.

As we know of the journey from Passover (liberation) to Shavuot (revelation), journeys take time. That spring journey lasts 49 days – the seven weeks of counting Omer. The late summer journey into the High Holidays is the mirror opposite: from Tisha b’Av (exile) to Rosh Hashanah (return) also lasts 49 days.

Why talk of all this in mid-July? History records that Roman troops aiming for the Temple in Jerusalem first had to breach the city’s protective walls. The breach of Jerusalem’s walls occurred on 17 Tammuz, three weeks before Tisha b’Av. Breaching the city walls is both an historical event and a spiritual metaphor for the first breach of our own emotional and spiritual walls – a first gate into the High Holidays. We reach that gate on 17 Tammuz, which in 2014 corresponds to July 15.

17 Tammuz also is the day that Moses shattered the first set of tablets at the base of the Golden Calf. Pre-history’s breaking of the tablets became history’s breaching of Jerusalem’s walls, which became our calendar’s first entrance into the High Holidays. What is false (the Golden Calf), what doesn’t serve (the first set of tablets), what protects against change (our inner walls) – all must be removed if we are to live with the integrity of inner truth. That is the enduring invitation of the High Holidays.

Enter this week’s Torah portion, which delivers this invitation and knocks at our walls with these words (Num. 30:3):

If a man makes a vow (יִדֹּר נֶדֶר / yidor neder) to God or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.

The neder (vow) hints of the Yom Kippur service of Kol Nidre (“All vows”) three months ahead. From this moment until Yom Kippur, the air becomes increasingly thick with introspection. This week’s Torah portion knocks on walls that built up around us since last year: Do we faithfully keep our promises, or do we break them like our ancestors did with the Golden Calf? What falsehoods in our lives must we turn aside so we can reach truth anew? What walls must come down?

These questions beg their answers. We all can do better, so our journey beyond the walls begins anew each year. That journey begins now. The days are shortening, the walls are lowering and the shofar soon will sound. Will we be ready?

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