Reflections on a first year
Rebuilding with our Torah and our hearts

17 Tammuz: the walls begin to fall

One of the five minor fast days on the Jewish calendar is coming up this weekend: 17 Tammuz, the day when we mourn the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. On 17 Tammuz we also remember the breaking of the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments when Moshe came down the mountain and saw the children of Israel worshipping the golden calf. (A side note: this year 17 Tammuz falls on a Shabbat, so the fast will be observed on Sunday, the 18th of Tammuz, instead.) 17 Tammuz is the beginning of the "Three Weeks," also known as bein ha-meitzarim -- "between the narrows" or "in tight straits" -- a period of semi-mourning which culminates with Tisha b'Av.

I didn't grow up observing 17 Tammuz or the Three Weeks (or, for that matter, Tisha b'Av.) The Three Weeks aren't universally observed in the liberal Jewish world. (See Do Reform Jews Observe the Three Weeks?)  Some of us are unaware of this fast day, and others may feel some resistance to commemorating it by eschewing food all through the daylight hours of the day. What does it mean to mourn the siege of a city almost two thousand years ago, the breaching of the first wall which led to the fall of the Temple, especially when many of us no longer see the Temple Mount as the axis mundi, the umbilicus of creation, the place where communication with God is uniquely possible?

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb suggests that 17 Tammuz is a day to mourn the ways in which the structures of peace are being dismantled in our time. Hearing that, some of us may think of olive trees uprooted and homes demolished; others may think of the removal of settlers from Gaza. What are the impediments to peace in today's Jerusalem? There's passionate disagreement on that front -- which makes me also think: what are the impediments to peace between and among us, in our community, who see the situation in Israel and Palestine in differing ways? The Talmud (tractate Yoma) tells us the Second Temple fell because of sinat chinam, "baseless hatred," within our community. Are we any kinder than our ancestors were?

How are the structures of caring and compassion dismantled in our time? The structures of understanding, gentleness, kindness?

Whether or not you are fasting on 17 Tammuz, consider donating what you would ordinarily spend on a day's food budget to an organization which works to effect healing. Combatants for Peace works to create healing and change in the Middle East; RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) works to create healing for those who have suffered rape or abuse. Or choose a group in your community which works to alleviate some of the brokenness of our world.

What can we learn from the teaching that Moshe shattered the first set of tablets, broken-hearted at the apostasy of the community he served, on this same day when we remember the breaking of Jerusalem's city walls? Maybe that hope lies in learning how to care for that which is broken. Midrash holds that the children of Israel carried the broken tablets along with the second set of whole ones in the ark of the covenant. That which is broken is still holy, is still deserving of our respect and our care. "There is nothing so whole," said Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, "as the broken heart."

On 17 Tammuz; on every day of the year; may we learn to extend hope and kindness to all who suffer. May we learn that in our very brokenness lies the possibility of healing and transformation.