In the Narrow Straits

On the seventeenth of Tammuz (commemorated on July 5), we begin the period of three weeks of mourning leading up to the solemn day of Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem as well as other tragedies that took place during our long exile.

This period is called “Bein haMetzarim” – “In the Narrow Straits.” The name is taken from a verse in the Book of Lamentations (1:3): “All her pursuers overtook her [Israel] in the narrow straits – bein hametzarim.” The three weeks are a time of obstacles and internal battles.

On one level, the three weeks reflect a most difficult period in the Jewish calendar. On another level, they are a symbol for the times of inner struggle that we face in our spiritual lives. This year, these two levels of meaning combine with the grave crisis taking place in the Land of Israel to make the battles of Bein haMetzarim starkly tangible and real.

How do we survive these painful straits? How do we overcome the obstacles that lie in our path?

Here are some suggestions for coping during the “narrow straits”, along with several strategies for trying to rise above them.

Endurance

There is a saying in Israel: “Gam ze ya’avor” – “this too shall pass.” Life is ever changing; nothing stays the same. This stressful period will also come to an end. In the meanwhile, we need to use our intellect to combat the feeling that we are trapped in this state forever. We need to be patient and persevere, to wait things out and go about our life as best we can. Sri Ramakrishna used to say: “He who forbears, survives.” [1]

The “narrow straits” is a time of spiritual insecurity. It usually coincides with objective difficulties in our physical lives. These difficulties arouse all of our fears, doubts and sensitivities. The challenge for us is to not give in to despair. Whether it is the crisis in our country or personal struggles in our individual lives,  we cannot let anything unsettle us. No matter what problems beset us, we need to firmly fix our gaze toward God.

Humility

Most of our struggles in the spiritual life surround the needs of the ego. We are constantly battling our desire for physical pleasure, personal power and recognition. These desires twist us into all manner of distorted shapes until we become cut off from God and cut off from our true Self. Cornering us in the narrow straits is an effective way for God to break down the barriers that our ego has constructed. Sometimes, it is the only method that God can use to turn us back to Him.

If we humble ourselves, however, we can avoid this painful struggle. We can bypass the ego-shattering experience of the narrow straits and go straight to God. Nag Mahasay was a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna who was known for his extraordinary humility. It was said that he attained God-realization by making himself so small that he slipped through the holes in the intricate net of maya (illusion) that covers the face of this world. [2]

The Hasidic Master, Dov Baer of Mezeritch, explains that God responds to us in the same manner that we act ourselves. If we are humble, if we are small in our own eyes, then God will also make Himself “small.” He will contract His infinite Being to overshadow us and fill us with His Divine Presence. But if we are arrogant, if we are great in our own eyes, then God too will be great. He will remain aloof in His state of Absolute Oneness and we will experience nothing of His Holy Presence. [3]

On Tisha B’Av we sit on the ground as an expression of humility, a reminder that we are merely mortal creatures that have been formed out of the dust of the earth. This is also the reason that we do not wear jewelry on Tisha B’Av, and the reason why we do not put on our tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) for the morning prayers. Tefillin is called “tifferet Yisrael”, the beauty of Israel, and the tallit is considered a “royal robe.” On Tisha B’Av, we are without beauty, status or achievement. On Tisha B’Av, we are humble souls praying for mercy in awe before our Lord.

Tears

“For these things I weep; my eye, my eye runs down with water.” – Eichah (Lamentations) 1:15

“Pour out your heart like water before the face of the Lord.” –  Eichah (Lamentations) 2:19

There is no more powerful spiritual weapon than tears. Tears open up our heart. Tears create a humble spirit. Tears wash away the veil that separates us from God.

There can be no hint of falsehood or pretense in our tears. They need to be tears of sincere regret for the wrong that we have done; tears of spiritual anguish and longing. They need to be tears of true teshuvah (repentance).

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav exhorts us to never be afraid to weep before God. We must cry out to God with all of our heart. We need to plead with Him to reveal His supernal light to us, to awaken our inner vision. [4]

On Tisha B’Av, we weep over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the broken state of the temple in our heart.

