Our Rabbis tell us1 that the twenty-one days of Bein HaMetzarim — the twenty-one days between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av — are alluded to in Yirmeyahu’s prophecy regarding the destruction of the First Beis HaMikdash and the subsequent Babylonian exile, when he states, “I behold a staff of almond-wood.”2

Our Sages comment: “The almond takes twenty-one days from the time it blossoms to the time it ripens, corresponding to the twenty-one days between the Seventeenth of Tammuz, when the walls of Jerusalem were breached, and the Ninth of Av when the Beis HaMikdash went up in flames.”

At first glance, the relationship between the growth period of almonds and Bein HaMetzarim is simply that they are both equal in number — twenty-one. However, as all aspects of Torah are exacting in every detail, it is logical to say that there is a deeper connection between the staff of almond-wood and the twenty-one days of Bein HaMetzarim.

This will be understood by prefacing the statement in the Mishnah3 that there are two types of almonds — bitter almonds and sweet almonds. Bitter almonds are sweet when they are small but turn bitter as they grow larger; sweet almonds are bitter when they are small and become sweet when they fully ripen.

The Rogatchover Gaon explains4 that the term “almonds” (shekeidim) properly refers to those that become sweet when fully ripened, while those that turn bitter when they mature are termed luzim. Thus, the nature of the almond (shakeid) and the effect of its twenty-one day ripening period is that of transforming that which is bitter into that which is sweet.

This is why the days of Bein HaMetzarim are alluded to by the “staff of almond-wood”: the main theme of this twenty-one-day period is that the Jew, through his spiritual service, not only negates the “bitterness” of these days, but moreover, transforms these days into “Yomim Tovim and days of rejoicing and gladness.”5

This helps us gain insight into yet another aspect of this prophecy: The metaphor of a “staff of almond-wood” as an allusion to Bein HaMetzarim relates to the speed of the growth of the almond itself — twenty-one days. Why, then, is the expression “a staff of almond-wood” used, rather than “an almond-branch complete with almonds?”

We might think that Yirmeyahu was shown a staff, as a staff is also symbolic of smiting6 — i.e., the punishments and afflictions7 G‑d visited upon the Jewishpeople during these days. However, this is not so, for the primary aspect of the prophecy is the assiduousness (in Hebrew, shoked, from the same root of shekeidim) of the events that are to transpire. In fact, the concept of assiduousness is so primary here that the verse does not speak explicitly of punishment at all.

In light of the explanation that the verse’s theme is the transformation of bitter into sweet, this matter too will be understood, as the transformation of bitter into sweet directly relates to a staff:

A branch8 — especially when still attached to a tree — retains its moisture and suppleness, while a staff or stick, far removed as it is from the tree, is dry and unyielding. It is precisely this removal from its source that causes the pliable branch to be transformed into a rigid and hard staff.

In spiritual terms, this means the following: “Branch” alludes to the Jewishpeople as they are attached to their source. Generally, this refers to the time when the Beis HaMikdash was extant and the Jewishpeople dwelled in Eretz Yisrael — a time when it was possible for all Israel “to go up, see, and prostrate ourselves before You.”9 At that time, the Jewishpeople felt their attachment to their source, the Supernal Tree.

“Staff,” on the other hand, denotes the condition of the Jewishpeople during the time of exile, when the Jews’ connection to their source is not revealed; a time when G‑dliness is obscured and there are many hindrances to Divine service.

However, it is precisely the spiritual service of the Jewishpeople during these difficult times that reveals the firmness and unyielding character of the Jew: Even during such times a Jew champions over adversity, overcoming all the manifold obstacles and hindrances that stand in his spiritual path. Ultimately, he so prevails that he attains the apex of spiritual service, transforming the “bitterness” of exile into the “sweetness” of the imminent redemption.

We may thus say that the allusion of the “staff” in Yirmeyahu’s prophecy relates to the specific firmness of the staff: In order to transform the “bitter” into the “sweet” — the property of almonds — and exile into redemption, one must be as firm and as unyielding as a staff in his or her service of G‑d.10

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXXIII, pp. 194-196.