Two weeks ago when we were together it was the 17th of Tammuz, the day the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem. From then it would be a 22-day ordeal until the Temple was destroyed on Tisha B'Av, which we will mark together next week.
This period, this 22-day stretch of sadness and anticipation, has a name in Hebrew. It is called Beyn Hametzarim – in the narrows. The name comes from the third verse of the Book of Lamentations, which we will read on Tisha B'Av. The full verse is this:
גלתה יהודה מעֹני ומרֹב עבֹדה היא ישבה בגוים לא מצאה מנוח כל־רדפיה השיגוה בין המצרים
Which means: "Judah – i.e. the Jews – went into Exile because of misery and harsh oppression. She dwelt among the other nations but found no refuge. All her pursuers overtook her beyn hametzarim – in the narrows."
So on one level, this period of time is an annual history lesson about being refugees and finding no safe home. A reminder to open our hearts to those who are wandering today, homeless and pursued. Because that was our fate, as described in Lamentations, and as relived over and over in Jewish history.
And maybe this 22-day Beyn Hametzarim period is also an invitation for us to lean into the parts of ourselves that feel exiled, the parts that are wandering, anguished, looking for home.
So what is the flavor of this period of time? It is not outright mourning like at Tisha B'Av next week. It is not awe and trembling like at the High Holy Days. It is not gratitude like Sukkot or high spirits like Purim.
Instead, it is a period that our mystics describe as veiled. There is a veil between us and God. As if someone has turned down the volume of the Divine, or as if we are perceiving the Divine is through a field of static.
In describing this veil or this downgrade in Divinity that happens over these 22 days, our mystics use Holy Math, which we call gematria. Every Hebrew letter has a numeric value, and working with this Holy Math is one of the ways we might derive meaning from our texts or discover connections between ideas. So during these 22 days, the mystics think of God not only as being veiled but as being mathematically downgraded. They take the Divine Name, YHWH, and they subtract 1 from each letter. So the letter yud, which was valued at 10, becomes the letter tet, whose value is 9; heh becomes dalet, vav becomes heh. So YHWH becomes TDHD in this period. And the proof that our perception of God is slightly downgraded during this period is that TDHD, the veiled version of God's name, totals up to 22 – the number of days we have in this period.
So these 22 days are TDHD days. Days of bafflement. Bafflement not only in the sense that we are bewildered, wandering in a wilderness looking for a place to rest, but also baffled in the sense that during this time, the sound of God's voice is baffled – soft and remote.
But the Slonimer Rebbe, a very groovy Chasid who lived in the 20th Century, disagreed about God's remoteness during this time. For him, this period of uncertainty, this period in which the Godhead is downgraded, is exactly the time in which we can touch the Divine. It's like the electrical charge has been shut off and we can make contact without harm to ourselves.
He makes his point by reinterpreting that same verse from Lamentations, where it says, "All her pursuers overtook her beyn hametzarim – in the narrows." For him, the word "her" doesn't refer to Judah but to the Shekhinah. All who seek and chase after the Shekhinah will be able to overtake her and at last make contact with her, beyn hametzarim, during the narrow time. For the Slonimer rebbe, during this time of our wandering and our bafflement, God is more available to us rather than less. This is a profound teaching – that our connection, each of us, to God, does not rely on certainty and direction. It does not rely on clarity. It is in the soup of uncertainty that God is most present.
And thus the psalm we just sang: min hametzar karati-Yah, anani vamerchav-Yah. (Psalm 118:5) "I called to Yah from the narrow place; God answered me in the expanse of Yah." In other words, God's expanse exists in the same place as the narrow spot that I am in right now. In fact, maybe the narrowness works like the narrow resonating chamber of a flute, amplifying our voices.
I have one more piece of medicine for this time of bafflement. And it also involves Holy Math. The Dinover Rebbe, who was known as the B'nai Yissaschar, noticed that if the period of wandering is 22 days long, the medicine, in a sort of homeopathic way, should come from the number 22 as well.
So what other Hebrew word has the value 22? The word yachad, meaning "together." In Psalm 133, we famously read hineh mah tov u-mah na'im, shevet achim gam yachad. How beautiful, how lovely it is, to sit as family yachad – together. Togetherness, being together, being in community, is the exact cure for the 22 days of bewilderment. And not just shevet – not just sitting together. The B'nai Yissaschar rereads shevet as shabbat – resting on the Sabbath. How beautiful, how lovely it is for us to spend Shabbos like family – yachad, together. Being together, inside the gift of Shabbos, is how we move through our times of uncertainty. Twenty-two curing 22.
So tonight, as we experience Shabbat together, let's think of it as medicine, exactly the right medicine in exactly the right dose, to treat our bafflement, to ease our Exile. And let us be open to the possibility that in times like these, God might be closer than any other time.
Hineh mah tov...
Everything I know about these 22 days I learned from Reb Elliot Ginsburg.