“Awake, awake, O Zion! Clothe yourself in splendor; put on your robes of majesty, Jerusalem, holy city! For the uncircumcised and the unclean shall never enter you again” (Isaiah 52:1).
In the Bible, horrific events are almost inevitably followed by opportunities for healing and redemption. Time and time again, the people of Israel fall into a deep slumber of sin and impurity. But the cry of the prophets to wake up inevitably pierces through the nation’s sleepiness, and they awaken with a spiritual strength they had forgotten they possessed. After the fall, man is given the chance to begin again.
Of all the terrible moments described in the Bible, the story of the concubine of Gibeah is certainly one of the very worst. Moral degradation, civil war, and the slaughter of thousands – this story has it all! And yet, in the aftermath of the destruction, we find an extraordinary ray of light.
In their rage at the sinful tribe of Benjamin, the tribes of Israel swore that they would never again give their daughters to the men of Benjamin as wives. But in the aftermath of the war, only 400 Benjamite men were left alive. If they could not marry the daughters of the other eleven tribes, the tribe of Benjamin would die out and disappear!
To solve the problem and get around their oath, the people of Israel came up with an ingenious solution. Instead of “giving” their daughters to the men of Benjamin, the men of Benjamin would “take” their daughters as wives:
“‘They said, “The annual feast of Hashem is now being held at Shilo.’ … So they instructed the Benjaminites as follows: ‘Go and lie in wait in the vineyards. As soon as you see the girls of Shilo coming out to join in the dances, come out from the vineyards; let each of you seize a wife from among the girls of Shilo, and be off for the land of Benjamin…’ The Benjaminites did so. They took as wives, from the dancers whom they carried off, as many as they themselves numbered. Then they went back to their own territory, and rebuilt their towns and settled in them.” (Judges 21:18-23)
In Jewish thought, this moment of rapprochement and magnanimity was no mere detail in the larger story of the Book of Judges. According to the sages, this sweet story of the men of Israel allowing the men of Benjamin to “take” their daughters as wives was a foundational moment in Jewish history!
“Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel said: there never were in Israel greater days of joy than the fifteenth of Av and the day of atonement (Yom Kippur)… What happened on the 15th of Av? Rabbi Joseph said in the name of R. Nahman: It is the day on which the tribe of Benjamin was permitted to re-enter the congregation [of Israel]…” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 26b, 30b)
In Jewish tradition, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av – the day the tribe of Benjamin was allowed to marry into the other tribes of Israel – is one of the two happiest days of the year (along with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement)! Incredibly, this joyful day occurs only six days after the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, the 9th of Av, when both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed.
Why is this day so joyous? For it is a constant reminder to us all that even after great failure, tragedy and brokenness, it is possible to begin again and start anew. God does not give up on us, and so we must never give up on ourselves. The tribe of Benjamin sinned terribly and was almost completely destroyed – but God, and the other tribes, refused to let Benjamin disappear.
The Sages explain that the seeds of the redemption of Israel, which will come to full bloom in the Book of Samuel, were planted at this propitious moment at the end of the Book of Judges. According to tradition, a young man named Saul – destined to become the first King of Israel – was one of the 400 Benjamite men who took a wife and started a family on the 15th of Av. And so the Book of Judges, which contains so many painful and tragic moments, ends with a story of comfort, hope and redemption.
May we, too, soon find comfort and redemption!