Faith

Strong faith is essential if we are to survive the experience of the narrow straits. We need to believe in the depth of our being that there is a Divine purpose behind everything that happens to us. Periods of darkness are also spiritual opportunities. God desires that we find a new avenue of approach to Him. He wants us to draw on untapped inner resources and ascend further into the spiritual realm. This is the reason why He has thrown us down into the narrow straits. This is why He has blocked the well-worn path that we have trodden toward Him until now.

According to Rebbe Natan of Nemirov, this is the hidden meaning behind the custom of removing our shoes on Tisha B’Av. Feet symbolize understanding, and shoes symbolize the vessel that receives this understanding. When we take off our shoes on Tisha B’Av we are proclaiming that we do not possess a suitable vessel to comprehend what is happening to us. We admit that the only way forward is through faith. [5]

We do not engage in religious study on Tisha B’Av, because the answers that we seek cannot be found in books. To discover a path out of the darkness, we need to go beyond reason and logic. We need to reach out and touch the source of all knowledge. We need to ascend to the place of perfect faith.

Right Action

The Book of Isaiah 1:27 states: “Zion will be redeemed through justice.” There is a special link between justice and redemption. If we doing what is wrong, then our inner world becomes out of balance and it is difficult for God to come close to us. If we are doing what is right, then God can easily draw near and overshadow us. During times of inner struggle, this overshadowing can provide us with protection from the “pursuit” of our internal enemies. It can create a barrier of Divine livingness that prevents negative thoughts and emotions from overwhelming our heart and mind.

Justice also plays a crucial role in the larger picture. In the same chapter in Isaiah, the prophet addresses stern words of admonition to the people of Israel:

“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean. Remove the evil of your doings from before My eyes; cease to do evil. Learn to do good: seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge [be an advocate for] the fatherless, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:16-17)

If Israel lives a life that is just and moral, then the Divine Presence will watch over and protect the nation. But if Israel follows the path of corruption and injustice, then God will withdraw His Divine Presence, and Israel will be left to face the violence and hatred of its enemies on its own.

We read these words of Isaiah on the Shabbat that precedes Tisha B’Av in order to emphasize that all of our actions are significant, that nothing we do is irrelevant. If we live in truth, honesty and compassion, then God will turn His Shining Countenance upon us. If we take the route of lies, hatred and selfishness, then God will turn His Face away.

Love and Goodwill

It is especially important when we are in the narrow straits to treat others with love and kindness. We need to act with good intentions in all of our relationships. We need to try and see the positive in everyone, to perceive his or her intrinsic Divinity. This positive striving will keep us from falling into the negative mindset of our own struggles. It will prevent us from falling prey to the dark “whisperings” of our lower self.

There is also another reason for this emphasis on goodwill. God cannot reach a person who is angry and bitter. God can only reach someone who has an open heart. If we act with love and goodwill, then our heart will be open. If we can keep our heart open, then light will soon come flooding in.

The need for love and goodwill during our personal experience of the narrow straits is mirrored by a need for love and goodwill among the whole of the Jewish people during the period of Bein haMetzarim. According to the tradition, the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. During the three weeks, we strive to heal this sin of baseless hatred by replacing it with an unconditional love for Israel and the whole of humankind.

Periods of difficulty are a natural part of life. These times of crises enable us to gain wisdom and experience. They help us to develop love and compassion. The three weeks are an opportunity to repair the imperfections in our soul and personality – to heal the wounds of our people and country.  The three weeks are a chance to transform the narrow straits into a broad highway that will lead us to God.

Copyright © 2014, by Yoel Glick

 

Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Swami Chetanananda, God lived With Them
  2. Swami Chetanananda, They Lived With God
  3. Dov Baer of Mezeritch, Likutei Amarim # 132
  4. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, Hishtapchut Hanefesh. Likutei Etzot
  5. Rebbe Natan of Nemirov, Likutei Halachot, Hilchot Gittin, halacha 3, 25, quoted in Likutei Etzot Hameshulash: Teshuvat Hashanah, Bain Hametsarim # 20