Beyond the Three Weeks

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

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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.

Heading Toward Yom Kippur

The two worst sins of the desert are attributed by tradition to these two days respectively: the golden-calf incident on the 17th of Tammuz and the incident of the spies [who reported that the Land of Canaan was unconquerable] on Tisha B'Av. The first incident, only 40 days after the Revelation at Sinai, shows how quickly the people forgot the Sinai experience in seeking a tangible image to worship. The second incident occurred in the second year of the Exodus. Because they believed the spies' report that they could not defeat the inhabitants of Canaan, God condemned that whole generation to die in the desert; only their children would enter the Promised Land. These rejections of God and of Eretz Yisrael can be regarded as prophetic of the later historical experience when the Jewish people were exiled from both God and the land.

The rest of Jewish history is an attempt to work our way back. According to tradition, the Israelites received final forgiveness for the golden-calf incident when Moses came down from Mount Sinai at the end of the third period of 40 days. That day was the 10th of TishreiYom Kippur.

Just as Yom Kippur brings forgiveness for the golden-calf incident of the 17th of Tammuz, so the minor holiday Tu B'Av [the fifteenth of Av](according to one tradition) brings forgiveness for the spies' incident of Tisha B'Av. It marks, in fact, the end of the 40 years of wandering [with the death of the generation that had left Egypt] and immediately precedes the entrance to the promised land. No longer abandoned in the desert, we, as part of the mythic dimension of Judaism, can end our aimless wandering and finally move onward.

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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.