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Tammuz: Forces of Nature

December 19, 2013 | by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

What can happen when we see everything as being fully within our grasp and under our control.

This month is named after the ancient Babylonian sun god (Ezekiel 8:12–18). I can't say that if I were selecting names for Jewish months that this is the first one that would have come to mind. In fact, it seems the opposite of what the entire concept the Hebrew calendar is about. Each month offers us the opportunity for growth and renewal. Idol worship is pagan and limiting. Invoking the name of a central figure in a cult that worshipped the sun as the source of all energy seems somehow retrogressive. It takes us back to archaic prehistory before our forefather Abraham made sense of nature and realized that there is a Divine, hidden hand that gives it unity, elegance of form, and purpose.

Sun worship may be prehistoric, but it's still "in."

Sun worship may be prehistoric, but it is still "in." Although no one uses the term anymore (except the most avid vacationers), that doesn't change the fact that the way we often relate to nature is not that far removed from the way the pagan sun worshippers did. We still think in terms of nature having its own rules that work autonomously and never change. We use axioms such as "possible" and "impossible" as though nature isn't subordinate to any force beyond itself.

It isn't hard to see why. Nature, as epitomized by the sun, is quite an awesome force. The sun may be eons away from the earth, but anyone who ever had heavy-duty sunburn knows how irrelevant that fact is in the face of the enormous heat, energy and light that it generates. When we harness its energy for the good or the opposite, we feel that we have mastered forces far greater than our own. We cook up an abysmal admixture of nature worship and self-worship. We use it to destroy the planet we live on, the people with whom we share it, and our own spiritual integrity.

The astral sign of the month is Cancer, the crab, and it represents an approach to life. The early mystics would talk about how the heat of the long summer days would stick to us and envelope us with its ennui to the point that we'd feel we can't do anything without it forcing us to acknowledge its grip. Our reliance on science, technology, and nature without seeing God as their underlying Source, eats away at our souls, until we are consumed by the spell of empowerment that they cast. Even when we seek God, what we see is shaded by our inability to think in terms that are above and beyond the constraints of the physical world.

Seventeenth of Tammuz

Five tragedies took place in this month. Each one of them gives us a glimpse into the abyss, of what can happen to us when we see everything as being fully within our grasp and under our control.

The first and most well known of the tragedies that took place is the destruction of what is arguably the most precious object that any human being could ever possess – the Tablets of the Law, written in God's own Hand. What was the sequence of events that made this disaster inevitable?

God gave the Ten Commandments on the sixth of Sivan. On the seventh, Moses climbed up Mount Sinai to learn the details and multi-leveled meanings of the entire Torah. He told the people to anticipate his return 40 days hence. His intent was not to include the day that he ascended the mountain since it was not a full 24-hour day (in the Hebrew calendar a new day begins when the sun sets on the previous one). The people assumed that he meant to include the day that he began his journey. This tragic technical misunderstanding had far reaching consequences.

When dawn broke on the 16th of Tammuz, an entire nation held their breath waiting to receive the Tablets of the Law and to begin learning its truth. This was one of the most significant events that we could ever anticipate. We define truth as "the entire picture". By the nature of things, the only possible way to access truth comes from beyond the limitations of human intellect and experience.

We want to know God, but we prefer to make Him "small" rather than making us "big."

To understand what happened next we have to digress for a moment. The Torah was given to humans, and we humans are full of complexities and contradictions. We want to go beyond our borders but we also love control and familiarity. We want to know God, but we would prefer to make Him "smaller" rather than making ourselves "bigger."

Our ability to visualize beyond the moment that we live in makes us yearn for a better world, and aspire to be among those who make it happen. Envisioning potential inspires us to make sacrifices for what we believe in. The same ability to visualize beyond the moment can also make us see things through the prism of false pragmatism. We think we are just being realistic and predicting how things are likely to be, when we fall into the trap of "awfulizing." As our imagery grows more vivid, we are paralyzed with despair or fear. The images that we conjure up are the source of our worst moments of silent terror.

When our mental imagery is in tune with God's vision of reality, it can move us toward what is known as Divine inspiration, "ruach ha-kodesh". This can only happen when we are not blocking out His truth with our own agendas (which are so subtle that even we are not always aware of their existence). When our filters are on, it creates inner chaos. Our fears promote fantasy and dread. Since the source of the falsehood that we project lies within us, it is referred to in the Talmud as "the Satan" which literally means "the accuser". The accuser is, of course, someone very familiar to all of us; it is the embodiment of our inner world as only God can see it.

"The Satan showed them Moses, dead lying on a bier," the Talmud tells us.

When he failed to arrive at the moment they expected to see him, the image that they saw was the face of doom. They were leaderless. They were in a desert, heading towards the unknown. Their journey had been fueled by Moses' vision, his Divine inspiration, the miracles that he brought about. Nothing made sense anymore. It was impossible to survive in this environment for more than a few days at best. All of this is completely true – if you are a sun worshiper and you think that the only possibilities are by definition ones that co-exist in cozy harmony with the axioms provided by your ability to describe the physical rules that govern our world.

Three Reactions

The Jews in the desert responded to this crisis in three different ways.

One group of people, Egyptians camp-followers and others who wanted to share the spiritual adventure that the Jews were on but also wanted everything to "make sense" to them, used the crutch that they had leaned on throughout their entire history. If what God does is "too big" to make sense to them, they will cut Him down to size, and force Him to fit into their pantheon of gods who represent various forces.

