Tammuz :There Ain’t No Cure for the Summertime Blues

Nov 17, 2014

Rabbi Francis Nataf
Teacher, Midreshet Rachel v’Chaya

Summertime has always been a difficult period spiritually. It is no coincidence that the low point of the Jewish calendar falls out in Tammuz and Av, right in the middle of the summer.

Tammuz embodies the inherent difficulty of bottling inspiration. It comes right after the high point in the Jewish year, which is Shavuot. There is no more significant event in Jewish history than what we refer to as “Zman Matan Torateinu.” When I was in yeshiva, I remember the tremendous feeling that I got staying up to learn all night. It brought the whole year’s learning into proper spiritual context. But what do you do the day after Shavuot? If the answer is that you sleep in, then you may understand the problem I’m talking about.

The original Matan Torah lasted for almost a year, starting with Maamad Har Sinai in Parshat Yitro, and lasting until the next journey in Parshat Behaalotkha. Until that time they were learning the new commandments while encamped in the place they had received them: Yeshivat Har Sinai. The inspiration of such learning must have been something we only feel a pale reflection of, when we learn through the night on Shavuot. Yet it is exactly when they took their first “bein hazmanim,” immediately after this Sinai experience, that things fell apart, leading shortly to all the disasters we encounter in Sefer Bemidbar. A very strange statement in the Gemara may give us greater insight into these events. In Shabbat 116a, there is a discussion about why the narrative at the end of Chapter 10 in Bemidbar is interrupted by seemingly disjointed verses that are, in turn, encircled by backwards letter nuns. R. Shimon ben Gamliel explains that the interruption is to separate between the two “puraniot,” or failures.

There are two questions to ask. One is asked by the Gemara itself, “What is the identity of the first failing?” It is quite unclear. The second question – which the Gemara does not ask – is, “Where did R. Shimon ben Gamliel get such a principle of separating between two failures, which should ostensibly have wide application. In Sefer Bemidbar alone, we encounter one failure after another with no separations in between. We then have to wonder why this principle is applied only here.

A careful analysis of the Gemara’s answer to the first question may give us the answer to the second one as well. The Gemara answers that the first failing was that the Jews left Har Hashem (even though they were commanded to do so). R. Chama b’Rebbi Chanina explains that a careful reading reveals that this leaving from Har Sinai coincided with a leaving away from G-d (shesaru mei’acharei Hashem). In other words, they were so drained from the intense spiritual experience that they saw their first journey as something of a vacation.

The Jews were meant to move on, as we all are at some point. The question is, how do you take your leave? The greater the inspiration, the harder it is to integrate it into our travels, into our mundane lives. Whatever mitzvot or Torah study one is involved with outside the yeshiva, it pales in comparison to that which we experienced in the “yeshiva bubble.” As such, it is natural to feel emptiness and discouragement. When R. Shimon ben Gamliel invokes his principle only here, he is saying that only a failure of great magnitude deserves being separated out from all the other failures: The natural inability to integrate inspirational experiences into our normal lives is at the root of all the other failures and is therefore a failure of the greatest magnitude. Instead of finding strategies to take it with us, we prefer to simply take a “vacation”.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out recently, Jewish time is both cyclical and linear. After the highlight of Shavuot, the natural tendency is to get tired, which leads into the depression of how low we have fallen in Tammuz and Av, setting up the period for Teshuva in Elul and Tishrei. This is the regular cycle of the year. Jewish time, however, is also linear, in the sense that it leads to a messianic age. The kink with which we have to deal, is what to do after the climax that we encounter each year in Sivan. When we can avoid the natural pitfalls of Tammuz, we can change the nature of the “moed” in Av. Thus, we have a tradition that the Mashiach will be born on Tisha b’Av.

A true desire to bring on the messianic age requires us to work hard on maintaining our enthusiasm, even when it is not natural. That means we cannot take a “vacation,” even when we are on vacation.

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