Every 17th of Tammuz, either someone asks me or I have to ask someone else: Why are we fasting today?
There are multiple answers, all true.
On the 17th of Tammuz, Moses smashed the tablets containing the Ten Commandments when he saw the sin of the Golden Calf. On the 17th of Tammuz during the period of the First Temple, daily sacrifices stopped when the priests couldn't obtain kosher animals. During the second Temple era, an idol was placed in the Temple. Along with a litany of other dreadful things up until the modern era.
The one that seems most significant is that the walls of Jerusalem were breached on the 17th of Tammuz in 70 CE. That was the beginning of the end of the Second Temple. Once the walls were breached, the end was in sight, and the Temple was destroyed not long after.
The 17th of Tammuz is a day of calamity for the Jewish people -- a day when calamity begins.
Those examples, however difficult it might be for our modern minds to understand them, are linked.
What, after all, does the destruction of the Temples mean?
17 Tammuz 5766: Today
My modern mind doesn't always get why it was so calamitous. But there are moments when I get it. Especially like today, the 16th of Tammuz 5766: A day on which two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped (joining another already held for two weeks), at least eight killed, and the specter of some sort of all-out war is once again looming.
The 17th of Tammuz represents the loss of our clear connection to God and clear purpose in the world.
The loss of the Temple represents a loss of Jewish sovereignty, the loss of national self-determination. The Temple represents living as a people in our own borders, subject not to the whims of other nations but to God.
Spiritually, the loss is far clearer -- and far more devastating. The 17th of Tammuz represents the beginning of the loss of our clear connection to God, a loss of our clear purpose in the world, the disappearance of clarity, of understanding.
The 17th of Tammuz is a day of interruptions, of disruptions, of defilement, of obfuscation.
When we worshipped the Golden Calf, we misplaced our loyalty and devotion --transferring our gratitude and fidelity from the God who had taken us out of Egypt to a "god" we fashioned from melted-down bits of metal.
The placement of an idol in our holiest of holies defiled the spot where God had chosen to "dwell" among us; the ineffable was replaced with the profane.
The 17th of Tammuz is a day of distortion, of confusion, of fear.
Our sages tell us that the fasts we mark are supposed to awaken within us a sense of loss and mourning over the tragedies that have befallen our people, and that should awaken within us a desire to do teshuvah, to repent.
Temples defiled, soldiers held hostage
And so tonight, as I am thinking about what I should eat now so that I will have an easy fast tomorrow, my mind is flying between thoughts of Temple defiled and -- so much more real to me at the moment -- three soldiers being held somewhere, scared and probably a whole lot more hungry and uncomfortable than I will be tomorrow.
I am thinking of eight families mourning. Mothers wailing. Wives now widowed. Children now fatherless.
I am thinking of all of the soldiers sitting in armored personnel carriers, already in Lebanon. Young soldiers, whose mothers won't sleep tonight, and probably won't sleep for a few weeks yet.
Those soldiers make me think of my upstairs neighbor's son, Yakir. Just this week I'd returned from a month-long trip to the U.S. and found my car battery completely dead. When Yakir heard, he interrupted his one night off duty and turned around his car full of off-duty soldiers to come home and jump my car.
There were five soldiers piled into his tiny car and they all poured out, tossing around jumper cables, hooking up wires, turning knobs and yelling good-naturedly to one another until my recalcitrant car started up and they were convinced it was okay to drive. Only then did they go off for their one night out.
It is those boys for whom I am praying with all my heart this 17th of Tammuz, praying that God will not make these coming weeks another series of painful memories (and praying that our leaders will make the right decisions).
It scares me that this is all beginning on today, of all days. This is not a historically auspicious time for the Jewish people. The future is murky.
Longing for a perfected world
Above all, this day reminds us that in a perfected world (what Jewish tradition calls the Messianic Age), everything will be clear. We will understand that we have the privilege of living here in order to serve our Creator. The will of God will be clearer to us -- and to the whole world -- than the obfuscations of Hezbollah apologists and other demagogues (let alone unfortunate or inaccurate word choice by reporters). We'll see the direct link between things like serving idols -- be they golden calves or priorities misshapen into perversities -- and horrors like today.
For how long will the mothers of Gilad Shalit and every other brave soldier have to live in fear?
We'll understand how kindnesses like Yakir and his friends showed me the other night move us closer to a perfected world and how thinking that we can control everything moves us further away.
I hear someone's haunting voice crying in my ears, "Ad matei?" For how long? For how long will the confusion and pain and excuses go on? For how long will we mistake idols for power? For how long will the mothers of Gilad Shalit and every other brave soldier have to live in fear? For how long will we live subject to everything except our own God?
We know that Jewish tradition reassures us that, someday, the 17th of Tammuz will be a day of rejoicing. And that must give us hope. Today's fast marks only the beginning, only the confusion, the distortion; there is still time for things to be set right. For politicians to make the right decisions, for soldiers to fight bravely, for righteous anger to be expressed.
And for us to stand up for what each of us can -- some with broad reach to speak truth to power, some to look at ourselves and repair what is flawed within us, some to pray, some to learn, some to fight, all of us to reach out to one another with kindness and caring and the conviction that, one day, the smoke will clear and that elusive clarity of purpose will be back in our hands.