The 17th of Tammuz is known as the day of the breaking of the luchos (tablets), which occurred in the year 2448. It was a day that should have been the greatest celebration – the completion of the pact between Hashem and the Jewish people! Instead, it became a day of sadness throughout history, that represented the loss of our relationship with Hashem. And yet, it does represent the loss in a direct way – for we could still have come back into that relationship – through the building of the Mishkan (tabernacle), through the teshuva and prayers of the entire Jewish people.
But a year and three months later, in 2449, we lost that as well, on the day of Tisha B’av. The ninth of Av, as well, should have been a day of great celebration. We were to receive news about the beautiful land of Israel that we were about to begin to conquer. Instead of it being a day of elation, it became a day of sadness through the ill report of the spies.
It is remarkable that Tammuz is the month of Yosef’s birth. Furthermore, Av is a month that Yosef is active in (as per the Maharsha in Sanhedrin 12A). How are we to understand this in light of the negative events that occurred in this month?
The essence of Yosef (and Moshiach ben Yosef, by extension) is his hidden nature. This manifests in a number of ways. The first way is that he experiences tremendous difficulties and challenges. These mask the underlying theme of his life which is growth through the challenges. That which on the surface seems like death and destruction, is shown to actually be the source of his life. His great leadership is born as a result of his great difficulties.
Tammuz and Av are the months when the sun holds its greatest sway. The days are long, and the heat is at its peak of the year. Esav and the powers of evil are represented by the sun, and thus, we can see that the very nature of reality shows that Esav has power in these months. As Rashi says on the verses that describe the birth of Yosef, Yosef is the force which balances out the evil of Esav, which was why Yakov felt he could return to where Esav was once Yosef was born. Thus, the counter-force for Esav comes into the world at the very time when Esav’s power is ascendent.
Returning for a moment to the 17th of Tammuz, it was the day that the luchos were broken, but the event that was the antecedent of that was the creation of the Golden Calf. It is remarkable that Yosef is very much connected to the concept of the calf. We find that Yosef is referred to as an ox (בכור שורו הדר לו) – he is the firstborn ox. This is related to one of the four faces of the ofanim, which was the ox, after which the Jewish people modeled the Golden Calf. The question is, What is the meaning of this connection between Yosef and the Golden Calf?
There is also a strong connection between the Golden Calf and the Red Heifer. Both red and gold represent the concept of gevurah, as does the concept of the calf, or the heifer (cow). The Red Heifer is meant to atone in some way for the sin of the Golden Calf (as per Rashi). It is the antidote for the spiritual malaise that is brought about through coming into contact with the dead. Before the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jewish people had returned to the state of Adam Harishon before the sin, and thus they would have lived forever. Through the sin of the Golden Calf, death returned to the world, and thus the Red Heifer would be necessary to purify from the contamination of the dead.
Esav is an aspect of the Golden Calf – the forces of evil that bring death into the world. On a certain level, this is literal, as we find that Esav was the one who had transgressed the three cardinal sins, one of which is murder. Yosef can thus be described as an aspect of the Red Heifer – who comes as a counter-force for the death that is brought into the world through his spiritual opposite, Esav.
Most interestingly, Yosef functions in the spiritual facet of gevurah, which, as we said, is represented by the color red and the concept of the cow. This means that Yosef must use the very power of gevurah (literally – strength) – which is the tool of the side of evil – against the forces of evil. Whereas Esav and his spiritual counterparts make use of strength to destroy and bring about death, Yosef uses his strength to control his desires, and to eradicate those very forces of destruction.
On a deeper level, the concept of gevurah is about holding oneself back. This trait is what Yosef needed to use when he wanted to reveal himself to his brothers, but the time was not yet right. He also used this trait in order to forgive his brothers – by recognizing and focusing on the fact that Hashem was the One who had guided his life throughout the dark times, he was able to hold back his negative feelings for his brothers, and thereby forgive them.
In a similar way, there is a withholding of relationship that occurs on the 17th of Tammuz, and subsequently on the 9th of Av. This seeming loss of relationship is analogous to Yosef’s interaction with his brothers before he reveals himself. He deals with them in a tough manner, and they perceive him as a despotic Egyptian ruler whose behavior is incomprehensible. Paralleling this, we experience our relationship with Hashem at this time as one of distance, loss and destruction. Hashem hides His face of kindness and love from us, and we are to blame! We built this idol ourselves! We brought death back into the world and we chose impatience over patience, death over life. It seems that surely Hashem is angry with us and will never forgive us!
And just as Yosef hid himself in order to accomplish a deeper resolution of the brothers’ previous sin, Hashem also, lehavdil, hides Himself in order to give us an opportunity to accomplish a deeper resolution of our sin. For we have a chance to prove our fidelity to God even here in the darkest depths of distance from Him.
And just as Yosef must prove himself in the darkest depths of distance, so we are to do the same, and learn from the example that Yosef set.
And Yosef is is born into this time of darkness, which paradoxically seems like light. For the sun shines the strongest, and it beats the hottest during these summer months. Is this darkness? And the answer is, Yes! The sun represents the forces of evil, which eclipse the light of the soul, the light of Hashem. This time is a time in which Hashem’s light is blocked, and the forces of physicality are strongest. And here Yosef is born, and Yosef works behind the scenes, facing the darkness head on. Teaching us how we can do the same.
It is here at this time that we are aware of Yosef working behind the scenes, ever so subtly, ever so discreetly. And we can discern this work as it develops through the process of the sod ha’ibbur, as it gives birth nine months later to the twin months of Adar – the double portion of Yosef as the firstborn ox. This is the secret process that brings about forward movement in the advent of the age of Moshiach, may it come speedily in our days.