July 17: 8:07 p.m.
The Jewish calendar includes a number of cycles that define the tone and tenor of the seasons. Pesach is anticipated by several weeks in which four special additional scriptural readings are added to the regular Shabbat portions, each linked to anticipation of and preparation for Pesach. The mood of this cycle is anticipation mingled with anxiety — anticipation of the foundational holiday of Judaism, anxiety about the demanding preparations involved.
After Pesach comes a cycle of seven weeks, known as the period of the Omer, lasting 50 days until the holiday of Shavuot. For reasons not entirely clear, Jewish tradition defines the Omer period by a mood of mild mournfulness, and with the exception of Lag b’Omer (and for some, Yom Ha’Atzmaut and Rosh Chodesh), celebrations such as weddings are deferred until after Shavuot.
The fall seasonal cycle begins with the summer month of Elul, devoted to spiritual preparation for the upcoming High Holidays, which commence with Rosh HaShanah and move through Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. The mood of this season is a complex blend of remorse, repentance, and resolution, as we seek the opportunity of a new year to atone for errors and to commit to positive change.
The least well-known cycle of the Jewish calendar is known as “the three weeks” leading up to the summer fast of Tisha b’Av, the period we are now in the midst of. The cycle of the three weeks has within it yet another sub-cycle, the “nine days,” beginning on the first of Av (this year July 22) and continuing through the fast of the ninth of Av (this year July 30). The mood of the three weeks as reflected in the haftara selections prophesizing destruction and exile is one of gloom.
The journey from the despair of Tisha b’Av to the hope of Rosh HaShanah takes place in a mere seven weeks, beginning on the Shabbat after the fast when the first of seven prophetic passages of consolation are chanted as the haftarot. If we pull back a little farther, we begin to see that the “three weeks” do not stand alone, but are linked to the “seven weeks” that follow. This yields a 10-week cycle whose trajectory moves from hopelessness to renewal and from transgression to atonement and purification.
The cycle surrounding Tisha b’Av is a communal version of the individual cycle running from Rosh HaShanah through Simchat Torah. Tisha b’Av commemorates two tragic moments in Jewish history, when what seemed essential and irreplaceable (the First and Second Jerusalem Temples of antiquity) were lost. And yet we know that the Jewish people and their leaders and teachers managed to retain hope and reshape Judaism so that it might endure in a new incarnation that could sustain and be sustained without the Temple.
The High Holiday cycle similarly begins with the acknowledgment that much of what is essential and irreplaceable about each human life — integrity, purity, honesty, decency, trust — can also be lost, and the recognition of this can indeed seem tragic. And yet we know that the process of teshuva (growing in a godly direction) and kapparah (atoning for transgressions) enable each of us to retain the hope that we may reshape our lives and emerge in a new incarnation where the future offers opportunity.
“There is a time for every season under the sun,” teaches Kohelet. “A time for tearing and a time for mending.” As we anticipate the observance of Tisha b’Av, we are also aware that there is a time beyond mourning, when unanticipated possibilities hold out the promise of change and of hope. In this summer of Covid-19, that promise is more important than ever.
Rabbi Richard Hirsh engages in independent rabbinic projects in Bryn Mawr, Pa.