The 9th of Av, 1920, the promise of return and our responsibility

We, exactly 100 years later, who are undergoing our own extended tumultuous period of the Three Weeks of mourning, must remember how far historically the Jewish people have come

The western wall male side on Tisha B'av, 2018 (photo credit: THE WESTERN WALL HERITAGE FOUNDATION)
The western wall male side on Tisha B'av, 2018
(photo credit: THE WESTERN WALL HERITAGE FOUNDATION)
One story was always told by my grandparents on Shabbat Nachamu – the Sabbath of Comfort after the 9th of Av – the great day of mourning for the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people from their land. The story was always the last one and always told at seudah shlishit. They would talk about the first Shabbat of Sir Herbert Samuel (later Lord 1st Viscount Samuel GCB, OM, GVE, PC) in Jerusalem. He was named as the Military High Commissioner by the British Mandate, the highest governing position in the region. Shabbat Nachamu, July 1920 was his introduction to the Jewish community.
A procession of notables began its way Shabbat morning from the Mount of Olives. My grandfather, Rabbi Menachem Sacks, a young scholar, was part of the procession by virtue of his yichus (he was a direct descendant of the Rivlin, Sacks, Shapira families who built the Jerusalem community in the 18th and 19th centuries) and activism (chairman of the committee that elected Rav Kook as the Land of Israel’s first Chief Rabbi). When they reached the Old City, the procession walked the entire way on intricately woven, colorful, and expensive carpets and flowers placed in the street by Bukharan Jews.
They reached the packed, historic Hurva Synagogue, the central structure of the Jewish Quarter. My grandmother Hannah sat next to her mother Gittah Malkah, the well-known tzadika (righteous female) and Talmudically learned woman. Hannah’s father, Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, sat in front. At this part of the story my grandmother would tell of the feeling in the room of both joy and solemnity. She would talk about the utter beauty of the Hurva synagogue – that it never failed to dazzle and to inspire.
The tefillah was fervent but restrained – my grandparents remembered a formality to the service – after all, the King’s representative was the honored guest. At the end of Kriat HaTorah (the Reading of the Torah), Samuel was called for the maftir aliyah (reader of the Haftarah). This honor was expected. Then the raising and binding of the Torah. All was set for the prophetic reading (maftir). Samuel recited the blessings. Here stood the first Jew to have sovereign rule over the Land of Israel and Jerusalem since Gedaliah in 586 BCE! Sir Samuel chanted the berakoth flawlessly in a strong voice. All present responded with Amen. Then he began to recite those famous words of Isaiah 40, Nachamu, Nachamu, Ami –  Comfort Ye, Comfort Ye, My People.
He recited no more than a syllable when the entire community burst into tears. My grandparents said the crying was loud and wracked everyone’s body. It came from the deepest place possible. They were the tears of the Turkish rule, of the hard World War I years, and of the sufferings of the exile. Samuel could not contain himself, his British aristocratic elegance melted and he too sobbed. I asked my grandparents what they were feeling? My grandmother said that they felt that if it was possible to hear Nachamu chanted by their new governor, then indeed their hope for an independent Jewish homeland ruled by Jews and for Jews could one distant day actually happen. Perhaps not in their lifetime but surely in that of their grandchildren. So, the tears were tears of joy and also tears of anticipation.
My grandfather quoted the rabbinic interpretation that explains the doubling of the command Nachamu – Comfort Ye. God in the end of days will first call upon the nations of the world to comfort the children of Israel. The children of Israel will angrily reject their comfort – “We want only Your comfort.” Hence the second Nachamu that will come from God Himself.
We, exactly 100 years later, who are undergoing our own extended tumultuous period of the Three Weeks of mourning, must remember how far historically the Jewish people have come. We must recognize our responsibility to extend justice to all inhabitants of the land within the earned privilege of our return. We must take upon ourselves the Divine Command to comfort God’s people, to remind them of the day in which “every valley shall be exalted… and the glory of God shall be revealed… ” (Isaiah 40:4).

The writer is former head of the Pardes Institute for Jewish Education and founder and director of YASHRUT building civil discourse through a theology of integrity, justice, and tolerance. YASHRUT includes a semikah initiative as well as programs for rabbinic leaders
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