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Tammuz—Time for Transformation

Tammuz—Time for Transformation

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The names of all the months in the Hebrew calendar are originally from Babylonia. The Jewish people adopted these Babylonian names during the 70-year exile in Babylonia. Yet, of all the Babylonian names adopted, Tammuz stands out as peculiar: it is the name of an actual Babylonian deity and idol. Why would our sages allow the adoption of the name of idolatry into the holiness of Judaism?

The short answer is that our role is not only to combat idolatry by defacing it, because the psychological motivation that draws people to idolatry is not cured that way. Instead, in the long run, we have to transform the negative psychological proclivities that lead to idolatry and transform them into positive ones. It seems therefore, that the sages’ choice of the name of the false god Tammuz provides us with a case study of the problem of idolatry and its solution. The month of Tammuz is thus the time of year best suited for understanding and practicing the process of transformation (or it’hapcha, as it is called in Chassidut) in the psyche.

As we will see, the Tammuz is a parasite that lives off of the human tendency to self-pity and our sense of the tragic—two sentiments that are intrinsically linked to this time of the year.

The Birth of Tragedy

Tammuz was a false prophet in ancient Mesopotamia who was tortured to death by a certain kingNone other than Maimonides (who was also one of the greatest scholars of ancient idolatry, as he himself attests) brings us the story of the Tammuz.1 Tammuz was a false prophet in ancient Mesopotamia who was tortured to death by a certain king. After his death, his followers concocted a tale that on the night of his death all the gods came to crown him, and then flew away the next morning. The story was turned into a play, with Tammuz playing the role of the tragic hero. This play was so popular that the prophet Ezekiel tells us that, even in the time that the Holy Temple stood, there were regular showings in Jerusalem, and the women of Jerusalem would watch the play and weep.

Rashi explains that Tammuz is the name of the first of the summer months2 because in Aramaic it literally means “heat.” He also notes that the Tammuz idol that was placed in (or near) the Holy Temple was fabricated with eyes made of lead. When heated up, the idol’s eyes would shed tears of lead, which would run down its face.

The tragic story of the prophet, the tear-jerking play, and the crying idol all lend to the air of pity and tragedy surrounding the Tammuz. But this pity was not heartfelt. It was a cheap manipulation of the emotions and, more than anything else, catered to people’s need to identify with the misfortune of others in order to alleviate their own feelings of self-pity. The tragedy of Tammuz’s life was shared by those who felt that their own lives were just one long tragic affair.

Even though today the Tammuz as a form of idolatry is a long-forgotten tale, the sentiments of pity and tragedy that it fed upon are still as ubiquitous as they were 2,500 years ago. First, it is easy to see the Tammuz as the precursor to Greek tragedy, which to this day remains in good standing in the eyes of Western culture and an integral part of a liberal education. But the similarity between the shallow manipulations of the Tammuz cult and the modern-day popularity (even worship) of stars whose lives are pictured as tragic is too strong to overlook. The pity and tears shed for a figure such as Elvis, or Jim Morrison, or River Phoenix are the same as those shed for Tammuz. It is the identification with the tragedy in these modern-day icons’ lives that inspires so many people to treat them as idols, and to continue the cult of tragic hero-worship.

What can we do to free ourselves from the cult of life as a tragedy?Even if a person does not find himself attracted to Elvis, the sense of despair and tragedy may unfortunately still be present in their psyche. Many people today suffer from the view of life as a tragedy, a view that fosters a tragic self-image. The individual who leads a tragic existence in his or her own eyes continually seeks, and even expects, the pity of others. When this does not happen, that person is invariably forced into self-pity and even eventually to self-worship, having chiseled out the form of Tammuz in his or her own psyche.

The Healing Gaze

What can we do to free ourselves from the cult of life as a tragedy? The first step is to see it for what it is—a form of shallow idolatry that cultivates a shallow approach to life’s true sorrows and pain. As the sages teach us, when a person experiences pain or sorrow it is a call from G‑d above for soul-searching and a change in direction.

