I find that there are at least three different groups of individuals who observe the “Three Weeks” in three different manners. There is the group that is simply annoyed, that wonders why the Temple couldn’t have been destroyed in the winter so that we could observe the Three Weeks then. Why observe it in the summer which forces us to reschedule vacations and semachot? This group will observe all the restrictions of the “Three Weeks,” but they are annoyed by them. They don’t understand that the goal of the restrictions is to engage in customs of mourning in order to help us internalize the loss of the Beit Hamikdash and the reasons for this loss.
In his Sefer Moadim BaHalacha, Rav Zevin writes that any given fast day can contain at least one of the following elements: mourning, petition, and repentance. The Three Weeks incorporates all three: mourning our national loss, petitioning God to end this loss, but also repentance, as many of the Kinot that we recite on Tisha B’Av highlight a repentant theme. This first group just observes the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law. They observe the restrictions, which is a good thing, but they miss the full “Three Weeks” experience because they do not associate any meaning to these restrictions.
A second group of people truly try to feel the loss of the Mikdash during these three weeks and the causes for its destruction. They tend to focus on the Gemarot that highlight the sins that are “bein adam lamakom.” Perhaps they focus on the Gemara in Masechet Nedarim that states that Jerusalem was destroyed because people did not recite a bracha on Torah study before learning Torah, meaning, according to the Ran, that they studied Torah as an academic subject, neglecting its spiritual connection to God. Alternatively, they might focus on the Gemara in Masechet Yoma that says that the first Mikdash was destroyed because of the three cardinal sins, including idolatry, which is a sin of not being faithful to God. They argue that during these three weeks our avodah and our efforts should be directed at repairing our relationship with God, studying and appreciating the Torah that He gave us and intensifying our efforts to concentrate during our prayers in connecting with God. In general, this group feels that what makes us distinct as Jews is our tefilla and Torah study and that these should be our focus during this time of spiritual repair.
A third group of people also truly try to feel the loss of the Mikdash during these weeks and the causes for its destruction. This group tends to focus on the Gemarot that highlight the sins that are “bein adam la’chavero.” Perhaps they focus on the Gemara in Masechet Yoma that the second Mikdash was destroyed because of baseless hatred. And their whole attitude during the “Three Weeks” is about refining their midot and trying to promote friendship, unity and positivity. In general, this group feels that Judaism ultimately makes you a better person and that if you do not have proper midot then your Judaism is essentially worthless. This group believes that refining our midot should be our focus during this time of spiritual repair.
As we know, to be a complete Torah Jew is to combine excellence in both mitzvot bein adam lamakom and mitzvot bein adam lachavero. I would argue, then, that during the “Three Weeks” we follow the dictum of Ben He He. In Avot 5:23, Ben He He tells us that “l’fum tzaara agra,” the greater the pain that we endure in the study of Torah and in the performance of mitzvot, the greater our reward will be. It is valuable for us to struggle and demonstrate perseverance and resilience with a mitzvah, rather than simply to do that which is relatively easy. Those in the second group probably generally find it easy to study Torah and to daven with kavanah, while those in the third group probably generally find it easy to be friendly to others, to give others the benefit of the doubt and to exude happiness and positivity. I think it would be great to switch your group this year. If you’re in group 2, switch to group 3 and if you’re in group 3, switch to group 2. (And if you’re in group 1, pick either group 2 or 3!) Let us sensitize ourselves to all aspects of spiritual repair that are necessary to rebuild the Mikdash. Let us not settle for the easy spiritual path. Let’s challenge ourselves during these three weeks by stepping out of our spiritual comfort zone during this time of teshuva. Attempting this can be very scary, but it can also be so exhilarating and so rewarding. At the end of this time period, we will be glad to have done so.