The ultimate purpose of the present day exile, which began after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdosh on the ninth of Av, is that it allows Jews to reach spiritual heights otherwise inaccessible. The month of Av is thus not just a time of sorrow, but also a time of comfort for both Jew and G‑d.

The ninth of Av is observed as a public fast for five tragic events which happened then.1 They are:2

1. It was decreed that the Jews in the desert would not enter Eretz Yisroel.3

2. The first Beis HaMikdosh was destroyed (by the Babylonians).

3. The second Beis HaMikdosh was destroyed (by the Romans).

4. The great metropolis of Betar was devastated, and its hundreds of thousands of residents killed.

5. The Beis HaMikdosh and its surroundings were ploughed under.

The destruction of the second Beis HaMikdosh was the beginning of the exile in which we are still suffering. Its cause is the wrongdoing of the Jewish people, as we say in our prayers,4 “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” When, therefore, we eliminate the cause — we repent of our wrongdoing — we automatically eliminate the effect and the exile will come to an end.5

Purpose of Exile

The exile is not just a punishment for transgressions. It serves as the means to a goal which could not be reached without first undergoing the terrible trial that is exile. In the words of the Alter Rebbe:6 “Descent is for the purpose of ascent.” The descent of the Jewish people into exile is for the purpose of reaching spiritual heights that are otherwise inaccessible. When Jews, despite the awesome tribulations and hardships of the exile, stand steadfast in their faith and exhibit a degree of self-sacrifice unknown to earlier generations, they reach an inconceivably lofty level.

This goal of the exile parallels the redemption from the first exile undergone by the Jewish people, the redemption from Egyptian slavery. G‑d had decreed that the Jews should be enslaved by the Egyptians and be afflicted by them for four hundred years, and then “afterward they shall come out with great wealth.”7 The Jews were already spiritually wealthy before the Egyptian exile, and they would certainly have been willing to forego this anticipated greater wealth if they only could be freed earlier. But G‑d decreed otherwise. The purpose of their descent into bondage was that they should thereby garner “great wealth — greater than before the descent.8 It was worth the delay.

Our present day exile has the same purpose. In the succinct words of the Yalkut Shimoni9 on Yirmeyahu.10

— “The Lion rose [meaning Nevuchadnetzar, king of Babylon]

— in the mazal11 of Ari12 [the fifth month, Av]

— and destroyed Ariel [referring to Yerushalayim]

so that the Lion [the Holy One] should come

— during the mazal of Ari and

— reconstruct Ariel.”

The Yalkut Shimoni continues to explain that this will cause that “I will transform their grief to happiness.”13 Clearly then, the fact that “the Lion rose in the mazal of Ari and destroyed Ariel” is for a specific purpose — the reconstruction.14

Jews must create the appropriate means to elicit and bring forth more swiftly the fulfillment of the promise that “the Lion should come during the mazal of Ari and reconstruct Ariel.”

The appropriate means are defined in the prophecy of Yeshayahu, the prophet of redemption:15 “Zion will be redeemed with mishpat, and those who return to her with tzedakah.” The Alter Rebbe explains16 that mishpat means Torah in general, and its laws in particular; and tzedakah means simply charity. And for mishpat and tzedakah to be properly performed, they must be joined to tefillah, prayer, which is the “ladder” whereby a Jew’s service, his Torah and charity, ascend to Heaven.17

Length of exile

Our present day exile has continued for a long time. But in the light of the above explanation, the reason for it is clear. The entire raison d’être of the exile is to gain “great wealth” — to attain a higher spiritual level than before. We shall leave exile when that goal has been reached.

That the length of the exile depends on the spiritual wealth garnered sheds light on the fact that different dates were given by different authorities for Moshiach’s arrival. The Talmud states that “all the reckoned dates [for Moshiach’s coming] have passed,”18 implying that various authorities in the time of the Talmud had calculated different dates for the redemption. Similarly, many Torah greats in all generations have given dates for the redemption.19

A “reckoned date” implies that the end of the exile will come then and at no other time. More than one date seems to be a contradiction in terms. But, based on our previous explanation of the length of the exile, we can resolve the contradiction.

The criterion for redemption, we have said, is when Jewry will have reached a spiritual level loftier than before, when they will have garnered “great wealth.” But just how much wealth must be accumulated, how high a level should be reached, before the exile is deemed ended and its purpose fulfilled?

It is precisely to this question that the different authorities address themselves, and which explains the different dates given for Moshiach’s arrival. Commensurate with his deeply personal spiritual stature and understanding, each authority had a different comprehension of the amount of spiritual wealth that should be garnered during the exile. The greater that assessment, the greater the amount of work needed to reach that goal — and hence the greater the length of the exile.

In other words, Jews, through their service in exile, can and must reach great heights. A particular sage, based on his knowledge of Torah, is of the opinion that Jews can reach a certain level. He then determines the amount of service required to reach that level, thereby fixing the length of time necessary for that service, and thus arrives at a date for the cessation of the exile. A later authority concludes that Jews are capable of attaining a yet higher level. This necessitates more time for the appropriate service, and so he arrives at a later date for the end of the exile.

Jews comfort the “Father”

That the purpose of the destruction and subsequent exile is the redemption is emphasized by the very name of the month in which these tragedies occurred — Menachem Av. Its name was originally just Av. The word Menachem, which means Comforter, was added to describe the nature of the month.20 It is a time when G‑d will comfort the Jews, that comfort being the future redemption. Moreover, as noted above, the mazal of this month is the Lion, and it is specifically in this month that the “Lion” — G‑d — will come to rebuild Yerushalayim.

We can go further. “Av” means “Father”, referring to G‑d. In its strict grammatical sense, Menachem Av means not that the Father comforts us, but that we comfort the Father.21 For we do not suffer alone. G‑d, our Sages say,22 also feels the exile and says, “Woe to the Father that He exiled His sons! (and woe to the sons who were exiled from their Father’s table!)” In similar vein, the Sifri states:23 “Beloved is Israel, for although they are impure, the Divine Presence is amongst them...Beloved is Israel, for wherever they are exiled, the Divine Presence is with them...and when they return, the Divine Presence is with them.” Not only Jews are in exile; the Divine Presence is too. We therefore comfort G‑d, so to speak.

Choice of Jews

Not all Jews can feel that the sorrow of the exile is primarily spiritual, in that the Divine Presence is exiled. Bowed down by the weight of the physical exile, with its attendant miseries and problems, how do they comfort the “Father”?

Every Jew is a son of the Holy One, blessed be He, chosen from all the other peoples. This choice does not refer just to the soul, but also, and indeed primarily, to the body. True choice is only applicable when the alternatives are absolutely identical. If the chooser is for any reason inclined to a particular alternative, free choice is not possible; it then depends on one’s preferences.

This is a critical difference between a Jew’s soul and body. The soul is “a part of G‑d above,”24 whereas the body is “similar in its corporeality to the bodies of the nations of the world.”25 G‑d’s free choice of the Jews therefore applies more to their bodies than to their souls.26 And because true free choice can only be made by the very Essence of G‑d, which, as the First Cause,27 is totally free of any predilections, the body is associated with the Essence of G‑d.

When a Jew feels the anguish of the physical exile, it is in an inner sense the exile of the Divine Presence he feels. For when a Jew’s body, in whom G‑d’s free choice is invested, is exiled, it is as if G‑d Himself, the Father, is in exile. And that is why every Jew can comfort the Father.

What can we learn from this?

Although a Jew’s actions in themselves are irrelevant to G‑d — for, as written,28 “If you have sinned, what do you do against Him?” — nevertheless, G‑d has chosen to unite with the Jewish people, so that their sins do affect Him, so to speak. Thus, “Wherever they are exiled, the Divine Presence is with them,”29 and “In all their travails He is with them.”30 That the Divine Presence has also gone into exile underscores the severity of our sins, the cause of the exile.

2. Nonetheless, Jews still have the ability to comfort G‑d, for our bond with G‑d remains in force despite all. The knowledge that our good deeds help bring the redemption — and therefore contribute to freeing the Divine Presence from exile — spurs us to repentance. G‑d is thereby comforted and, taking the Jewish people from exile, will build the third and eternal Beis HaMikdosh, may it be speedily in our times.

Sichah, Erev Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av, 5740;
Likkutei Sichos,
Vol. XXIX, p. 10ff.; Vol. XXIII, p. 214ff.