On this, the seventeenth of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, we begin the period of three weeks of mourning leading up to the solemn day of Tisha B’Av that commemorates the destruction of the Temple.
This period is called Bain haMetsarim – In the Narrow Straits.
The three weeks reflect a most difficult period in the Jewish calendar. They also symbolize the times of inner struggle in our spiritual lives. This year, these two levels of meaning combine with the grave crisis taking place in the Land of Israel to make Bein haMetzarim starkly tangible and real.
Here are some suggestions for coping during the “narrow straits.”
There is a saying in Israel: “Gam ze ya’avor” — “this too shall pass.” Life is ever changing; nothing stays the same. This crisis will also come to an end. In the meanwhile, we use our intellect to combat the feeling that we are trapped in this state forever. We remain patient and persevere, going about our life as best we can.
Most of our struggles surround the needs of the ego. Our ego desires cut us off from God and our true selves. Sometimes, cornering us in the narrow straits is the only way that God can break down the barriers our ego has constructed, and turn us back to Him/Her.
If we humble ourselves, however, we can avoid this painful experience. The Hasidic Master, Dov Baer of Mezeritch, explains that God responds to us in the same manner that we act ourselves. If we are small in our own eyes, then God will also make Himself “small” and contract His infinite Being to come close to us. If we are great in our own eyes, however, then God too will be great and remain aloof in His state of Absolute Oneness, far away from us.
On Tisha B’Av we sit on the ground as an expression of humility, a reminder that we are mortal creatures formed from the dust of the earth. We do not wear jewelry or put on our tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) for morning prayers, because on Tisha B’Av we are humble souls without beauty, status or achievement praying for mercy before our Lord.
“For these things I weep; my eye, my eye runs down with water.”
Eichah (Lamentations) 1:15
“Pour out your heart like water before the face of the Lord.”
Eichah (Lamentations) 2:19
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov exhorts us to never be afraid to weep before God. Tears are our most powerful spiritual weapon. Tears open up our heart and create a humble spirit. They wash away the veil that separates us from God.
There can be no hint of falsehood or pretense in our tears. They need to be tears of sincere regret for the wrong that we have done; tears of spiritual anguish and longing.
On Tisha B’Av, we weep over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the broken state of the temple in our heart.
Strong faith is essential if we are to survive the narrow straits. There is a Divine purpose behind everything that happens. Periods of darkness are also spiritual opportunities; opportunities to find a new avenue of approach to God. They are a chance to draw on untapped inner resources and ascend further into the spiritual realm.
According to Rebbe Natan of Nemirov, this is the hidden meaning behind the custom of removing our shoes on Tisha B’Av. Feet symbolize understanding, and shoes symbolize the vessel that receives this understanding. On Tisha B’Av we admit that we do not possess a suitable vessel to comprehend what is happening — the only way forward is through faith.
The Book of Isaiah 1:27 states: “Zion will be redeemed through justice.” There is a special link between justice and redemption. If we do what is wrong, then our inner world becomes unbalanced, making it difficult for God to approach us. If we do what is right, our mind is in harmony, and God can easily draw near. This closeness protects from our internal enemies. It creates a barrier of Divine energy that prevents negative thoughts and emotions from overwhelming our heart.
Justice also plays a crucial role in the larger picture. If Israel is just, the Divine Presence will watch over and protect the nation. But if Israel acts unjustly, then God will withdraw His Divine Presence, and Israel will be left to face her enemies on her own.
Love and Goodwill
It is especially important in the narrow straits to treat others with love and kindness, to see the innate Divinity in every human being. This positive striving counteracts the negative mindset created by our struggles. It quietens the dark whisperings of our lower self.
It also opens our heart. God cannot reach us if we are angry and bitter. When we show love and goodwill to others, the light comes flooding in.
Our personal efforts need to be mirrored on the collective level. According to the tradition, the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. We heal this sin of baseless hatred by expressing unconditional love for all of Israel — by opening our hearts to the rest of humankind.
Periods of difficulty are a natural part of life. These times of crisis enable us to gain wisdom and experience. They help us to develop love and compassion. The three weeks are an opportunity to repair the imperfections in our soul and personality, to heal the wounds of our people and country — a chance to transform the narrow straits into a broad highway leading to God.