Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Walk Article

BETWEEN THE STRAIGHTS

Matot-Masei-5772

Rabbi David Walk

 

            The title for this week's article comes from the King James Bible's (1611) translation of the third verse in the book of Lamentations, and has become the traditional name of the three week period from the seventeenth of Tamuz until the ninth of Av.  The former is the date of the sin of the Golden Calf and later was when the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem in 70 CE.  The latter is the date of the sin of the Spies and was the day both holy Temples were destroyed.  In Hebrew we call this period Bein Hameztarim.  We could also translate it as 'between the narrows,' but many translations ignore the metaphor and render it as 'the midst of distress.'  Traditionally, we have institutionalized this distress by establishing customs of semi-mourning.  The most famous of which is that we refrain from parties and joyous celebrations.  Sadly over the years many traditional Jews have gotten overly concerned with the practice of the mourning and don't spend enough time thinking about the ideas which these customs should engender.  I believe strongly that keeping these customs should induce us to think about the behavior that brought on the destruction, and what we can do to change that trend.

            The Sages left us a trail, I believe, to help us discover the real meaning of these days.  That trail is the series of Haftorot designated to be read during this time period.  Throughout the year we generally read sections from the Prophets which parallel the material from that week's parsha, but from the fast of the Seventeenth of Tamuz until Rosh Hashanah we read material which gets us into the mood of the season.  The first three are called the Three of Troubles, and set the tone for the mourning of these three weeks.  Then we read those called the Seven of Consolation which help prepare us for the Days of Awe.  It's these first three which I would like to focus upon.

            The initial one, read last week, is the first chapter of the book of Jeremiah.  This material is mostly about the appointment of Jeremiah as a prophet.  However, we're more concerned for the verses of warning to the Jewish people concerning the calamities about to befall them:  And the Lord said to me; From the north the misfortune will break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land. For, behold I am summoning all the families of the kingdoms of the north, says the Lord, and they will come and place, each one his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem and against all its walls around and against all the cities of Judah. And I will utter My judgments against them concerning all their evil, that they left Me and offered up burnt-offerings to other gods and they prostrated themselves to the work of their hands (Jeremiah 1:14-16).  God's love and protection for the Jewish has turned into judgment against us because of our worship of idols.  

            The second Haftorah, which we read this week continues this theme of punishment for our disloyalty to God:  So says the Lord: What wrong did your forefathers find in Me, that they distanced themselves from Me, and they went after futility and themselves became futile? And they did not say, "Where is the Lord, Who brought us up from the land of Egypt, Who led us in the desert, in a land of plains and pits, in a land of waste and darkness, in a land where no man had passed and where no man had dwelt. And I brought you to a forested land to eat of its produce and its goodness, and you came and contaminated My land, and made My heritage an abomination (Ibid. 2:5-7).  Finally, the third Haftorah assumes another attitude, the destruction is coming because we have lost our kindness and altruism:  Hear the word of the Lord, O rulers of Sodom; give ear to the law of our God, O people of Gomorrah!  Wash, cleanse yourselves, remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes, cease to do evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow (Isaiah 1:10, 16-17). 

            I find it fascinating that these three disasters are the antithesis to the marvelous blessings rendered by Bilaam.  He told us:  How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered (Numbers 23:8)?  But now God has become very angry.  Next he said:  He does not see any evil in Jacob, and has observed no perversity in Israel; the Lord, his God, is with him, and he has the King's friendship. God has brought them out of Egypt with the strength of His loftiness (verses 22-23).  But we reneged on that covenant.  Finally, Bilaam saw the beauty and care of Jewish communal life by observing:  How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel (24:5)!  But we became the monsters of Sodom and Gomorrah by not caring for others.

            What's amazing about this guided course through the tribulations of Jewish history is that we're being shown both sides of this great issue.  First we're shown how magnificent we can be.  What a great example we can be for humankind.  Then there is presented for our consideration all the degradation we have achieved.  It's important that there are three items on each side of this social equation because we have betrayed the three basic components of the Jewish potential for greatness:  our relation ship with God, our building of communities and our development of our souls.

            It's crucial that both possibilities are displayed for our perusal, because we must go through the mourning of lost greatness with awareness of the fact that it doesn't have to be this way.  We can use these three weeks to remind ourselves of how things should be and follow that trail back to where we belong:  loyal to God, kind to others and spiritually strong within ourselves. 

           

            


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