Introduction to In the Narrow Places

03 Jun 2011
OU Press

Below is Dr. Erica Brown’s introduction to her In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks (without footnotes or italics).

When Memory Speaks

Of all of the milestones and Holidays that are celebrated or commemorated by the Jewish calendar, no time period is more neglected than that of the “Three Weeks.” This snatch of mid-summer anxiety is virtually unknown outside of the observant Jewish community; perhaps in some far-away mental archive the term “Tisha B’Av,” the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, registers as a Jewish fast day. The broader time period – if recognized at all – is for only the “very religious.” Many other rituals, formerly regarded as limited to the domain of the intensely pious, have made their way into broader Jewish culture; even if they are not observed, they at least garner some recognition. Tisha B’Av and the Three Week period do not. Even among those who observe Tisha B’Av, many consider it an inconvenient and meaningless obligation.

Along with Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av is the most demanding of the year’s liturgy of fast days. It is the longer of the two, and possibly the harder, coming as it does during the summer months. While Yom Kippur is oriented towards both the past and the future, Tisha B’Av seems focused exclusively on the past: along with memorializing the destruction of the two Temples, it jumbles together all the tragedies of Jewish history. Yet there is an intrinsic linkage between the two days. The Day of Atonement’s repentance is personally cathartic. Tisha B’Av’s mourning is nationally cathartic. It allows us to grieve as a unit and then move on, strengthening our national identity by rebuilding from the ashes of memory. In Against Identity, Leon Wieseltier argues that “identity in bad times is not like identity in good times. The vigorous expression of identity in the face of oppression is not an exercise of narcissism, it is an exercise of heroism.” And yet, despite the benefits of such a communal enactment of history, such an implantation of identity and even heroism, the Jewish community at large has not embraced Tisha B’Av.

Why has this day and its surrounding rituals not been appreciated by the wider Jewish community? Perhaps the answer lies in a particular type of amnesia, a willed disregard for tragic history or the past. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik observed that American Jews do not always have sufficient sensitivity to Torah values to achieve spiritual depth.

Human happiness does not depend on comfort. The American Jew follows a philosophy which equates religion with making Jewish life more comfortable and convenient. It enables the Jew to have more pleasure in life. This de-emphasizes Judaism’s spiritual values.”

Comfort is the main obstruction blocking the Jewish community from contact with Tisha B’Av. Yet the selective amnesia towards the traumatic history that Tisha B’Av mourns has not influenced the pervasive impact of the Holocaust on contemporary Jewish life. Indeed, our collective memory seems to stop there: the Holocaust has replaced the history which preceded it.

Perhaps then the issue is also – what is remembered. The Holocaust is widely memorialized, with or without religious overtones, because of the death of much of European Jewry. Understandably, for many, the destruction of a building, even one as significant as the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, could never compare. But the destruction of a building is not only, or predominantly, what Tisha B’Av mourns. It mourns the loss of an aspect of our relationship with God, the loss of the God who dwells within us, of a religious center and capital city, and the destruction of all those who lived during that period.

There was a time when it was important to know the place you came from in the broadest sense, to have a master narrative of a people as a bedrock for your own values. It grounded you, and gave you direction – if you know where you come from, you arguably have a better sense of where you are going. Tisha B’Av is best observed by those who appreciate history and understand that a nation must look back if it is to look forward. Examining the vicissitudes and errors of the past helps you correct them in the future. Cicero, the renowned Roman statesman and orator, once said, “To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child.” There is an immaturity about individuals who have no grip on history. There is an immaturity about nations that have disregarded the past and only look at the present and to the future.

To be part of Western civilization today, however, is largely to act ahistorically. This does not mean that we despise history or repudiate it; it is enough to ignore it. American holidays are generally commemorated without a historical context; the rituals that are celebrated are neither deep nor transformational. They are surface sacraments that, in a multicultural society, no longer have the power and potency of a shared language of meaning or of nostalgia. Think only of Thanksgiving and the way that it is observed in America today, and you will see how this sad reality plays itself out on our national landscape. Turkey dinners and football games will hardly inspire a nation, much less a melting pot of people for whom turkey is not part of a national diet or football a national pastime. Memorial Day is not observed as a mourning period for the loss of soldiers; it is a day of barbeques, sales and public-pool openings. There is a shallowness about it all, the childishness that Cicero observed. American Jews are naturally enmeshed in the culture in which they live, and Americans, as members of a young country, do not have a long historical memory. Nor does the youthful American spirit, with its emphasis on moving forward, encourage its citizens to look backward with awe, respect, sadness and gratitude.

In addition, we live in a period that is enormously invested in happiness. Just type “books on happiness” into Amazon and see what you come up with (by my count, it’s close to 17,000). We guard our happiness closely, and do not want to mar it with sad thoughts. We fail to view suffering as a natural part of human life – living in such relative comfort as we do, suffering always takes us by surprise, as if it were an injustice. And as it is an injustice, we look for someone to blame. Sharon Salzberg, in her book Lovingkindness, points out that

we feel obliged to defend our happiness because it seems so fragile, unstable. As though our happiness needed constant protection, we deny the very possibility of suffering; we cut ourselves off from facing it in ourselves and in others because we fear that it will undermine or destroy our good fortune.

