Book Review: In the Narrow Places
Reviewed by Jay Levinson
In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks
by Erica Brown
New Milford, Connecticut: Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd. in conjunction with OU Press (2011)
ISBN: 978 159 264 2427 (paperback)
Since the first daf yomi in Gemara was started by Rabbi Yehuda Meir Shapiro on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5684 (11 September 1923), learning various texts in daily portions has become increasingly popular. This book is written in that spirit --- an introduction then daily lessons to guide one through the three weeks for the fast day on the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av. The innovation here is that one is not dealing with a basic text. Instead, the author has chosen various topics and practical lessons to refine thought and behavior.
For many Jews this period when we mourn the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple is difficult to contemplate. It focuses on events centuries removed from our current context. The Temple becomes more relevant only with increased learning, which is unfortunately lacking in many Jewish communities today. This historical distance is only intensified by the American religious attitude that stresses faith as a key to an easier lifestyle, rather than a dictate to restrict and mourn at the height of summer vacations.
American holidays have also become void of their original meaning. Memorial Day is a time of pre-summer sales. Thanksgiving is now a time of football games and a grand turkey fiesta. For many Jews religious holidays have also lost their essential meaning.
The author’s analysis concentrates not only on the less observant Jew. She also points out that many observant Jews become entangled in esoteric halachic questions (Are swimming lessons permitted during the days before the 9th of Av?), rather than concentrating on the inner meaning of the period.
Brown is very accurate in her analysis. A confounding problem for the vast majority of Jews is that the liturgy of the 9th of Av might contain beautiful poetry replete with biblical allusions and linguistic styles, but it remains incomprehensible to all but a selected few. For that reason many synagogues use various techniques to abbreviate the service or race through prayers that are hardly understood.
How does one increase religious devotion during this period? Brown has a very proactive solution. She has chosen daily topics for thought, each with practical application.
On the fast day that marks the beginning of this period Brown suggests that we think about “seeking G-d.” He is omnipresent and ubiquitous, but we must make room for Him in our lives. “If you are not looking then you won’t find G-d.” Brown suggests that we set aside a specific place to pray --- “People have the custom to pray and study in a makom kavua, a fixed location or place every day.” It is more than having a regular seat in the synagogue and participating at minyanim at specific hours. We must make G-d a part of our lives. The 17th of Tammuz, memorializing the Roman breach of Jerusalem’s walls is not just another date in history, akin to Bastille Day or the Nazi attack on Poland. We have to strive to seek G-d and relate to the message that he was sending us. The suggestions that the author of this book offers are just the catalyst for further thought.
The 24th of Tammuz contains an interesting observation, “We think of ourselves as descendants by not always as ancestors.” In other words, we try to learn the past. Family genealogy has become a fascinating avocation for many people, as they search for their Jewish roots. Perhaps it strengthens our nation identification, as we learn the lore of the past and our own place in history. Yet, we cannot forget the future. We have to leave for generations still not born our chapters in Jewish history, so that they will more easily find their place in the ongoing Jewish saga. Maybe this is a partial antidote to assimilation as those who follow us with have a better picture of their Jewish heritage.
This is not just another “learn a page a day” book. It is not a lesson in the facts of history; it is a lesson in the meaning of how we can relate to our history. In the Narrow Places (בין המצרים) is meant as an opportunity to stop and think. What does this period mean? How can we use it to refine our behavior? Why do we keep recalling the tragedies and suffering of the past.
Erica Brown has made a very important contribution to religious understanding. This book is certainly worth reading.
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For more articles on Jewish Fast Days, see our Fast Days Archives
from the July 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine