The year is divided into four quarters, called tekufos. The term tekufos also refers to the special days that begin each of these quarters. These are based on the relative positions of the sun and the earth.
At the spring and autumnal equinoxes (tekufas Nisan and tekufas Tishrei), the earth is angled with the sun in such a way that the day and night are of equal length. The summer solstice (tekufas Tammuz) is at the time of the longest day and shortest night; the winter solstice (tekufas Teves) is at the time of the longest night and shortest day. These two categories, the equinoxes and the solstices, represent two distinct situations in the year.
Judaism is very sensitive to balance. In virtually all areas of character development, the middle path is encouraged and extremes are to be shunned (Rambam, Hilchos Dei'os 1:4). Thus, one should be happy, but not frivolous; confident, but not haughty. In other aspects too, we see balance: there are days when it is a mitzvah to eat, and days when we are required to fast. Eating itself should be done in moderation.
Even in Eretz Yisrael we find a gentle balance of grassy plains and wooded hills; the mountains' altitudes are hardly record-breaking, nor is the desert particularly harsh. The only extreme point in the country is the Dead Sea, a body of water so saturated with salt and other minerals that nothing can live in it, but that is due to the divine punishment of Sodom.
In the same way, the most favorable times of year for us are Nisan in the spring and Tishrei in the autumn. Those times, when the weather is temperate, reflect a favorable situation for the Jewish people, and it is then that we celebrate Pesach and Sukkos. (One might ask that Shavuos ought to therefore be in spring, not summer. The Maharal in Gevuros Hashem 46 explains that the Torah does not give a date on which to celebrate Shavuos; we are simply told to celebrate it fifty days after Pesach, thereby linking it to Pesach and spring.)
On the other hand, the hot summer months of Tammuz and Av are an extreme point in the year. The temperature signifies the Destruction, a theme of that period, when we observe the fasts of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and Tisha B'Av. Similarly, the cold month of Teves demonstrates an unfavorable period, and it is then that we observe the fast of the Tenth of Teves. Thus, the Torah's preference of moderateness over extremes is expressed in the synchronization of the spiritual and physical seasons (Maharal, Gevuros Hashem 46; Netzach Yisrael 8).
The relationship between Heaven and earth is manifest on a physical level as rain. Thus, a healthy relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people is often described in terms of its manifestation in the rain, as we find in the Shema:
"And it shall come to pass, if you listen to My mitzvos . . . that I shall give your land rain in its proper time, the early rains and the late rains . . . " (Devorim 11:13-- 14).
Conversely, an absence of rain indicates a breakdown in our relationship with Hashem:
"Guard yourselves, lest you turn your hearts away . . . and Hashem's anger shall be kindled against you, and He shall stop up the heavens, and there shall be no rain . . . " (Ibid., 16--17).
When we turn away from Hashem, He prevents the rain from falling. The desired effect of this is to encourage our return to Him through fasting and prayer. In fact, the masechta of Taanis, which deals with fast days, does not center on the fasts of Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av as one might expect. These are left for the end. The main focus is on fast days instituted because of lack of rain. The essence of a fast day is to reestablish our connection with Hashem, the breakage of which is signified by lack of rain. A fast day is to be occupied with repentance and prayer, expressing a desire to relate to Hashem and to redress our former lack of communication. This lack of communication, which is essentially a lack of connection, is seen as the cause for our hardships:
"Because I was silent, my bones wasted away with my groaning. For day and night Your hand was heavily upon me; my moisture has been transformed with the summer dryness . . . " (Tehillim 32:3--4).
The word used for "silent," hecherashti, means more than just an absence of speech; it refers to a complete lack of communication. It is based on the word cheresh, which refers to a deaf-mute. It is also related to the word "cheres," which refers to earthenware. Earthenware is baked clay, earth which can no longer absorb water. Which brings us full circle, for the suffering of these months is manifested in a dry, baked land, which cannot absorb water and has no interaction with the skies.
The loss of connection between the skies and the land is not the only breakage that occurs at this time. The land itself breaks up. In the heat of summer, when there is no moisture, the land becomes brittle and begins to crack and fragment. It was the waters of winter that held the land together; without them, the soul loses its cohesiveness.
The implications of this are clear. The land represents the Jewish people. A loss of cohesiveness with Hashem goes hand in hand with a loss of cohesiveness within the Jewish people. One cannot reject Hashem and still unite with others, nor can one be dedicated to Hashem whilst isolated from relationships with other people. But why should this be?
Let us first explore the lack of connection with Hashem. One of the sins which brought about the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdosh was idolatry; this was also at the root of the golden calf's construction. One might wonder what is so inherently evil about idolatry. Perhaps it is just a foolish mistake, and not actually evil. But idolatry, as the first prohibition on the two luchos, is a cardinal sin and the result of a powerful inner urge. What is the evil of this act and what is behind the drive to do it?
