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Thoughts on the Three Weeks

Unless we regularly consult the Jewish calendar, many of us are blissfully unaware of the significance of the period of time that is traditionally marked at this season.  Last Thursday, was a minor fast day, that is a day marked by special prayers for forgiveness, particularly the familiar litany of Avinu Malkenu, and a time of fasting from sunrise to sunset.  Minor fast days are not kept for 24 hours like Yom Kippur and require only abstention from food and drink during the daylight hours.  Last week was the fast of Shivah Asar b’Tammus, the 17th of Tammuz.  Our rabbis tell us that five calamities occurred to the Jewish people on that date.  Modern scholars suggest that the date is only an approximation around which these events were clustered to avoid multiple fast days.  In Moses’s time, this daymarked 40 days after the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai when the prophet descended the mountain only to find his people worshiping a Golden Calf.  In anger, he smashed the tablets of the Ten Commandments and called for punishment of the leaders of this sinful act.  If one continues counting, one finds two more 40-day periods, the first during which Moses sought forgiveness for this sin and learned the thirteen attributes of God’s grace which are repeated again and again on Yom Kippur. The second period, beginning on the first of Elul, marked his second 40-day communion with God to receive the second set of tablets, coming down the mountain on the 40th day, Yom Kippur, forever a day of atonement.


It seems that Shiva Asar was first set aside as a fast day to mark the siege around Jerusalem and at the time of the Babylonian attack it marked the end of the daily sacrifices when the animals offered twice a day on the altar ran out. In Roman times it marked the breaking through of the walls of Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple.  The date was somewhat earlier in the time of the Babylonians from that of the Roman conquest, but we mark both events and both destructions on the 17th of Tammuz.  The rabbis add two other events in the Mishnah that are otherwise unknown.  Someone named Apostomos publiclyburned a Torah scroll on this date, perhaps in Hellenistic times. The fifth event was the erecting of an idol in the Temple, some say by this same Apostomos and others attribute this sin to the wicked king of Judah, Manasseh, in the century prior to the destruction of the first Temple.  Thus, we mark five tragedies on this date by fasting and prayer.


The same Mishnah, in the tractate of Taanit, tells us of five more events observed on the major fast day of Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, which occurs precisely three weeks after Shiva Asar b’Tammuz.  Thus, this period between the two fast days is known either as Bein HaMetzarim, a term found in the book of Lamentations (Eichah), that means between the narrow places or between the straits, or in Yiddish is called “Drei Vokken,” simply three weeks.  In traditional circles, these three weeks are considered a period of mourning with various symbolic restrictions, gradually increasing in intensity as one approaches the major day of mourning, marking the destruction of both the first and second Temple and several other calamities.Last Shabbat, marking this period, we chanted the first of three special haftaroth, that warn of impending doom. This first passage was from Jeremiah, who is known as the prophet of doom, living at the time of the destruction of the first Temple. There are varying traditions, but generally people read a second passage of warning from Jeremiah this coming Shabbat, with the third reading the following week from the opening chapter of Isaiah.  That third reading is chanted to the mournful melody of Lamentations and even includes the unusual word “Eicha” How? by which we call Lamentations in Hebrew.


Dr. Erica Brown, a noted Jewish educator and author, in her thin volume entitled “In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks,” notes how very difficult it is for modern Jews to identify with these traditions.  She admits that outside of the observant Jewish community, this period is virtually unknown. Even those who are aware of Tisha B’Av may consider it “an inconvenient and meaningless obligation.”  Coming during the summer months when people are looking for outdoor activities, enjoying the warmer weather, taking time for leisure and perhaps for travel, this mournful period just doesn’t fit into our itineraries.  Some writers claim that modern Jews have a kind of amnesia, a willed disregard for the tragedies of earlier Jewish history.  Yet, says Dr. Brown, people do commemorate the Holocaust, but what came before over the centuries is often disregarded.  Of course, there is a big difference in remembering the massacre of millions of people including, perhaps, even some of our own relatives, compared with the remembrance of the destruction of a sacred shrine in antiquity, even though it also came with a massive loss of Jewish life.


