By Shmuel Reichmann
In Parshat Va’eschanan, we read about the Arei Miklat, the cities of refuge for those who unintentionally murder. This parsha almost always falls immediately following Tisha B’Av, and, consequently, shortly before the Hebrew month of Elul. At face value, these themes do not seem to share a connection: The Ir Miklat is a safe haven for unwitting murderers, Tisha B’Av is a day of sadness and destruction, as Klal Yisrael (the nation of Israel) mourns the loss of the Beit Ha’Mikdash (Holy Temple), and the tragedies that have occurred throughout Jewish history; and Elul, the month of teshuva (repentance).
What links these three topics together? To understand their underlying connection, we must first delve into each of these three seemingly unrelated ideas.
On Tisha B’Av, we go through a process of mourning similar to the process of mourning a loved one. This seems to be an excessive response to the loss of a building – the Beit Ha’Mikdash. However, the destruction of the Temple was merely the physical expression of a much deeper tragedy. The Temple was the locus of connection between Hashem (God) and this physical world. It was destroyed as a result of the disconnect that Klal Yisrael created between us and Hashem, between us and our fellow person, and between us and ourselves. We lost sight of the spiritual root of this world, shattering the connection between us and Hashem. Once broken, the physical vessel that represented this connection – the Beit Ha’Mikdash – was reduced to an empty shell that could easily be destroyed.
The death of a person is the process of one’s soul separating from his or her body. The concept of death is the disconnect between a spiritual lifeforce and its physical vessel. When the Beit Ha’Mikdash was destroyed, the world died. The soul of the world – Hashem – left its body, its vessel – the physical world, resulting in a cosmic spiritual chasm and a shattered reality. We mourn on Tisha Ba’av, not just for the destruction of a building, but for the death of the world itself. And we yearn for the day when Hashem will once again be clearly manifest in this world, revealing the spiritual essence of this physical reality.
This is why Elul directly follows Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av is the time of breakdown, exile, and death; Elul is the time of rejuvenation, redirection, and rebirth. As we transition from Tisha B’Av to Elul, we pause, stop the negative momentum, and begin building anew. Tisha B’Av becomes the impetus for growth throughout the month of Elul. In this way, it becomes a yeridah l’tzorech aliyah- a breakdown for the sake of ascension; our journey back home to our proper place, our unbreakable bond with and connection to Hashem. The goal of Rosh Hashanah is to anoint and embrace Hashem as our King, which can only happen after a month spent bridging the gap that we created between us. The definition of teshuva is return, and that is our goal at this time. We yearn to return the world to its proper, higher state; to return the Jewish people to our elevated status, and for each and every one of us to return to our higher, true selves.
The process of return is a sweet one, but it is also a challenging one. We feel as though we are fighting an uphill battle, and we struggle to maintain momentum and continue gaining ground. Many approach Elul with a feeling of despair and loneliness as we grapple to rebuild ourselves and what feels like a broken connection with Hashem.
This is why Hashem created the Ir Miklat – a place for those without a place. When one loses his physical place, he feels lost, abandoned, hopeless. At exactly this moment, he is given a sense of hope. He may have lost his place, but there is still a place for him to go in the interim until he can return home. The Ir Miklat represents hope for the hopeless, a home for the homeless, stability for the unstable.
Tisha B’Av reminds us about how broken life can become, about the genuine difficulty and challenge of life. But there will always be an Elul, an Ir Miklat, a refuge. We will always have a place to stay until the chaos fades away. But we must remember that this is only a waystation, and that we must arise and journey back to our true destination. Elul is our shelter amidst the storm. It helps protect us, but it also helps guide us back to our true destination. Elul is Hashem’s way of saying, “There will always be a place for you.” In response, we must embrace that place and begin rebuilding from there to-wards our true destination.
This is the first step of teshuva, recognizing that we are not where we need to be, but that through constant effort and the help of Hashem, we can get there. The foundation for this is our interim Ir Miklat. This allows us to gain our footing, create clarity and purpose, and begin our journey back home.
May we all be inspired to pause, find our footing, and use this Elul to purposely journey back to our true place: Hashem Himself.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, author, educator, and coach who has lectured internationally on topics of Jewish thought and Jewish medical ethics. He holds a BA and MA from Yeshiva University, and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago. Contact him at ShmuelReichman.com.