Remembering my rebbe
A psalm of need before Shabbat

Descent for the sake of ascent: the fast of 17 Tamuz

EJmR3188046On Tuesday, July 15, many Jews will observe Tzom Tamuz, "the fast of Tamuz" -- one of Judaism's minor fast days, commemorating the breach of Jerusalem's city walls which led (three weeks later) to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.

I say "many Jews" because I know that the minor fasts are not universally observed, especially in liberal Jewish communities. The notion of commemorating the first chink in Jerusalem's armor almost two thousand years ago may seem strange to us.

But I think there's value in observing 17 Tamuz, and being conscious of the Three Weeks which link it with Tisha b'Av, even if you do not fast, and even if you aren't certain you actually want to mourn the fall of a Temple you can barely imagine.

There is a deep wisdom in the way the Jewish calendar unfolds. Our festivals and fast days are waypoints along the journey we travel each year. 17 Tamuz marks the beginning of the descent toward Tisha b'Av. At Tisha b'Av, we mark the beginning of the ascent toward the Days of Awe.

In Hasidic tradition there's the idea that often in order to rise, one first has to fall. Yeridah tzorech aliyah: one has to go down in order to be able to go up. Descent for the sake of ascent. This drama plays itself out in a variety of places in Torah -- for instance, in the Joseph story, in which "descent for the sake of ascent" is a recurring motif. The downs are necessary precursors to the ups.

For Lurianic kabbalists, the whole of creation was a shattering which it is our unique privilege to be able to rebuild. If there had never been a rupture, then there couldn't be a healing.

EMy+barn+This drama plays itself out on the stage of every human life. We fall down, we get up again. And while our modern sensibilities may be offended by the notion that tragedy or trauma is necessary in order for growth or forward motion to appear, I believe that there are gifts to be found when circumstances have laid us low. As the 17th-century Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide wrote, "My barn having burned down, I found I could see the moon."

17 Tammuz, the Three Weeks which follow it, and Tisha b'Av which comes at the end of those weeks, are a time for us to delve together into descent. It's not only "my barn" which has burned down -- it's our barn, the place which was spiritual home for all of us together. It's not only my life which sometimes contains brokenness or sorrow -- it's all of our lives. We're in this together.

It can be tempting to want to paper over the places that hurt. To look on the bright side, to put on a happy face, to focus on the positive. I do these things all of the time. But 17 Tammuz and the weeks which follow are an opportunity to let ourselves experience moments of descent, together.

17 Tamuz is a day to consider: when and how do your "walls," the boundaries of your emotional and spiritual integrity, feel breached? What is it like to feel that something painful has come through your defenses? When and how do we come to feel that the integrity of our community has been shattered? What issues, subjects, or sore spots make us feel defenseless and alone?

The tradition says that 17 Tammuz is the anniversary of the day when Moshe came down the mountain, saw the people worshipping the golden calf, and in heartbroken fury shattered the first set of stone tablets containing God's words. What are the idols our communities have fallen into holding sacred? Can we allow ourselves to grieve the ways in which our communities are not yet what we most yearn for them to be?

The point of 17 Tammuz and the Three Weeks and Tisha b'Av isn't wallowing in anger and sorrow. It's allowing ourselves to recognize the things that hurt, the places where we are broken, so that together we can emerge from those places humbled and energized to begin the climb toward the spiritual heights of the High Holidays. Descent for the sake of ascent. If we're willing and able to go down together, we build bonds of community which will lift us to greater heights when it's time to climb up.

All of the things I've just written are, I think, true every year as we reach this moment in our seasonal-liturgical cycle. Here is something which is unique to this year:

This year the 17th of Tammuz falls during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when our Muslim cousins are fasting from dawn to nightfall every day. (This "minor fast" in our tradition is observed in the same way -- morning to night, not 25 hours like Yom Kippur.) And this year, 17 Tammuz arises amidst tremendous bloodshed and suffering in Israel and Palestine -- the murders of the three Israeli teens Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Sha'ar, and Eyal Yifrah; the murder of Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, apparently burned alive; Hamas firing rockets into Israel (see A view from Jerusalem - Israel at war); Israel bombarding Gaza in return (see You can never be emotionally ready).

Eliaz Cohen, a poet who lives in the settlement of Gush Etzion, has suggested that in the midst of so much sorrow and violence in Israel and Palestine, Jews and Muslims can choose to consciously fast on this day in solidarity with one another, as a "Hunger Strike Against Violence." You can learn more at Fasting Together, Jews and Muslims Choose Life (FB, mostly in Hebrew) 0r War Looming: Make Fasts of 17 Tammuz and Ramadan Hunger Strikes Against Violence (English). Some of us who are the talmidim (students) of Reb Zalman are taking on this joint fast in his memory, knowing that he wept for both the children of Abraham and the children of Ibrahim.

Whether or not you fast from food and drink on 17 Tammuz, I ask my Jewish and Israeli readers to please consider fasting from negative assumptions about our Muslim cousins and Palestinian neighbors; whether or not you are observing the Ramadan fast from food, I ask my Muslim and Palestinian readers to please consider fasting from negative assumptions about your Jewish cousins and Israeli neighbors in turn. May this minor fast day, and the following Three Weeks of opening ourselves to grief, bring us together in our low places so that together we may begin the work of building a better world.