Bein Hameitzarim 5778
Scylla and Charybdis, between a rock and a hard place, out of the frying pan into the fire, between the devil and the deep blue sea. There are a lot of expressions for describing the sense of supreme discomfort arising from being between two dramatic and drastic dangers. These idioms can be compared to the name given to the three-week period between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av. This period was the interval between the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem until the destruction of the Holy Temple, and is called Bein Hemeitzarim, usually translated “between the straits” or in the “narrows.” But that’s not true. There is no comparison. We Jews are much more pessimistic than the world at large. To fans of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, we are the Marvin of ethnicities. These non-Jewish expressions describe the choice between two evils, between death and surrender or between despotism or anarchy. We Jews aren’t so optimistic. In our emergencies, we see no options. Choice has been removed.
The traditional terminology for this time frame comes from the book of Eicha often called Lamentation (1:3), “Judah has gone into exile following affliction and harsh slavery; she lives among the nations but finds no place to rest. All her pursuers have overtaken her in narrow places.” Unlike the secular counterparts where there is a choice; we see only the specter of annihilation. The phrase means that we find ourselves between two crushing forces inexorably moving toward catastrophe, like the two walls closing in on the heroes of the first Star Wars movie. There are no options. But is that the only possible way of analyzing the expression?
Long before Jeremiah wrote Eicha, we already had other examples of the term meitzar for narrow spaces or troubles. Of course, this word is the source for the Yiddish tzaros, meaning terrible circumstances, which to many Jews, as we all know only too well, describes the norm of Jewish existence. We had troubles way before River City. Famously, King David wrote, “From the difficulty (hameitzar), I called out to God” (Psalms 118:5). This verse begins to offer the antidote to our pessimism, because the verse concludes: God answered me and placed me into wide-open spaces. Even when there seems to be no options, prayer is always available. And God may grant deliverance from the seemingly inevitable.
This scenario is repeated in Psalm 120. The first of the 15 Shir Hama’alot poems begins: “In my distress (b’tzarata li) I called to God, and God answered me.” Again, the distress is expressed as “straits,” but here the poem describes the two entities that are threatening to crush me. Verses 2-4 explain that the terrible pressure is a result of lies (sheker) and slander (r’miya). Throughout history the Jews have suffered horribly because of terrible calumnies against us. Even before Christianity, the Jewish-Egyptian philosopher Philo had to defend his co-religionists against charges of atrocities in our worship and that Jews were not loyal citizens. However, with the advent of Christianity, the number and variety of lies multiplied. The greatest lie, of course, is the charge of Deicide for that crucifixion carried out by the Romans. But over the years the blood libel and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion have joined the list of slanders against our people. Wall number one is libel.
Verses 5-7 present another view. Our hero declares that “for ages I have dwelled among those who hate peace. I am peace, but whenever I speak they are for war.” What does that mean? I think that King David is describing a reality in which our people are always seeking fulfillment through internal improvement. That’s the shalom we eternally pursue. On the other hand, the world at large believes that national and personal dilemmas can be solved by war. For example: You have wheat, and I don’t. Either I can replicate your wheat production techniques or I can take yours. Wall number two is warfare, usually as a procurement program.
Historically we Jews have found ourselves crushed between the lies used to disenfranchise us and the violence employed to destroy us. Jewish history is not light, pleasant reading. These three weeks have been set aside by our Sages to ponders these issues. This contemplation could lead to terminal depression, but we must not view it that way.
The Slonimer Rebbe in Netivot Shalom discusses these very issues. He begins his nine-chapter exploration of this topic by informing us that we Jews don’t mourn to dwell on the past or wail about what once was and is no more (Even though it seems that’s what we do.). Instead, the nation only mourns about events that relate to our present and our future. Bearing this in mind, the Rebbe ends his analysis with a chapter on expectations for the redemption (tzipi’a l’yeshua). The Slonimer then conjectures that our Sages assumed that actualizing the redemption requires a powerful demand from the Jewish people. These pleas for the complete salvation emerge from the depths of our sense of lacking the glory of Jerusalem and the splendor of the Temple. Similarly, we interrupt our joy at weddings by breaking the glass; likewise, we inject our grief for the missing Temple offerings into the otherwise joyous recital of Musaf on holidays. If we don’t miss it, we can’t demand it.
Therefore, the ultimate purpose of these three weeks of mourning isn’t to reinforce our perpetual national sense of depression. Rather it is to re-establish our sense of desire and yearning for these national treasures we so sorely lack.
The image of narrow straits encourages us to cry for the help we are confident God will provide. We must turn our Tisha B’Av grief into expectation of redemption. My latest grandson was born on the just-observed fast, and his insightful parents named him Elyashiv, fully understanding the poignant cry from these difficult days, “God return us to where we belong!”
By Rabbi David Walk
Rabbi David Walk, who has recently made aliyah, was a teacher at the Bi-Cultural Day school as well as Congregation Agudath Sholom’s education director. He continues to be a tireless teacher and educator. For over 30 years, he has taught students from third grade and up and conducted many classes for teens and adults. Prior to joining CAS, he served as director and teacher at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, Israel.