Ask any cheder yingele why we fast on the 17th of Tammuz and he’ll rattle off the five tragedies that occurred on that day: Moshe came down from Har Sinai and broke the luchos; the korban tamid, the daily offering, stopped being brought in the first Beis Hamikdash; the wall surrounding Yerushalayim was breached in the lead-up to the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdash; Apustimus burned the Torah; and a tzelem was placed in the Heichal.
While the answer is good — and instills pride in our yeshivos and our children — it is incomplete. It isn’t enough to know what tragedies befell our people on the 17th of Tammuz and throughout this period of the Three Weeks, culminating in Tishah B’Av when the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed.
We have to comprehend the enormity of the loss and understand that we are responsible for the situation continuing as is. As the Mishnah Berurah says, it is incumbent upon us to examine our deeds and do teshuvah.
In other words, the fasting is the easy part. It’s supposed to set the stage for introspection and teshuvah. The problem is that we’ve turned it into the main event. As long as we fast, we can go to work and carry on as usual, without giving a thought to the events of the day or our need to take responsibility for the situation Klal Yisrael finds itself in today.
In last week’s parashah, Bilam decides to try and even the playing field with Am Yisrael. If the Avos built seven altars between the three of them, he would “neutralize” them and their power by instructing Balak to build seven altars all by himself. Moreover, Balak could actually overtake them, for Avraham only brought a ram, while Balak was bringing a ram and a cow on each of the seven altars!
At first glance, Bilam’s spiritual calculus appears preposterous. The Avos built altars and offered korbanos as an expression of devotion to Hashem, of closeness and mesirus nefesh. Bilam was just going through the motions. How could that possibly have served as a counterweight to our holy Avos and their deeds?
The answer, of course, is that Bilam was focused on the relatively trivial, the mechanics of putting up an altar and offering sacrifices, instead of the essence. And when you do that, you come up with severely flawed conclusions.
Similarly, in the case of the Three Weeks: If we focus exclusively on the trappings of mourning for the Beis Hamikdash — the fasting on the 17th of Tammuz and Tishah B’Av, the various prohibitions against wearing freshly laundered clothes, eating meat and drinking wine from Rosh Chodesh, and the more severe prohibitions on Tishah B’Av day itself — we risk missing the point.
To be sure, it’s difficult to make time for introspection these days, when we are in our regular routines. It’s also difficult to appreciate the enormity of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and how its continued absence impacts our lives and on the world, since we never merited experiencing it.
But if we contemplate just the first item on the list of tragedies for which we mourn on the 17th of Tammuz — Moshe’s witnessing the unspeakable atrocity of Am Yisrael worshipping the Golden Calf and smashing the luchos, the Divine word of Hashem — surely we can’t help but be shaken. What a tragedy! And it was caused, first and foremost, by a failure to show emunas chachamim and believe in Aharon Hakohen instead of the fear-mongers who were looking for an excuse to be porek ol, to shed the Heavenly yoke.
Contemplating these events, feeling the enormity of the tragedy and understanding its cause, can’t help but lead to a strengthening of our emunas chachamim.
Over the next three weeks, our concerns have to go deeper than doing laundry before Rosh Chodesh Av or buying appropriate footwear for Tishah B’Av. We need to make time to contemplate, to learn, to daven, so that we don’t allow the tafel, the relatively insignificant, to overshadow the ikar, the main thing.
Baruch Hashem we live in an era in which shiurim on the subject of the day are plentiful. It’s our job to take advantage of them and ensure that even as we continue with our regular routines, there is an awareness of the meaning of these days and the spiritual challenges they present.
While this is a period that focuses on tragic events, it is also a time of hope. We might have expected that there would be no way to recover from the Golden Calf. Instead, Hashem gives Moshe a “formula,” the 13 middos, that can be used in the defense of Am Yisrael even if zechus Avos runs out. What a powerful message about the ability to overcome even the worst breaches — resulting in the smashing of the luchos and the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash — and resume a close relationship with Hashem!
One of the things we can surely try to do, that requires no extra time (or expertise in Jewish history), is to pay attention during Shemoneh Esrei to those bakashos that express our yearning for the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash.
May we merit to seize this opportunity presented by the Three Weeks and engage in the kind of introspection that will lead to genuine teshuvah and, ultimately, in the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash, speedily in our days.