Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Transformation Soon to Happen

"I see the stick from an almond tree," so says Jeremiah the prophet at the outset of this week's Haftarah. Our sages explain the connection between the almond prophecy and the Temple's destruction. The almond develops from a blossom into a ripe fruit in 21 days. Similarly, we have 21 days between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B'Av, "the three weeks".

Is this temporal commonality the only connection between the almond and the 3 weeks, or is there a deeper significance?

The Torah is remarkably accurate. Sometimes we see this clearly, other times with a little effort. The Talmud says there are two types of almonds, large and small. The small ones start out tasty, but, when ripe, they turn bitter. In contrast, the large ones start out bitter, but, when mature, they taste sweet.

The implication is clear. These 3 weeks represent days of bitterness for Jews, yet their purpose is to transform bitterness into sweetness, darkness into true light.

If this was what we were meant to understand, why did Jeremiah have to make mention of "a stick"? He could have spoken of the almond alone?

Perhaps it's to hint at the beatings and suffering Jews will have to tolerate during the exile. More likely, however, the hard branch comes to depict hardness or stiffness, suggesting that particularly during hard times, the stiffness of the Jew under duress can evoke his ability to transform what's bad into good.

The Holy Shlah says that all events that transpire during the week, can be found in the corresponding Torah portion. The name of our Torah portion is Matot - hard branches, like that of which a stick is derived. It says, Moses spoke to the heads of the Matot - tribes. (Mateh can mean a "tribe" and it can mean also a "hard branch".)

Why then didn't scripture refer to the heads of the tribes using the more common word for tribes, Shevatim? (Shevet means a "tribe" also it also means a "young, supple branch".)

Both the hard branch and soft branch come from the same tree. The soft Shevet, however, still shows signs of life: It bends easily and still reflects its dependency to be united with the tree. The hard Mateh, on the other hand, shows no sign of life, it's completely dry. Nevertheless, of the two, it's the Mateh that depicts toughness.

As long as Jews lived during an enlightened period, when the Temple stood erect on its mount and Godliness was apparent, they were connected with their source in an obvious bond, like a Shevet, the soft branch of a tree that gives it life.

Precisely when conditions are dark and bad, when no source for life-force is apparent, can the spark of Jewishness, the inner essence of the Jew, be identified and felt intimately bonded to God. The Mateh might still give indication that at last some connection remains with it life-source. The stick, once off the tree, has no apparent connection at all. Precisely then the strength, or toughness, needed to transform the diaspora mentality to one of redemptive reality becomes apparent. The surplus potential inherent in the individual then becomes exposed, revealing his awesome power that can transform the darkness of exile into the light of redemption.

We see this theme expressed in the 3 topics of our Torah portion: Vows; The war against Midian and the distribution of booty; And the request made by the tribes Reuven and Gad.

Vows, as such, are deemed unacceptable. But if a person finds himself in a rut, a vow may help him avert a further slump. But more importantly, the father or husband who holds the power to annul a vow, also holds the power to raise the person to a higher level, to obviate the impetus to make a vow.

The Midianite war was waged against those culpable for the lives of thousands of Jews who couldn't withstand seduction. After their victory, the Jews took a good portion of the booty and sanctified it. Taking property from the lowly Midianites and consecrating it to God is tantamount to transforming darkness into light.

The request of Reuven and Gad seemed heretic at first, as if they refused to fight the Canaanites and settle the Holy Land. However their kept to their promise to fight. In fact, they charged to the front of each battle as the juggernaut against the enemy. Moreover, they conquered many cities East of the Jordan River, cities soaked in idolatry, and gave these cities sacred names, thus transforming darkness into light.

So shall it be for all Jews in the very near future, transforming the painful, dark exile into a bright redemption. After all, the almond or almond tree, in Hebrew, also means "in a hurry".


  1. "The almond develops from a blossom into a ripe fruit in 21 days. Similarly, we have 21 days between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B'Av, "the three weeks"

    These seems to support what Rabbi Katz has been saying about Rosh Chodesh Av on Devorah's site..

    Please G-d let it be true...

  2. Really appreciated this. A great piece of inspiration and hope. Have you read my This Year, Maybe

  3. Maybe the "Mateh" means the old hardened wood as the old tough battle-hardened Jews who will form the backbone of strength here.

    Please forgive my ignorance! :))

  4. Neshama, I enjoyed the read. I envy your living in Yerushalayim. Thanks for having me on your habayitah blogroll.

    Juniper, I may have failed to say it as you did clearly, but I did want to bring out the notion that during hardship, and no matter how good you have it in exile - it's still a hardship, the core of our essence, being that we're tough, a stiff-necked people, or, as you say, battle-hardened Jews, makes us amenable to bring change to the world, one that will be a lasting one, that will take it from its apparent darkness to its ultimate, inherent brightness. Boy, that's a mouthful!

    Moshiach now!