Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Monday, July 12, 2010

Walk Article


Tisha B'av-5770

Rabbi David Walk


            We Jews refer to trouble as tzoros (or in Modern Hebrew:  tzarot).  This great word and passionate term literally means narrow straits or being stuck between a rock and a hard place. The origin of this usage, I believe comes from the book of Lamentations:  Judah has gone into captivity, under affliction and hard servitude; she dwells among the nations, she finds no rest; all her persecutors overtake her in dire straits 1:3).  The last phrase 'dire straights,' is bein hametzarim in Hebrew.  This expression which can be translated as nowhere to turn (New Living Translation), between a rock and a hard place (The Amplified Bible), midst of her distress (Rosenfeld Kinot) or simply narrows places (JPS).  However the root of metzarim is tzar or narrow.  So, the Yiddish tzoros means narrows a space with no room to maneuver, no options.  We're in trouble when we've run out of choices.  We don't know with certainty what the prophet Yirmiyahu meant when he wrote this verse, but the Midrash on the book of Lamentations (probably from the sixth century of the Common Era) explains that the verse describes the three week period between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B'av.  I'd like to try to explain why this name for that time period makes sense.

            Nowadays there are a lot of customs associated with these 21 days, but it wasn't always like that.  Today we don't have weddings, parties or feasts.  It is a widespread practice to refrain from listening to music, but that may only be live music, some say only musical instruments, while others say it's a problem listening with others (I'm listening to Rimsky-Korsakoff's Scheherazade as I'm writing this).   However when you check the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Arech, Orach Chaim, 551) you find very little about these three weeks.  It seems that Rav Yosef Karo (1488-1575), recording the Sephardic customs ignored all signs of mourning until the month of Av began.  This follows the famous statement in tractate Ta'anit (27a):  When the month of Av begins, we decrease our joy.  But the Rema (Reb Moshe Isserles, 1520-1572), who added the Ashkenazic customs to the Shulchan Aruch, notes that certain mourning practices begin at the fast of the 17th of Tammuz. 

            Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (the Rav, 1903-1993) explained these three weeks in a most beautiful manner back in the 70's.  He described how the mourning associated with the Three Weeks and culminating in the day of national tragedy, the anniversary of the destructions of both Holy Temples, Tisha B'av is a reversal of the practices of a child mourning a parent.  With a parent the mourning gets successively more lenient, as we move away from this fresh event.  The Three Weeks, on the other hand, are a pedagogic device by our Sages to prepare us for the proper attitude on Tisha B'av by increasing the levels of mourning.  We slowly build up a crescendo of sadness concluding in a cathartic Tisha B'av.  He calls these two phenomena New Mourning and Old Mourning.  He then goes on to compare the reading of the Kinot (elegies) on Tisha B'av with recitation of the Haggada at our Pesach Seders.  They both attempt to get us to relive historical events.  This is a Jewish philosophy of History, an ethic of memory.  He calls this a unative time experience, because the past is still with us.  Otherwise it would be absurd to mourn events in antiquity.

            This idea is beautiful and is especially attractive to those of us who love the study of history.  But there are a couple of flies in the ointment.  The phrase about diminishing our joy in the month of Av doesn't compare this month to the month of Pesach, Nissan.  It contrasts Av to Adar the month of Purim, the day of joy, happiness, light and honor (Esther 8:16).  There's one more point that initially appears to be a problem, but can provide a solution to the problem.  When you look at the customs of this period there seem to be two different lists.  One set of practices forbids joy; the other grouping prohibits risks.  We are told to diminish business contacts, especially with non-Jews.  We are exhorted to postpone court appearances until after this period.  Finally, we are told to be more careful about potentially dangerous activities, like going out in the midday sun or hitting children and students.  There are apparently two schools of thought, which can be viewed as either conflicting or complementary.  The Rav decide to ignore the other team, but I think we can learn a lot from analyzing their intent. 

            The authors of the second list aren't teaching us about old mourning; they're teaching us about old suffering.   Just like at Pesach we recite that in every generation there are bad guys trying to destroy us, but God will always save us.   In other words, no matter how bad things look, don't despair.  On Tisha B'av we say that no matter how good things are, don't get complacent.  Many Sages teach that just like the ancient redemption took place at Pesach time, so, too, the future one will be at Pesach (others suggest Tishre).  Well, there's general agreement that all bad events, past and future, are concentrated around Tisha B'av.  So, please, be very careful during these days, because this is when bad stuff comes down.

            So, now we can look at the phrase bein hametzarim, or between the bad things, again.  Normally we think of that phrase as describing the days between the bad stuff of the 17th of Tammuz, when the sin of the Golden Calf occurred, and the bad stuff of Tisha Ba'v, when the sin of the spies happened and the destruction of both Temples befell us.  I'd like to suggest that this expression can also mean between the old horrible experiences and, God forbid, any future calamities.  As long as this cycle of oppressions followed by redemptions continues, the catastrophes will be associated with Tisha B'av, and, therefore, that date is hazardous.  But we believe that this cycle will be broken, and Tisha B'av will then be both joyous and safe.  May that happen speedily in our days.                  

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