Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Three Weeks
To dedicate this lesson

Three Difficult Weeks


Rabbi Berel Wein

The period of the "Three Weeks" on the Jewish calendar beginning with the fast day of seventeen Tamuz and culminating on 9 Av starts this week. This period of time is marked by different social and personal customs in the Jewish world. Ashkenazic Jews do not cut their hair or beards, refrain fro listening to music and other forms of entertainment, marriages are not solemnized and new clothing is not purchased during this three week period. Sephardic Jews usually limit most of these restrictions to the week of 9 Av itself. In any event, this period of time commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and the subsequent loss of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel and the enforced exile and scattering of the Jews throughout the world. Personally, I have not found the restrictions imposed by the advent of this period of mournful restrictions especially onerous. I fast well, my hair grows slowly, I am not that much of a music fan and the relief from not having to attend weddings every night of the week (such as was the case during the previous month) is soothing, both physically and mentally. But this period of time is always very troubling to me and it agitates my thoughts and philosophical well being. For it raises to me the fundamentally unanswerable question of all Jewish existence over the past millennia - why? Where is there the justification for all of the centuries of persecution and the fate of the millions of Jewish martyrs who were killed only because they were Jewish? Does the punishment seemingly fit the crime?

These questions are of course naïve, simplistic and not subject to human logical responses. The Lord treats in a special way that precludes questions such as these. A wise man once stated that for the true believer there are no questions and for the committed non-believer there can never be any satisfactory answers. Yet is it not ironic that the Jew always bears the burden of others’ guilt and their past misdeeds. Look how the State of Israel, innocent of the accusations showered upon it, is being made to pay for the imperialism, colonialism, racism and evil by the very countries and societies of Europe that perpetrated those very policies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Somehow overwhelmed by this gnawing sense of guilt that their dubious record of past behavior now engenders within them, the Europeans search for a scapegoat upon which to cast their past misdeeds and thereby be absolved of their sins. And the most likely and favorite scapegoat is the Jew, now represented by the State of Israel. This is in reality the message of these mournful weeks on the Jewish calendar. We are always available to serve as that convenient scapegoat. We should not be surprised therefore by the world’s attitude towards our existence and especially our success against all odds. Hatred and bigotry towards us go along with the prize of being a special people and a source of irritation to the remnants of the world’s moral conscience.

Thus the three weeks of mourning and sadness, though localized on the history of the Jewish people, are really of universal import. The Jew and the Jewish nation has always been the litmus paper test of human morality and decency. Bilaam said that Israel is not to be reckoned amongst the nations. Its existence and history is singularly unique. Yet the corollary to this statement is that the nations are to be reckoned, judged and held to account according to their relationship to the Jewish people. All of the persecuting empires that triumphed during this three week period of Jewish defeat are nevertheless all since long gone from the human scene. In our time, Nazism, Fascism, Communism - all oppressors of the Jewish people and at one time seemingly invincible have crumbled into nothingness. Our "friends" England and France have been cut down to size and all of Europe has been destabilized by ethnic divisions and economic misfortunes. Hence it should be obvious to all that we do not mourn alone. Our very oppressors are partners to our sadness and regrets. There have been no comebacks in history. No empire, once weakened and defeated, has risen again to world dominance. Thus their weeping is permanent for former greatness is never restored. The United States itself currently teeters on the verge of losing its preeminence in world society. I feel that its attitude and policies towards Israel will somehow be weighed in determining its future fate. Jewish mourning always eventually leads to determined consolation and a renewed future sense of purpose and accomplishment. It is never permanent. These thoughts are worthy of our contemplation as the period of the three weeks arrives.
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