The Three Weeks of Calamity

The Three Weeks of Calamity



The “Three Weeks,” which span the 17th of Tammuz through the 9th of Av, have historically been days of misfortune and calamity for the Jewish people. Over the course of history, the Jewish people have endured many tragedies during these three weeks.

These days are also referred to as “bein hametzarim – in the midst of the distresses,” based on the prophet Jeremiah’s observation regarding the Jewish people: “She finds no rest; all her pursuers overtook her in the midst of her distresses” (Lamentations 1:3).

During this time, various aspects of mourning are observed. We minimize joy and celebration by not holding weddings or listening to music. Many also have the custom of not shaving or getting haircuts.

These expressions of mourning take on even greater intensity as we approach the 9th day of Av (Sunday 18th July. Erev Tisha B’Av is on Saturday evening at sunset), which is the anniversary of the destruction of both the first and the second Holy Temples in Jerusalem, roughly some 2500 and 2000 years ago respectively. Many other tragedies occurred on this day as well.

Just as it has been said that “if you want a change in attitude start by changing your behavior,” we similarly observe these various expressions of mourning as a way to internalize the loss we suffered as a nation. Even still, because of the privileged lives that most citizens in “first world” countries enjoy, it usually requires real focus and sombre contemplation to truly feel the sadness of what has been lost.

Not this year.

In the wake of Miami’s latest tragedy, the Champlain Towers South building collapse, those who “only” lost their homes and all their worldly possessions were the “lucky” ones. Those who lost their lives and those who are still missing – may the Almighty have mercy – leave families and friends stunned and heartbroken, struggling to comprehend the enormity of the loss.

At times like these there is a worldwide custom of observing a “moment of silence” for those who have passed. While we do this for modern tragedies, here in the United States Memorial Day is mostly celebrated by having a day off from work and going to the beach. However, in Israel it is a very different experience.

Israel’s Yom HaZikaron – Day of Remembrance – actually starts with a siren the preceding evening at 8:00 pm (because in the Hebrew calendar a day begins at sunset). The siren is heard all over the country and lasts for one minute, during which Israelis stop everything – even if they are driving, they will stop and get out of their cars and stand in silence, commemorating the fallen and showing respect.

By law, all places of entertainment are closed on the eve of Yom HaZikaron, and all media and broadcasting outlets express the solemnity of the day. Regular television programs cease for the day, and the names and ranks of every soldier who died for Israel are displayed in a 24-hour television broadcast.

A two-minute siren is then sounded at 11:00 the following morning, at which time, once again, the entire country comes to a halt and stands in silence. This marks the opening of the official memorial ceremonies and private remembrance gatherings at various cemeteries across the country. What is the essence of this natural inclination to commemorate death with a moment of silence?

We have a source in the Torah for this as well. When Aaron, the brother of Moses, suddenly lost two sons in a tragic manner the Torah records his response: “And Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 10:1-3).

The great medieval sage and Torah commentator Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) said that Aaron was silent because “Aaron’s heart turned to lifeless stone. He did not weep and mourn like a bereaved father, nor did he accept Moses’ attempts to console him, for his soul had left him and he was speechless.”

Not saying anything when you have nothing to say is not the same as being silent. The Talmud actually assigns silence a value (Megillah 18a): “If a word is worth a sela (unit of money in the times of the Talmud), silence is worth two!” (Similarly, there is an expression in Arabic, “Words are worth silver; silence is worth gold.”) I remember my great grandfather used to comment on hearing a certain rabbi speak, “It was a good speech, but it doesn’t come close to being silent.”

Almost exactly thirty years ago (July 11, 1991) my father delivered a class on this very topic – exploring the connection between mourning and silence. Regular readers of the Shabbat Shalom Weekly are aware that much of what I write is based on the teachings and lessons that I have learned from my brilliant father, HaRav Yochanan Zweig Shlita (that is the Hebrew acronym for “May he live a good long life – Amen”).

My father points out that while speech is generally considered a uniquely human trait, animals also communicate through sound. To a person who doesn’t understand a strange foreign language it will not be any more recognizable or understandable than hearing two dogs barking at each other. What’s the difference between the two?

When the Almighty created man the Torah says; “And Hashem formed man from the earth and blew into his nostril the soul of life and he became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). The ancient commentator Onkelos (circa 35-120 CE) translates the words “living soul” to “a speaking spirit.”

Speech can be an expression for our physical selves and it can also be an expression of our spiritual selves. When a person grunts, makes derisive comments, or uses speech to attack someone, it is a form of speech that is being derived from our physical existence. This is also known as visceral speech – from viscera – relating to the “gut.” This is language driven by our physical existence. In this manner, humanity is similar to all living beings that can communicate.

What makes man unique is that his soul can be expressed through articulated speech. Whether it is by relaying ideas, praying, or expressing thoughts of love, gratitude, admiration, or affection, these forms of speech are derived from our spiritual souls and are what make man unique among all other creatures.

We find in the book of Psalms (115:17), “The dead cannot praise the Lord, nor can any who go down into silence.” Death marks the end of our ability to verbally express a reflection of our souls. Thus, a moment of silence to remember those who have passed is actually the most fitting tribute to commemorates the loss. In addition, as Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel pointed out relating to Aaron, an expression of silence also reflects that the loss has affected us at our very core, “for his soul had left him and he was speechless.”

May the Almighty shelter in his loving embrace those souls who have perished, and give strength and some sense of solace to all those who are suffering from this terrible tragedy. Amen.