The Three Weeks: Finding Hope In A Time of Modern Destruction

The Three Weeks in Jewish tradition gives us a model for how to gradually descend into despair. The tradition institutes temporary restrictions first on listening to music and having weddings, later on swimming and eating meat, and finally calls us to give up food and drink entirely for the fast of Tisha b’Av (observed this year on July 27) – the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, which marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples in ancient times.

While Jewish tradition doesn’t shy away from the reality of destruction, it does give us hints for how to prevent it. For example, Abraham’s prayers on behalf of Sodom (Genesis 18:23- 32) teach us not to accept destruction as a given. And according to Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov in The Book of Our Heritage, the fast days themselves are not only meant for sorrow, but for commitment to improvement:

“The purpose of such fast days is to turn our hearts toward repentance… By remembering these misdeeds, which we continue to repeat and which bring on similar calamities, we are motivated to return to the proper path of life.” (Kitov, The Book of Our Heritage, Vol 3, p. 897-898)

Bounded by a major fast and a minor one, the period of the Three Weeks is intended to motivate us to self-examination and repentance, and to do better to avoid future destruction.

While the Three Weeks traditionally focus on the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem, unfortunately, destruction is hardly unfamiliar to us in modern times.

One horrifying example of global destruction just last month was the collapse of the Kakhovka dam, the latest casualty of the war in Ukraine. The scope of this environmental disaster is so extensive it can be seen from outer space.

According to the United Nations, the emptying of the reservoir has left tens of thousands of people without access to piped water, and that number could rise to more than 700,000, since the reservoir was the only source of water for a significant part of southern Ukraine. The water also supplied irrigation canals for broad areas of farmland, concerning because Ukraine supplies much of the world’s food – most notably, 40% of the wheat for the world’s largest humanitarian organization addressing hunger and promoting food security. 

Downstream, flooding water displaced more than 20,000 people in the first week, released land mines which will be a long-term danger to mines which released heavy metals and potentially radioactive materials into drinking water, local rivers, and the Black Sea. 

That same week in Canada, forest fires caused the worst air quality in the northeast United States in decades and also forced 14,000 people in Quebec to evacuate their homes. In a normal year, about 230,000 hectares of forest in Canada would have burned by the end of May, but by that date in 2023, fires had consumed nearly 2.8 million hectares. By the end of June, Canada’s interagency fire center had recorded 3,056 wildfires since the beginning of 2023, which had burned at least 8.1 million hectares — or around 20 million acres — of land across Canada. 

Sadly, we’re experiencing environmental catastrophes frequently these days. In 2022, the United States faced 18 separate weather and climate disasters each costing at least 1 billion dollars, causing at least 474 direct or indirect fatalities and a total cost of $165.1 billion. 

The disasters included a winter storm/cold wave; wildfires, heat and drought; tornadoes and tropical cyclones, flooding, and 9 severe weather/hail events. Over the last seven years (2016-2022), 122 separate billion-dollar disasters have killed at least 5,000 people and cost $1 trillion in damage. Climate change is supercharging the increasing frequency and intensity of certain types of extreme weather, especially vulnerability to drought, which has lengthened wildfire seasons in the Western states, the potential for heavy rainfall, and worsening hurricane storm surge flooding due to sea level rise. 

According to Rambam (Maimonides), the Jews in the Second Temple period observed the fast of the 9th of Av — even though the Temple had been rebuilt in that period — because of the many troubles that took place on that date. (Rambam commentary on Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:3)

Dr. David Hanschke of Bar Ilan University suggests that this was because the destruction of the First Temple ended the notion that the Temple was indestructible. The awareness that such destruction was possible changed their understanding of the world forever, and every trouble that came afterward was tied to this realization.

The events of the last several years should have a similar effect on us in dealing with environmental destruction. While in previous generations, environmental catastrophes were often understood as “acts of G-d” with little human control, the recent disasters mentioned above were caused by human action, and even predicted by scientists long before they happened. Changes in human actions could have reduced or prevented them.

Jewish tradition also offers a guide for how to rise out of the sadness of destruction. After Tisha b’Av, a period of healing continues for seven weeks of reassuring Haftorah readings.

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