Origins of the Month and its Meaning
Tevet is the 10th month on the Biblical calendar counting from Nisan and the 4th month on the observed Jewish calendar counting from Tishrei. What can we learn from its name, its placement on the Hebrew calendar and the events which occurred within it in ancient times?
The month of Tevet is of Babylonian origin, yet carries with it a special message…a “spark,” if you will, hidden beneath the surface. In Hebrew it begins with the letter ‘tet’ and ends with the letter ‘tav.’ Both these letters have the “t” sound. It is noteworthy that this month, T-E-V-E-T, can be read both backwards and forwards in Hebrew and in English.
Soren Kierkegaard, famed author and Danish philosopher has a thought provoking take on life that we might relate to the message of this month of Tevet. He says that, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
In his lectures, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory picks up on this philosophy and carries it a bit further. He teaches that We live life forward but we see the role of Providence in our lives only by looking back. “That is the meaning of God’s words to Moses,” he says when he quotes Exodus 33:23, “You will see My back.” In other words, “You will see Me only when you look back.”
HaShem through the prophet Jeremiah speaks of this clarity in looking back when He states in Jer.23:19, in the latter days you shall consider it perfectly. Most would agree that we have already either entered into or are fast approaching these latter days, leading to the final redemption, which give us much to think about…so many more of those hidden sparks beneath the surface await us!
Yet in order to discover them, it takes a looking backward as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks suggested… a remembering and a gleaning of a deeper understanding of the events that took place both historically and in our own personal lives. Like pieces of a puzzle coming together…as we look back we are able to more clearly discern the Providence of G-d.
Taking a Look Back…to the Beginning of the Year 5782
With these words in mind, let us first take a cursory look back to the beginning of this Jewish calendar year…that of 5781 and review in our own minds what we have gleaned.
Tishrei—the glorious month of the Fall Festivals of Rosh HaShanah (Yom Teruah), Yom Kippur, Sukkot!!! The excitement of the chilling sound of the shofar… that calls us to shuv, to return… followed by the joy of dwelling in our sukkahs with the Divine Presence, referred to as the Sheckinah in Jewish circles!
Che shhhh van – ssssh – a time of silence where there are no celebrations, a quiet time that comes after all the excitement and awe of the joyous festivals of the previous month, a time of looking inward, a time of reflection and meditation
Kislev – Concealment and a Revelation…a time of transforming the quiet meditative moments beginning in Cheshvan and bringing those moments forward into the month of Kislev… Kislev, the darkest month of the year, when we in the midst of the darkness that surrounds us, summon our resolve to live our lives forward to light up that darkness as we celebrate the Festival of Lights, Chanukah, the Feast of Dedication. We joyously kindle the first flame of our menorah and place it in our window for all to see and continue by adding an additional candle for eight nights!
Tevet—The beginning of the month of Tevet always corresponds with the last days of Chanukah. By internalizing the message of the ever increasing lights of the menorah—we are reminded of the power of light over darkness, good over evil as manifested in the days of the courageous Maccabees who in refusing to assimilate gathered a small ill equipped rag-tag army and against all odds, through the gracious Hand of HaShem, managed to defeat and drive out the mighty Syrian/Greek army that was threatening not only to overtake their land but their culture, their faith and very existence as a people…a threat that is still ongoing today!
We recall the powerful words of HaShem that must have reverberated in the hearts of those Maccabees to spur them on…those powerful words that have continued to reverberate down through the centuries in the hearts of all those dedicated to HaShem and the living out of His Torah, “Not my might, nor by power, but by My Spirit says HaShem of Hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). The familiar saying, Hope springs eternal, is certainly applicable here and is one that we must safeguard in our hearts on a daily basis.
The name of this month as we have brought forth has Babylonian rather than Hebrew origins, but also when written in Hebrew, ת בֵ טֵ, we find that it shares its root with “tov,” ( בֵ טֵ) meaning good! Roots in the Hebrew language are very significant for these roots not only form the basis of each word, but also lead to a whole plethora of interconnections between the words.
What Sets this Month Apart and Why Do we Fast on the Tenth Day?
Looking back in Jewish history, we find that Tevet, rather than being seen as a good month, has been seen as a very ominous month for it is associated with destruction as it marked the beginning of the 3 year siege of Nebuchadnezzar and the subsequent dispersion of the Jews of the Southern Kingdom of Judea to Babylon in the year 586 BCE. This beginning of the siege of Nebuchadnezzar is commemorated with a fast on the tenth day of this month known simply as The Fast of the 10th Month.
Given this opportunity to look back and recall these events, we can meditate on the lessons we can glean from them. We can of course meditate any day, but we are given a special day in the Book of Zechariah to remember this horrific event and to meditate and fast. It is known simply as The Fast of the 10th Month and is one of four fasts specially designated by HaShem as one that will be turned to a day of joy and gladness (Zechariah 8:18-19)!
