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Balak

Thursday, 18 July, 2019 - 6:39 pm

 This weekend, a period known as ”The Three Weeks” begins.  It is a three-week period of mourning, bookended by the fast of the 17th of Tamuz and the fast of the ninth of Av.  On the 17th of Tamuz in the year 69 CE, the Romans, who had laid siege to the City of Jerusalem, broke through the wall and entered the city, and three weeks later on the ninth of Av destroyed the second Temple. The first Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians on the ninth of Av in the year 423 BCE.  (The Jerusalem Talmud says that the Babylonians also breached the wall of the city on the 17th of Tamuz.)  So the primary reason for mourning at this time is because of the destruction of the first and second Holy Temples, but the sad significance of those two days dates back much earlier.  You will recall that when Moshe went up to heaven (by way of Mt. Sinai) to receive the Torah, he came back after 40 days carrying the two Tablets made by Hashem that contained the Ten Commandments.  When he saw the Golden Calf that the Jews were worshipping, he smashed those tablets, and a difficult period ensued.  Many Jews were executed and Moshe spent another 40 days praying and achieving atonement for the people.  The day he broke the Tablets was the 17th of Tamuz.  There were three other major calamities that happened on that day relating to the Temple and its service.  The daily offerings of two lambs, which brought many blessings to the people and the world, ended.  Apostemus (some say he was a Roman general, others say he was a Greek) publicly burned the Torah, and an idol was placed inside the Temple.  (There are differences of opinion about when exactly in history this happened.  Some say during the Roman period and others say by King Menashe.)

The Ninth of Av also has a sad history going back centuries.  The Jews had recently left Egypt and received the Torah, and were ready to enter the Holy Land promised to them by Hashem.  They sent spies to scout out the land, and the spies came back with a bad report about the land, frightening the  Jews.  The nation cried that night, losing their faith and giving up hope on Hashem’s promise.  Hashem declared that that night, the ninth of Av, would be a night of “crying for generations.”  A few of the historic tragic events that happened on this night include the defeat of the city of Betar during the Bar Kochba revolt and the brutal killing of its Jewish inhabitants in the year 133 CE, and the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492.

The first and last days of the Three Weeks are fast days.  The 17th of Tamuz is a fast from dawn until nightfall, and the Ninth of Av is a 25 hour fast, from sunset the evening before until nightfall.  This year, since both days, the 17th of Tamuz and the ninth of Av fall on Shabbat, a day when we are not allowed to fast unless it is Yom Kippur, both fasts are postponed to the next day, effectively postponing the mourning period for a day.

A few of the observances of this period include not marrying during this time, refraining from haircuts, purchasing new clothes, listening to music or arranging or attending major celebratory events.  The mourning intensifies for the last nine days, beginning on the first day of Av, when we do not eat meat or drink wine (except for on Shabbat).  We also do not say the Shehecheyanu blessing during this time, meaning that we refrain from things that require this blessings, such as eating a fruit for the first time during the new season.

It is important to note that mourning does not mean that we should be depressed or in any way diminish our inner joy in observance of Mitzvot.  Since it is a Mitzvah to “serve Hashem with joy,” this must mean that we can have both at the same time.  We cut back on external expressions of joy, but at the same time we recognize the value of even these Mitzvot of mourning and they bring us inner joy in the knowledge that all Mitzvot connect us to Hashem and fulfill our mission on earth.  I know it sounds like a paradox, but it really is not.  Our purpose in mourning is to remind us what we are missing.  We tend to go about our lives comfortably enjoying our freedoms and our relative affluence, for some not so relative, and we don’t feel any real lack of exile.  When we spend three weeks focusing on the meaning of the Holy Temple and on the contrast?? between life as it should be in the Holy Land of Israel with the many daily revelations of Hashem’s light to how it is today when Hashem is hidden and the Shechina (presence of Hashem) itself is in exile; when we learn the laws of the building of the Temple and imagine how glorious life will be like when Moshiach comes and the third Temple is built, we are motivated to do all we can to bring the redemption a moment sooner.

Soldiers know that the only way to win a war is with faith and enthusiasm and a song on their lips.  We realize how much we are missing, but rather than wallowing in the sorrow, we move forward with joy and enthusiasm to turn the world into a holier and better place, because we are assured that we are moving ever closer to that time when the exile will be history.  At that time, these two days will be turned into holidays, because we will recognize that our work in exile, brought about on those two days, is what brought about the new, much greater stage of a holy world “filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the seabed.” (Isaiah 12:9.)  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a barbecue in the Holy Temple this Tisha B’Av?

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