Shivah Asar b’Tammuz, which was marked earlier this week, is one of the lesser-known dates on the Jewish calendar. That might have something to do with the fact that it’s a fast day in the middle of the summer – not quite as long as the 25-hour marathon fasts of Tisha b’Av, which it precedes by exactly three weeks, and Yom Kippur, but long enough that it hurts (especially when it falls on a scorching Sunday, as was the case this year).
Nevertheless, the fast of the 17th of Tammuz marks a quintet of calamities in Jewish history. It is the date when: Moses broke the tablets after descending from Mount Sinai; the daily sacrifice ceased to be offered at the Temple amid the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem; Roman military leader Apostamus burned a Torah scroll; an idol was placed inside the Temple; and the city walls of Jerusalem were breached during the Roman siege. That’s quite the haul.
The last of those five tragedies is as apt a metaphor as any for the times we find ourselves in, when it seems so many of the foundations of society are crumbling around us.
From here in Canada, we get a close (but thankfully not too close) view of the deteriorating level of discourse in the United States. President Donald Trump’s recommendation that four congresswomen “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came,” followed by chants of “send her back” directed toward one of them, Rep. Ilhan Omar, by thousands of supporters at a campaign rally, represent a societal breach of tremendous concern. It is not easy to render Omar, who trades in anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, a sympathetic figure, but these displays of bigotry are chilling.
With each new escalation, the foundations shudder a little more. (And let’s not let Canada entirely off the hook, either – not while Bill 21 is law in Quebec.) Inevitably, the Jewish people get caught in the middle of it. Just look at Britain’s Labour party, which, a BBC investigation revealed recently, has systematically worked to alienate and intimidate Jews under leader Jeremy Corbyn. The party is so rife with anti-Semitism, according to former staffers, that even its nominally independent disputes division, designed specifically to investigate these sorts of offences, has been gamed to cover up Jew-hatred.
If this all seems too negative, I hear you, but then again, this is the time of the Jewish year in which to be pessimistic. Shivah Asar b’Tammuz marks the beginning of three weeks of mourning for the destruction of the two temples, culminating with the Ninth of Av, the saddest date on the Jewish calendar. It is a dangerous time, historically speaking.
The walls have been breached, yes, but the process is reversible. One of the underlying teachings of the three weeks is that such a reversal is inevitable – order will be restored. Indeed, the authors of the elegies read on Tisha b’Av, and collectively known as Kinot, speak directly of this return to better times, even amid the doom and gloom. Those who mourn the destruction of the temples, so the saying goes, are destined to see it rebuilt.