Suffering humanizes us. Ignoring suffering dehumanizes us. I don’t want to ruin my good mood by looking at that homeless person, so I turn away – and with that turning, I let go of my social responsibility to him. Attunement to suffering makes us more compassionate. It also helps us appreciate where we come from and all that it took to get us to where we are. We have to remind ourselves that we don’t diminish our happiness when we spend a day or a few weeks meditating on the tragedies of history from which we emerged. We become more grateful, holding on tightly to our blessed lives because we can.

To quote Cicero again: “History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity.” For Jews, these tidings of antiquity are not merely a charm one finds in an antique shop, something quaint, sentimental, and useless. Rather, history is one of the key connectors that enables us to discover a shared life together. And history is not only about that which we once celebrated together. History, in its most profound sense, is the joint language of pain that forms the crucible of peoplehood. In simple human terms, we know that when strangers undergo a tragedy together, they form intense and unique bonds. Something life-changing happened in the presence of another, and both parties may be transformed forever as a result. Both need each other as reminder and witness.

Tisha B’Av is precisely this reminder to us as Jews to take the time to mark difficulties, not escape from them. It is not a great sacrifice to ask people to fast once a year as a way of mourning together the persecutions, destructions and calamities of our nation. Before its renovation, inscribed above the exit of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, was a quote attributed to the Ba’al Shem Tov that communicated what loss of memory costs: “Forgetfulness leads to exile, while remembrance is the secret of redemption.” Memory is our collective glue; it brings us together, united by a common narrative of the past, a master story that advances a vision of redemption for the future. But if we forget, we are no longer anchored by our deepest values and core beliefs. Memory enables us to restate our values in the presence of each other. We are at that nexus in history when we can complete the message.

Tisha B’Av also reminds us that there is a language of pain, a way to articulate suffering. The period of the Three Weeks is captured in the prose-poetry of Jeremiah, in the wailing women of Lamentations, in the protests of Job. Our summer reading is temporarily replaced by more strenuous language that offers us the linguistic tools to speak about tragedy, to plumb its depths and encircle our hearts at the same time. Each year, we encounter these texts anew. We read them into recent news broadcasts and personal distress; we marvel at the way that these ancient voices pierce our modern reality and offer a way of understanding a world that can seem confusing and disorienting.

But Why Is It So Hard?

Even when we recognize the cognitive importance of recalling the past, we are not always capable of rising to the emotional challenge of reliving it. Instead, we often find ourselves immersed in the particularities of Jewish law, reviewing the minutiae of observance, not always as a preparation for this period but often as a distraction. If we lose ourselves in the questions of whether or not to listen to music on a radio, buy particular objects of clothing if they are discounted, or engage in instructional swimming, we may avoid the more essential task of the season: creating genuine sorrow over the incalculable loss of our Jewish spiritual center. We measure ourselves by outward displays of mourning – the unshaven beard, the unironed clothes, the limitations on external expressions of happiness – but the heart often remains untouched. The halakhic restrictions of the period help us structure our worlds to minimize joy but they cannot force sadness; they can only minimize the conditions for happiness.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel (then Palestine), underscored this emotional absence in our observance in a letter he wrote in 1913, referencing those who teach Torah:

Our most talented people concentrated for the most part on the practical aspects of the Torah, and even there only on specialized subjects. This they cultivated and made it the habituated subject of education. The emotional aspect, and more than this, the philosophical, and that which is beyond it and follows it automatically, the illumination of holiness, which bears within itself the mystery of the redemption – this they abandoned altogether.

If those who teach Torah cannot grasp the illumination of holiness, then what about those of us who learn from them? What chance do we have? Genuine grief comes not from deprivation, but from a place of reflection and contemplation on the nature and content of our common historical losses, and the spiritual anguish we experienced in their wake.

Sometimes the deprivations mandated by Jewish law loom so large as to block out the deeper content. The Three Weeks fall in the middle of summer, dampening the weather and the usual summer breeziness of outdoor activities and much-needed vacations. In the minds of many, the period of the Three Weeks becomes a spoiler. It makes demands at a time of year which is usually demand-free – if not in reality, then at least in perception: school is out, and workloads lighten. The adoption of a strict set of guidelines in the middle of this season is often thought of – if rarely articulated – as an invasion of personal enjoyment.

A friend once remarked, “I would trade Three Weeks in the summer for five weeks in the winter,” underscoring how difficult the summer season is for the expression of pain. It is hard to enforce sadness when our natural inclination is to turn our heads to the sun and feel the warmth and relief of a gorgeous summer day. Traditionally, Jews make holiday plans immediately following Tisha B’Av, as if to suggest that sadness is now officially “over and done with.” We await that day after, and through that anticipation negate the importance of the time period itself.

In addition to the pull of summer laziness and freedom, the Three Weeks cut into our modern notions of hygiene and comfort. When the laws of this period were originally created, people did not bathe with the kind of regularity to which we are accustomed. If one is a product of an era where there are few expectations of personal comfort, then refraining from regular, lengthy and hot showers or from wearing clean clothing is less of a sacrifice. Indeed, it is important to recognize that people were not accustomed to being able to control the temperature in their homes, and lived without the pampering modern conveniences that protect us from experiencing the challenging and messy elements of nature. The fact that clothes go unlaundered for nine days may have once been only a slight aberration in a medieval laundry schedule. Today, it is a remarkable deviation.