The life-as-a-tragedy stance can be taken only when trust and faith in G‑d’s goodness and lovingkindness has been cast away. Once these are gone, worship of the tragic becomes possible. In fact, one of the names used in the Bible for idols is simply “sadness.”

Recognizing that depression and loss of faith in life are forms of idolatry helps bring home the biblical statement that to follow G‑d means to “choose life.”3 But to choose life, one needs to be able to see the goodness in life. This second step involves our outlook on ourselves and on others.

To better understand this second step, we need to mention that in Kabbalah each of the twelve months of the year is associated with a particular sense or psychological faculty. The month of Tammuz is associated with sight. This means that the month of Tammuz is the best month of the year to learn to exercise our sight in the most positive way possible. Rectified sight involves both shying away from that which is negative (an ability associated in Kabbalah with our left eye) and training ourselves to see things in a positive light (associated with our right eye). In essence, both aspects are included in the right eye, which means that we should seek to see only the good points in others.

What stops us from being able to see the good in others is, almost always, envy. The sages teach us that envy breeds lust and pride.4 If you look upon others with envy, not only are you unable to see the good in them, but you are actually increasing your own lusts and cravings for those things that are the opposite of life. In turn, greater lust leads to greater envy, and the cycle constantly becomes more vicious. To heal yourself, you need an expert eye doctor. According to Chassidut, the first expert eye doctor was Moses, who healed the spiritual sight of the entire Jewish people with his own qualities of selflessness and his unconditional love for all Jews.5

It would be incorrect to associate our national state of mourning with a feeling of tragedyA person who has healed his sense of sight in this sense gains the power to heal others with his gaze. The story is told of the greatest lover of the Jewish people in recent generations, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who would pray with eyes wide open, facing the street and its comers and goers. His critics charged him with immodesty, but he would not change his ways. The inner meaning of his puzzling conduct was that his kind and encouraging gaze while clinging to G‑d in prayer (not concentrating at all on those outside) was enough to change people for the better.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, one of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s great contemporaries, found this idea in the verse, “A bit more and the wicked will be no more; for you will gaze at his place, and he will be gone.”6 Rabbi Nachman explained that by these words, King David meant that by ignoring the wickedness in a person and by searching for the good in him or her, one’s gaze has the power to annul evil.

This is the Jewish response to the life-as-a-tragedy stance.

The Jewish (Un)tragedy

The 17th day of Tammuz marks the beginning of a period of three weeks of mourning over the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Yet it would be incorrect to associate our national state of mourning with a feeling of tragedy at a national level.

It is unfortunate that some Jews have cultivated a culture of national tragedy, not over the destruction of the Temple per se, but mostly over what they perceive as the tragic history of the Jewish people. To choose to perceive ourselves as the heroes of tragedy leads in the end to self-loathing and a loss of self-confidence, creating a culture that identifies with our enemies and their goals. In addition, as noted earlier, perceiving one’s existence as tragic creates an expectation of pity and compassion from others. It goes without saying that this causes other nations to shun us.

Without a doubt, we the Jewish people have experienced tremendous hardship and pain throughout our history—more so, perhaps, than other nations. But Jewish history is anything but tragic. It is the history of hope and faith and of moral uprightness in the face of primitively immoral despots and religions, most of which have disappeared from the world. Jewish history is the ultimate anti-tragedy. It is the story of mankind’s search for the possibility of sanctifying our corporeal existence here on earth.

Jewish history is the ultimate anti-tragedyWalking through the ruins of the second Temple, and faced with the pain of the oncoming exile, most of the sages wept; but not Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva, the Moses of his generation, met the disaster with a restrained joy. When asked the reason for his unexpected response, he explained that the prophets had foretold of many difficult periods in the history of our nation, and of good periods, leading in the end to the ultimate good of the true and complete redemption. He continued, “Now that I have seen that the negative has come to pass, I am certain that so will the good!”

