Why The Three Weeks Of Grief In The Jewish Calendar Can Be Healing

On the secular calendar it’s July. On the Jewish calendar we’re in a period called the Three Weeks. This is the corridor between two painful anniversaries: the date when Jerusalem’s ancient city walls were first breached, and the date when the Temple was destroyed. What does it say about us as a people that we remember these dates each year? Is it spiritually healthy to hold on to ancient wounds?

We live simultaneously in linear time (which flows in one direction) and mythic time (the annual spiral repeating.) The spiritual calendar offers us fixed points where mythic time impacts linear time, and this is one of those fixed points. Amidst a summer season typically characterized by things like vacation and summer camp, the Jewish calendar offers an interruption that reminds us of grief.

We may not “want” that reminder. (Who wants to feel things that hurt — maybe especially at a time of year that is so verdant and beautiful?) But I think we need the reminder… and I think we can harness it to help us do inner work that helps us grow. The challenge is letting ourselves feel our sorrow wholly, and then (at the appropriate time) being ready and willing to wholly let that sorrow go.

The breach in ancient Jerusalem’s city wall is a paradigmatic cracking-open from integrity and wholeness to brokenness. And as those of us who offer pastoral care know well, every grief that we feel triggers every other grief. Every brokenness evokes other brokenness: whether the breaking of a marriage, or the breaking of a life’s trajectory, or the breaking of a heart suffused with sorrow.

The Jewish calendar gives us these Three Weeks as a time for feeling the brokenness that characterizes every heart and every life. These weeks offer an invitation, and an opportunity to feel what hurts. Not because we’re going to stay in that brokenness, but precisely because we’re not — and because recognizing what’s broken is the first step toward healing, as individuals and as a community.

The breach of the city walls so long ago is a historical story. The fall of the Temples is a historical story. We overlay those stories with the psycho-spiritual truth that, like Jerusalem, we all have broken places. Like Jerusalem’s walls, our hearts can feel cracked-open, and sometimes our lives feel like rubble.The Three Weeks invite us to sit in the rubble and let ourselves mourn… for a time.

We all have meaningful dates in our lives, like the anniversary of the date when we left slavery in Egypt (the Passover story) or the date when the Temple fell (the story of Tisha b’Av). Maybe for you it’s the anniversary of a wedding, or of a divorce; a diagnosis, a remission, a new job, a loved one’s death The date becomes layered with meaning. The Three Weeks are an anniversary like that.

During and after these Three Weeks our task is twofold. Part one is to notice and honor where we are broken (rather than giving in to the impulse to paper over our broken places)… and part two is to let our attachment to our broken places go. Through feeling what hurts, we can transcend the hurt. The goal is not to marinate perpetually in old traumas, but to feel them and then release them.

This is the instruction encoded into our calendar by the sages of my tradition. Immediately following these Three Weeks of mourning and remembrance, we enter a seven-week period of consolation. After instructing us to notice and really mourn our broken places, the rabbis prescribed a seven-week period of comfort. Those seven weeks of comfort are our ramp-up toward the Days of Awe.

The new year will come no matter what. But if we want to make the most of the turn of the year, these Three Weeks of sitting with our own brokenness can be a springboard for personal growth. These weeks can help us harness the High Holiday season’s opportunities for uplift. Paradoxically, when we feel our brokenness fully, we can become more able to leave that brokenness behind.

Immediately after Tisha b’Av (the anniversary of the Temple’s fall) there’s an emotional and spiritual “turn” toward hope. The pivot between mourning and consolation depends on us: we need to be willing and able first, to let ourselves feel what hurts about our lives and about the brokenness of the world around us, and then to let go of those hurts and let ourselves feel held and heard and whole.

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