The Three Weeks is a period of mourning. You name it and if it was really awful and needed to happen to the Jews, it most likely happened during this period of time, culminating in the destruction of the temple on the 9th of Av. So, along with observant Jews throughout the world, we mourn.
Alaska, it seems, did not get the memo.
This past weekend was the kind of weekend we dream of as the cold darkness encloses us all winter. The sun shone in a clear blue sky and wildflowers were everywhere, including our summer countdown clock, the fireweed, its first bright purple blossoms beginning at the bottom of the row of blooms that will eventually go to seed looking like ashes. We spent this past Shabbos at home due to some engine issues and so we went on several walks to help pass the long Sabbath, noting all the beautiful wildflowers that had popped up in what months ago had just been piles of snow. When I saw the fireweed, it was with a mixture of happiness mixed with a little sorrow. Those blooms mean summer is already over halfway over and when the blooms disappear, going to seed in fluff that looks like ashes, it means summer has ended.
Long before any of us came to the area around Anchorage, it was home to a tribe of Native Americans known as the Athabaskans. In their legends, each individual fireweed represents the soul of a tree that died in a forest fire, which is why they bloom beautifully, then go to seed looking as if they had burnt up. With Judaism’s emphasis on the sparks of holiness being present in all things, I find this a beautiful idea.
The appearance of these blooms is a reminder of how limited our time in the sun here is. They prod us to hurry up and finish everything that must be done in our short summers to prepare for the next winter. They also remind us that this summer…is more like a dream. It’s brief reprieve from the real natural state of this land, which must be one of cold and often great darkness. Without reminders like the fireweed and the chill that has crept into the early mornings, it would be tempting to forget that most of the year is cold. It would be easy to slow down and just lazily enjoy the warm sunny days as if they would never end.
When it comes to living in exile without the Temple, it is more like Jews have adapted to a long winter and forgotten what the summer could be like. We’ve gotten used to life without the Temple, to life in exile, like a person who adapts to an injury, but in doing so, actually damages their body. It’s easy to adapt to what is compared to being able to imagine things being different.
A perfect example is my kitchen.
One of my shortcomings is organization. I will walk across my kitchen multiple times a day to reach an often-used item without it ever occurring to me that I might just move it someplace closer and save myself all that walking and time. I’ll work around something that is broken for a long time without thinking to have it fixed or replaced. I simply accept my kitchen as it is, not stopping to think it could be something better. This isn’t a uncommon problem.
What is familiar becomes the default setting, like assuming this sunshine in Alaska will last all year, that the measuring spoons must be on the opposite side of the kitchen as the stove, or becoming so used to exile that it feels like home. The Three Weeks asks us to remember who we really are. It asks us to question whether exile is really our home and to remember all that has happened to us. It asks us to remember what we’ve lost, both the Temple as well as countless lives of Jews over so many generations of pogroms, the holocaust, the inquisitions, crusades, and countless expulsions. It asks us to face the parts of Jewish history that are uncomfortable to face but have so shaped the Jewish people.
As a convert, I feel it’s even more important to dig into Jewish history during the Three Weeks. I don’t have older family to tell me stories of their own survival as Jews or memories in my blood of generations past who bravely faced all these things. I try to imagine myself in the histories I read and imagine what it might have been like to be in Jerusalem as the walls were breached by the Romans or leaving everything behind in the Spanish expulsion. I also keep in my mind that by choosing the chosen people as my own, I also am choosing to be part of this history and choosing it for my children and grandchildren.
The Three Weeks is also a reminder that all these sad days can be turned to joy. We don’t have to live with the measuring spoons across the kitchen. We can choose to work together to bring an end to the exile and right the wrongs of the world. Each and every one of us is important and can help bring Moshiach, but it takes waking up and realizing that our actions now and every day, even the small ones, have such tremendous power.
It’s so fitting that the fireweed would begin blooming during the Three Weeks, telling us the time to act is now, this moment.