Rabbi Akiva epitomizes the Jewish faith and confidence in the immanence of goodness and holiness, even in the face of tremendous adversity. He passed this quality on to his student Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who founded the mystical Judaic tradition in his book the Zohar (literally, “Radiance”). Throughout the ages, the ability to see with rectified sight has been passed down through the Jewish people, and specifically in the writings of Kabbalah and then Chassidut.

May this month of Tammuz be the month in which we undertake to see the world as did all our holy teachers. By transforming our sight, we will merit to see G‑d usher in the era of the true and complete redemption.

Footnotes
1.

Guide for the Perplexed 3:29.

2.

Furthermore, all three summer months (Tammuz, Av and Elul) are collectively called tekufat Tammuz, “the Tammuz season.”

4.

Ethics of the Fathers 4:21.

5.

Moses himself is the archetypal soul of victory, which terminates the right axis of the sefirot. Above victory is lovingkindness, whose motivational force is love, and above that wisdom, whose motivational force is selflessness. Thus, healing one’s gaze is dependent upon strengthening one’s right-side faculties. The corollary of this is that a healthy, positive-seeing gaze leads to a healthy stance of confidence (the inner motivation of victory) in G‑d, in oneself, and in life.

Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh is founder and director of the Gal Einai Institute and has written more than forty books exploring topics like psychology, education, medicine, politics, mathematics and relationships, through the prism of Kabbalah and numerology.
Artwork by David Brook. David lives in Sydney, Australia, and has been selling his art since he was in high school. He is currently painting and doing web illustrations.
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Ori NYC July 15, 2014

For those wanting more on the attributes of the months, I found this by the same author:
inner dot org, under "Hebrew Calendar" Reply

Dan October 15, 2013

The Declaration of Independence The Declaration of Independence was signed on the 17th of Tamuz. Considering it is well documented that study of all things hebraic was extremely popular during Colonial America, do you believe there is any significance in the Declaration of Independence being signed on that date? Reply

Michael Moreno Valley, Califorina September 25, 2013

Seeing what is good I must say as I read this' it took me deeper and even deeper into my spirit my eyes have been reopened in a new way this is the new thing HaShem said He would do for me today and happened just as He said.

Thank You

Shalom
Reply

Anonymous New York, New york via chabadgn.com July 6, 2012

Each week Thank you for challenging my mind my heart my spirit with the weekly explanations of Chassidic belief. I feel at once inadequate and yet refreshed
Am yisroael chai! Reply

Meyer Stahl Las CrucesNM, USA July 16, 2011

Month of Tammuz It's been over 2500 years since the Jewish people had sinned and were defeated and taken as slaves to Babylon. They worshipped Tammuz, women cried for Tammuz. To name a month after an Idol gives honor to that Idol. You would think that by now we would have changed the Pagan name of the month to honor G-D. Why don't we name the month of december ' Christmas and March- April Easter", also names of Pagan Deities. Since we know the origin of Tammuz, Why don't we change it??? Reply

Tzvi Hirsh Dubinsky Boston, Ma July 13, 2011

Tammuz Really powerful article. Thank you for posting it.
What really caught my eye was that you said that all the Jewish months have a attribute connected to it. In this case, Tammuz is the month which has the attribute of sight.
Could you tell us what the attribute is for all 12 months please. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma July 12, 2011

The "Roses" of Our Generation I feel, therefore I am. I love, therefore I am. And yes life has this too: of deep and ongoing tragedy and to ignore that this is part of life, that which is bipolar, which is all Creation is to miss something ineffably, deep.

A child gets a serious form of meningitis and to save her life, because her limbs are affected, this young girl has them amputated. And yes, we can see, the light that rises in the young girl's eyes and her fight to survive, and what she gives to us all of bravery and a deep truth. But tragedy exists, and for this we MUST cry.

