Saturday, March 3, 2007

The Three Weeks or the Summer Blues

Ever since I could remember I dreaded mid-summer, somewhere around mid-July to mid August in reluctant expectation of the three weeks. I was never sure of the exact date on the Gregorian calendar, but I always knew, when informed by my father, that the 17th of Tammuz had arrived. For a kid, this was not a fun time. Three weeks out of the summer break was squandered on observing rules and regulations that seemed to be irrelevant to my life: Fasting, denying myself the pleasures of the summer days on the beach or pool, no movies, no music, no haircuts or buying new clothes all because of events that occurred 2500 years ago. The Three Weeks in English, but known to me as The Drei Vochin was tantamount to a never ending detention. It was a time measured from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, also known as Yeme Bein Hametzarim (day of trials and tribulations), referred to as such in reference to the passage in Lamentations 1:3 (Kol Rodfeha Hisiguha Bein Hametzarim). Going to overnight camp meant choosing the right session to attend. In fact there was no right time. My two options always coincided with The Three Weeks therefore, my final decision boiled down to which session did not include the dreaded last 9 days. Choosing the one that fell into this very black period would spell disaster, because not only did it include a full day in the Beit Kenesset and fasting until it hurt, but also the days prior to the 9th of Av meant no music, no swimming and no meat or cookouts-most of the things that make camp worthwhile..

What an awful way to spend childhood summers! What a counterproductive way to transmit Jewish values to the young in the hope of inspiring the coming generation. The negative fallout that resulted from this annual three week suffering fest contributed to delaying our return to Israel for nearly 2500 years. Judaism teaches us to celebrate life, not mourn it excessively. By obsessing annually over the loss of our Temples (and other suffering conveniently lumped into it i.e. the Spanish Inquisition), we collectively became emotionally paralyzed to the point where we weren’t able to imagine re-establishing ourselves in Jerusalem short of a miracle and the appearance of the Messiah. As a crippled people we couldn’t get beyond the obsession over our exile to the point that we found ourselves spiritually ossified and frozen in the past. Our Rabbis instructed us to pray facing Jerusalem, indicating that our thoughts were focused on the past (the glorious days of the Temple service and Priestly rites) instead of on the future which held promise- if only we had the spiritual grit to face it.

Just a brief survey of the Jewish calendar will illustrate how immersed we are in the past, dwelling on the gore of suffering instead of celebrating life. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are ten days of introspection, focusing on our shortcomings and sinful life, in self castigation and the need for Teshuvah, culminating in a day of fasting. From Passover until Lag B’Omer are thirty three days when we deny ourselves pleasures and postpone weddings in order to mark the deaths (questionable) of Rabbi Akiva’s students. From 17th of Tammuz until the 9th of Av are an additional 21 days of denial of pleasure and self flagellation and where we refrain from conjugal relations during the two respective fast days. All total there are 64 days or approximately 18% of the year when the collective psyche of the orthodox and traditionally observant Jewish community is focused on the pain and suffering of the Jewish people. This wouldn’t be so bad if it was counterbalanced by an equivalent apportionment of the Jewish calendar for the more upbeat and spiritually uplifting holidays (Even a fun loving holiday like Purim is marred with the fast of Esther).

I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t commemorate these events in a sacred format nor am I suggesting that we make light of our history. Our past is our legacy for the future. It provides us with a reference point and contextual setting for whom and what we are. I do believe, however that there is a lack of balance which has distorted a healthy Jewish perspective. If we look at the meticulously crafted Halachot regarding the Three Weeks and how ordered our lives are by our Rabbis, it is miraculous that we have been able to salvage our collective sanity. The Three Weeks, governed by a series of Halachot staged by our Rabbis begin with mild restrictions, such as no celebrations or weddings, no haircuts or music but as the 9th of Av draws closer the halachot grow more restrictive and stringent, such as no eating meat until it crescendos with the Fast of Tisha B’Av.

Tisha B’Av commemorates the loss of the two temples, which was in actuality, a dénouement to the events leading up to their respective destructions. Prior to the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. the Nation had bifurcated into two separate entities. The break off state, Israel, eventually disappeared during the 8th century. What was left was a small truncated state, Judah, that according to the prophets was becoming a wayward nation and in serious need of religious and social reform. The prophets prophesied the demise of Jerusalem and the Temple because we weren’t worthy as a people to be graced with God’s blessings. We were being punished. The second Temple period, known as the Second Commonwealth came to an ignominious ending because of the confluence of external forces, religious/political corruption and internal religious factionalism and extremism. While the Temple was destroyed physically on the 9th of Av, it had been spiritually eviscerated long before that by the Priestly caste of Sadducees. To be sure, the Temple, with all of its sacramental and Priestly rites, represented the past. The Pharisees represented the future.

The exile in 70 C.E. was traumatic, but let us not forget that the majority of Jews never returned with Ezra and Nechemia, but opted to live in Babylonia and Alexandria. The exile lasted for close to 2000 years. I believe that there were missed opportunities over those years whereby we could have reclaimed Israel as our homeland. We missed those opportunities in part, because we were too focused on the past as well as not being able to get past the cruelties of history. We were so preoccupied with our national calamities that we couldn’t see the future. In Pirke Avot our sages say “Eizahu Chacham-Haroeh at Honolad”-Who is wise-one who can see the future. We were blinded by the past, ossified and frozen into a moment by layers of Halachic constructs preventing us from seeing the future. Ironically, it took the secular Zionists who broke loose from those shackles to bring us back into the light of collective realization and national fulfillment.

While I advocate a Halachic approach, it has to be balanced so that it can present us with a positive alternative in shaping and influencing our lives. It is disturbing that there is a noticeable absence of Halachic treatment of the Holocaust by the Rabbinical Authorities. Why hasn’t the Holocaust been placed in parity with the destruction of our Temples? The 9th of Av represents the loss of our Temples and Jerusalem, but the Holocaust represents a near total destruction of the Jewish people, physically as well as spiritually. Although there is a day designated as Yom Hashoa, it hasn’t been canonized, nor are there any significant Halachot on how the day should be observed. We fast on Tisha B’Av for a Temple lost 2000 years ago with no true relevance to our lives, but we don’t mark Holocaust Day which occurred only 60 years ago, and for whom many still alive experienced it first hand.

Even now, as an adult, I still tense up when that period, signaling the mourning period approaches. Do kids today feel as I did so many years ago, when entering the mid summer meant having the Blues?