Fasting is also a challenge. Along with the wearing of sackcloth, fasting is an ancient biblical behavior that was regarded as a way to curb happiness through curbing appetite. Ideally, fasting should remove us enough from our everyday lives to help us step outside ourselves and question our actions and motivations, while not proving so much of a challenge that it gets in the way of genuine repentance and contemplation. In an age of so much food consumption, however, fasting becomes much harder. When one had scant provisions and perhaps ate only one large meal a day, fasting merely demanded a slightly greater staying power than usual. Today, it can become a distraction from our best intentions.

Indeed, the prophets attest that even in biblical times, people often forgot that fasting is but a means to an end – repentance – and made it instead an end in itself. In the words of Zechariah:

Speak to all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying, When you fasted…was it for Me that you really fasted? And when you did eat, and when you did drink, did you not eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves? (Zechariah 7:5–6)

Fasting did little to change the ancient Israelites according to this prophet and many others; it did not leave any internal marks:

And they made their hearts an adamant stone, lest they should hear the Torah, and the admonition of the prophets…And so, when He cried, and they would not hear, the Lord of hosts said: So shall they cry, and I will not hear. (Zechariah 7:12–13)

Without good intentions and real transformation, fasting fails its purpose.

The day of Tisha B’Av itself is demanding – and not only because of fasting and other physical restrictions. The liturgy of the day is obscure and esoteric. We move from Jeremiah’s eye-witness account of Jerusalem’s destruction in Eikha, the book of Lamentations, to reams of medieval acrostics that use scholarly referencing and cross-referencing to the Bible, Talmud and Midrash. Each kina (lament) poses a literary wall of obscurity. In the aggregate, we feel overwhelmed less by sadness than by incomprehension.

Many synagogues and individuals focus on a selection of the laments for this very reason. This reduces the amount of material, but not the challenge of understanding it. Quick summaries that bring simplicity to the language actually diminish the authorial intent of these kinot as literary puzzles that require intense focus and an in-depth facility with language and nuanced biblical references. One can only imagine the response of a member of the pietistic Kalonymus family, from which many of our Tisha B’Av supplications originate, if he were sitting in a synagogue today as his words were introduced and summarized in a sentence or two, then recited quickly by individual congregants. “But how could you miss the acrostic? The word-play? The reference to Job, and to Lamentations? You jumped over the chiasms and subtleties without pausing, even for a moment.” Those who have studied even one kina with a detailed line-by-line exegesis, will no doubt appreciate that any thorough approach would require weeks of comprehensive study. Instead, we find synagogues littered with people on the floor, bent over their canvas shoes, with their lips moving and their eyes blankly glazed with intellectual dismay. It is the look of being lost, not of being emotionally engaged.

We wait for a kina that describes an event we recognize, or one that uses language familiar to us, or a tune that overcomes the difficulty of the words by joining us in the outward form of a haunting melody. One of the last kinot, now included by many, marks the Holocaust, and it usually induces a deeper level of involvement because it marks an event closer in time. I recall once being in a synagogue where congregants took turns leading the recitation of kinot. The older man who began the Holocaust kina suddenly stuttered on the first words and began to cry. Trying but unable to catch himself, he finally said, “Rabbi, pick someone else to read. I can’t do it.” The rabbi responded, “Better we should have someone read it who has less feeling? We’ll wait.” And we did. I have never heard this prayer more movingly read. Mostly, however, these prayers seem to present a thick fog of language that, because of our lack of understanding, blocks rather than enhances the path to reliving tragedy.

We have never experienced Jewish life with the Temple, the Mikdash. How then can we know what we are missing? To express this more boldly and radically, there are many very religious individuals who secretly harbor anxiety over the very possibility that a third Temple would be rebuilt. Between the notion of animal sacrifices and the denominationalism whose fissures are dividing us, we privately fear what life with a Mikdash would be like. We might find ourselves wondering about the smell of blood, the cost of membership and maintenance, the usher at the door ensuring that we are sufficiently pure to enter Temple precincts. Everything about it seems either a projection of current synagogue life on a bigger scale, or an anachronistic forcing of the past unrealistically onto the future.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein discusses the emotional and intellectual challenges presented by Tisha B’Av in one of his teshuvot, responsum. He was asked about children and their observance of mourning, and explains why children have to observe the laws of Tisha B’Av despite its myriad cognitive challenges. He writes that while children lack the capacity to suffer a loss they have not experienced, we must understand that every year that the Beit HaMikdash is not rebuilt is the equivalent of a year when it has been destroyed. If such is our annual reality, then children are obliged to experience this loss again and again in order to mature into it. If the intention of the season is to pay respects to the Beit HaMikdash, then it is essential to understand that it was a central feature of our past and without it, many mitzvot cannot be observed today. Tisha B’Av then becomes an important educational opportunity. What is true for children is all the more true for adults who should have the imaginative capacity to recreate a lost spiritual universe.

Tisha B’Av asks something difficult of us: can we mourn that which we have never personally experienced? The Talmud illustrates this imaginative capacity with a story about Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai, a second-century tanna from the Galilee.

Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav: This was the practice of Rabbi Yehuda son of Ilai. On Tisha B’Av eve they would bring him bread dipped in salt and he would sit between the oven and the furnace and eat. He drank a flask of water along with his bread and his appearance was that of one whose deceased relative lies before him. (Ta’anit 30a)

Rabbi Yehuda personalized his grief and made it real. He sat in a lowly place where he could see flames, and he wore the garments of mourning and ate the food of mourners and thus, became a mourner.

Even God, in the Talmud, has the capacity to embody the grief of humans as an empathetic response:

Rabbi Meir said: When a person is tormented, in what manner does the Divine Presence express itself? “My head is very heavy and aching, My arms are heavy and aching.” If this is the pained response of the Almighty when the blood of the wicked is spilt, is it not even more greatly anguished when the blood of the righteous is spilt? (Sanhedrin 46a)

God’s head and arms ache from grief. It is a challenge to recreate history and feel the emotions of others, but if God can do it, then acting in the image of God, so must we.

We are called upon to relive history repeatedly throughout the year. We tell the story of our exodus as if it happened yesterday, and we are the victors. We sit in sukkot to relive the trials and triumphs of our ancestors. We weep at our loss as if we sat in Jerusalem and watched the flames ourselves. In the words of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, “It is not ancient history; it is a contemporary experience. This is the approach of the Jew to all of our history and its recollections in all of our festivals.”

Our generation has an additional challenge in relating to this saddest day of the Jewish year. There is a modern State of Israel where the three-thousand-year-old city of Jerusalem is a crown of architectural beauty, not a place of ruin. The prayer that the Shulĥan Arukh asks of us when we see Jerusalem in a state of destruction has every place in the Tisha B’Av liturgy – until you actually find yourself reciting Eikha in Jerusalem’s Old City. There can be no arguing that Israel is still vulnerable and its security still a cause for constant concern, but few can deny the paradox that so many lines in Eikha present. The book’s very opening seems a contradiction to the Jerusalem that we know:

How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people!
How is she become like a widow!
She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces,
How is she become a vassal!
She weeps sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks:
Among all her lovers she has none to comfort her…
(Lamentations 1:1–2)

Today we do stand to comfort her, thousands of people of all ages, from the full spectrum of religious expression, residents and tourists, gathered within her walls and outside of them. She is hardly a lonely city. She is a city bustling with people. And yet, the remains of the Temple consist of only one standing outer wall that has become the focus of Jewish prayer the world over. We still have a burning need to understand the scale of the Mikdash’s dimensions and to imagine it and rebuild it to its former state of glory. We do not know what it is like to have the Temple as our spiritual focus. We have lost the connection to God, to the altar of forgiveness and thanksgiving that was achievable only within its walls.

There are those who – to experience the day of Tisha B’Av – force themselves to contemporize it. In addition to the traditional prayers of the period, they read testimonies of Israeli soldiers in captivity or accounts of Holocaust survivors; they watch documentaries of painful periods of Jewish history. They try hard to overcome the psychological dissonance by emotionally generating feelings that are related in kind, and possibly degree, to that for which we mourn. Strictly speaking, these too are distractions. Meaningful distractions are still distractions. They do not have the Mikdash at their core, and it is the Temple’s existence that is the primary focus of our avelut, our mourning. Everything else is of only secondary or tertiary importance, coming in the wake of the Temple’s destruction. Focusing on other tragedies may help achieve the same emotional outcome but is missing the point. It is the equivalent of a child who loses a parent but does not feel the requisite emotions; because he knows he should feel and look sad, he thinks of the loss of something else. He may be genuinely despondent but no one could claim, least of all him, that he is mourning a parent.

The words of Eikha make the primary focus unmistakable.

Judah is gone into exile because of affliction, and because of great servitude…
The ways of Zion do mourn, because none come to the solemn assembly:
all her gates are desolate: her priests sigh…(Lam. 1:3–4)

The city is empty; the roads are deserted. The priests are despondent. The texts of the day help us visualize the loss. The book of Jeremiah also demands that when we look at the destruction of the Temple, we meditate on our own accountability for these tragedies and do not merely place them at the feet of our enemies.

In those days, and in that time, says the Lord, the children of Israel shall come, they and the children of Judah together, going and weeping: they shall go, and seek the Lord their God. They shall ask the way to Zion with their faces towards it, saying, Come, and let us join ourselves to the Lord in a perpetual covenant that shall not be forgotten. (Jeremiah 50:4–5)

These few verses from Jeremiah give us a quick sweep of history – the tears and the reconciliation, the hiding and the seeking, the loss of face and the change of facial direction toward Zion. Ultimately, Jeremiah prophesies, we will form an unbreakable attachment, entering a covenant that will never be forgotten. Attachment always precedes covenant. The emotion creates the bond, and the covenant seals the bond in perpetuity.

During the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Av, we do not only bemoan a recurring past. We also stand in a spiritually secure place, in the presence of community, and ask ourselves the existential questions that every individual and community must ask. And when we sit on the floor and follow the haunting melody of Eikha, we pause at the second-to-last verse. It is read by the congregation as a whole, and then repeated again at the conclusion: “Turn us to You, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old” (Lam. 5:21). We close with a plea – take us back. Reconcile. Bring us to the love and longing that we once had, as individuals to our God, as a nation to our sacred spaces, and as a people to our land, Zion.

