Israel and the Three Weeks of Jewish Mourning: Hope Amid Sadness, Confidence Amid Doubt

Tisha B'Av and the Three Weeks are a focal point of catharsis after which we can -- indeed, must -- get on with our lives to continue to build, dream and create a better world.
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The Jewish attachment to the historic Land of Israel is profound and pervasive through every aspect of our religious tradition. At the same time, Jewish civilization has been profoundly affected by centuries of exile that prevented Jews from the privileges and responsibilities of sovereignty over land. Every year, in the middle of summer, the Jewish calendar bids Jews to recall the pain that exile wrought and to reflect on the kind of nation we strive to become when Jews have sovereignty over the Jewish national homeland. While some have suggested since the founding of Israel in 1948 that the mourning rites associated with the "Three Weeks" are irrelevant and should be abolished, I believe that this period of introspection provides annual rituals to reflect on the meaning of land and all that it represents to a nation.

The "Three Weeks" traditionally serve as a period to recall tragedies that have occurred over the centuries in Jewish history. This block of time begins in the middle of the summer on 17 Tammuz (July 18-19, 2011). Following Talmudic interpretation of the Bible, it was on this day that the Babylonians breached the walls of Jerusalem in B.C.E. 586, paving the way for them to destroy the city and the Holy Temple three weeks later on 9 Av (Aug. 8-9, 2011). The Romans, knowing this was already observed as a day of mourning in Israel, destroyed the second Temple on 9 Av in 70 C.E., forever searing into the consciousness of Israel that this is a day of disaster. For centuries Tisha B'Av (the Ninth of Av) has been observed as a day of fasting and communal introspection.

Over time, the mournful practices of Tisha B'Av have been extended to the days and weeks preceding Tisha B'Av. The 17th of Tammuz is traditionally observed as a fast day, and weddings and other joyous events are traditionally not scheduled during the three weeks between 17 Tammuz and 9 Av. As we turn the calendar page into the month of Av itself, many take on additional levels of mourning, in keeping with the Mishna's statement: "Whoever enters the month of Av reduces his or her joy" (Ta'anit, 4:6). Many Jews refrain from eating meat during this period as an additional mourning observance. Tisha B'Av itself is then the culmination of this most somber period of the Jewish calendar.

The late Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994) notes one of the great ironies in Jewish tradition. Despite the mournful tone set by the Jewish calendar at this time of year, the Torah readings during these three weeks deal largely with themes of promise and hope, particularly the settling and building of the Land of Israel.

The opening verse of Deuteronomy, read on the third Sabbath of the Three Weeks, sets the scene: "These are the words that Moses addressed to all of Israel b'ever ha-Yarden" -- on the other (eastern) side of the Jordan River. The Israelites have concluded their wandering in the desert and are prepared to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. The entire book of Deuteronomy is essentially a series of sermons and laws Moses addresses to the people before he dies. While many of Moses's parting words are rebukes, chastisements or curses, the underlying message is that the Israelites are about to start a new chapter. Even as Moses warns the Israelites of the consequences of going astray from God's path, they gaze upon their new homeland looking forward with high hopes for the new chapter in their lives. And yet, even as our Torah reading projects a message of hope for the future, we are marking this third Sabbath as Shabbat Hazon ("Vision"), in which the first chapter of Isaiah and the prophets vision of desolation and destruction are included in the synagogue liturgy.

The juxtaposition of hope and despair extends throughout the three weeks. In the closing portions of the Book of Numbers, we read about the apportionment of the land to the tribes, with significant text devoted to describing the borders and territories of Israel and the tribes poised to inhabit them. And yet, precisely during this season, when Jews in synagogue read in the Torah about the great promise of the Israelites building a homeland, Jewish tradition recalls the unraveling of that promise and the shattering of the dream. Prof. Leibowitz notes that the dream is fragile, and it is up to us as individuals and as a nation to make sure that we merit the fulfillment of the dream. At the same time, as the Jewish calendar bids Jews to recall the destruction of Jerusalem and other calamities in our history, the Torah readings from the end of Numbers and beginning of Deuteronomy remind the community of the promise and the hope of building and maintaining a vibrant nation in the Land of Israel. The Jewish calendar and the Torah reading cycle, therefore, offer a healthy tension -- a dialectic -- between recalling destruction and maintaining hope for the future.

The juxtaposition of the calendar and the Torah text reminds us that we should not be so distraught over difficult times that we cannot get on with our lives. At the same time, even at the peak of creativity and a thriving civilization in an ancient historic homeland, we must remind ourselves of how fragile life is so that we may work harder to establish and preserve peace among all people in the land and to safeguard the ecosystems that sustain all life in the land. Tisha B'Av is a focal point of catharsis after which we can -- indeed, must -- get on with our lives to continue to build, dream and create a better world.

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