In the Northern Hemisphere, with July’s summer glory comes a gradual shortening of days and autumn’s distant approach. The almost imperceptible turning of summer’s light hints of another turning – a turning inward that heralds the slow approach of the High Holy Day season. This first hint appears in the summer sky, with the coming of 17 Tamuz, and in this week’s Torah portion (Matot).
The hint of this week’s Torah portion comes with these words (Num. 30:3):
If a man makes a vow (יִדֹּר נֶדֶר / yidor neder) to God or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.
The neder (vow) hints of the Yom Kippur service of Kol Nidre (“All vows”) three months ahead. From this moment until Yom Kippur, the air becomes increasingly weighty with introspection. Spiritually speaking, that these words come now is no coincidence, for this week brings 17 Tamuz, the date associated with the first Roman breach of Jerusalem’s protective walls en route to destroy the Temple (on Tisha b’Av). Breaching Jerusalem’s walls during Roman times is both an historical event and a spiritual metaphor for the first breach of our own emotional and spiritual walls – a first gate into the High Holidays.
We also associate 17 Tamuz with the day Moses shattered the first set of tablets at the base of the Golden Calf. Prehistory’s breaking of the tablets became history’s breach of Jerusalem’s walls, which became our calendar’s first entrance into the High Holy Days. What is false (the Golden Calf), what doesn’t serve (the first set of tablets), what insulates against change (our inner walls) – all must be removed if we are to live with the fullest integrity of inner truth.
Enter this week’s Torah portion, whose hint of neder knocks on walls that built up around us since last year. Do we faithfully keep our promises, or do we faithlessly break them as did our ancestors with the Golden Calf? What falsehoods in our lives must we turn aside? What must we smash? What walls must fall so we can journey afresh into Spirit?
With these words, too, we know that other walls are crumbling even at this moment. The current MIdeast situation is only the most recent reminder that some walls fall violently and at tragically high cost. On this 17 Tamuz, and for the Three Weeks to come until Tisha b’Av, let us pray that change comes gently and with peace – both within our walls (Ps. 122:7 / יהי שלום בחילך) and beyond them.
For with 17 Tamuz, our spiritual journey beyond the walls begins anew. That journey begins now. Days are shortening, walls are falling, and the shofar soon will sound. Will we be ready?
David Markus serves as associate spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El of City Island. (This post first appeared on the TBE blog in a slightly different form.) An ordained mashpi’a (spiritual director), he is Vice Chair of ALEPH and will receive rabbinical ordination from ALEPH in January 2015.