Monday, July 21, 2008

Three Weeks and Three Oaths

I've started to wonder and have my doubts about the traditional, "mesorah" driven themes of the "Three Weeks," those days of mourning beginning with the seventeenth day of Tammuz and culminating in the saddest day of the Jewish year, a day national mourning, the ninth of Av, more commonly known as Tish'a B'Av.

For thousands of years, we've been observing these three weeks as a time of tragedy, specifically relating to the destruction of both Batei Mikdash, the Holy Temples in Jerusalem, as well as a slew of other tragedies that may have happened on or around these dates (17th Tammuz and 9 Av). Yet it seems that a golus mentality, the mentality that things should remain as they are because it's all good, at least for now, has kept the Jewish people stagnant in an attitude that is, in the end, self destructive.

Take, for instance, the infamous (and, in my own view, idiotic) so-called "Three Oaths." These are oaths supposedly made between God and the Jewish People, extremely loosely based on a verse from Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs:

"I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles, and by the hinds of the field, that ye awaken not, nor stir up love, until it please." (3:5)
The Amoraic scholars of the Talmudic era decided to invent, based on this verse, the aforementioned "three oaths:
1. “Shelo yaalu bachoma” – that the Jews should not forcibly “breach the wall,” and enter Eretz Yisrael
2. The Jews should not rebel against the nations of the world
3. The nations of the world should not oppress the Jewish People excessively during the Exile
Based on these three oaths, the Jews have essentially kept themselves in exile for nearly two thousand years. See my post about WHY these three oaths are a load of bunk, as far as I'm concerned, based on historical fact many of my Jewish brethren feel more comfortable ignoring rather than facing. Further, there are opinions out there that the validity of these oaths was only for one thousand years, which have long since ended, or that, according to Maimonides (the Rambam), since these oaths are a Midrash Aggada (Jewish lore), they are NOT halachically binding according to Jewish law as Jewish lore is NOT a source of Halachic decision-making. Finally, apparently these oaths are dependent upon one another. Therefore, if one is broken, the others are null and void.

The question becomes, WHAT constitutes excessive oppression? Who decides this? Are pogroms, persecutions, blood libels, Crusades, expulsions, Holocausts, and rampant anti-Semitism simply not enough?

Well, the Religious Zionists have it right. The Chareidim, on the other hand, have it completely wrong. Sorry, say the Religious Zionists, but the oaths are now null and void. The Holocaust, if nothing else, completely took care of that once and for all. Call it a final nail in the coffin.

Further, in the Chareidi view, the idea is to simply sit back and wait. Don't worry about how you act toward others. Don't try to better oneself or the world around oneself. Just wait. Don't put ANY hishtadlus (effort) into bringing about the Geula, the redemption. After all, it's SO much easier to sit back and bemoan our lot: "OY, MEH HAYA LANU! - Oh, woe is us! Look what has befallen us!" Whoopee. Very inspiring.

Every year, I find the themes of the "Three Weeks" more and more distasteful. While the Religious Zionists have taken a more active role in bringing about some sort of culmination to the diaspora, I feel even they haven't done enough.

Each year, we still observe these weeks as weeks of mourning, of sadness, and of uncontrollable helplessness (again, "OY, MEH HAYA LANU!). Come Tish'a B'Av, many go to synagogue, recite Kinos (a very long, boring set of "OY, MEH HAYA LANU"s), listen to a bunch of speeches about the destruction and persecution and about avoiding lashon hara, but never is anything DONE. Lots of words, but no action.

I think, at this point in history, a time when so many Jews HAVE returned to their homeland, when so much has been done in the last sixty+ years to improve Jewish life, both in America and in Israel, the time for mourning has passed. Part of the point of mourning is to begin rebuilding. When a relative passes on (be it a parent, child, sibling, or any relative, Chas V'Shalom), the period of mourning is a period of adjustment to new circumstances. It is a period of flux when the mourners realign themselves to a new reality. It is a period that prepares those mourners to go on with life without the deceased relative, to make a new life, to keep things going and even to flourish and be made stronger by the loss of that relative.

So why should the yearly observance of the Three Weeks be any different? Frankly, I'm tired of being sad and upset. Mourning is supposed to strengthen oneself to go on, but all the Three Weeks seem to do is make it worse.

I feel like the meaning and reasoning behind the three weeks has either been lost or corrupted, possibly both.

Lost because it doesn't seem right doing the same mourning year after year after decade after century after millennia. The other holidays make sense: Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to atone for the past year's sins. Sukkos, Pesach, and Shavuos to commemorate the great miracles that made the Jewish people the Jewish people. Same for Channuka and Purim. Happy occasions are something to remember on a yearly basis. But mourning is there SPECIFICALLY to help get on with life, not to keep dwelling, over and over, ad nauseam, on the tragedies. Mourning is there to help us move on, NOT to keep us stagnant.

Corrupted because it seems like, the way the rabbinic authorities set up the Three Weeks, in a backward procession from the norm. Normally, the first week of mourning is the worst, then lessens with the first month, then lessens even more during the first year. The Three Weeks go in the opposite direction. The first twelve days are like the year, the Nine Days are like the first month, and Tish'a B'Av itself is like the first week. While some might interpret this backward procession to be a message from the rabbinic authorities of old that, in fact, the point IS that it's not supposed to allow us to move on. But this is wrong. Because the whole point of the Three Weeks is to take an accounting of ourselves, make a "Chesbon Nefesh" - a self analysis, figure out what we're STILL doing wrong, and FIX it! The idea isn't to stop us from putting in the effort to bring about the geula. The idea, with this backward mourning period, is figure ourselves out, better ourselves, stop judging others just because they're "not like us" and move on from the death and destruction and bring about better times.

I think, in their wisdom, the rabbinic authorities of nearly two thousand years ago gave us a message of HOW to move on, not how to stagnate, as so many do today.

I no longer think, as I've learned from so many Chareidi sources, that the Three Weeks are supposed to be a time of misery. Nor are they a time for speeches or delving into how bad we've been in the past. Nor are they a time to wallow in self-pity ("OY! MEH HAYA LANU!!"). No. They are a time of self analysis. And I believe, with the advent of the Religious Zionist mode of thought, that it's actually working. Look what we've achieved since this way of thinking came along! Look at the booming Jewish life in Israel. Thousands of people make Aliyah every year. Jewish life in America is like nothing experienced for centuries, both in Israel and in the US.

A certain Chareidi Rabbi S in Los Angeles likes to pair Pesach with Tish'a B'Av because they always fall out on the same day of the week. If Pesach is on a Sunday, so is Tish'a B'Av, etc. And his admonition is always that geula will turn into tragedy if we don't do Teshuva, that it's a reminder that Pesach can become a time of tragedy if we allow Tish'a B'Av to happen.

But he's wrong. I think where Pesach is a TIME of Geula, so too does Tish'a B'Av have the potential to become a time of Geula, one far greater than Pesach (and indeed, there is a midrash that states that when Moshiach comes, Tish'a B'Av will become a Yom Tov, a holiday). It's called positive thinking. It's called putting in the effort to make it right. What it's NOT is an excuse to keep wallowing in self-pity, as so-much-easier as that may be. Because it's always easier to cry about the bad than to try to make oneself better by treating others respectfully, even if they don't agree with your "Hashkafas."

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