Beyond the Three Weeks

The month of Av brings with it forgiveness similar to the experience of Yom Kippur.

Print this page Print this page

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.

beyond the three weeksOne 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.]

The air is filled with a sense of loss and abandonment: the people abandoned by God, God abandoned by His people, each longing for the other, each eager to renew the covenant of Shavuot, the trust of that night of the Exodus when we faithfully went off into the desert with only God to sustain us. No rain, no sustenance, no wave offerings, no joy. Illusions or ideals seem to have melted under the fiery rays, of the summer sun with no sheltering wings to protect us.

Tisha B'Av [the ninth of Av]erases the last innocence and brings home the difficulty of living by the covenant, for the covenant means being chosen for strife, anger, and even destruction and persecution, as well as love. No longer a mountain suspended over our heads (as at Sinai), nor as yet a sukkah of our own construction, we cringe in the heat of the day, and even find solace in the blackness of three long weeks of night and nightmare. We sit as mourners on Tisha B'Av, first remembering and then bewailing what could have been.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.