This essay is an excerpt from Sam Glaser’s book, “The Joy of Judaism.”
For most of us, summer is a carefree time. As one Jew wrote: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.” We all have delightful memories of beach vacations, camp or family road trips. Thanks to our agrarian past, schools offered a few months off so the kids could help with the harvest. Nowadays, our kids use that time to forget everything they learned the previous semester. For Jews, there’s one wrinkle in the enjoyment of those long summer afternoons: just in case we are having too much fun, the spoilsport rabbis of yore gave us twenty-two days of semi-mourning smack dab in the middle of waterslide season.
The Three Weeks serve as an “Ice Bucket Challenge” to cool us off amidst our barefoot frolicking. There are six fast days in the Jewish calendar and two of them bookend this mid-summer period. The others are scattered throughout the year: the Tenth of Tevet, the Fast of Esther, the Fast of Gedaliah and the famous one, Yom Kippur. While we are commanded to always serve God with joy, during the Three Weeks, we “lessen” our joy by refraining from such things as live music, weddings and haircuts, just enough so we acquire a sense of mourning. This period begins with the daybreak until darkness fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, this year on July 9th. It commemorates the day Moshe broke the tablets, daily offerings ceased in the First Temple and Romans breached the Second Temple era walls of Jerusalem. Our sense of loss mounts over the weeks, becoming especially intense from the first to the ninth of the month of Av. For these last nine days, the restrictions include abstaining from meat and wine other than on Shabbat (yes, fowl is considered meat). During this final countdown, we also abstain from frivolous purchases, bathing or swimming for pleasure, doing non-essential laundry or wearing freshly laundered garments. Call us OCD: we actually try on and then immediately remove clothing before the Nine Days so it’s not perfectly fresh when we eventually wear it.
At last, we arrive at the full twenty-five-hour fast on Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av), the saddest date on the Jewish calendar. This day of infamy commemorates the destruction of our Temples, the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and the start of World War I. We’re not just mourning for the Jewish People; the annihilation of Jewish life has had a deleterious impact on the entire world. The Temple was the center of the universe, humanity’s oxygen source. Without it, we are on artificial respiration, clinging to life. If not for the dramatic steps in preparation for this traumatic re-enactment, the sense of loss would not be as pervasive. Whereas the intensity of mourning for a loved one wanes over the course of time, the opposite is true during the Three Weeks. The sense of foreboding is magnified each passing day until commemorating the absolute devastation of Tisha B’av.
The following saga illustrates the power of preparation as a key to acquiring this transformation, both for the Three Weeks and all holidays on the Jewish calendar.
As a child, I was fortunate to spend my summers backpacking in the Sierras. My soul has always been nurtured by exploring regions of unspoiled beauty, encountering the silence of the forest, fording rushing rivers and summiting cloud-piercing peaks. I still can’t get enough of my outdoor fix. My kids used to run in the other direction when I proposed we take a hike. I refrained from telling them where we were going and would hide their boots in the back of the van. That way I could get them out of the house without straitjackets. Once we hit the trail, however, they inevitably warmed to the experience. Their dispositions would shift from boredom to wonder, sarcasm to innocence, cynicism to curiosity.
Back when my sons were strapping adolescents, (Max, 14, and Jesse, 12), I proposed we go for a backpacking trip in the wilderness of Sedona, AZ, the week before their camp was starting. Surprisingly, they were excited about the idea and the itinerary occupied weeks of our conversation. Admittedly, using their pocketknives and building fires were the primary attractions.
I was growing ever aware of the fleeting nature of their precious childhood. What I didn’t anticipate was the intensive preparation and expense. When leaving civilization, one can’t run to 7-Eleven for a Slurpee. As a kid on those summer trips, all the hard work was done for me. Now I had to rent our packs, plan lightweight, kosher meals, deal with water purification, acquire sleeping bags and pads, a tent, first aid kit and plenty of sunscreen.
I inculcated my progeny with carefully curated classic rock for our seven-hour drive. To the strains of Boston, The Beatles, Kansas and AC/DC, we jammed through the barren Southwest, arriving in Sedona just as the sun was setting. We stayed in a beautiful hillside home of friends in the area and that first evening, while I shared backcountry exploits in their Jacuzzi, we witnessed a spectacular meteorite, tail and everything, streaking across the star-stained sky. Our first hike involved climbing one of the famous red rock buttes surrounding the city. Within an hour, the sole of Jesse’s boot fell off completely and he had to finish the day in Crocs. After a dip in a spectacular Oak Creek swimming hole, we frantically searched all over town for new boots and after multiple stops, got lucky finding the only pair in his size.