Allowing Memory to Speak

Jews are beings of memory. Thus far, we have spoken only of the importance of reliving history. But something more intimate beckons. Within each of us is held a long personal and communal history dating back to the days of Abraham. Each step we take is over four thousand years old. It is hard to move in that vast, complex universe without a sense of how history informs our very identity. Job once asked, “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” (28:12). The wisdom and understanding that Job seeks lie in a combination of memory and mystery. We are because we remember. We build a future based on a web of patterns and behaviors generated over centuries. Yet in our history there are inexplicable gaps, miracles of survival and stories of unfathomable pain that are difficult to believe. That is why memory is so central to the Jewish experience. No one would believe us if we were not witnesses to our own past.

There is no real word in Hebrew for history, only for memory: zakhor. As Yosef Yerushalmi reminds us:

Memory is always problematic, usually deceptive, sometimes treacherous…we ourselves are periodically aware that memory is among the most fragile and capricious of our faculties.

Memory implies something far more personal than history; it is the living presence of a people’s triumphs and despairs that we carry with us internally wherever we are, not a historic catalogue of activities listed in some other, distant, impersonal space. Elie Wiesel once said, “Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember I have the duty to reject despair” (Nobel Lecture, 11 December 1986). Jewish history is a story of the impossible. Carried within each of us is the touchstone of the impossible when we face despair. We can overcome. We have overcome. When we review our past, we reject despair because we can sum it up in one word: hope.

At no time in the Jewish calendar is this better expressed than on Tisha B’Av. To personalize this tragedy, we refer to the specific acts of destruction as Ĥurban HaBayit, the destruction of the House. The Beit HaMikdash becomes, in our vast collective memory, the loss of the ultimate House, the joint, cherished space that once defined our relationship with God, that shaped the habits and particulars of religious life for centuries and that provided us with a spiritual center, no matter where we were located. The Mikdash was not only the location of our divine stirrings and our loftiest aspirations, it also mirrored the very way we speak of God. God is HaMakom, the Place, the nexus of space and time precisely because God transcends both, but we do not. We are limited, finite, situated. As a result, the Mikdash becomes a critical address for finding the Makom. Yet it is near impossible to mourn a loss if we have little sense of what we are mourning. What is the significance of the Temple, the Mikdash, such that its loss stirs our grief?

God’s House

In the very physical, situated state of being human, we choose to refer to the Mikdash as a home, the repository of intimate love, as we read in Psalms: “Lord, I love the habitation of Your house, and the place where Your glory dwells. (Psalms 26:8). Calling it the House is not calling it a synagogue; a house escapes the institutionalization implied by a building. It creates an image of warmth and invitation. It welcomes us to enter the personal space of the Other, with all of its subterranean complexities: “For My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” says Isaiah of God’s expansiveness (Isaiah 56:7). All who enter are invited to be “joyful in My house of prayer” (ibid.). This locus of international petition and supplication is not denied to anyone who chooses to make the Mikdash a platform for his or her sincerest offerings.

Before there was a Mikdash there was a Mishkan; a portable dwelling before there was a permanent home. Its creation became the group project of our fledging nation; all were to contribute their resources and talents. It was built in the wilderness where material objects are scarce and where God is generally to be found in nature rather than in a tented, purpose-built dwelling. Yet God states through the agency of Moses: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). Commentators on this famous verse are quick to point out the misalignment of subject and predicate. It should say, “Make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell in it.” Instead, we find an alternative understanding of what it means to bring God down from the heavens to an earthly abode. Build a house so that God can live in you. The very attempt to create a place for the Shekhina, the Divine Presence, will help you transcend any human notion of place, and bring you closer to the Holy One.

Timing is everything when you build a house. If we look at a large swath of Exodus, we encounter a pattern made familiar to us through the words of the philosopher Martin Buber. Buber’s famous I–Thou relationship is manifest in the tribulations of God and the ancient Israelites. In Egypt, Israelite slavery distanced our people from the integrity and dignity of faith. Slowly, over the period of the plagues, Moses removed the Israelites from the Egyptians’ mindset, and helped them appreciate the power and goodness of the One God in a country immersed in the I–It orientation of pagan worship, where gods and people become objects. Yet when the people arrived at Sinai, they encountered a God whose voice was so fear-inducing that they requested that the commandments be delivered solely through the agency of Moses. Set to the backdrop of lightning, thunder, smoke and the increasingly loud sound of the shofar, the scene was overwhelming; warnings to back away from the Mount on pain of death augmented the awe and fearfulness of the encounter. Moses feared nothing, but the people feared everything and held themselves back: “And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:18). All in all, God appears as everything, as the people shrink into nothing.

Seen in this context, it should be no surprise that in Exodus 32, only a dozen chapters after the revelation at Mount Sinai, the Israelites built a golden calf. Feeling that God was everything and they were nothing, they were now bent on reversing the terms – another manifestation of the I–It relationship, a confrontation of needs and wants rather than authentic relationship.

Only with Moses’ request for forgiveness and the building of the Mishkan is there the beginning of genuine intimacy, an I–Thou encounter. And when the Mishkan is completed, we read that “the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34), and with that Presence, there was no room left for human labor or human presence. “And Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud rested on it, and the Presence of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (40:35). But a Tent of Meeting is only useful if those who occupy it can meet the Other. Thus begins the book of Leviticus, devoted to the details of worship in the Mishkan, “And the Lord called to Moses and spoke to him out of the Tent of Meeting…” (Leviticus 1:1). God did fill the Mishkan but then, in what the mystics would call tzimtzum, divine contraction, He created a place for humans in His House, a true meeting place, a location for the I–Thou.

This spiritual center was a necessary anchor at a time of ambivalence, anxiety and loss of direction that our ancestors experienced in the wilderness. In Numbers, we find that the reconstruction of the Mishkan in each location had to be duplicated with precision; wherever the Israelites encamped, the Mishkan had to be built exactly as it was built the very first time. True to its metaphoric role as the camp’s center, it was also in the literal center of the camp, with attendant priests and Levites representing the first tiers to encamp around it, flanked by the rest of the tribes. When it came time to move, the Mishkan was first to be taken apart; and when it came time to set up camp, the Mishkan was first to be put up. Its movement signaled the movement of the entire camp: “When the Tabernacle sets forward, the Levites shall take it down; and when the Tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up” (Numbers 1:51). Between the surety of slavery and the anticipation of homeland, we had only one center that offered us security at a time of insecurity: God’s portable House.

Much later, when we reached our homeland and secured our borders, King David initiates the building of the Mikdash precisely after reflecting on the human need for shelter:

When the king was settled in his palace and the Lord had granted him safety from all the enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan: ‘Here I am dwelling in a house of cedar, while the Ark of the Lord abides in a tent!’” (ii Samuel 7:1–2)

Consumed with guilt that he lived in a home while God “lived” in a tent, David wanted to build the Ark a permanent home where the beauty of its contents would be matched by its aesthetic covering, not by flimsy cloth walls. When the Mikdash was finally completed by David’s son Solomon, the new king offered his benediction by exploring the contradictory notion of place in the constellation of holiness:

O Lord, God of Israel, in the heavens above and in the earth below there is no god like You…But will God really dwell on earth? Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built…May Your eyes be open day and night toward this House, toward the place of which You have said: My name shall abide there…give heed in Your heavenly abode, give heed and pardon. (I Kings 8:23–30)

King Solomon opened this new chapter in the life of our people by reflecting on the irony of containing God in a dwelling, a house, when God can never be limited by human dimensions of space. We are human. These limitations are all we understand.

Thus, the loss of this ultimate House, Hurban HaBayit, can only be understood through the loss of its microcosm, our own homes. Imagine a fire sweeping through every room of your house, taking with it in its destructive path the family portraits, the dinner table that served up so many intimate memories, the stores of souvenirs, objects and furniture that make up a life. In our sentimental moments, each nook and corner holds reservoirs of meaning. Who am I if I no longer have a home? Often when people are moving and look at the contents of their homes boxed up in cartons, their houses stripped of personal identifying markers, they experience the existential dizziness of dislocation. Imagine now that we undergo this as an entire people. We don’t know who we are when our center is removed.

Contemporary novelist Nicole Krauss beautifully captures this fundamental national loss through the nostalgia of one of her characters:

Two thousand years have passed, my father used to tell me, and now every Jewish soul is built around the house that burned in that fire, so vast that we can, each one of us, only recall the tiniest fragment: a pattern on the wall, a knot in the wood of a door, a memory of how light fell across the floor. But if every Jewish memory were put together, every last holy fragment joined up as one, the House would be built again…or rather a memory of the House so perfect that it would be, in essence, the original itself. Perhaps that is what they mean when they speak of the Messiah: a perfect assemblage of the infinite parts of the Jewish memory.

But we are far, so far, from having the safety of that perfect memory. God’s world, not only ours, contracted in the ashes of destruction. The God who has dominion over all, lost a touch-point to humanity.

This shrinking of the sacred is what we mourn. The collapse of beauty, the sudden inwardness of our tradition, the move from the altar to the mind as the focus of Jewish life, all of these were sacrificed in much the same way that the Mikdash once functioned to hold our guilt- and thanksgiving-offerings. We mourn a Judaism we never knew, one we can only imagine – the sights and smells, the bustle of pilgrimage, the relief of expiation, the reunion of families, the ingathering of people around a shared dream. We give a metaphoric nod in that direction when we pray: post-destruction, the Mishna canonized the original dream by instructing that we pray only in the direction of the Mikdash. The tractate of Berakhot (4:6) advises us to turn our hearts to the chamber of the Holy of Holies, and the Tosefta there (3:15) follows with its mandate to pray in the direction of Jerusalem and the Temple from wherever we are in the world. The Temple in its absence can only receive the vibrations of our once national heart, directed in totality to a spot where few Jews can set foot today.

Marking Destruction

In our search for language to capture Ĥurban, destruction, we turn to Eikha; there we find the expression that has become eponymous with this time period of mourning: “Judah has gone into exile because of misery and harsh oppression; when she settled among the nations, she found no rest; all her pursuers overtook her in the narrow places” (1:3). The period of the Three Weeks, which spans the time from the initial siege of ancient Jerusalem to the destruction of the city and its Temple, is called “the narrow places” or Bein HaMitzarim, after this early verse from the book of Lamentations. Others translate the expression as “between the narrow straits,” indicating the vulnerable place between two pieces of land that connotes desolation, exposure, and intractability. These narrow spaces must be passed through to get from one place to another but are rarely regarded as stopping grounds. They signify exile and banishment, a place that is neither here nor there, an area almost absent of its own identity. The narrowness in the rabbinic mind, however, is not of space but of time.

In order to return us to this period of time in the imagination, the sages of the Talmud established a number of laws to frame and recreate the experience of tragedy. Just as mourning over a person is ritually divided into different grieving periods – the time before burial, the day of the burial, the week after burial, the month after burial, the year of mourning and then the annual marking of the death – so, too, does Jewish law divide national mourning into different grieving segments. It begins with the 17th of Tammuz, Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, midway into the Hebrew month of Tammuz, which is the initial fast that ushers in the period. It is a minor fast, a fast which begins in the morning rather than the night before.

The first mention of this fast is in the book of Zechariah 8:19. It appears as one of a series of fast days marking tragedy which, in the messianic era, will be transformed to joyous celebrations. Officially, it is the opening of the season of mourning because the siege of Jerusalem’s walls during Bayit Sheni, the Second Temple, began on this day. But the Talmudic sages identified an additional four tragedies that happened on this day: Moses broke the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments, an idol was erected in the Temple’s inner sanctum, the twice-daily sacrifice offered on the Temple’s altar was discontinued, and a Roman military leader, Apostomus, burned a Torah scroll.

The fact that all of these tragedies befell the Jewish people during the same annual period is religiously significant. Certain days or seasons are dangerous or inopportune. We often avoid difficult days on the calendar or fear their impending approach not because we are certain that they will prove difficult in the future, but because they were troublesome in the past. Such anniversaries of doom fill us with anxiety. On the recurring day of the calendar that marks the loss of a loved one, a near-fatal accident, or the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, we may intentionally choose not to do something joyous because it may feel like a betrayal of the past or a personal insult to the person we lost. That is not superstitious; it is a respect for the passage of time and the events that color it.

The Three Weeks are no exception. We enter a somber frame of mind. Jewish law frowns upon engagement in risky behavior during the Nine Days before Tisha B’Av, and even more so during the week in which Tisha B’Av falls, because history did not look kindly at the Jews at this hour. Some people avoid activities that they personally deem dangerous.

Naturally, at such a somber time, joyous functions are avoided. Public celebrations, parties and other festive activities are not scheduled in these weeks. Weddings are not held. Attendance at live concerts is prohibited. New homes are not purchased; new clothing is not bought. Many people do not listen to music that may make them light-hearted and happy. As in the mourning for the passing of a relative, men generally refrain from shaving, and both men and women do not cut their hair. In the same vein, during the Nine Days, as the fast day approaches, people customarily do not launder or iron clothing unless it is particularly soiled and needs to be washed immediately. In commemoration of the lost Temple sacrifices, we also refrain from eating meat. Certain Sephardic practices limit these restrictions to the actual week in which Tisha B’Av occurs.

Altogether, these practices impinge very little on the larger experience of life. Rather, they are meant to punctuate the mundane aspects of daily living: what we wear, how we eat, who we are with and why. Cleanliness, freshness, satiation and newness are all minimized in some fashion to help us achieve the demanding mood of the season, the sense of loss.

The prohibition of “newness” itself requires exploration. Judaism celebrates newness and wonder. The blessing of Sheheĥeyanu hails significant new points in time, or the acquisition of a new item. Because the recitation of this blessing marks some element of renewal and joy, we usually refrain from any activity or significant purchase which would engender happiness and necessitate the blessing during the Three Weeks. For example, we do not eat new fruit (fruit that has not been tasted for more than thirty days), nor buy or wear new clothing. We avoid large purchases and home renovations. These projects all signal anticipation and positive change. Our spiritual task for this small clutch of time is to be more moderate in our expression of happiness.

The Talmud says that just as we are to increase our happiness – our simĥa – in the month of Adar in which Purim falls, we are to minimize our happiness when Av begins. There is a Hasidic rendering of this expression, attributed to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, which reinterprets the Talmudic maxim: “Mi shenikhnas Av, mematim – besimĥa, As Av approaches, we minimize – with happiness.” The simple placement of a pause, a break, changes the entire reading. We minimize the self, but even that we do with joy.

While all of the behaviors mandated by the Talmud temper joy, they also help us understand the definition of joy from a Jewish legal perspective. Happiness is not only or primarily measured by material success, personal achievement or status; it is found in the small acts of beauty and compassion that comprise a life. Today, in a time of such consumer excess, it is hard to get excited over the purchase of a suit or a dress, the tasting of an exotic fruit after a month or two without one, or the sound of live music heard in the company of friends. Our sense of wonder has been lost. But this period reminds us that these small pleasures in the aggregate are the measure of life’s happiness, the mosaic of pleasure that buoys us day in and day out. Perhaps we only appreciate the wonder in their absence.

