Shattering the Walls between Us: Three Weeks of Possibility & Danger

Rabbi Arthur Waskow & Rabbi Phyllis Berman

Shattering the Walls between Us:

Three Weeks of Possibility & Danger

By Arthur Ocean Waskow and Phyllis Ocean Berman*

The dawn-to-dusk fast day of Shiva Asar b'Tammuz (the 17th day of the Jewish month of Tammuz, marked this year on July 20) begins three weeks of downcast eyes as we move toward the dark fast of Tisha B'Av .

In 1985, the 17th of Tammuz fell on the last day of a joyful international gathering of hundreds of Jewish renewal celebrants. Sad moment! Yet we had decided this was the perfect time to ask our closest friends to wait for a bit after the closing ceremony, to celebrate with us our opening ceremony of tenai'im or "conditions" -- our statement of intentions and agreements for our marriage during the year to come.

But how could this moment of our joy be celebrated in the midst of our people's remembered sorrow?

The two days which frame the Three Weeks are respectively understood in rabbinic tradition as the dates in 586 BCE on which the Babylonian army first shattered the outer walls that protected Jerusalem, and then destroyed the Holy Temple at the heart of the city. The Rabbis were convinced that these dates in the spiral of the years had (like a small scratch on the spiral of a vinyl phonograph record) attracted more and more energy, become more and more deeply engraved as the needle of life kept passing through the years.

They believed that these "scratches" in time were first made during the years of wandering in the wilderness:

  • the 17th of Tammuz became a time of shattering when Moses, seeing the Golden Calf, shattered the tablets he had brought down from Sinai;
  • exile from the Land was archetypally defined on Tisha B'Av (one year and three weeks later) when the people heard dread in the voices of the ten scouts who warned them not to try to enter Canaan, and sent themselves into 38 years of exile.

How could we turn this shattering to good? And could whatever we did point toward possibilities for social transformation, not only to begin a marriage but also to begin the healing of communities in conflict?

We heard the phrase, "The walls between us are shattered," in a way that gave us hope, new possibility. Imagine that the Babylonians had shattered the walls--and then paused to say, "Now that these walls are gone, what can we learn from each other?"

For three weeks, we imagined, the world would have held its breath. Would this new opening become community, or conquest? Certainly when one party to a relationship shatters the boundaries, the chances for destruction are greater than if the two had together agreed to tear them down. Yet there was hope —

— but the odds played out. Destruction followed.

On every 17th of Tammuz, the hope comes round again. This time, this year, can we turn the Three Weeks toward healing?

We found an opening to do this for our tenai'im when we looked back at the earliest 17 Tammuz, at Moses' shattering of the tablets on which glimmered the Ten Utterances, the basic framework for a just and holy society. Imagine that moment as itself a marriage, the great covenanting ceremony between God and Israel. Imagine that Moses, seeing the Great Covenant in urgent danger of abandonment, had swiftly sought a way to seal the sacred marriage.

In Jewish custom, the wedding ceremony is completed and the marriage has begun when the glass is shattered. Moses, seeking despite the seductions of the Golden Calf to make this wedding irrevocable, smashes the only sacred vessel he has: the tablets.

What might he have smashed instead? Not the Commandments, but the "Anti-Commandments" — the life-patterns that the people would need to change, if they were to make this wedding into marriage.

There is a tradition of smashing plates when the tenai'im are signed, a fore-echo of the smashed wine glass of the wedding, a commitment that what is now done can not be undone. In this vein, for our tenai'im, we each took a plate from our own kitchens, and wrote five words upon it that betokened five behaviors which, in our own self-assessment, boded most danger to our loving relationship. Together, ten misdoings. Our own Anti-Commandments.

On 17 Tammuz, we let each other read these plates; we agreed that each of us had accurately named his/her own "anti-commandments"; and in the presence of our friends we smashed those plates, those tablets of the Ten Misdoings. We entered not just three weeks but a full year, and now 15 full years, when we have steadily broken down the walls between us, building a temple of holy love and commitment.

Is this a pattern that applies only to the most intimate relationships? Or is this a case where we can learn from the personal to the political, as indeed these fast days that arose from ancient politics had taught us how to make an interpersonal commitment?

The Book of Lamentations, Eicha, which we read on Tisha B'Av, teaches that for our own sins was the Holy Temple burned. Not just "blaming the victim," this teaching warns us to examine the complicity we have with our destroyers, the ways in which we partly victimize ourselves.

The Rabbis taught us long ago that it is not just the Jewish people that can through its own sins destroy its Temple. They asked: when was the first wailing "Eicha" of lamentation? And they answered: it was God's grieving wail "Ayekka" [spelled with the same letters as "Eicha"]--"Where are you?" lamented God in the Garden of Delight, as the first and most basic exile began: the exile of all humanity, and of every individual human.

Each year, Where Are We?

We can face each other in our most intimate relationships, write upon our plates our own destructive acts, and shatter them. And we can bring together the communities we wistfully hope can covenant with one another but find it hard to do--the communities that need to act in partnership if there is ever to be social justice--and break our plates together.

Jews and Quakers, labor unionists and environmentalists, Hispanics and African-Americans, socially responsible investors and the homeless, to write down our own misdoings, the way we hurt and shame and betray each other, and to break our plates together. Figuratively? Yes. But physically as well. There is a value to rituals that move our muscles as they stir our hearts and brains.

If we break these plates of our misdoings toward each other, we will be far less likely to suffer the shattering of our deepest hopes for what we can do and be. Far less likely to feel in our own bellies the burning guilty pain that our own misdeeds have shattered our fondest hopes and commitments, that our own burning ambition (or our apathetic burnout) has set our planet into smoke and flames.

What's on your plate — today?


Phyllis Ocean Berman is director of the Summer Program of Elat Chayyimretreat center, co-author of Tales of Tikkun (Jason Aronson), and founding director of the Riverside Language Program.

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow is the author of Godwrestling ,Round 2, editor of Torah of the Earth (both published by Jewish Lights Publishing), and author of Seasons of Our Joy (Beacon) and Down-to-Earth Judaism (Morrow). He is also director of the Shalom Center.


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