The Three weeks and the 9th of Av
The summer months of Tamuz and Av (“summer” from an Israel / northern hemispheric perspective) are known as the markers of historical times of crisis and tragedy. From the 17th of Tamuz until the 9th of the following month of Av a three week period of mourning is observed in Jewish tradition. Exile and its attending sorrow reaches a climax during this period on the 9th of Av (properly known as Tish’a B’Av). Of key importance is that this date marks the destructions of both Temples in ancient Israel. The Jewish nadir is the height of destruction.
The events of the 9th of Av are straddled by two specially named Sabbaths (sh’tai Shabbatot) . The Sabbath immediately before the 9th is called Shabbat Chazon meaning the Sabbath of the vision. Vision of what? Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) explains that each one of us can merit to have a personal prophetic vision on this day of the Third Temple which will be built in the future.
Thinking into the ramifications of his teaching, one might suggest that this is a possible source for being a Jewish futurist and by extension for all of humanity to attempt to envision a more promising future. The Third Temple represents a rectified globalized world that thrives in the spirit of peacefully collaboration. All people working together towards positive spiritual pursuits and the betterment of mankind is certainly a utopic vision; but its one we can all share in.
Of note–in the Torah proper–the most explicit descriptions of the Messianic age and the true promise of the future are expressed by the non-jewish prophet Bilam. For this we may learn that the Torah wants to emphasis that there is no Jewish monopoly on futurist vision but that true world transformation requires a diversity of peoples. All may potentially contribute to the vision.
Why would we have a profound vision of the future on the Sabbath right before a time of repeated destruction? The framing of this time encodes a unique message: we have the ability to see the birth of something new, something better from out of the destruction of the old. On the ‘eve’ of the destruction, as the prelude to destruction, this Sabbath marks the mentality of creative destruction.
One great Talmudic figure for whom creative destruction was part of his unique vision was Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud (Makkot 24b) relates that a number of sages went with him to Jerusalem (Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazer ben Azaria, Rabbi Joshua) and when they reached the Temple and beheld the destruction they all started weeping with the exception of Rabbi Akiva who laughed. Puzzled by each other’s reactions, they had the following exchange:
“Why are you laughing?” they said to him.
“Why are you crying?” he said to them.
They responded: “a Holy place of which it is said ‘the stranger that approaches it shall die,’ (Numbers 1:51) is now being walking on by foxes–is this not cause to weep?
To which Rabbi Akiva responded:
“This is why I am laughing. As it is written, ‘Uriah the Priest and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah will faithfully bear witness for me’ (Isaiah 8:2). What is the connection between Uriah and Zechariah? Uriah lived at the time of the First Temple, and Zechariah was in the time of the Second Temple. However, the Torah makes Zachariah’s prophecy dependent on Uriah’s. Regarding Uriah, the verse states: ‘Therefore, because of you, Zion will be plowed like a field’ (Micha 3:12). With Zachariah it is written ‘Old men and women will yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem’ (Zechariah 8:4) [Both are expression that refer to the destruction of the First and Second Temples].
‘As long as Uriah’s prophecy had not been fulfilled, I had cause to fear that Zechariah’s would not be fulfilled either’.
When they heard this the other sages replied: ‘Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!’
In other words, Rabbi Akiva understood that the First Temple must be Destroyed in order to make room for the Second Temple and likewise, the Second Temple must be destroyed to make way for the Third. Thus, the destruction served a positive purpose that was counter intuitive. It was not destruction plain and simple, but rather the birth of some new potential. This is why the Sages tells us that the 9th of Av is also the birthday of Moshiach (the Messiah)–on account of this potential. Just as real estate developers need to demolish an existing structure before they can erect a new edifice in its place, so too the existing world order must cycle through a number of iterations before settling on a sustainable model (the Third Temple).
Yet, these earlier attempts at Temple building were not in vain. Sometimes, we gain success through failure (as the expression goes in engineering). We learn from the destruction and extract lessons from the ruins. We now have a knowledge of what doesn’t work and can make modification and adjustments accordingly.
What is the Sabbath after the 9th of Av called? Shabbos Nachamu: meaning the Sabbath of consolation or comforting. It is the first of seven weeks of consolation after the three weeks of mourning. The consolation involves liturgical readings that focus on the positive creations of the future. From a vision of the future before the destruction we can then build a temporal bridge linking to the realization of the vision and the comfort that it will bring us.
In practical, everyday terms: losing a job can be devastating especially when the job is lost to a technological innovation (which means effectively that that self-same job is gone forever and that the worker will have to make a career change). No more need to work at the factory as a manufacturer, you can now go into the service industry or join the information economy. Our perspective on such situations can be radically altered (from crying to laughter) when we have a glimpse of our possible future, a future where we have a new, better paying and more personally rewarding job. Consequently, we may come to realize that if ‘I had not lost my old job I would have never found my new one’ which is way better. In fact, on a certain level, the destruction of my old job created my new one.
It goes without saying that without this inner vision–of seeing what could be in a optimistic light–the destruction is suffered as just that: destruction. Then, even if the consolation comes (and we hope it will come in all cases), a person may fail to recognize it. The loss of the old would then appear to have no connection to the creation of the new.
In Part 3, we will explore the implications of maintaining and developing this connection.