Finally, after a few days of trial hikes, we had packs on our backs and set out on our fourteen-mile red rock canyon adventure. After the first three miles, we switched from hiking boots to water sandals. The canyon narrowed precipitously, the trail disappeared and we had to walk in the river the rest of the way. We gawked at bouquets of butterflies and walls of wildflowers clinging to weeping cliffs. The absolute solitude was broken only by soaring hawks and herons overhead, insidious spiders lurking in the shadows and sonorous mountain goats.
By the sixth mile, Jesse was at the breaking point. He couldn’t go on. We needed a campsite immediately and there was nothing but red rock walls on either side of us. The final straw was a six-foot deep channel of water with no way to get through it other than swimming. Try swimming with a backpack! Max and I abandoned our packs and scaled the cliff wall to see if there was another way. Sure enough, we found a ledge with a fire ring. Someone else had gotten stuck here and made the best of it. But there was no room for a tent. Max noticed there was a route to get even higher up the cliff. Remarkably, about sixty feet above the river, he found a full-blown campsite. A perfect, well-shaded hideout to enjoy for the duration of our trip, with flat ground for our tent and a fire ring with log benches all around it. Can you imagine our happy dance? That night we thanked Hashem for the providence of our discovery as we pondered the Milky Way and roasted salami on the open flame.
Why I am sharing this anecdote? It’s all about the campsite. Our campsite was the sweetest campsite in the world. Better than any five-star hotel. Why? Because we worked so hard for it. Because we sweated out the intensive preparation required to survive half a week in the wilderness, because we drove so far, woke up at dawn and hiked miles with heavy backpacks. For us, that magical twenty square feet of dirt represented pushing beyond our perceived limitations and emerging triumphant.
This dynamic is the essence of Jewish holidays. The intensive pre-Pesach spring cleaning, cooking and Seder planning makes for a powerful Passover. The forty-nine-day S’firat Ha’omer countdown to Shavuot creates anticipation for the reenactment of the Sinai experience. There’s nothing like the first night of Sukkot when sitting in the sukkah we shlepped from the storage room, built and decorated. And Rosh Hashana is as potent as the spiritual work we undertake during the preceding month of Elul. Preparation and persistence are the keys to any meaningful journey.
We carefully broke camp on the last day of our adventure, ensuring we didn’t leave a trace of our visit. I emphasized “zero impact camping” to my kids, quoting ecologist Chief Seattle: “Take only memories, leave only footprints.” We stuffed down all our remaining food for lunch so we wouldn’t have to carry it. In between mouthfuls, suddenly two brown beasts burst forth from the bushes. We screamed as we leapt up, ready to protect ourselves with our plastic sporks. These two energetic chocolate Labrador retrievers were exploring the canyon and must have smelled our kosher turkey MREs. Cocoa and Charlie became our dogs for the rest of the day. Their enthusiasm made the chore of hauling our packs a lot more fun. Toward sunset, as we neared the mouth of the canyon, we heard someone shouting, “Stop calling my dogs!” This poor guy hadn’t seen his dogs all day. I scampered up a rock wall to the source of the voice and quickly explained to this lone backpacker that we weren’t trying to steal his animals. As I spoke, he gave me a puzzled look. When I paused he said, “Are you Sam Glaser?” Can you imagine—it was Glen Good—a friend from high school! He had moved to Arizona in search of a tranquil place to build his brand of custom museum-quality furniture. The only other human that we had seen in days!
The Three Weeks commemorate the most painful events our nation has endured. Perhaps the impact of our profound loss is maximized when its observance is imposed on our carefree summer vacation. Without this three-week prelude, the torment of Tisha B’av would not be as acute. Our sages teach that proper mourning is the secret to our redemption. Those who weep for Jerusalem will merit seeing her rebuilt, God willing with uncontested borders and eternal peace. According to the prophet Zecharia, our days of sadness will become days of celebration. As my friend Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld says, “our mission is to put the tish (a joyous celebration) into Tisha B’av.” The power to do so is in our hands. May it happen speedily in our day.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 CDs of his music and his book “The Joy of Judaism” is an Amazon bestseller. He produces albums and scores for media in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com. Join Sam for a weekly uplifting hour of study every Wednesday night – 7:30 p.m. PST. Presented with love, humor and music for learners of all ages and levels of knowledge. https://us04web.zoom.us/j/71646005392 – Meeting ID: 71646005392