At one moment or another, most of us have known low points in life. When these occur we sense that we have not only reached the bottom, but also we might also feel that there does not seem to be a way to climb out of the "ditch" and to get back into life. During these difficult personal moments we can turn to the Prophet Joel to provide us with the guidance and reassurance to know that in the end, we can climb out of the hole and get back into the game of life.
Joel (Yoel in the original Hebrew text) is the second of the 12 Minor Prophets. Unlike many of the other Minor Prophets (the word "minor" refers not to the prophet's stature but rather to the size of his book) Joel speaks directly to the people of Judah instead of addressing the 10 northern tribes of Israel.
When we first read this short book, we sense that we are reading a document that predicts doom. Reading the book on a deeper level, however, we find that Joel's words are less about doom and more about inspiration.
Just as in the case with much of ancient Hebrew literature, many of the book's details are lost. We are not sure of the book's date, although some scholars place it during the Persian period. Joel divides his book into two parts: The first part being about a dramatic plague of locust, perhaps symbolic of the plagues that touch all of our lives. The second part of the book speaks about the lifting of the plague, about Israel's restoration and the judgment of the nations. It is in the second part that despair turns first to hope and then into action.
The Book of Joel is similar, and at the same time different, from the Book of Hosea. As in the case of Hosea, the nation is asked to recognize its errors and to repent. Joel also raises the issue that good can come from evil, but only if we are cognizant of our errors and are willing to change course.
Some see Joel as the first true historian. It is in this book that we learn his theory that we can only understand where we as a nation are headed, that is to say, our future, if we first understand from whence we came, our past. Thousands of years ago the prophet Joel argued that only by understanding our past can we better shape the national decisions that need to be made to shape our future. Ironically, modern historians often seem unaware of Joel's contribution to their academic field.
One of the most intriguing verses in the Book of Joel comes from the second part of the book where Joel states: "Multitudes upon multitudes in the Valley of Decision! For the day of the lord is at hand in the Valley of Decision." (Joel 4:14) Joel's use of the term, "a valley of decision" speaks to each of us. Valleys are often symbolic in Hebrew literature. The term "emek" (valley) speaks directly to us about moments of sadness, loneliness or frustration in our lives. The term "emek" refers to any low point, be that point geographic or spiritual. All of us have known valleys in our own lives; all of us know moments of insecurity when we feel weak and vulnerable. Like Joel, most of us at one point or another have known times when we have felt surrounded by insurmountable mountains of problems out of which we might never leave.
Perhaps this too is what the psalmist meant when he spoke in Psalm 23 of the "gei tzalmavet" (the valley of the shadow of death). It is often when we are at our low points in life that we are forced to make our most critical decisions; when we realize that we have to take risks or we shall never climb out of the valley and reach new heights.
To be in the valley of life is as Joel states: to be in a place where: "Sun and moon are darkened, and stars withdraw their brightness". Joel's book teaches us that in reality, there is no life that does not know its moments of darkness. To live is to know both the pleasures of life and its moments when we, as an individual and as a people, are sure that both the sun and the moon are dark and the shadows of depression enter deep into our souls. In Joel's valley, we feel the darkness of ambiguity and confusion, we feel overwhelmed and out of control.
What makes the Prophet Joel so meaningful is that he also helps us to realize that the lowest points of our personal and national lives are not only points of despair but also moments when we can find rebirth and renewal. Joel teaches us that to leave life's valleys we first have to acknowledge the pain and then choose to make decisions that transform our wallowing in self-pity into the affirmative decisions that lead to liberating actions. Joel is the prophet that says; Enough to victimization! He prods us to take our personal and collective history and turn a valley of tears into moments of personal growth and renewal of strength.
The book of Joel argues then that at times all of us enter a valley of despair, but the strong and wise also will make decisions that allow them to scale the mountains that seem to be hemming them in and instead choose to see the light of the sun, moon, and stars that shines on heights yet to be reached.
As the Jewish New Year (Rosh Ha'Shanah) begins on the evening of September 20, may the year 5778 be a year of sweetness and health for all of the citizens of our community and nation.
• Peter Tarlow is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He is a chaplain for the College Station Police Department and teaches at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.