There are high points in life, beautiful moments of joy and a sense of fulfillment. There are also low, gloomy times, times of darkness. Times when beautiful structures are destroyed, when everything seems lost. Yet then again, the wheel of life continues to turn, and once again there is sunlight, once again we experience wholeness, wellbeing and happiness. This cycle of moving from darkness to light is expressed on this Shabbat, the Shabbat after the ninth of Av, the fast which commemorates the tragedy of the destruction of both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem.

The haftorah following the Torah reading on Shabbat usually reflects a topic in the Torah reading. The centerpiece of this week’s reading, Va’etchanan,1 is the Ten Commandments.2 Yet the haftorah is from Isaiah,3 and it is about comfort. “Comfort My people, comfort them . . .” says G‑d to the prophets. After destruction comes rebirth and rebuilding. After the destruction of the first Temple came the building of the second. After the destruction of the second Temple will come the advent of the Messiah and the building of the third Temple. The sense of comfort after the darkness of destruction is so strong that in fact this is only the first of a series of seven haftarot, week by week, all with the theme of the promise of redemption.

The sense of rebuilt wholeness is also expressed by the fact that the 15th of Av always falls in the week when Va’etchanan is read. The Mishnah4 tells us that “the greatest festivals for the Jewish people were Yom Kippur and the fifteenth of Av.” The Mishnah describes the custom of the young women of Jerusalem borrowing white dresses, so that even the poorest girl was not embarrassed to borrow one, and dancing together in the vineyards of Jerusalem. The Talmud, explaining the Mishnah, gives several reasons for the festivities. Most of these reasons concern, in some way, putting right something which had been wrong.5

The sages tell us that the fifteenth of every Jewish month is significant, because, in accordance with the lunar calendar, on that day the moon is full. The moon represents the Jewish people, and also the Divine Presence, the Shechinah, which has a feminine quality. The fifteenth of Av has a special power of joy, above that of the fifteenth of all other months, because the descent on the ninth of Av was so terrible. The light and joy which follows darkness have an added, unique power.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that this idea can help us even if we are still at the stage of the descent into darkness. The darkness and desolation are not a cause for despair: on the contrary, they point to the greater joy which will follow. The greater the darkness, the greater the light and the joy which will follow. Recognizing this truth inherent in existence enables us to find joy at the darkest moment. This teaching applies to us as individual men and women, and also to the Jewish people as a whole.

The cycle of comfort is also seen in the Torah reading. Moses describes to the Jewish people how, forty years previously, they heard the Ten Commandments from G‑d. The reading does not mention it, but they knew—and we know—that following the Ten Commandments they made the Golden Calf, and then made many other mistakes, resulting in their wandering in the desert for forty years. Yet now they are about to enter the Promised Land. Moses reminds them about hearing the Ten Commandments from G‑d, and they are now able to hear them with a renewed sense of innocence.6 They and we, after our long journey, as individuals and as a people, have left the realm of darkness, and are about to enter the light . . .7