The Price of Destruction

With every loss of sacred space comes a narrowing of identity. With the loss of the Beit HaMikdash we became less of who we were and who we wanted to be. Tragedy has that impact. Along with the destruction of buildings and the death of human beings, the Three Weeks mark changes in the existential psyche of the Jewish people. The destruction of Jerusalem and its sanctuaried centerpiece gave rise to an alternate route to God – sacred study. This relatively new and intensified spiritual occupation arose because one sage, Rabbi Yoĥanan ben Zakkai, escaped Jerusalem’s walls through a ruse and asked the newly declared Roman emperor, Vespasian: “Give me Yavne and its scholars.” He took a religious risk, and gave up the larger dream of saving Jerusalem for a more-likely-to-be-granted boon of an insignificant town not very far away. There he hoped that he and a small group of surviving rabbis could move the spiritual center of Judaism temporarily away from Jerusalem and its Temple practices. He reluctantly forfeited priests for rabbis, altars for Jewish law and pilgrimages of the body for journeys of the mind. Consequently, he dramatically changed the Jewish present and future.

The preeminence of learning in this new mode of Pharisaic existence required a marketing plan and salesman, to speak prosaically; it was difficult to forego the tangible benefits of Temple service, the atonement and celebration through sacrifice, for the more abstract and ethereal benefits of study. One scholar in the Talmudic sea remarked that “Since the Temple was destroyed, all God has in this universe is four cubits of Jewish law” (Berakhot 8a). This measurement is a standard rabbinic measurement demarcating personal space. It is virtually impossible to conceptualize the fact that once the majestic Temple was gone, God went from possessing a universe, to “owning” only the equivalent of six feet of a study hall. Again, the experience of exile and destruction changed us. It narrowed us. It even narrowed our perception of God’s space in our world.

It is easy, therefore, to understand Jewish mourning centuries earlier. In the book of Jeremiah, we find multiple verses that communicate physical anguish. Israel is regarded as a slave who is continually exposed to violence: “Lions have roared over him, have raised their cries. They have made his land a waste. His cities desolate, without inhabitants” (Jeremiah 2:15). In addition to the external pressures of enemies is the pressing question of internal worthiness. Did we deserve a sacred space for the Divine Presence? Was the destruction of Jerusalem a statement of distance between God and the Jewish people? Did we create a loving environment toward God and others that would make the Mikdash capable of offering redemption? These questions haunt Jeremiah:

Roam the streets of Jerusalem. Search its squares. Look about and take note; you will not find a man. There is none who acts justly, who seeks integrity that I should pardon her…Oh Lord, Your eyes look for integrity. You have struck them, but they sensed no pain. (Jeremiah 5:1–3)

Jeremiah’s Jerusalem is not ravaged by enemies; it is brought low by the absence of integrity of its own inhabitants. God makes the residents of Jerusalem suffer so that they will look in the mirror, but they do not heed the divine moral signal. The wake-up alarm does not work. There is no self-awareness, just an intensification of sin until it inures people to the cause of their own misfortune. It is not coincidental that Eikha also offers this sage advice: “Let us search and try our ways, and turn back to the Lord. Let us lift up our hearts with our hands to God in the heavens” (Lam. 3:40–41). The tender image of post-Temple sacrifice is to take one’s own heart and offer it in one’s hands.

In the middle of Eikha, the tone changes. Jeremiah does not lash out at the enemy as much as ask his own followers to give heed, to pay attention to their own actions. Most of all, he advises them to be patient and to create a route to redemption through self-knowledge:

The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul that seeks Him. It is good that a man should quietly hope for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone and keep silence, because he has taken it upon him. Let him put his mouth in the dust; perhaps there may be hope. (Ibid. 3:25–28)

The biblical text stresses waiting, patience and isolation. Waiting is an inherent part of the redemptive process. We err and then pick ourselves up and stumble again. We wait for God to help us. In isolation, we have the quiet and the absence of distraction so that we may face ourselves in our dark hours. If we are patient and able to put our mouths to the dust metaphorically, then there is hope that we will have the humility and honesty to confront adversity and to learn from it.

This Book

This book provides a short essay for each day of the Three Weeks, to help us understand what we lost so that we can mourn with greater feeling. Most of the essays have their basis in biblical texts read on the Sabbaths and fast days of the season rather than in texts with a halakhic orientation. Some use the book of Eikha or the kinot as a starting point, others a piece of aggada (rabbinic legends and parables). Jeremiah and Isaiah feature prominently throughout as the prophets of doom and consolation: their texts are central to the season. Most, if not all, of the essays focus on our relationship to God, largely because the Mikdash was one important avenue to reaching the Shekhina or Divine Presence, a connection we now profoundly miss. Many Jews today, even committed, observant Jews, do not engage in God-talk. Perhaps these essays will help us along in these conversations.

Each essay is followed by a Kavana, a specific spiritual focus for the day that involves reflection, imagination or action to integrate the learning. These weeks, somber as they are, present an exciting and important time for personal growth and introspection. As Eikha itself teaches: “Let us search and examine our ways, and turn back to the Lord” (3:40).

And, as is the Jewish way, the twenty-one pieces on the Three Weeks, and the essay for Tisha B’Av, are concluded with a final message of hope and rebuilding for the day after Tisha B’Av. As Jews, we never dwell on the persecutions of the past without opening our arms wide to the promise of the future. Rabbi Soloveitchik once questioned the implications of a midrash on Genesis 1 that states that God created worlds and obliterated them before arriving at our story of creation. He answered that “A Jew has to know how to emulate God, and, like God, to continue to create even after his former world has been eradicated.” It is that persistent sense of hope and recreation despite suffering and destruction that gives us the strength to remember and to transform memory into action, misery into repentance, and desolation into redemption.
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