They no doubt thought that they could harness energy, make it work for them, and get on with life without seeking anything beyond themselves and their set of axioms. They pressured Aaron to form a representation of their spiritual autonomy, a calf that symbolized both newness and youth that had the potential one day to be an ox, the strongest of all the domesticated animals. They envisioned themselves as empowered and talked themselves into believing that faith in a man-made symbol can actually evoke a spiritual force. In the era of rampant idol worship, this way of thinking "made sense."

Aaron did not realize how far this group had gone. He demanded that people give him their gold and jewelry, hoping that he would be able to buy time. Using occult forces, one of the idolators took over the job of creating a symbol, and made the fabled golden calf. It seemed alive, real, and they believed that they had succeeded in making symbol that had vast spiritual power (similar perhaps to the Japanese Shinoists in World War II who believed that their emperor was God incarnate and that their flag had actual energy).

Group Two

The second group was composed of born Jews and sincere converts. When they heard God proclaim, "Have no other gods before Me," something deep inside of them was touched. They wanted truth more than comfort, and the very thought of any form of idol worship, or any deed that would block them from knowing and serving God, was completely abhorrent to them.

If they were left to their own devices, they would have probably managed to hold out until Moses' return, and later confront him with their fears that his prophecy had failed him since he didn't keep his word. When he would have explained his mistake, the air would clear, and their journey towards Israel would have continued as planned.

But they were not in isolation. The first group influenced them, as did their own conscience. Both sides seemed flat and untrue. They took refuge in cynicism towards Aaron and the Levites for remaining true to their "dead" leader rather than "being responsible" and "taking control" and "being realistic," and simultaneously mocked the passionate idolaters and satirized their devotions.

Group Three

The third group was made up of people who realized that they were witnessing an entire nation betray everything that God had shown them. The plagues. The splitting of the sea. The Ten Commandments. The manna that came down from heaven. God had forced them to look beyond their limited horizons. The people in this third group would neither reject what their own eyes had seen, nor would they take refuge in making skepticism a replacement for truth. But they, too, were caught up in illusion – an illusion far more insidious than the others. Their illusion was that there was no hope. The Jewish people were doomed. There was no point in trying to turn things around. The people they loved were choking by a noose that they had placed around their own necks: they were irredeemable.

They were caught in the insidious illusion of no hope.

They gave into one of the worst illusions that we have; the illusion that the force of evil generated by sin is greater than the force of good that is generated by teshuva (return to God). They, too, attributed too much force to the golden calf. They should have seen it as precious metal twisted into an interesting form that holds attraction to people who don't know better.

When Moses came down from the mountain, he took in the entire situation as soon as he saw it. He acted swiftly, and allowed the Tablets (which in any case were so heavy that it required a miracle for him to hold them) to crash to the floor. The stone "body" of the Tablets shattered and the spiritual luminescence of their message flew back to their creator.

Was he right?

The Talmud tells us that there is no doubt about the matter. He was right! He did the equivalent of tearing up a marriage license before anyone could formally accuse a new bride of betraying her husband. If we could not rise above worshipping nature, submitting to the tyranny of human-conceived options and the possibility of destroying the authentic bond that we were promised – so be it! It is not as though we rejected the Tablets; we never had them to begin with. The tragedy was muted, which opened the way for forgiveness.

Echoes of the Day

Four other traumatic events happened later in history that force us to think about who we are and who we want to be. To one degree or another, each event is an echo of the tragedy that took place on the 17th of Tammuz.

  1. The Romans placed an idol in the sanctuary of the Holy Temple.

    No sacrilege could be more vulgar. The reason God allowed this to happen is that He wanted us to see where our chosen path would take us. By this time, we had lost our collective identity, and had buried our consciousness in endless in fighting. Each group sincerely believed in their own cause. Each thought that they had a moral right to rule. Each took God out of the picture as they attacked each other with ever increasing savagery. The Romans had been conducting their public life like this for years. They believed in control, nature and power. We had the opportunity to see where this road leads. The end of the trail was the horror of and desecration of the sanctuary.

  2. The walls around Jerusalem were breached.

    This is the date recorded in the Talmud as the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem. A breach in the wall was the beginning of the end. It could only happen when our faith was fragmented, and the divine protection that we had been given in the past was no longer something we could count on. What this means concretely is that if we wish to abandon our reliance on God and replace this with belief in ourselves or in nature, we will have to pay the price.

  3. The daily offerings could no longer continue.

    In the time of both Temples a consequence of the battle for Jerusalem was that there was no possibility to continue the service as it had been conducted for hundreds of years. The symbolic meaning of the sacrifices (which are called korban, that which makes close, in Hebrew) is that it is up to us to elevate the world to God, not to create illusions that dwarf Him to make the "fit" more comfortable.

  4. The Romans burned a Torah scroll. They believed in the rules made by man, not those made by God.

Does this mean that the month of Tammuz is "a bad month"? Far from it. It is a month of challenge and confrontation. Without challenge, there is no growth. Without confrontation, there is no way to see things as they are.

On the third of Tammuz something happened that broke all the rules of nature. Joshua was leading the Jews in battle in Givon against their enemies, the Emorites. As the day drew to a close, the battle had not yet reached an absolute conclusion. For the moment the Jews seemed to be winning, but if the battle would reach its inevitable end as darkness came, there would be no decisive victory, and the next morning they would face off against an enemy who would come at them with renewed vigor. Each moment was precious.

A miracle happened. The sun didn't set. The day stretched on for 12 more hours.

The rules were broken, the battle was won, and at least for the moment, no one worshiped the sun, but only its holy, infinite, unknowable Maker.


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