Beyond the Three Weeks

The month of Av brings with it forgiveness similar to the experience of Yom Kippur.

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Heading Toward Yom Kippur

The two worst sins of the desert are attributed by tradition to these two days respectively: the golden-calf incident on the 17th of Tammuz and the incident of the spies [who reported that the Land of Canaan was unconquerable] on Tisha B'Av. The first incident, only 40 days after the Revelation at Sinai, shows how quickly the people forgot the Sinai experience in seeking a tangible image to worship. The second incident occurred in the second year of the Exodus. Because they believed the spies' report that they could not defeat the inhabitants of Canaan, God condemned that whole generation to die in the desert; only their children would enter the Promised Land. These rejections of God and of Eretz Yisrael can be regarded as prophetic of the later historical experience when the Jewish people were exiled from both God and the land.

The rest of Jewish history is an attempt to work our way back. According to tradition, the Israelites received final forgiveness for the golden-calf incident when Moses came down from Mount Sinai at the end of the third period of 40 days. That day was the 10th of Tishrei--Yom Kippur.

Just as Yom Kippur brings forgiveness for the golden-calf incident of the 17th of Tammuz, so the minor holiday Tu B'Av [the fifteenth of Av](according to one tradition) brings forgiveness for the spies' incident of Tisha B'Av. It marks, in fact, the end of the 40 years of wandering [with the death of the generation that had left Egypt] and immediately precedes the entrance to the promised land. No longer abandoned in the desert, we, as part of the mythic dimension of Judaism, can end our aimless wandering and finally move onward.

Rediscovering Joy After Tisha B'Av

Tu B'Av provides a contrast of joyous celebration following the ever-deepening gloom and mourning of the Three Weeks. Coming seven days after Tisha B'Av, Tu B'Av symbolically serves as the end of the shiva--theseven days of mourning for the dead. Just as the mourner ends shiva on the morning of the seventh day, so may we cast off the blackness of despair and go out of our house of mourning wearing white and dancing and courting in the fields as did the maidens of old in Israel.

From Tu B'Av we are ready to move on to Elul, a prelude to the High Holiday season with its themes of renewal and return. In fact, the period of Elul embodies a process of courtship between us and God. This theme of courtship is captured in the traditional belief that the Hebrew letters of the word Elul are an abbreviation for the phrase Ani le-dodi ve-dodi li--"Iam my beloved's, and my beloved is mine," referring to God and Israel. Estranged from each other during the Three Weeks, Israel and God rediscover each other beginning with Tu B'Av and initiate the slow and at times painful process of becoming lovers again. This process climaxes with Yom Kippur, when we are forgiven for that original breach of faith, the incident of the golden calf, which began this whole process of mourning and renewing on the 17th of Tammuz.

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Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.