In Narrow Places: Part III

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"In the Narrow Places", by Erica Brown
06 Jul 2011
Arts & Media

Below is part three of a three-part series of excerpts from Dr. Erica Brown’s introduction to In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks

To view the first excerpt, please visit: In Narrow Places: Part I

To view the second excerpt, please visit: In Narrow Places: Part II

Dr. Brown is one of the foremost Jewish educators of our time. Through her writing, study groups and adult education classes, she is helping people rethink Jewish tradition, become inspired Jewish leaders and revitalize Judaism itself.


Marking Destruction

In our search for language to capture churban, destruction, we turn to Eicha; 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 HaMetzarim, 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 simcha – 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 – b’simcha, 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.

Learn more about the book here

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.