This may not be terribly surprising when we reflect on how we Americans tend to mark our own national holidays.  Thanksgiving has become almost exclusively a time for turkey and football.  Memorial Day, though meant to be a time forrecalling those who have died for our country, is thought of more as the beginning of the summer season and a time for barbecues and picnics. We Americans don’t often think of our holidays as times for serious reflection.  Another factor may be the difficulty in mourning the destruction of ancient Israel at a time when we can see with our own eyes that the description of the desolate, empty city of Jerusalem which is found in the book of Lamentations, is no longer accurate in our time.  Israel and its capital, Jerusalem, with all their problems and challenges, are very much alive and bustling places.


So, what then are we commemorating and mourning during these three weeks?  Cognitively, we can appreciate the difficult history of our people, reflect on the persecutions, expulsions, massacres, and destructions over the course of two millennia and more.  These three weeks are a time for reflection.  Erica Brown writes, “Before its renovation, inscribed above the exit of Yad VaShem…was a quote attributed to the Baal Shem Tov…’Forgetfulness leads to exile, while remembrance is the secret of redemption.’ Memory is our collective glue; it brings us together, united by a common narrative of the past, a master story that advances a vision of redemption for the future.”  In spite of this cognitive recognition of the importance of recalling the past, we are not always capable of rising to the emotional challenge of reliving it, she notes.  Rabbinic law and custom provide an elaborate framework in which we are urged to experience the sense of loss commemorated at this season, to act as mourners, as if we have personally lost a loved one.  But even those most steeped in our tradition have admitted the difficulty of connecting with ancient destruction in contemporary times, of truly mourning the past.


The Temple in Jerusalem, like the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, in the wilderness, represented the Divine presence, the Shechina, in the midst of the people of Israel.  At this season, we speak of Churban HaBayit, the destruction of the House.  We do not mourn for mortar and bricks, but rather for the special relationship with the Divine represented by that center of worship.  We are urged to take it very personally for it is not just the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, the House of God, but the destruction of “the house,” the disruption of our deep connection to God, as if our own personal home had been devoured in fire.  Most importantly, why did this destruction, this disruption, come upon us, according to our rabbinic teachers?  As Dr. Brown writes, “Jeremiah/s Jerusalem is not ravaged by enemies; it is brought low by the absence of integrity of its own inhabitants.  God makes the residents of Jerusalem suffer so that they will look in the mirror.”  According to the Talmud, the Second Temple was destroyed due to “sinat chinam,” hatred without cause.  In modern times, Israel’s first chief rabbi, Rav Kook, wrote in an oft-quoted passage, “If we were destroyed and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves and the world with us, with baseless love, ahavat chinam.”


Lamentations calls upon us to “search and examine our waysand turn back to the Lord.  Let us lift up our hearts with our hands to God in heaven.”  Brown’s book provides readings, meditations, and kavanot for each of the 21 days of these three weeks, texts for reflection, to help us search and examine our ways.  Perhaps one reason it is so hard to get into the spirit of these days in the narrow places, these three weeks, is that Judaism is not a religions of despair.  Even as the prophet bemoans his fate in Lamentations, he cries out, “Ulai yesh Tikvah.” Perhaps there is hope.  Yes, we are called on to search and reflect, to remember, and to mourn.  However, the sages taught that the Messiah, the Redeemer, Redemption, was born at the very moment of destruction on Tisha B’Av.


The famous poem by Naftali Herz Imber, “Tikvateinu” (Our Hope) adapted and adopted as Israel’s national anthem, HaTikvah (the Hope), responds emphatically to the denizens of the Valley of Dry Bones, in the book of Ezekiel, “Od lo avdah tikvateinu.”  In that vision, the bones cry out, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone; we are doomed.” To this we reply, “Od lo avdah tikvateinu, we have not yet lost our hope, the hope of two millennia.”  Every day we pray for redemption, for a better world.  Our prayers always end with hope, “Al kein n’kaveh, therefore we hope…”  God’s very name is ”Shalom,” peace, completion, fulfillment.  Again and again, we express that hope and speak God’s name of Shalom.


These three weeks call on us to focus on our relationship to God which was severed to a large degree with the destruction of the Holy Temple.  As we reflect and search our ways, our hope for the future grows and following the three weeks of mourning the destruction come the seven weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, seven weeks in which we turn to the final chapters of Isaiah as our haftarahs, for comfort and consolation, for hope and renewal, and ultimately finding joy and celebration as we come into a new year which, God willing, will bring health and happiness, blessing and peace to all the world.



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