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17 Tammuz: Around Your World in 80 Days

07/09/2020 04:37:26 PM


These days bring a sense of foreboding. Today is the 17th of Tammuz, one of the minor fast days on the Jewish calendar that commemorate stages in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple that stood in its midst. It begins three weeks of mournful practices, culminating in the fast of Tisha B’av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, which we will observe the night of July 29 and into the 30th. This day has lessons for us as we look to our own future and grapple with our own sense of foreboding, but also leads us to look ahead to Yom Kippur 80 days from now.
The Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6), describes five negative events that took place on this day. One was that during the siege of Jerusalem, this was the day on which the city walls were breached. The last four months have felt like a siege. It has been frustrating to be cooped up. While there were some terrible moments, we could say that things were not as bad as in New York or Europe. The danger was still mostly “outside the wall.” Now, those of us who are watching the local numbers fear that the danger has breached our walls, as cases rise not just in the state overall, but in our Jewish community. It took three weeks from the time the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem until Romans wrought their destruction. In our own day, bad outcomes of COVID-19 tend to trail initial diagnosis by 3 weeks, and while we hope for good outcomes, we fear that the next three weeks will bring greater harm.
Another negative event that is traced back to the 17th of Tammuz is that this was the day when the daily offering in the Temple (as described in this week’s Torah portion) was interrupted. When our in-person services and activities were disrupted, we moved quickly to on-line offerings, which do not meet every need, but have kept our community connected. We assumed that that disruption would be short term, and when we began work on B’nai Torah’s re-entry plan, it was with the expectation that we would be able to move steadily over the summer towards a return to in-person services and activities. It has become increasingly clear that we are in a holding pattern, and that it may be a long time before we are able to pray together in large numbers. Just as our ancestors responded to the loss of sacrifices by investing more deeply in alternative forms of worship, we are working to increase the meaningfulness, accessibility and technical quality of our online offerings, knowing that even when some of us are ready to return to worship in person, others will have to wait longer.
The very first terrible event that took place on the 17th of Tammuz was the breaking of the Tablets. Moses came down the mountain and saw the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. They acted in the absence of leadership, not realizing that their behavior would have lasting consequences. As we look at the world around us today, we understand the potential harm caused by peoples’ recklessness in the absence of leadership.
On the other hand, that story also offers hope. Moses soon went back up the mountain again. At the end of his journey, after a total of 80 days, Moses achieved forgiveness for the Jewish people. That day was enshrined in the Jewish calendar as Yom Kippur. The link between today and Yom Kippur extends more deeply. In the Torah portion we read today, we recount the 13 names of God, a passage that forms the central refrain of the Yom Kippur liturgy.
How do we look past our anxiety about the next 3 weeks to anticipate the next 80 days? The 80 days from 17 Tammuz to Yom Kippur lead us through a spiritual journey. The month of Av has despair and celebration. During Elul, we sound the shofar daily, and Tishrei incorporates the holidays themselves. Meanwhile, 11 special haftorah portions guide us from doom and despair through levels of hope, renewal and repentance.
B’nai Torah is hard at work getting ready to guide each member of our community through this 80 day journey. Our high holiday survey has given us incredibly useful information about the spiritual needs of our diverse community. Teams are fleshing out new ways to make our physically remote worship more meaningful and engaging, and help people “bring the holidays home” with experiences that they can share in person with their loved ones. I suspect that some of the opportunities that we are creating this year will still be favorites even when we are all back together. We are also laying the groundwork for potential in-person experiences that we will announce and make available if circumstances allow us to offer them safely.
Plans will be released after the end of these “three weeks,” as we begin our seven-week journey upward towards the High Holidays.
The destruction of the Temple was an overwhelming tragedy, but it also forced us to move forward to new creativity and new spirituality. The foreboding of 17 Tammuz and the next three weeks can lead us to a Yom Kippur full of hope, renewal and forgiveness. We can turn around our world in 80 days.
Fri, June 14 2024 8 Sivan 5784