and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the LORD
for the display of his splendor. — Isaiah 61:3
A general principle in Judaism teaches that God treats us according to how we behave. When we are generous, God is generous with us. When we are kind and merciful, God is kind and merciful to us. When we overlook other people’s mistakes, God takes a more lenient stance when judging us.
In recent days, watching how the people of Israel have responded in the face of horrible terror all around us, I am praying for another kind of reciprocal compensation.
In the book of Isaiah, God promises to give Israel “beauty instead of ashes.” It’s interesting that in the original Hebrew the word for beauty is spelled with the same exact letters as the Hebrew word for ashes, just in a different order. This is because we can always create beauty from ashes. While this verse is usually understood to mean that God gives us beauty in place of ashes, sometimes it has to work the other way around. We give God beauty from our ashes. Here in Israel, people have been doing just that.
A few examples: When the father and brother of Sarah Techiya Litman were murdered days before her wedding, she turned a horribly tragic situation into a huge statement of strength and faith. The bride and groom invited the entire nation to the rescheduled wedding and thousands attended, waving Israeli flags and dancing in the face of terror.
More recently, just after three Jews were stabbed at the Jaffa gate in Jerusalem, two fatally, a group of students stood in that very place singing songs of faith. While extra soldiers have been stationed in some of the more vulnerable areas in Israel, citizens have been working day and night to bring the cold soldiers hot soup and other treats. In Sderot, where thousands of Hamas-fired rockets have fallen over the past few years, they created a menorah out of those very weapons and used it for candle lighting during Hanukkah. People are praying more often and more deeply. We are growing in trust and faith. We are increasing acts of kindness in response to acts of terror.
We have buried far too many precious, innocent people, but from our ashes, we are creating beauty.
However, one doesn’t need to live in Israel to go through hard times. And one does not need to be Israeli to give God beauty from the ashes in your life. We all have the power to make something beautiful out of a tragedy. Some of the world’s greatest organizations for change have emanated from difficult circumstances.
So let us all resolve to give God beauty from our ashes, and ultimately, I do believe that God will take away our ashes, dry our tears, and give us beauty instead.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President