The Jewish summer starts in the doldrums and is lifted slowly as the summer ebbs to a conclusion with the onset of the Jewish new year. The calendar bears this out in the days that are remembered or marked through ritual in the three summer Hebrew months of Tammuz, Av and Elul.
The 17th day of Tammuz is a fast day commemorating the beginning of the destruction of the first Temple and begins a three-week period of quasi-mourning that culminates with the Ninth of Av. From the 1st of Av through the 9th, the mourning is increased until the ultimate day when we commemorate many historical moments of misfortune with a 25-hour fast.
After the ninth of Av, the calendar takes on a more positive note, beginning six days later with the minor holiday of Tu B’Av, the Jewish version of Valentine’s Day. (Minus the candy.) The first day of the month of Elul brings with it three morning blasts of the shofar to get us ready and excited about the upcoming new year. The whole summer is a Jewish rollercoaster ride of emotion, beginning with a period of mourning and ending with the celebration of another year of life.
This pattern is most evident in the prophetic readings of the 10 weeks beginning after the fast of the 17th of Tammuz and culminating with the Haftarah on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Hashanah. The first three are titled the Haftarot of rebuke, and the last seven the Haftarot of consolation. The first two of these 10 passages are taken from the book of Jeremiah and the last eight from the book of Isaiah. In each, there is a complete passage containing a single prophecy, but I would suggest that the first few lines of each Haftarah tells the story of our Jewish summer, and in many ways of our entire history.
The combination of passages from the first three Haftarot of admonition would look like this: “From the north shall disaster break loose upon all the inhabitants of the land.” (Jeremiah 1:14) “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they abandoned me and went after delusion and were deluded?” (Jeremiah 2:5) “Hear o Heavens and give ear o Earth for the Lord has spoken, ‘I reared children and brought them up and they have rebelled against me. An ox knows its owner an ass its master’s crib, Israel does not know, my people takes no thought.’” (Isaiah 1:2-3)
These verses do not paint a pretty picture of the state of the Jewish people. However, the beginning verses of the seven Haftarot of consolation paint a decidedly different picture. “Be comforted; be comforted my people says your God.” (Is. 40:1) “Can a woman forget her baby or disown the child of her womb? I never could forget you.” (Is. 49:15) “Unhappy, uncomforted, storm tossed one. I will lay carbuncles as your building stones and make your foundations of sapphires.” (Is. 54:11) “I, I am the one who comforts you.” (Is. 51:12) “Shout o barren one you who bore no child. Shout aloud for joy for your children shall outnumber those of the espoused.” (Is. 54:1) “Arise and shine for your light has dawned and the presence of the Lord has shown upon you.” (Is. 60:1) “Greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being exults in my God.” (Is. 61:10)
What emerges is a people that clearly lost its way and yet was able to find its way once again. The three weeks between the summer’s fast days are amongst the saddest that we experience within the Jewish calendar. The time that ensues does not ask us to break from that sadness immediately, but rather as a people in exile might do, to allow for that despair to lift slowly.
Our summer calendar mirrors our entire Jewish historical experience. We have endured many times of destruction brought on by both external and internal forces. But our ability as a people to eschew a culture of victimization in favor of one of achievement has helped us each time to thrive again.
This, to me, is the ultimate lesson of the Jewish summer. An eternal reminder about a people who have risen above many obstacles and who can overcome the ones we face even today.
Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg is the senior rabbi of Chizuk Amuno Congregation.