By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
We are decidedly troubling beings. We are at once noble and sanctified creatures, imbued with the glory and holiness of God while, at the same time, being vulnerable and petty creatures, mired in the sad and troubling realities of the physical world around us, realities that are often the result of our own selfish and foolish behavior.
No period of time drives our troubling nature home more forcefully than the Three Weeks. Beginning when, historically, the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans and reaching their mournful, painful crescendo on Tisha B’Av, the date on which the weight, number and overwhelming calamities weighing on us find us grieving and fasting for forgiveness and relief, these three weeks are the darkest of our liturgical calendar.
Three weeks when we feel most alone, most vulnerable, most distant from God and the safety of his glory and protection. Three weeks when all around us the world basks – or swelters – in the hot, summer sun – we are in our darkest period.
Summer is, for most people, a time of relaxation and fun. But for Jews, these three weeks mark an inauspicious time, a frightening time, a time when God seems withdrawn from us and our humiliations, tragedies, exiles and defeats loom large. During these three weeks, we feel God’s absence in a physical way. It bows our heads and tightens the muscles in our stomachs. We ache for Him to be more present. We ache for Him to return and infuse our lives with power and sanctity. We need Him close but He seems to be hiding His face. It is time of hester panim.
The Three Weeks are a hard time, a mournful time. But like any difficult time, it is also a time of opportunity; a time when we can take the difficult and learn from it, take the sadness and learn to appreciate joy, confront our fears and find courage, recognize hurt and discover new ways to heal it.
The truth is, during the Three Weeks God seems distant. But, He is never so far away that we cannot reconnect if we are determined to do so. God wants our bond to be strong, He wants us to reconnect.
Sometimes, the simple truth is as the poet has said, “absence makes the heart grow fonder” and we need to feel God turn away to know how desperately and passionate we want and need Him to be close.
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In Rabbi Norman Lamm’s “The Veil of God”, he relates how tradition teaches that when the Romans breached the Holy Temple and entered the Holy of Holies, they came upon the two Cherubim, the “…statuettes resembling the faces of young , innocent children, and from between which the voice of God would issue forth. When the enemy beheld these Cherubim, the Talmud relates, they found that the two figurines were facing each other. Now this is most unexpected, because according to Jewish tradition, the Cherubim faced each other only when Israel was obedient to God (‘osin retzono shel Makom); when Jews did not perform the will of God, the Cherubim turned away from each other. The destruction of the Temple was certainly the result of Israel’s disobedience and rebellion. One would expect, therefore, that they turn their faces away from each other. Why, then, were they facing one another, the sign of mutual love between God and His people?”
His answer, teaches us something powerful about the nature of love and friendship. That is that just as it is most dark right before the dawn, the attachment between two people is always strongest just before they part.
Two people can have an enduring relationship, a warm relationship, a caring relationship for years and years, but let the end draw near and all the emotion, passion, hope and joy that defined that relationship at its onset returns – in abundance!
What does this have to do with the Three Weeks?
God appreciates that we daven every day; He loves that we find rest during the Sabbath and that we observe His commandments. But He wants more than that. He wants a rekindling of the passion that brings us close and lifts us. He wants us to engage in the passion that burns with holiness.
Relationships need constant words of love and appreciation to stay strong and develop. Our relationship with God is no different. During the Three Weeks, we feel the distance in our relationship with God. How do we close that distance? How do we return to the “fear and trembling” of Sinai?
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The love between God and Israel follows the same pattern as genuine human love. Tisha B’av was the beginning of the hester panim, the parting of the lovers. God and Israel turned away from each other, and the great, exciting, and immensely complicated relationship between the two companions, begun in the days of Abraham, was coming to an end. But before this tragic and heartbreaking moment, there took place a last, long, lingering look, the fervent embrace of the two lovers as they were about to part. At the threshold of separation they both experienced a great outpouring of mutual love, an intense ahavah, as they suddenly realized the long absence from each other that lay ahead of them; in so brief a time they tried to crowd all the affection the opportunities for which they ignored in the past, and all the love which would remain unrequited in the course of the future absence. That is why the Cherubim were facing each other. Certainly the Israelites were rebellious and in contempt of the will of God. But they were facing each other; God and Israel looked towards each other longingly and in lingering affection before they were pulled apart. And from this high spiritual union of God and Israel was created the soul of the Messiah! Mashiach was conceived in intense and rapturous love!
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We are, of course, merely human. How can we really renew bonds, genuine bonds between us and God? How could we do such a thing? Our bonds must constantly be renewed. Just as our human bonds – between friends, between parents and children, between husband and wife.
Throughout our poetic and religious literature, the relationship between Israel and God has been likened to that between bride and groom, husband and wife. It is a deep and true image. And, as we learn during the Three Weeks, sometimes in our most important relationships, distance creeps in, complacency takes over, the ongoing day by day weight of life files away the passion and joy.
How do we renew that relationship?
Husbands and wives have done a great many things to renew “the spark” of their initial love. Some things intuitively make sense – long walks, scheduling a “date night”, going on vacation – others are a bit more of a stretch – roller coasters and bungee jumping. At base, every relationship requires communication to grow, to renew, and to stay strong.
Some couples find praying together is a powerful bond. Others, walks in nature. A couple I know very well use a technique I find powerful and moving, they recite the entire book of Tehilim every week, each reciting half the book. One week, the husband recites all the even numbered chapters and the wife the odd numbered; the following week, the reverse. In this way, they communicate their deep love for one another and maintain the spiritual component of their relationship.
“It is a very boding intimate daily connection in a spiritually holy way. We feel close through it; feels like we are doing something together for ourselves and for our family.”
I wondered, How is that bonding with each other?
“It is something that we are doing together. So we are together even when we are not together. It connects us on a different, holy level.”
I grant you, it’s not bungee jumping but this couple has been doing this for four years and they seem closer, kinder, more loving and more deeply committed than ever.
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Yes, there is distance during the Three Weeks. But, just as it is true that devoted friends never forget each other – even if anger and offense have caused distance. It is never the case of “out of sight, out of mind.” A father may be so angry with his son that they don’t speak but his heart aches waiting for his son to call, to write, to make some gesture towards reconciliation. No matter how long the marriage and how “set in their ways” husband and wife become, some of the initial spark will always remain.
All these are instances of separation tense with love striving for reunion.
Such indeed is the hester panim that separates us from our Father in Heaven. We are exiled from Him – but not alienated. We are so far yet so close. God’s face is hidden but His heart is awake. Of course the divine love for Israel has not expired. It is that and that alone that accounts for our continued existence to this day. Certainly “with a great love hast Thou loved us” – for though we are banished, we need but call to Him and He will answer . Like a wise parent, the Almighty may punish, even expel, but never ceases to love His child!