by Evonne Marzouk
The 9th of Av marks the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. Next week we will begin our journey toward Tisha b’Av with a more minor fast – the 17th of Tammuz. This day begins the period known as the Three Weeks. During these weeks we deprive ourselves of certain pleasures in order to reflect on what caused the destruction of the Temple and the accompanying suffering.
I’d like to think a bit with you about the Three Weeks and what they can teach us. By beginning with a minor fast and moving toward deeper levels of mourning, culminating in the fast of Tisha b’Av, I have been wondering if the tradition is trying to teach us about our response to alarms.
The fast of the 17th of Tammuz commemorates five calamities:
- the first tablets that were broken in the desert,
- the offering of the daily sacrifice suspended in the first Beit HaMikdash,
- the wall of the city breached in the time of the second Beit HaMikdash,
- Apustamus the wicked burned the Torah (during the time of the second Beit HaMikdash), and
- an idol was placed in the sanctuary.
The Book of Our Heritage teaches: “The purpose of such fast days is to turn our hearts toward repentance by recalling our own misdeeds as well as those of our ancestors. By remembering these misdeeds, which we continue to repeat and which bring on similar calamities, we are motivated to return to the proper path of life.” The purpose of these days, even the minor fasts, is to engage in self-examination and repentance.
On the Shabbas preceding the 9th of Av we read parshat Devarim, “But how can I bear your troubles and your burdens and your disputes all by myself?” (Deuteronomy 1:12). Rabbi Yosef Horowitz5 comments on the connection, “Traditionally, this verse is read to the melody of the book of Eicha, to teach us that if a person refuses to assume the responsibility for communal needs and thinks that by doing so he makes things easier for himself, he will in the end find out that matters will be worse for him and he will remain alone and isolated.” He further states that a person who chooses not to “get themselves dirty” by involving themselves in the social needs around him, is himself a true cause for mourning, as such a person is missing out on what makes them human.
In Rambam’s (Maimonides) commentary on the Mishna in Rosh Hashana 1,3, he states that the Jews in the Second Temple period observed the fast of the 9th of Av. Why would the Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple AFTER it had been rebuilt? Dr. David Hanschke of Bar Ilan University suggests an interesting idea: The destruction of the First Temple ended the notion that the House of Hashem is indestructible; it showed the Jews, and the world, that the Temple could be destroyed. The Jews learned that the responsibility for what happens in this world and the responsibility for their continued existence rests on their shoulders alone. The awareness of the past destruction needs to act as the catalyst for preventing future destruction of all types.
During the Three Weeks, by beginning with a minor fast and minor restrictions and then moving to more intense restrictions and a major day of mourning, I have been wondering if our tradition is intending to shake us from our self-confidence and our entrenched patterns. The message is: “Wake up! Stop doing what you have been doing!”
And I also think that the message is one of hope. There is still time. All is not lost yet. Stop before it is too late. Within that message is a call for us to heed today, which is quite relevant to protecting our precious world.
We are hearing warning calls about the environment today. They are coming with increasing intensity. Our water is polluted. People are dying from air pollution. We are running out of fish in our oceans. The coral is bleaching. You must have heard these warning calls, even if you heard them on the periphery.
Other problems that you certainly have heard about – increased skin cancer, the genocide in Darfur, the security situation in the middle east – have environmental links, even if they were not acknowledged in the stories you heard.
A recent report called the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment looked at ecosystems from the perspective of the services they provide to human beings – clean air, clean water, food. It found that we are depleting our ecosystems at the same time that we are overusing them – leading to a situation that, unless addressed, will cause a significantly less secure and depleted world for our children.
As these warning calls become increasingly intense, what is our response? I suggest that perhaps it is the same message as that of the Three weeks. Wake up. Stop what you are doing. There is still hope. There is still time.
Sometimes people try to brush these concerns aside. Problems, after all, can be solved. Perhaps scientists will find solutions. Political difficulties can be worked out via diplomacy. Scientific predictions may not come true.
All this is certainly possible. But where is our sense of caution? The Jewish tradition tells us that we need to heed the alarms we are hearing – while there is still time.
Someone without religious faith might simply respond to the destruction of nature and inequitable appropriation of resources by saying, “Why not? Why shouldn’t I be selfish. Why should I care about other people or about the future? Let the people in poorer countries fend for themselves. There are enough resources to last through my lifetime. Maybe I won’t even have kids. Why should I care about the future?”
Our Torah teaches that this perspective is abhorrent. We have a mitzvah “To love our fellow as we love ourselves.” So how can we take more of a resource for ourselves than we allow for others or our children? How can we use resources to elevate our quality of life if doing so causes disease or injury to others or future generations?
Our Torah begins with G-d’s creation of the world. Our belief that the world is G-d’s creation, entrusted to us for our use to sustain ourselves during our lifetimes is the basis for our commitment to preserving it.
Perhaps we can use these Three Weeks to notice the alarms we have been hearing. To examine our deeds and take responsibility for the needs of our community – and our world.
This speech was given by Evonne Marzouk at a “Torah in Nature Walk” in Silver Spring, MD on Sunday, July 13. The walk was the inauguratory program of Daled Amot & Beyond, Canfei Nesharim’s new pilot program series for Orthodox synagogues. The talk includes sources and concepts mentioned by Aviva Shinnar and Rabbi Shlomo Levin in previous Canfei Nesharim articles. We welcome further thoughts on the connection between caution, the environment, and the Three Weeks. Please send your thoughts to us at email@example.com.
If you would like to share these thoughts with your family or community, you are welcome to do so. Please provide credit toCanfei Nesharim as the source. (We’d also be very pleased if you would let us know who it reached and what the reaction was by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org )
 Wilson, E.O. (1992) The Diversity of Life. Massachusets: Harvard University Press, p 424