The Three Weeks: Is all earth today our holy temple? by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Today I write from the perspective of the planetary climate crisis, the scorching of our Mother Earth, the choking of what was the balanced Breath of Life, our atmosphere.

Our ability to pay attention to the climate crisis seems always to be drowned out by the blood of war; but the scorching of our planet is already causing far more deaths and is threatening the lives and homes of millions more.


There are three weeks from 17 Tammuz (when the Babylonian Army broke through the walls of Jerusalem) to Tisha B’Av (when they destroyed the Temple). Traditionally, these three weeks have been understood as being about danger to the Temple and then its destruction.  It was through the Temple that ancient Israel made contact with God.

The contact came not by words of prayer or words of Torah study, but by offering on the Altar a portion of the foods which the Interbreathing Spirit of all life had brought forth from adamah, the Earth. So adam, the human community, praised YHWHand celebrated the  sharing of life through the food that came from adamah.

As the Babylonian Army approached the city, Jeremiah called on the Israelites to free all their slaves and make real the Jubilee. In that Homebringing, the Earth would be released from human exploitation and the poor would be released from exploitation by the rich. The rich would release themselves from greedy domination, the poor would release themselves from fear and rage.

The people heeded Jeremiah and freed their slaves. The Babylonians pulled back. Perhaps they were impressed by this demonstration of the people’s unity and commitment. But —  seeing the besieging army withdraw, the slaveholders changed their minds and took back their slaves. Then Jeremiah prophesied their doom: “Says YHWH, Breath of Life: ‘You would not hear My Voice and proclaim a release, each to his kinsman and countryman. Here! I proclaim your release — declares YHWH— to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine.”

Paraphrasing: If you will not let the Land rest, you will be exiled and it will rest in your absence. If you will not free your slaves, you will all become slaves. If you will not hear and listen to the still small Voice of the Breathing that connects all life, your own breath will be taken from you.

And he was right. The Imperial Army realized that the people were no longer united, but divided by the greed of the rich and the rage of the poor. The Army returned, conquered the city, and destroyed the Temple.

The three weeks between 17th of Tammuz and the 9th day of Av were a time of choice for the Israelites and for the Babylonians. Which side were they on — their own power to lord it over other people and Mother Earth herself, or the Breath of Life that intertwines us all?

With 17 Tammuz, we too enter into a time of choice. Shall we choose the God Who calls for freedom, for release, for a turning-away from our own arrogance? When the walls between us have fallen, can both sides reach out to release themselves and each other from being enemies? Or shall we resort to subjugating others, and pay the price of being ourselves subjugated?

Jewish tradition sees our day of despair, Tisha B’Av, as the day when the Messiah was born — and hidden away for a time of transformation. From hitting rock bottom comes the courage and commitment to arise.
 In short, a day of grief becomes a day of hope and action.

In our generation, we can turn from grief for the destruction of one community’s ancient sacred place to grief, hope, and above all action focused on the future of endangered Earth. For Earth is our Temple, the sacred Temple of all human cultures and all living beings.

Now we know that we human beings through our own corporate “armies” of Big Carbon have broken down the walls that protected thousands of species and the climate that gave life to us all.

What shall we do now that these walls are shattered? Despoil and destroy our Mother Earth still more? Or pause to realize we can choose the path of repairing our interwoven threads of deep connection?



Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow is founder of The Shalom Center, a nonprofit organization which seeks to be a prophetic voice in Jewish, American, and multireligious life. Creator of the original Freedom Seder, he is author of several books, among them Freedom Journeys, co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Ocean Berman. This essay is abbreviated from one which appeared on the Shalom Center mailing list.