As far back as I can remember I’ve dreaded mid-summer, somewhere from mid-July to mid August in reluctant expectation of the three weeks. As a child I was never sure of the exact date on the Gregorian calendar, but I always sensed it approaching, usually confirmed 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 scrupulously 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, The Drei Vochin was tantamount to a never-ending detention: counted from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, also known as Yeme Bein Hametzarim (day of trials and tribulations). Going to overnight camp meant choosing the right session to attend. In fact there was no right time. The two options always overlapped with The Three Weeks. Preference was given to the session that didn’t include the dreaded last 9 days. Attending the session that fell into this very black period was a non-starter: it included a full day in the Beit Kenesset, fasting until it hurt, no music, no swimming and no meat or cookouts-most of the things that make camp fun. Resentment and alienation were some of the feelings I remember of those imposed days of mourning.
Beyond it being a counterproductive way of transmitting Jewish values it also spawned fallout, which impacted on the arc of Jewish history: a 2500 year delay in returning to our homeland. 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 an emotionally paralyzed people coupled with a an inferiority complex reinforced through constant persecution. It was incomprehensible for us to imagine returning to our land short of a miracle and the appearance of the Messiah.
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 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 refraining 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 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 providing us with reference and contextualizing is indispensable for understanding who and what we are.
Hundreds of years prior to the destruction of the first Temple the nation had been bifurcated; Israel, the larger half vanquished, its citizens assimilated. The remaining smaller kingdom Judah didn’t have the economic or military sustainability to thrive and was doomed. While the Second 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 corrupted, 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 unfortunately didn’t return with Ezra and Nechemia, but opted to live in Babylonia and Alexandria. The exile lasted for close to 2000 years. There were missed opportunities over those years when we could have reclaimed Israel as our homeland: we were too focused on the past, obsessed with the cruelties of history and a vision of the future was obfuscated. 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 by fear with layers of Halachic constructs resulting in a myopic vision of the future. Ironically, it took the secular Zionists of Eastern Europe the audacity to break loose from the generations of self-imposed shackles creating once again national pride and dignity.
In spite of understanding this now as an adult, I can still sense the approaching dreaded three weeks with the tune of the dirge of Lamentations in my head. While understanding that this annual mourning cycle begins anew making for my summer blues it is mitigated by having it framed within the larger context of the State of Israel.