How are we to fast and why? HaShem speaking through the prophet Joel in His poignant plea answers this question by admonishing but also assuring the people that all is not lost as He enlightens them as to the purpose of their fasting.
“Yet even now, says HaShem, turn to me with all your heart and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts, and not your garments, and turn to HaShem your G-d, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, great in love, and repents of evil.”(Joel2:13)
A fast then is meant to be a time of rending our hearts of questioning and introspection, of determining who we are and who we really want to become…it is a time of looking back, of t’shuvah …a time to return to the pure souls HaShem gave us.
It is a time of “seeing” things that we missed; for when the events were actually occurring, staring us in the face so to speak, we were so steeped in what was going on that we lacked the perspective to see them for what they actually were…so we have to take a step back in order to see where we’ve been and where we are going.
A fast is meant to be a time to stop and take notice and to awaken from our apathy. It is a time to ask ourselves whether we simply want to go through life as passive travelers looking out the window, allowing ourselves to take the easy road and go with the flow and follow the age old path of assimilation…the slippery slope…one leading to moral and spiritual decay. Is this what we truly desire or do we want to make a real effort to live purposely?
The choice is ours, and we have an opportunity to make that choice every day. What will it be? We always have the option to turn things around and do t’shuvah, but sometimes, the consequences have already overtaken us and we must go through difficult times as did the Jews in Judea who were taken into Babylonian captivity as a result of their blatant disregard for HaShem and His instructions and their refusal to do t’shuvah.
The Warnings from the Prophets…Will We Heed Them Today?
Judah had the opportunity to look back and learn from her sister” Israel who several hundred years prior (733 BCE) had met her demise by going down the slippery slope and following the path of assimilation. Refusing to listen to the warnings of the prophets to shuv (turn and repent) Israel known as the Ten Northern Tribes chose to forsake the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and set up their own altars in the north in Tel Dan. As a result they were taken away into Assyrian Captivity to be subsequently assimilated and dispersed throughout the nations.
We read beginning in Deut. 4:26 that even before they entered into the Land Moshe prophesied that they would make idols and worship them and do evil in the sight of HaShem and go astray.
In Deut. 31:29 he prophesies, “For I know that after my death you will surely become corrupted and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you and evil will befall you.
This warning was repeatedly given by HaShem through His prophets but sadly these repeated warnings fell on deaf ears…leading to diaspora after diaspora and an exile that has not ended to this day.
Jeremiah 44:4-5 “Yet I sent you My servants the prophets, again and again, saying, ‘Oh do not do this abominable thing which I hate.”
Zechariah 7:11-12 “But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears from hearing.”
Jeremiah 11:7-8 “For I earnestly forewarned your fathers on the day that I brought them up out of the land of Mitzrayim, to this day, forewarning them from morning till night, saying, obey My voice. Yet they obeyed not, nor inclined their ear, but walked everyone in the stubbornness of their evil heart…”
Continuing in verse 10, the prophet says, “they have turned their back to the iniquities of their forefathers who refused to hear My words; and they have gone after other gods to serve them: the House of Yisrael and the house of Yehuda have broken My covenant which I made with their fathers.”
Looking back over the history of HaShem’s people, we see time and time again how they fell back into their old patterns and went astray because they failed to look back and learn from the error of their ways and those of the ones that had gone before them. With disobedience comes a consequence, but with the consequence HaShem always has a remedy, for He continually affords the opportunity for self-examination and t’shuvah (repentance and return).
The heartfelt words of Jeremiah, termed by many as the weeping prophet, cries out through the ages with the words of HaShem…”Return to me and I will return to you” (Zechariah 1:2). Will we choose to heed the call or will we have to suffer the consequences as did our ancestors in the past?
Where is the Tov, the Good?
We stated earlier that the Hebrew root word for this month of Tevet is tov or good, yet given the history of this month we may find ourselves asking the question, “Where is the good?”
The very name of the month of Tevet which shares its root with tov or good, as we have pointed out, indicates that even when it appears that all is lost, it is far from being lost, for HaShem and His Providence are always working behind the scenes to turn the evil into tov, into good, in ways that we may not fully understand at the time that the events are occurring. Yet by looking back, we are oftentimes afforded a glimpse of this process at work which in itself is an amazing life lesson for us both as individuals and as a corporate body of people who love our Creator.
Looking back on all the warnings given by the prophets that fell on deaf ears and the devastating results that followed, we find a pattern beginning to emerge…and one that we can certainly learn from today. Yes, the people did indeed suffer dire consequences, yet the Jewish sages of old teach us that the Yad Tova, the Good Hand of HaShem was working behind the scenes in all this just as He has continued to do in every generation up to this very day and herein is where we find the tov, the good. Like hidden sparks beneath the surface we discover the good in the lessons learned, the t’shuvah which follows and in the fulfillment of the promises given by the mouth of HaShem through His prophets in the past… some of which we are witnessing with our very eyes this day!
In living our lives forward, we must always remember to look backwards in order to find the good in the lessons we have learned.