G_d demands weeping, and yes, we do Suffer. Do not write to me about this not being part of life. The journey, as in the road we travel by day, has its breakdown lane, and the deep Depressions that do arise from the holes not yet repaired. We all go through times of spinning our wheels, and the WHEAL of life. Yes we HURT.

To pretend otherwise is not being, wise, and the wisdom of love is to know, we're all in this together!

Moses, knew Reply

Clara Londrina, Paraná / Brasil July 12, 2011

Thanks! His words brought me great motivation. Reply

Anonymous Olympia, WA July 31, 2009

To Moishe, NY Perhaps if you think of it as what you focus on is what your reality is, if you focus on the tragedies of life and of history that is all you will see, and you will be imprisoned by that limited vision. But if you focus on the good in life, you will be liberated from that prison and see liberation and redemption and all that is good in the whole picture of things.

Gratitude is a tool in this, for example, if you feel poor and envy the material things of someone else, and get depressed, you stop being grateful for the good things you do have, and it's more dying than living it seems. But if you practice gratitude and remain grateful for the blessings in your life, you see even more clearly how it all fits together in life itself, and you really live life to the fullest.

Sorry if I'm being vague, I'm trying. Perhaps there would be some value in seeking some concrete examples for yourself. With practice it gets easier, and it is quite healing indeed. Reply

Elia July 30, 2009

thank you Amazing- My friend Ruven Sutton had the chance of learning from you in the land, and he always tells of your stories and practices- now i understand why, may you "gaze" with your own eyes at the complete, final, and true redemption, Rabbi, and may there be many more like you in israel- Reply

r July 29, 2009

envy this is what i got out of the article: "What stops us from being able to see the good in others is, almost always, envy."

thank you for that insight Reply

daniel yosef lande colorado springs , colorado July 25, 2008

wow All I have to say is WOW!!!! Baruch HAHSEM! Reply

Maresha Nashville, Tennessee July 25, 2008

Tammuz I had no idea of this and must say it is absolutely amazing how G-d may bring a listening heart through His seasons, even without the person knowing the history in which they were originated. But sometimes through tear filled eyes, we see something, but are not sure what it was that we saw or learned. Thank you for the explanation of what many hearts are being tenderly taught right now. All of G-d's acts toward us are redemptive in their purpose and pattern, and we must listen for His voice. May we not only hear, but have ears that continue to hear and understand. Not in shallowness, but may we dive into the depths of the love of G-d. Reply

M.H. North Miami Beach, Florida July 24, 2008

Tammuz... Wow! This is an amazingly deep, yet comprehensible explanation of what "Tammuz" was originally, and what are its modern day ramifications. I often wonder, as I wait in line at the grocery store to pay, "What is it with all this 'stuff' with celebrities' lives ? (tragedy after tragedy, ad nauseum), and that's just from the covers of those tabloids. Thanks for the clarification (now, instead of wondering, I should just bring along something holy to do as I wait, like Tehillim,)

I especially appreciate your reframing of "the tragic history of the Jewish people" as "a history of hope and faith and moral uprightness..." Tracht gut vet zein gut -- it seems to work for the future, and also the past!

Thank you, and Ya'asher Koach!!! Reply

Moishe New Hempstead, NY July 24, 2008

Examples "Choosing life", "seeing the good", etc. are vagaries, high minded. How about some concrete examples.
Thanks Reply

Darin Abraham Auckland, New Zealand July 23, 2008

Only one knows oneself with G-d When you take deep in what is said here by opeing your mind and heart, your memories will come about yourself and your relations with others and then G-d clearly will show you and you will feel what you need to do and should be trying to achieve at this time and in the future. Reply

Moishe NY July 21, 2008

Seeing Right If the Rabbi would please be more specific, and enumerate some practical, applicable examples relevant to today.
Thank you Reply

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