Summertime Sadness: Bein ha-Metzarim

July 14, 2023


Summertime in the Western imagination is characterized by #positivevibes: cook-outs, lounging by the pool or on the beach, free time to travel and have new adventures! But summertime sadness (in addition to the 2012 Lana Del Rey hit) is a real thing. Not only is there a less-common iteration of Seasonal Affective Disorder in warmer, sunnier months, but in Jewish tradition too: At this time of year, we find ourselves Bein ha-Metzarim, “between the narrows,” or in “the days of distress,” or simply, “the Three Weeks,” spanning from the 17th of Tammuz (last Thursday), until Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, corresponding to Thursday July 27th. 

The 17th of Tammuz is a minor fast day, commemorating the breach of Jerusalem’s walls before the destruction of the Second Temple, and is also said to be the day Moses descended Mount Sinai, saw the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf and broke the first set of tablets. Tisha B’Av is known as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, on which numerous devastating events are said to have befallen the Jewish people, including but not limited to: 

  • The day the twelve spies – sent by Moses to scout the Land of Israel – returned with mixed reports that led to forty years of wandering in the desert,
  • The destruction of both the First Temple in 586 BCE and the Second Temple in 70 CE,
  • The defeat of the Bar Kochba revolt, final razing of the Temple site, and the killing over 500,000 Jewish civilians in 135 CE…

During this time, in addition to fasting at the beginning and the end of the Three Weeks, special haftarot, readings from the books of Prophets, are traditionally read on Shabbat, in which the prophets foretell of impending destruction for the Israelites’ lack of adherence to the mitzvot, and generally for being not-so good people to their neighbors and one another. Tisha B’Av culminates, in many communities, with a public reading of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, characterized by a unique haunting and beautiful trope, or cantillation, used only for this biblical book. These readings are often done in dim, candle-lit spaces, and those in attendance sit on low stools or on the floor, not unlike in a house of mourning, reflecting the grief that is felt at the incalculable loss of the Temple, arguable the largest disruption of Jewish ritual and practice in our community’s history. 

In Reform Jewish communities, most of us don’t have a particularly strong relationship to the 17th of Tammuz, the Three Weeks or Tisha B’Av because we don’t have a particularly strong relationship to the ancient Temple, nor do we hold particular hopes for its rebuilding (for many, many reasons). But nonetheless, I understand the Three Weeks to be a much-needed opportunity to practice, to embody and get acquainted with the experience of grief in a communal, supportive setting. I say much-needed because as Julia Samuel writes in her book, Grief Works, despite the universal experience of human grief, there is a “paradox of grief”. Samuel writes: 

Samuel continues, “[Grief] is so frightening, even alien, for many of us that we cannot find the words to voice it. This silence leads to an ignorance that can prevent us from responding to grief both in others and in ourselves. We prefer it when the bereaved don’t show their distress, and we say how ‘amazing’ they are by being ‘so strong’” […] “As humans, we naturally try to avoid suffering but, contrary to all our instincts, to heal our grief we need to allow ourselves to feel the pain; we need to find ways to support ourselves in it, for it cannot be escaped.” 

Of course, we can never predict how we will respond to a loss in real-time, and while there are discernable stages in the process, grief is not linear or predictable, but I believe it is with the awareness of the need to acquaint ourselves with grief that the authors of Jewish tradition developed certain spiritual technologies, such as the collective mourning done during the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Av. By intentionally carving out time and space to learn to express ours and be in the presence of others’ grief, we might learn a thing or two about how to respond and be present in the inevitable eventuality of a personal loss or witnessing another’s loss, and effectively supporting them through it, or seeking support for ourselves. 

Over the last three years, we’ve felt, heard and seen the impact of loss – and of grief – brought on by all the losses in the wake of COVID, as well as by other disasters, both natural and human-created. In response, experts in the fields of psychology, medicine, arteven business, and of course spiritual care, have sought to address the need for spaces and outlets to express what’s going on inside of us. But our ancestors knew then and have given us these ritual gifts to help us cope and get us through the darkest moment of mourning. So, over the coming few weeks, whether you’re feeling a little blue, or grieving a loss large or small, give yourself permission to feel those feelings, and know that you are not alone in your summertime sadness.

Rabbi Queen