The Summertime Blues (Ideas #36)

(Or The Carlebach Shul on a Tuesday Night)

On a recent trip to New York, I happened to need a late evening minyan on the West Side and I was told that the Carlebach Shul had just such a minyan. I was also told not to worry, that it was just a regular minyan. The information I received was correct – it was both convenient and regular. What a disappointment! If the Carlebach Shul can't take the spiritual energy that exists there on Shabbat and make it felt on a weekday, who can?

This should not be taken as a swipe against the Carlebach shul – just the opposite. We expect regular (i.e. uninspired), weekday prayer at most of our shuls, since the Shabbat prayer is also uninspired. The Carlebach shul, however, is known for its spirited and invigorating prayers on Shabbat. Thus the contrast between Shabbat and weekday at the Carlebach shul brings up an issue of great importance: Even when we find a strategy to feel greater spirituality at certain times, the resulting inspiration is very difficult to sustain on a regular basis. I believe this encapsulates the greatest historical challenge of the Jewish people, the challenge of the summer. Summer is a time bereft of the spiritual highs provided by our holidays. The challenge is to somehow take the spiritual energy of the spring (Purim, Pesach and Shavuot) and hold on to it through the dry summer months.

More than any other month, Tammuz embodies the inherent difficulty of bottling inspiration. It comes right after the high point of the Jewish year, which is Shavuot. There is no more significant event in Jewish history than what we refer to as zman Matan Torateinu. When I was in yeshiva, I remember the tremendous feeling that I got from learning through the night. It brought the whole year's learning into proper spiritual context. But what do you do the day after Shavuot? If the answer is that you sleep in, then you may understand the problem I'm talking about.

The original Matan Torah could be said to have lasted for almost a year, starting with Ma'amad Har Sinai in Parshat Yitro up until the next journey in Parshat Beha'alotcha. Up until that time they were learning the new commandments while encamped in the place they had received them: Yeshivat Har Sinai. (Of course, this time period also includes the incident with the golden calf, but this is simply a microcosm of the same problem rearing its head, even within the Sinai experience). The inspiration of such learning must have been something that we only feel a pale reflection of, when we learn through the night on Shavuot.

Yet it is exactly when the Jews took their first "bein hazmanim," immediately after this Sinai experience, that things fell apart, leading shortly afterwards to all the disasters we encounter in Sefer Bemidbar. A very strange statement in the Talmud may give us greater insight into these events. In Shabbat 116a, there is a discussion as to why the narrative at the end of Chapter 10 inBemidbar is interrupted by seemingly disjointed verses that are, in turn encircled by backward letter-nuns. R. Shimon ben Gamliel explains that the interruption is to separate between the two "puraniot," or failures.

There are two questions one should ask. One is asked by the Talmud itself - the identity of the first failing, as it is quite unclear. The second question, which the Talmud does not ask, is, where did R. Shimon ben Gamliel get such a principle of separating between two failures, which should ostensibly have wide application.  In Sefer Bemidbar alone, we encounter one failure after another with no separations in between. We then have to wonder, why this principle is applied only here.

A careful analysis of theTalmud's answer to the first question may give us the answer to the second question as well. The Talmud answers that the first failing was that the Jews left "Har Hashem" (even though they were commanded to do so). R. Chama b'Rebbi Chanina explains that a careful reading will reveal that this leaving from Har Sinai coincided with a going away from G-d (shesaru meachrei Hashem). In other words, they were so drained from the intense spiritual experience, that they saw their first journey as something of a vacation.

The Jews were meant to move on, as we all are at some point. The question is how you take your leave. The greater the inspiration, the harder it is to integrate into our travels, into our mundane lives. For those of us with a positive yeshiva experience, whatever mitzvot or Torah study one is involved with outside the yeshiva pales in comparison to that which we experienced in the "yeshiva bubble." As such, we can expect to feel emptiness and discouragement with our religious lives once we move into the mundane world. Paradoxically, life in the mundane world requires greater spiritual energy than the more vigorous spiritual experience that we know from our yeshivot. As such, the Jews had it backwards – the "vacation" was not when they left Har Sinai, but rather when they were at Har Sinai. The hard work was to begin on their first journey.

When R. Shimon ben Gamliel invokes his principle specifically here, he is saying that only a failure of the greatest magnitude is deserving of being separated out from all the other failures. The natural inability to integrate inspirational experiences into our normal lives is at the root of all other failures and so, a failure of the greatest magnitude. Instead of finding strategies to take our inspiration with us, we prefer to simply take a vacation.

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out that, Jewish time is both cyclical and linear. After the highlight of Shavuot, the natural tendency is to get tired. This inevitably leads to a sense of spiritual malaise and depression in Tammuz and Av, setting up the period for Teshuva in Elul and Tishrei. This is the regular cycle of the year. Jewish time, however, is also linear, in the sense that it leads to a messianic age. The kink which regularly prevents us from moving towards that messianic age is what to do after the climax that we encounter in Sivan.  If only we can avoid the natural pitfalls of Tammuz, we could change the nature of the "moed" in Av.* Thus, we have a tradition that the mashiach will be born on Tisha b’Av. This tradition reveals that our redemption is ultimately dependent upon the very same time period that witnesses our greatest calamities.

A true desire to bring on the messianic age requires us to work hard on maintaining our enthusiasm, even when it is not natural. As with many other things, awareness of the problem is half the solution. If we realize that it is part of our natural psyche to feel drained and disappointed after climactic experiences, we can exert greater control over such feelings. Different people have different mechanisms as to how to overcome these feelings. It is less critical to know how to deal with the problem than it is to simply make the resolution to deal with it.

If we can learn one thing from the Jews who left Har Sinai, it is that we must prepare for the journey while we are still in a place of inspiration, knowing that one day we will find ourselves being forced to leave that context. When we go on a trip, we prepare food for the journey. If we don't, we will die physically. Similarly, we must make a concerted effort to prepare for our long and arduous spiritual journeys. Not doing so results in the spiritual death represented by Tisha b'Av.

* The word "moed" in Megillat Eicah is understood as a double-entendre, hinting to the idea that one day the nature of Tisha b’Av will change from sadness to joy, which is why we do not say Tachanun on that day.