As a teenager I was a competitive faster – and summer was my season.
As a camper and then as a staffer at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire, I shone in my ability to fast for two long, hot summer days, separated by only three weeks – and the second of those fasts even started at sundown the night before.
Don’t jump to any conclusions. There was no eating disorder involved. If anorexia and bulimia were known at the time, they must have been banned in Boston. It is simply a Jewish ritual that, maximally observed, got you out of swimming for three weeks, without having to plead menstruation, and garnered praise from the more Orthodox among the faculty.
As you read this we will have entered into that tough time on the Jewish calendar. The period known as bein hametzarim, or “between the straits or narrow places,” is the three weeks between the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, falling this year on July 15, and Tisha B’av, the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av – this year, August 5. The Jewish calendar tends to agglomerate many significant events to the same date. Thus, various disasters have been associated with the 17th of Tammuz. These include the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E. and again by Titus in 70 C.E. Additional events associated with the day in some sources include Moses’ descent from Sinai and breaking the first set of Torah tablets, the setting up of an idol in the First Temple at the time of its destruction, and the burning of a Torah scroll by a Roman leader before Bar Kokhba’s revolt in 135 C.E. Only the breachings of the walls of Jerusalem were in my database back at Yavneh, but that was enough to fuel my fasting.
Traditionally, the period of bein hametzarim is marked by the gradual increase of mourning customs, culminating in the 24-hour fast of Tisha B’av. Over the centuries the rituals observed in this period have become more restrictive, as often happens in Judaism and other religions. The expression “between the straits” or “between the narrow places” is drawn from Lamentations 1:3, where it refers to the troubles at the time of the destruction of the First Temple. Its first extant use as a description of this period, however, occurs only in the midrash on the biblical book of Eicha – Lamentations – generally dated to a period about a thousand years later.
Tisha B’av generally is viewed as the saddest day of the Jewish calendar because it marks the destructions of the First Temple and then of the Second, some 655 years later. Again the Jewish tradition’s propensity for merging events plays a role. Reaching back into biblical history, the spies sent by Moses to check out the Promised Land reportedly returned on the 9th of Av, bearing a majority report that convinced the Israelites that they would not be able to overcome the inhabitants of the Land, thereby prolonging the desert wandering to 40 years. Later the Romans defeated Bar Kokhba’s revolt, destroying the city of Betar and killing more than 100,000 Jews on this date, and the Roman governor plowed over the Temple Mount and its environs in the final suppression of Bar Kokhba’s revolt. But Tisha B’av also was tied to a number of medieval events, including the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, from France in 1306, and most famously from Spain in 1492. Indeed, it is linked even to Holocaust events, as Himmler’s receiving approval of his planned Final Solution in 1941 and the beginning of the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camp of Treblinka in 1942 became tied to this date.
It seems somehow heretical to ask whether there can ever be an end to mourning. The question, however, is not new; it was raised as the Second Temple was being built (Zechariah 7:3), and there is considerable doubt that Tisha B’av was marked as a day of fasting and mourning during the Second Temple period. In fact, the origins of the fast on the 9th of Av are murky. Although fasting in times of crisis goes back at least to the story of King David’s fast as he prayed, to no avail, for the recovery of his son (2 Samuel 12:15) that is a personal, not a communal, practice. Further, some of the restrictions that originally applied only on the day before Tisha B’av gradually became applied to the first eight days of the month of Av or even to the whole three-week period.
Do we hold memory best through fasting, or through study, or through joy? Do changed circumstances ever dictate changing rituals? Can we appreciate, yes, even in these terrible weeks, that Jewish autonomy has been restored? What does it do to our perceptions of the present to hold so many calamities in our active memory? Does acting out our grief in the controlled rituals of fasting and mourning help channel feelings to a point where we can reach acceptance, or does it reopen the wounds? Is it time to let go of the deep mourning of Tisha B’av and openly say, as does a majority opinion of the Israeli Masorti (Conservative) rabbinate, that we should fast only half a day, thus retaining historical memory and recognizing that the situation has changed? To do otherwise, they say, is to fail to recognize the achievement of the State of Israel.
This year even before the 17th of Tammuz we have been feeling what it is to be bein hametzarim, caught in the narrows with no room to turn. Since the kidnapping and murder of the three Jewish teenagers, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrach, and the kidnapping and murder of the Arab teen Mohamed Abu Khdeir, the situation in Israel and Gaza has been on a downward spiral, with hundreds of rockets shot deep into Israel from Gaza and hundreds of airstrikes on Gaza by Israel.
No nation can tolerate rockets raining down on its territory without a response. There is no ready solution and, at this writing, no clear way out. I continue to pray that there will be some modicum of peace before this reaches print, but I am less than confident.
Yet, as a people, we often have managed to come out of the narrow places. In fact, the word metzarim has the same consonants as the Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim. The passage through the straits of Egypt led to redemption. It was not an easy path; it took a great deal of courage and divine guidance. It took courage on the part of both national leaders and ordinary Israelites. However we choose to mark this historical period, may we pray to find a way out of the narrow places and into the sun.