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The Three Weeks

From Shivah Assar B' Tammuz to Tishah B'Av (July 15 August 5th, 2014)

    These are by far the saddest weeks in the Jewish calendar, beginning with the fast on the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz (this year falling on July 15th) and ending with the fast on the 9th of Av (August 5th), a day that Maimonides describes with an almost audible groan as "a day that was designated for punishment." Since the heady days in the Wilderness, when the Jewish people were preparing to enter their land with their Torah and their Tabernacle, these were days of national downfall.

    On the first 17th of Tammuz after the Exodus from Egypt - only forty days after the Ten Commandments were given on Mount Sinai - thousands of Jews danced around the Golden Calf, singing "this is your god, O Israel." Shortly afterward, Moses came down from the mountain with the Tablets of the Law and - upon seeing the obscene revelry around the golden idol - he smashed the Tablets to the ground. Almost eighteen centuries later, the Roman legions broke through the walls of Jerusalem, in the final push that ended with the destruction of the Temple and the end of the Second Jewish Commonwealth.

    Almost a year after the nation repented from the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses sent spies to reconnoiter the Land of Canaan. For forty days the spies circulated around the land - and came back with a demoralizing report. The land is dangerous! The Canaanites are invincible! There are giants among them! The people wept and said their children would become helpless captives. "We will die there! We should never have left Egypt - let's go back to the security of slavery!"

    G-d said, "On this night you have wept for no reason; I will make it a day of weeping for generation after generation. That night was Tishah B'Av, the 9th of Av. Indeed, it did become a time of intense grief. The First Temple and the Second Temple were both destroyed on the 9th of Av. In 1492 Spain, the 9th of Av was the deadline beyond which any Jew who had not converted to Christianity would be burned at the auto-da-fe. In 1914, World War I broke out on the 9th of Av, the war that set the stage for Europe's descent in the Holocaust, only twenty-five years later.

    These Three Weeks are a time of national mourning: no weddings, no new garments, no haircuts, avoidance of celebration and joy. The first nine days of Av, the mourning is intensified, and even the eating of meat is avoided. But as in so much of Jewish life, seeds of history are often buried in events. The Sages of the Midrash teach that Mashiach will be born on Tishah B'Av, meaning that every tragedy may well have the seeds of joy. When others wept, Rabbi Akiva laughed when he saw the shocking sight of foxes overrunning the destroyed Temple ruins. Because, he explained, if the prophecies of destruction have come to pass, surely the prophecies of redemption will be fulfilled. May we live to see his confidence borne out.

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