While the 17th of Tammuz marks the breach of the walls of Jerusalem it also marks the day the original two tablets were broken by Moses. From this date to the 9th of Av we count Three Weeks, a period of increasing stringency as a run up to the Fast Day of the 9th of Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temple. There are two messages from the 17th of Tammuz that will help prepare us for the 9th of Av. The first is that although G-d prepared a second set of tablets for Moses, there would always be the broken tablets that remain behind as a reminder of failure and loss. For me this signifies that none of us gets through life without some set of broken tablets lying there in front of us. [The Buddhist tradition teaches this through the story of the woman who sought the Buddha to find a way to console her after her child died and the Buddha said he would do this after she brought a token from a home which had suffered no sorrow. The woman went to every home and found that there was no such home and this knowledge comforted her]
An incident one week ago brought this home to me. I was in Panera Bread at 630 in the morning buying some food for Neilah’s breakfast, in that pre-coffee haze that I live in at that time of day. Muzak was playing in the background when suddenly on came Leonard Cohen’s “That’s no way to say goodbye” and instantly I was back to a time and place 45 years ago, when my then girlfriend and first lover played that song for me just before she closed the door on our relationship forever. I stood there and the hurt, the months of crying and suffering, the long years of trying to forget her, of never being able to listen to that song without leaving the room before the chorus came on, all came back as clear as day, as though I was still standing there in her apartment, still walking out the door, once again. And there are others, the job I lost, the time my son died, the missed opportunities to do something really beautiful, the bad speech when I could have given a good speech, the roads not taken and the thorns on the roads I did take…. And I consider myself to be a happy person, living a life I like with people I love and work I enjoy. Yet the losses, the broken tablets are always with us, as necessary to a full life as a good pair of lungs. We Jews carry our losses with us throughout history, for as Isaac Bashevis Singer once observed, “We Jews have many faults but amnesia is not one of them” and this curse contains within the blessing of continuity, purpose and connection to other Jews and to G-d.
And the other theme is idolatry and how easily we fall into it. Here were the Israelites, 40 days from the Revelation at Sinai, the only direct encounter with G-d we as a entire people ever had, and they go and build a golden calf. “A man never knows what he has until he loses it” We cannot rest and “live in the House of the Lord forever” no matter what the psalmist says. We must find an idol, whether it is money, power, fame, the love of more than one woman or man, the desire to be more than we are, or to appear to be more than we are, etc. And we cannot resist the urge to turn away at the first time we feel alone or abandoned, as the Israelites did, and we need to find something to replace our emptiness with. So many years and even lives lived with the sole purpose of filling an empty space in the soul, even if it is only empty because the soul has been left alone without its partner even for a little while.
To fight idolatry requires a quiet mind and fulfilled soul, discipline of spirit, mind and body, and a willingness to realize that the struggle is never won, that we are born idol-worshippers, and that the phrase we start the Passover telling with – “my father was a wandering Aramean” – remains true to this day.