Today, the 17th of Tammuz, marks the beginning of a period in the Jewish calendar known as bein haMeitzarim - between the straights. For three weeks, until Tisha b'Av, Jews typically engage in a series of semi-mourning behaviors, and use this time for introspection and reflection. But what do these days on our calendar actually represent? Today, the 17th of Tammuz, is the day that the Romans breached the walls of besieged Jerusalem in 70 CE. Tisha b'Av is the day that the Temple was destroyed three weeks later. How do we integrate these apparently historical events into a spiritual life? What role do broken walls and burnt Temples have in our religious consciousness?
R' Avraham Mordechai Gottleib, one of the main teachers of Rav Ashlag (Ba'al haSulam)'s thought, has some powerful reflections on these Three Weeks in his book, b'Ma'ageilot haShana (Through the Cycles of the Year). First of all, he corrects us of the fallacious belief that these days we commemorate are only historical. He writes:
"We need to know - that the Holy Tora, the weekly sedra that we learn each week from Shabbat, and all of the holidays and fast-days of Israel - do not depict historical events only. We are not a nation that lives through its memories of the past and nothing more! We live in the present, and all of these festive times and holidays on our calendar, depict real things in the present moment, today. We peer through a lens of the past, but upon the events of today, on the events in the life of each and every person among us, and on the events that occur to the entire nation together."
How can we understand this? The historical events of our past are happening now? Certainly we act this out in profound ways throughout the Jewish year: the injunction of the Pesach seder that we should see (or show ourselves) as the people that left Egypt for freedom, the reenactment each Summer of the giving of the Tora in our observance of Shavu'ot, etc. But the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha b'Av? Where's the spiritual message for us in these holidays? Rav Gottleib continues and expands upon his above statement to give us more to go off of, he says:
"It is a known fact that all the things which we see outside of us occurs first within us, within our soul. For example, the more important and core part of a thing occurs within us - and it to this that we should give our attention, for this is the internal tikkun (repair) of each and every one of us."
In giving us this theory - that all of that which happens in the world around us is the manifestation and corollary of some spiritual process that happens first within us - R' Gottleib has opened a whole new way of understanding much more than our holidays. He backs up this type of thinking by quoting his teacher, Rav Ashlag:
"Everyone thinks that the tikkunim that need to be repaired and improved are external to us - and therefore, if we improve the external things it will improve the situation. But our teachers have instructed us that rather, anything which we see outside of us is but a reflection of what has happened within our souls. Therefore, what is in need of repair, is us, ourselves - and nothing that is external to us."
What a beautifully radical concept - that all of that which we encounter in the world is in some way a reflection of the inner world we carry with us. This idea has tremendous implications - but at the very least, we can better understand how R' Ashlag and his students thought about the Three Weeks.
Just as he says, we are accustomed to look at the Three Weeks as totally external events - things that happened once upon a time, that we now remember. But the better posture is not to remember, but to realize that the observance of these Three Weeks should be a reflection of what is occurring right now. Moreover, the location of that destruction, the site of the ruins which we commemorate during these days - is within ourselves. According to R' Ashlag, we would do better to stop looking at history and searching for answers and instead look within our own souls.
He gives an analogy which bears repeating in order to illustrate this profound concept:
"This is similar to a man who walked past a mirror, and suddenly saw within the mirror another man whose face was dirty and ashen. He goes and gets soap and begins to scrub the mirror - cleaning, and cleaning, laboriously. Once he's done, he looks again in the mirror, but the man with the ashen dirty face is still looking back at him from within it. We say to this man: Friend, clean your own face and not the mirror, and then you will see that all which is outside of you is clean also.
The meaning of the parable is this: that all of reality which we see around us is connected to what happens within us. If we see problems, pain, and suffering, or something that doesn't fit our expectations -- all of it is rooted in us. Each and every one of us needs to look inside themselves, and to search out their own tikkun and not try to fix others."
The world is our mirror. If we look around and see things we don't like, we should search for their origin not out there, but in here. If we walk past a mirror and see that our face is dirty - let us not waste our time scrubbing the glass to clean it - it will never work. The only way to clean the face of the man in the mirror is to clean our own.