Day Fifteen: 2 Av
Reversal of Fortune
After years of longing and praying, the barren Hannah finally has a son, on loan from God. He grows into the prophet Samuel. When she comes to the Mishkan to pay homage to God for this gift, she does not offer a prayer of thanksgiving. Instead, she waxes lyrical on the reversal of fortune:
The bows of the mighty are broken,
And the faltering are girded with strength.
Men once sated must hire out for bread;
Men once hungry hunger no more.
While the barren woman bears seven,
The mother of many is forlorn…
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
He casts down, he also lifts high…(I Samuel 2:4–7)
From a theological point of view, Hannah’s observations about life may be more powerful than gratitude. She declares that life as we know it can change in an instant, as did hers. This provides more than thanks – it offers hope. It also forces humility on those who have been given much. It can all be taken away keheref ayin, in the blink of an eye. The novelist Joan Didion was preparing dinner on December 30, 2003, when her husband suddenly had a heart attack and died. She captured the intensity of this heart stab in her book, The Year of Magical Thinking. Its opening words echo Hannah’s prayer, “Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”39Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (New York: Vintage, 2007), p. 3.
Isaiah 40, one of the haftarot for the Three Weeks, is filled with prophecies of neĥama, of comfort: consolation after destruction, another reversal of fortune. Historically, it is “spoken” to the Judean exiles in Babylon who arrived in 597 and 586 BCE, and to the disconsolate Jerusalem after the siege. The Jews were told that their punishment was now over. It was time to return to their homeland and rebuild Jerusalem.
The words are a salve for the pain of alienation and destruction. The haftara continues in rising expectations and comfort as we move from tenderness and reconciliation to joy and homecoming: “A voice rings out: ‘Clear in the desert a road for the Lord! Level in the wilderness a highway for our God! Let every valley be raised…’” (Isaiah 40:3–4).
The last verses of the haftara celebrate the power of God to change the fortunes of human beings: those who are powerful are laid low while those who are suffering rejoice. Through gentle poetic language, Isaiah rebuilds the relationship of the exile to his homeland, and God to His children. The story of exile and redemption is hardly new – it is stamped all over the Hebrew Bible.
It is so much the story of our people that a medieval rabbi believed the haftara to actually be referring to the exile of his own day. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, the great Jewish poet and commentator who died in 1167,40This date of death is given by Nahum Sarna in “Abraham Ibn Ezra as an Exegete” in Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra: Studies in the Writings of a Twelfth-Century Jewish Polymath, eds. Isadore Twersky and Jay M. Harris (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 1–27. did not live in a time of national exile but in personal exile. In 1140, he was banished from Muslim Spain in unclear circumstances and went to Italy. Life changed dramatically for him; gone were the philosophers and garden poets of Muslim Spain. This great literary figure began to write biblical commentary because he was sensitive to his surroundings. Christian Italy would not appreciate his poetry. He also believed that he was not one to experience fortune in this life. In one of his short poems he writes that if he were a shroud seller, no one would die, and were he to sell lamps, the sun would never set. But his loss is our gain, as we dip into the pages of his rich biblical commentaries. Ibn Ezra felt the lonely price of exile and perhaps thought that Isaiah was speaking directly to him.
In actual fact, there was a historical reality that generated Isaiah’s words. In 538 BCE, Cyrus, the king of the Medes, captured Babylon and sent the Jews back to the land of Israel. He restored his new subjects to their rightful home and is regarded in the Bible (Isaiah 45:1–2) as a savior: “Thus said the Lord to Cyrus, His anointed one – whose right hand He has grasped, treading down nations before him, ungirding the loins of kings, opening doors before him…”
Cyrus, God’s “anointed one” – language used for kings and the Messiah – wrote a proclamation of freedom that can be found in the book of Ezra, both in Hebrew (1:2–4) and in Aramaic (6:3–5). The king did more than grant permission: Cyrus – according to Ezra – created conditions that would generate the rebuilding of Zion.
Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has charged me with building Him a House in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Anyone of you of all his people – may his God be with him and let him go up to Jerusalem that is in Judah and build the House of the Lord.
Isaiah adds that rebuilding is not a task for a select few, but for any person willing to make the ascent to Jerusalem. He reminds us that these are also weeks when we must build new lives. Reversing fortune is not only about what God does to change our lives, but what we do to change them.
Kavana for the Day
Think of a reversal of fortune in your life and how you responded. What made the transformation noticeable? Did it conjure anger or gratitude? Were you able to put it within a spiritual framework?
Focusing outward, consider a reversal in someone else’s life, a time of change that posed challenges. Check in and see how they have managed the transition. Engage in a conversation about change. Turn your thoughts about change into a poem or a prayer, in the way that Hannah found the words to place her experience within a larger framework. Life changes so quickly and so dramatically that we need to find the words to capture the moment and feel the transformation.