The three weeks from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av are marked by our mourning over a long series of tragedies that befell the Jewish People during this period. The most overwhelming calamity was the destruction of the Sanctuary in Jerusalem, which was destroyed on the ninth of Av in 586 B.C.E. and again in 68 C.E.
As an expression of our mourning, we do not schedule weddings, we refrain from shaving and having haircuts; from the beginning of the month of Av, we refrain from eating meat and drinking wine on weekdays. The mourning culminates in the fast of the Ninth of Av.
These days of lament were instituted with a specific goal in mind. They were not instituted in order to mark the date of an irretrievable loss, but rather as a means of once again obtaining what we lost so many years ago.
By setting out these procedures for mourning, the Sages guided us in enhancing our awareness that our nation incurred a tremendous loss from which it has not yet managed to recover fully. In the past, the Jewish nation attained spiritual heights which were recognized and admired by the nations of the world.
One might ask why we persist in observing these days of sadness. Dwelling on past suffering and mourning one’s losses can be detrimental rather than constructive, and our Sages were certainly aware of this danger. Even so, they instituted this period of national mourning, which we continue to observe thousands of years later.
What do we hope to gain? Isn’t it easier to just forget past wounds, and look to the future?
To answer this question, we must understand the goal of the laws of mourning. We observe these days not because of what we lost, but because of what we hope to gain, or re-gain, as a result. During these three weeks, we give expression to our regret over our loss with a definite, constructive goal in mind: to recover our loss by renewing our devotion to the spiritual aspects of our national endeavor.
There is little point in crying over spilt milk, because milk cannot be scooped up and returned to the bottle. However, if one overturns a bushel basket of apples, it is foolish and wasteful not to bend down to gather them together and collect them in the basket once more. This is a loss which can – and should be – recouped.
However, no one stoops down to pick up wandering apples, or even pearls, sapphires, and diamonds, unless he is aware of the fact that he has dropped them. Intellectually, we may be fully aware of all the dates and historical details of the fall of the Sanctuary, but our hearts do not mourn our losses.
The hundreds and thousands of years of exile have so dulled our souls that we no longer appreciate what it was like to live on a far higher moral plane. We have no nostalgic memories of when we were a sovereign nation in our own homeland, living exclusively under Torah law. We are like someone who has sat in a darkened room so long that his eyes are now accustomed to the lack of light.
Tears have a unique quality. Words are the language of the mind; tears speak for the heart. Our feelings are too deep within our hearts to come to the surface and be expressed as words. Tears, however, express emotions, rather than abstract ideas or concepts.
The Sanctuary was not destroyed in one day. The events on that bitter Ninth of Av were the end result of a long, on-going process which had begun many years previously. When the Jewish nation was about to enter their homeland after the Exodus from Egypt, their faith in their Creator was beclouded by reports that the tribes then dwelling in the Land of Canaan were enormous giants who had built strongly fortified cities. The majority of the people took the reports they heard to mean that there was no chance of their dispossessing the Canaanites and taking possession of the land that G-d had promised to them.
On the night of the Ninth of Av that year, there in the wilderness, they sat and wept over the tragedy that had befallen them. Their weeping disclosed that their trust in G-d’s promise was less than perfect. Up to this point, their hearts were firm in their faith in the G-d who had freed them from Egypt, who had split the waters of the Red Sea, and had revealed Himself to them on Mount Sinai. They were fully convinced that He would continue to protect them from all those who opposed them.
The descriptions of the Canaanites that the spies brought back with them devitalized that complete trust in their Maker. That first year, in the wilderness, the Ninth of Av was a tragic date, for it marked the first time that their hearts failed to trust completely in their Maker. This blemish in their hearts festered and grew; even generations later, it had still failed to heal. In the very depths of their inner being, so deeply buried that even thought and logic could not reach them, the seminal doubts continued to fester, like a hidden worm slowly consuming the core of an apple.
With time, even the outer peel of the apple bears signs of the enemy within. The skin becomes discolored and bruised, the flesh no longer firm. So, too, the hearts of Israel eventually bore tale-tell signs of the decay within. The perceptive eye could detect the outward blemishes that pointed to inner faults that had thus far been invisible. Toward the end of the period of the First Temple, even idol worship became to show its ugly face, here and there, within the homes of Israel. The faith of the Jewish People in One G-d and One alone, was no longer a foregone conclusion.
The destruction of the Sanctuary was more than a punishment. Its goal was to arouse hearts that had become numb and indifferent. It revealed the true state of the inner workings of the collective Jewish soul.
The Shechinah, the Divine Presence, withdrew from the magnificent stone edifice that stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. However, the Israelites continued to go through the motions of bringing offerings to the Sanctuary and performing all the rites and rituals of the Temple service. The skin of the apple did not yet show the blemishes that bespoke the decay that was gradually festering within. Even the repeated warnings of the prophets were not enough to avert the danger, and the Temple was destroyed.
Now one and all were forced to admit openly: G-d’s Presence was no longer with them. If they wished to continue being partners to their covenant with G-d, they would have to improve their ways, to purify their inner hearts.
Weeping serves as a way to access the inner depth of the heart. When we shed tears over what the Jewish People lost when their Sanctuary was leveled to the ground, we strengthen our awareness of the spiritual disintegration that has taken place within us. We openly acknowledge that there remains a gaping chasm between ourselves and our Creator. Thus our tears have the power to renew our bond with G-d and our faith in Him alone.
Indeed, we find that immediately after the Ninth of Av, we embark on a period of consolation. On Shabbos morning, following the Torah reading, we add one of a series of seven selections from the Prophet Isaiah, the seven haftoros of comfort and consolation.
During this period, when our hearts are newly sensitized to our spirituality, we renew our anticipation of the ultimate redemption. Our renewed faith is in and of itself a means of bringing closer the final redemption of all Israel, and with them, all of mankind.