Three weeks is a long time when you're waiting for an e-mail. But take all the pain and torment, all the sins and sorrows of a 4,000-year-old nation and squeeze them into a space of three weeks—and three weeks are a narrow space indeed.

When does something "happen"? We can say that a war occurs during the years it occupies of a particular century. We can say that a change in the situation of a people transpires over the course of a generation or era. Or, we can look at the root-causes of these events and processes.

When does something "happen"? A single traumatic moment in an individual's life—particularly in the person's infancy or childhood—can enfold within it numerous "future" occurrences, thoughts and feelings, and can shape the person's state of mind and the circumstance of his life over many decades. The same is true of our life as a people. The events of two fateful days in our formative years encapsulate a large chunk of our history and set the trajectory of our journey through millennia to come.

What are these two days, and what happened?

The 17th of Tammuz

On the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, in the year 2448 from creation (1313 BCE)-- forty days from the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai—Moses descended from the mountain to meet with the sight of the Children of Israel the worshipping a Golden Calf. In his hands he carried the Tablets of the Covenant incribed with the Ten Commandments. Upon witnessing the people's betrayal of their newly-forged covenant with G‑d, Moses "threw tablets from his hands and shattered them under the mountain."1

G‑d forgave His people, but He also said, "On the day of My accounting, I shall account [for this as well]." Our sages explain: every sin of Jewish history contain something of the sin of the Golden Calf; every catastrophe of Jewish history contain something of the catastrophe of the breaking of the Tablets.2

The 9th of Av

It was a wounded yet recovering people who decamped from Mount Sinai to resume their trek toward the Promised Land. And then, on the eve of ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av—a year and three weeks after the breaking of the Tablets—the journey of Israel stopped dead in its tracks.

Jewish history stopped in its tracks It was on that tragic night that our ancestors, discouraged by the negative report brought back by the Spies, lost faith in the Divine promise of the Land. In the end, Moses once again secured G‑d's forgiveness and the journey was resumed; but once again the nature of of the journey was profoundly altered. Moses and the entire generation that left Egypt and stood at Sinai died in the desert. Their children wandered for 40 years in the wilderness —setting a pattern that would repeat itself in the later exiles of Israel.3

The Three Weeks

Nearly 1,400 years later, these two days of betrayal and despair again made their mark in Jewish history, framing the infamous "three weeks" that saw the destruction of Jerusalem and its Holy Temple and the onset of our most recent, longest and most bitter galut (exile).

On the 17th of Tammuz of the year 3829 from creation (69 CE), the Roman armies besieging Jerusalem broke through the city's walls. For three weeks the battles raged through Jerusalem's streets, until the entire city was vanquished and the Holy Temple—the heart of the city and of the Jewish people—was set aflame on the 9th of Av.

Twenty-one days of betrayal and despair Numerous other tragedies of Jewish history—both before and after the destruction of the Temple—occurred on Tammuz 17, Av 9, and during the three weeks that join these two dates.4 To this day, these two days are observed as fast days, and the "Three Weeks" as a period of mourning and repentance.

The prophet Jeremiah, in his lamentation of the destruction of Jerusalem, proclaims of the people of Israel: "all her pursuers overtook her between the narrow straights."5 The "narrow straights" explains the Midrash, are the "twenty-one days between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av."

Lift Off

What happens when so much turmoil and foment are squeezed into such a narrow space?

Ask a gardener what happens when you pinch a garden hose. Ask a laser engineer what happens a beam of light is focused on a singular point. Ask a historian what happens when the pent-up passions of a people channel through the person of a charismatic leader. Ask a rocket scientist what happens when a million pounds of thrust are squeezed through a nuzzle.

Blast our world into a higher orbit Ask our sages: they will tell you that the Moshiach was born on the Ninth of Av. They will tell you that it is our generation's task to squeeze four thousand years of yearning and striving through the narrow straight of galut and blast our world into a higher orbit—into the state of divine goodness and perfection promised by the prophets of Israel.