A monotheist knows that there is one G-d Who controls the universe, and to Whom one is accountable. Faced with such a situation, his concerns focus on his obligations to this all- powerful Being. The idolater, on the other hand, focuses on the intermediaries that Hashem uses in the functioning of this world. The constellations of the sky, for example, are all indicative of the flow of various spiritual forces. Each agent supplies a distinct power.
The allure of focusing on the intermediaries can be compared to a shopping mall: there are a host of different suppliers for your needs from whom you can pick and choose. The deities are there to serve you, to fulfill your desires. You are not accountable to any of them. Idolatry is really the worship of the fulfillment of one's own desires. (This explanation by Rav Simcha Wassermann is cited in Reb Simcha Speaks (ArtScroll), p.103.)
Hence, the root of idolatry, the source of separation from Hashem, is selfish desire. Accountability and obligations stand in the way of personal agendas and wishes. Seeking to escape from submission, the sinner turns to idolatry. By isolating himself from the Creator, he can focus on his own desires (Ohr Gedalyahu, Mo'adim, Purim 2).
"The one who isolates himself seeks his own desires" (Mishlei 18:1).
Isolation from other people has the same basis. To fully integrate with other people, to create a true community, one must negate one's own desires, at least to some extent, and focus on the needs of others. One must dwell on obligations rather than on rights, on giving rather than on taking. Neglect of one's communal responsibilities is based on the pursuit of one's own desires. This lack of cohesiveness between people brought about baseless hatred, the cause of the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdosh.
Connection is called chibbur, in Hebrew. The breakup of chibbur is chorav, i.e. churban.
There is a chapter of Tehillim which describes the suffering in exile:
"From the sound of my wailing, my bones have clung to my flesh. I am like a ka'as of the desert; I have become as the kos of the barren wilderness [charavos]" (Tehillim 102:6--7).
It is unclear which bird is referred to by the word ka'as. But the "kos" is almost certainly the little owl (Athene noctua), a small nocturnal predator that lives in ruins and other barren places.
This bird represents the themes of destruction. First, as the posuk highlights, it lives in areas of churban -- barren wilderness. The churban of land occurs when the land is dry, lacking the blessing of rain from the Heavens. The destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh is also called a churban, when the chibbur between Heaven and earth has likewise been broken.
The owl also represents exile in that it is a creature of the night, a time of unpleasant darkness (see Seasons of Life, "Cheshvan"). The little owl's cry is a long and mournful- sounding wail, the sound of someone suffering exile. It is also a lone bird that isolates itself from other members of its species, like the breakup of brotherly feelings that caused the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdosh.
The gemora (Niddah 23a) notes that the owl has frontal eyes, like those of a human being. Is this just an ornithological observation? Perhaps the gemara is telling us something significant about the owl as a metaphor for churban and exile.
Most birds have their eyes on the sides of their heads, so that they can be constantly on the lookout for predators. Having eyes at the sides of their heads gives them a much wider field of view and enables them to see approaching danger in almost any direction. The placement of the eyes demonstrates watchfulness and caution.
Owls, on the other hand, live at the very top of the food chain. There are no larger birds that prey on them. Their eyes are placed right at the front of their heads, facing forwards, focused only on the food that they pursue and consume. Their eyes are also extremely large, enabling them to detect their prey at considerable distances. The owl's eyes are therefore primarily instruments to aid in furthering its desires and satisfying its hunger.
This expresses the problems discussed earlier. The sufferings of churban were caused at root by desire. Following their personal interests, the nation fell to idolatry, licentiousness, and hatred (in the respective eras). They disregarded the sinful nature and disastrous consequences of their actions. They were following their eyes, the instruments of desire:
" ` . . . And do not follow after your hearts and after your eyes, after which you stray' (Bamidbar 15:39) -- The eye sees, the heart desires, and the body sins" (Rashi).
The misuse of the eyes is the first step towards desire, sin, and churban. And the root of all churban lies in the spies' evil report concerning the land of Israel. During their mission, which took place during Tammuz and Av, they abused their task of using their eyes to see the land properly. (See Zohar, parshas Shelach.) Instead of viewing the positive aspects of the land, they saw only negative aspects.
The cure for exile is to use our eyes properly -- seeing positive aspects of everyone and everything, and not forming desires. Only then will we be able to concentrate on our duties to others, to rectify the churban and re- establish our chibbur with man and Hashem.
Rabbi Nosson Slifkin learns at the Mirrer Yeshiva and teaches at Ohr Somayach. He is the author of the Focus Series on the parsha, and Seasons of Life: The Reflection of the Jewish Year in the Natural World (from which this essay is extracted), all published by Targum Press.