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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary (HarperCollins Publishers Inc.).
At first glance, this part of the festival cycle seems out of step with the cycle of our personal lives. For most of us, summer is a time of ease and enjoyment of the outdoors. The natural cycle is marked by the continued growth of spring plantings. But our history, with its mythic dimensions, forcefully reminds us that there can be another kind of summer, one whose heat is a consuming furnace rather than beneficent warmth.
Anyone who has spent a summer in Israel can more easily understand how the Three Weeks is in fact in consonance with the natural cycle. There the afternoon sun seems to bleach all the color from the landscape. Movement slows or comes to a halt in the afternoon—for even if the sun is no hotter than in the United States, it seems to beat down unrelentingly on the land’s inhabitants.
One can easily become parched and debilitated just from spending a few hours outdoors. No longer are the prevalent colors the greens of spring that decorated the synagogue on Shavuot; rather, the colors are a blazing white of sun on stone and the contrasting deep blacks of shade. Thus in Israel it is easy to call up images of a burning temple and a desolate land.
The 17th of Tammuz & the Golden Calf
This aura of desolation reflects the fall from the heady moments of Egypt and Sinai. No sooner is the unique experience of the revelation at Sinai over [on the holiday of Shavuot] than Moses and God disappear for 40 days. Feeling lost, the people turn to a golden calf (on the 17th of Tammuz). [The sin of the golden calf is ascribed by tradition, if not historical scholars, to the 17th of Tammuz.]
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