A story is told:
One day Solomon decided to humble Benaiah ben Yehoyada, his most trusted minister. He said to him, "Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. I wish to wear it for the Sukkot festival, which gives you six months to find it."
"If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty," replied Benaiah, "I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?"
"It has special powers," answered the king. "If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy." Solomon knew that no such ring existed in the world, but he wished to give his minister some added humility.
Spring passed and then summer, and still Benaiah had no idea where he could find the ring. On the day before Sukkot, he decided to take a walk in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He passed by a merchant who had begun to set out the day's wares on a shabby carpet. "Have you by any chance heard of a special ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy and the broken-hearted wearer forget his sorrows?" asked Benaiah.
He watched the elderly man take a plain gold ring from his carpet and engrave something on it. When Benaiah read the words on the ring, his face broke out in a wide smile.
That night the entire city welcomed in the holiday of Sukkot with great festivity. "Well, my friend," said King Solomon, "have you found what I sent you after?" All the ministers laughed and Solomon himself smiled.
To everyone's surprise, Benaiah held up a small gold ring and declared, "Here it is, your majesty!" As soon as Solomon read the inscription, the smile vanished from his face. The jeweler had written three Hebrew words on the gold band: "Gam zeh ya'avor - This too shall pass."
Seven years ago on this day, Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, Mikayla and I got married. Now - we didn’t choose it because it happened to be Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, but we did enjoy the fact that it worked out that way. Why? Because we were nerds for mythology and there’s a story behind the month of Tammuz and how it got its name-- and it’s a story that I think says a lot about Judaism as well as love.
Tammuz was a Babylonian demi-god. Yes, stay with me. He was, according to myth, a shepherd who attracted the attention of the primary goddess of the Babylonian pantheon, Ishtar. She fell in love with him - her, the Queen of Heaven, an immortal with limitless power - fell in love with a shepherd. Because she loved him, and because the Gods loved to fight with each other, Tammuz became a weakness.
Eventually he was killed, presumably by her enemies, in an effort to hurt her. Ishtar, not being one to shy away from a fight, literally descended to hell, smashed down the gates of the underworld, and dragged Tammuz back to the realm of the living, aiming to make him an immortal as well.
However, as these stories tend to go - one can’t simply descend to the underworld and take someone out. There has to be some compensation - something that preserves the balance of life and death. The myths tell us that Tammuz’s sister volunteered to take his place for half the year, leaving him with only six months out of each year that he would have to return and live in the land of the dead.
This cycle, of the newly-promoted Tammuz - now a God himself, of agriculture and fertility - living half the year in the underworld and half the earth on Earth, came to explain the cycle of the seasons. From the Spring through the Summer and into the Fall, Tammuz descended to the underworld, damned in the land of the dead. Resurrected every winter, he then spent six months above with his beloved Ishtar, granting fertility to the Earth.
In the middle-east, this cycle makes a lot more sense. Just like in Israel, ancient Babylonia really only had two seasons: dry and wet. The wet season, that is, when it rained, was the time of fertility and growth (roughly corresponding to October-February). The dry season (roughly March-September) was when everything died, dried up without enough rain and moisture. Thus - the legend of Tammuz came to explain why half the year the land was fertile, and half the year crops died.
Now - what does this have to do with Judaism, or our wedding? For Judaism, this legend should be a reminder that despite the best efforts of the biblical authors, pure monotheism never quite took in Jewish thought.
Ezekiel (8:15) complains about women in the imaginary Temple he envisions ‘still weeping over Tammuz.’ We named the month after this once-mortal fertility God, and more than just the name, we started to assimilate our own history to this ancient cycle. Tammuz and Av, the Summer months, are the times that we commemorate the destruction of the Temple. On the 17th of this month we have a fast, commemorating the days the walls of the Temple were breached by the Romans. Three weeks later we commemorate the day the Temple was destroyed on Tisha beAv (9th of Av).
For our people, who were never quite as agricultural, but loved their ritual, these events are, in their own way, a record of the death of Tammuz. Death and destruction reigns in the Jewish calendar every Summer. In Sivan, Tammuz and Av we read the parts of the Torah where the Israelites are in the wasteland, dying from hunger and thirst, rebelling against their leaders, complaining endlessly. In our cycle of holidays after Shavu’ot, until Sukkot, we experience a wasteland of celebration - few happy occasions occur. For the most part the Summer is the time we mourn, we commemorate the death of our history, of our land, and of our connection to God.
Yet, just like the Babylonians before us, our year works on a cycle. Even today, on Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, as we celebrate the longest, driest day of the year - we are already on a sling-shot path back towards fertility. The moments of historical consciousness don’t last. By the Autumn, when we reach Sukkot, we are beginning to celebrate fertility, love, and growth. So - perhaps a bit of humility is required. We are not so ‘advanced’ from our pagan ancestors - we have not eliminated their practices of memorializing the life and death of Tammuz, we have only given them a new meaning through our own holidays and rituals. More often than not, this is the way - we have simply reshaped our ancestors’ pagan myths into our own national-historical consciousness.
As for a wedding - why would today of all days be an auspicious one to celebrate love? Today, when the eponymous character of this month is in the darkest depths of hell. Well, there too we can take some comfort in the cycles of life. A wedding is not an isolated event, it is something we celebrate, year after year -- that’s what anniversaries are all about. In doing so, we also preserve the balance between good times and bad times, times of fertility and times of drought. No relationship, no love, no religion, and no faith are free from the swing of the pendulum between times of joy and times of sadness.
So today, on Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, perhaps we should take the lesson of this strange story to heart. We may stand at this moment, at any moment really, in the darkness and depths of hell - in a land that will not grow - with a goddess who mourns her fragile consort. Yet, in a few months there will be joy. In a few months, there will be growth and love and goodness. The greatest lesson we can learn from Tammuz is that nothing lasts and everything returns. When we find ourselves in dark moments, we should take the advice that King Solomon found on his magic ring and remind ourselves that, gam ze ya’avor, this too shall pass. Remembering this lesson can remind us in our times of joy that we will again find sadness, and today, in our time of sadness, it can remind us that we will again find joy.
Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov.