16 July 2022

‘Let your kindness comfort us,
Before we call out to you answer us’

The names of concentration camps in lettering around the Aron haKodesh or Holy Ark in the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague … the attack on the Jewish quarter in Prague in 1559, when homes and synagogues were looted and burned, is one the events recalled on The Fast of Tammuz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Fast of Tammuz (שבעה עשר בתמוז‎, Shiv’ah Asar b’Tammuz) in the Jewish calendar begins this evening (16 June 2021) and ends tomorrow evening (Sunday, 17 June 2021).

This fast day on the Seventeenth of Tammuz falls on the 17th day of the 4th Hebrew month of Tammuz and marks the beginning of the three-week mourning period leading up to Tisha B’Av. The fast has been pushed to Sunday this year (18th Tammuz) because the 17th fell on the Sabbath today (16 June).

This fast day commemorates the breach of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple. It also traditionally commemorates the destruction of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments and other historical calamities that befell the Jewish people on the same date.

The Fast of Tammuz, according to Rabbi Akiva, is the fast mentioned in the Book of Zechariah as ‘the fast of the fourth [month]’ (see Zechariah 8: 19).

According to the Mishnah, five calamities befell the Jewish people on the day:

• Moses broke the two tablets of stone on Mount Sinai;
• the daily korban or tamid offering ceased to be brought;
• the city walls were breached during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, leading to the destruction of the Second Temple on Tisha B’Av;
• before Bar Kokhba’s revolt, the Roman military leader Apostomus burned a Torah scroll; • King Menashe, one of the worst of the Jewish kings, placed an idol placed in the Holy Sanctuary of the Temple.

The fast also recalls:

• the walls of Jerusalem being breached in 1095 during the First Crusade;
• Pope Gregory IX confiscating all manuscripts of the Talmud in 1239;
• the attacks on Jewish communities in Toledo and Jaen in 1391, when more than 4,000 Jews were murdered;
• the attack on the Jewish quarter in Prague in 1559, when homes and synagogues were looted and burned;
• the liquidation of the Kovno Ghetto in 1944.

As a minor fast day, fasting lasts from dawn to shortly after dusk. It is customary among Ashkenazi Jews to refrain from listening to music, public entertainment, and haircuts on fast days.

During the morning service on the 17th of Tammuz, a paragraph is added to the Amidah prayer, Avinu Malkeinu is recited, and there is a special Torah reading.

During the afternoon service, all of the changes to the morning service are repeated, and Ashkenazim read a special Haftarah from the Book of Isaiah. Sephardim add the prayer Aneinu to the Shaharit Amidah.

The three weeks beginning with the Fast of Tammuz and ending with the Ninth of Av are known as Bein haMetzarim (‘between the straits’ or between the days of distress), or the Three Weeks.

In his reflection on the Fast of Tammuz in this week’s newsletter of the Spanish and Portuguese or Sephardic Community (Spin Newsletter) Rabbi Joseph Dweck of Bevis Marks Synagogue, says the tenor of this fast is set by the account of Moses coming down Mount Sinai to find the Golden Calf and shattering the tablets of the Ten Commandments when he sees it.

He writes, ‘It is important to note that what caused Moses to shatter the tablets was not simply the golden, graven image. But something far more concerning — the people were dancing in circuits around it. It was when he saw that that he threw down the tablets.’

He continues: ‘It is one thing to make false projections onto reality. The Golden Calf was one such projection. We all do it as human beings because we do not ascertain reality accurately simply because we sense or experience something. It takes a lot of testing and reconsideration in order to approximate reality most accurately. What this requires is an openness to redefining or removing our prior thoughts and assertions.

‘What Moses found was the opposite. The people had not just created a false God, they bowed to it, sacrificed to it, and closed a circuit around it that was essentially impervious to any outside input. They had gone after their projections hook, line, and sinker. This meant that the ability to reconnect with the real world was essentially closed. Moses shattered the tablets to shatter their walls of illusion ...

‘On the 17th of Tamuz we consider our perceptions of reality. What is working and what isn’t? And what are we holding on to at all costs despite life’s signals telling us that they are not viable? Tough questions that beg tougher answers. But on the fast day this is the area we explore. In doing so we commit as a people to living more real and relevant lives and in doing so, better ourselves, our people, and connect with God.’

For my reflections this evening, I am contemplating the words of the prayer Alienu:

Answer us God, answer us, on our fast day,
Because we are in great distress.
Do not look at our wickedness,
and do not hide your face from us,
and do not ignore our supplication.
Be close to our cry,
Let your kindness comfort us,
Before we call out to you answer us,
As it is said: ‘and it shall be that before they call I will answer, while they are still speaking I shall hear’ (Isaiah 65: 24).
For you are God who answers in a time of distress,
who redeems and saves in every time of distress and woe.
Blessed are you God, who answers in a time of distress.

Detail from the Arch of Titus in Rome showing the Romans carrying off booty from the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD

Praying with the Psalms in Ordinary Time:
16 July 2022 (Psalm 143)

‘For the enemy has pursued me … making me sit in darkness like those long dead’ (Psalm 143: 3) … graves in the Dublin Progressive Jewish Community cemetery on Oldcourt Road, Rathfarnham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

In the Calendar of the Church, we are in Ordinary Time. The calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (16 July 2022) commemorates Osmund, Bishop of Salisbury (1099). Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 143:

Psalm 143 is the sixth psalm in the final Davidic collection of psalms (Psalm 138 to Psalm 145) that are specifically attributed to David in their opening verses, and it is one of the seven Penitential Psalms.

In the slightly different numbering system in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is Psalm 142. This psalm often serves as a prayer in times of distress. Its opening words in Latin are: Domine, exaudi orationem meam.

Psalm 143 is a prayer for deliverance from the psalmist’s enemies, and takes the form of a king’s prayer for victory and peace. According to Saint Augustine of Hippo, this psalm was probably written during the period of the rebellion of David’s son Absalom.

The psalm has two equal sections, verses 1-6 and 7-12, separated by a Selah.

Psalm 143 begins by asking God to hear our prayer and not to judge us. The Greek Orthodox theologian, author and blogger Father Stavros Akrotirianakis finds it comforting that in this psalm we hear the words ‘for no one living is righteous before you’ (verse 2). We are all the same when it comes to feeling inadequate standing before God.

For us as readers today, the ‘enemy’ that pursues us (verse 3) can be a person, a situation, a setback, or our own sense of anxiety. There are many times when that enemy causes us to feel as though we have been crushed or that we ‘sit in darkness’ (verse 3).

What is our response when we feel this way? Is it to quit? To self-medicate? Where is the first place we run when we feel crushed?

The psalm reminds us that when we feel crushed, we are supposed to stretch our hands to God (verse 6), and to direction from God for how and where we are to go.

When we pray ‘Let your good spirit lead me on a level path’ (verse 10) we are saying that we are willing to follow where the Spirit leads, rather than choosing our own way.

Verse 11 in the NRSV reads: ‘For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life. In your righteousness bring me out of trouble.’

Stavros Akrotirianakis identifies a critical omission in the translation of verses 11-12. Most English translations of Psalm 143 omit the word ‘soul’, in Greek ψυχήν (psyche. The Greek translation of this Psalm says: ἐν τῇ δικαιοσύνῃ σου ἐξάξεις ἐκ θλίψεως τὴν ψυχήν μου, which correctly translated means, ‘In your righteousness bring out of trouble my soul’ (verse 11).

English translations most often used says ‘bring me out of trouble,’ which can mean many things, because we get in many kinds of trouble – trouble with the law, trouble with finances, trouble passing the exam we did not study for, and so on. The intention of the Psalmist, however, is that our prayer is for spiritual healing, and that our souls be brought out of trouble.

Verse 12 concludes the psalm by saying: καὶ ἐν τῷ ἐλέει σου ἐξολεθρεύσεις τοὺς ἐχθρούς μου καὶ ἀπολεῖς πάντας τοὺς θλίβοντας τὴν ψυχήν μου ὅτι δοῦλός σού εἰμι ἐγώ. This correctly translates as ‘And in your mercy destroy my enemies, and you will totally destroy all those who afflict my soul, for I am your servant.’

A cursory reading of most English translations would lead us to think that we are to use the Psalms to ask God to wage war against anyone who is against us, which in today’s culture could be an unfair line manager, or a mean colleague. This verse asks God specifically to destroy those who afflict our souls, not our lives. Being rid of anything that does not go our way is not healing, but is narcissism.

We cannot expect God to heal every infirmity in our bodies, or every setback in our lives. Asking God to be healed from the things and people that afflict our souls and therefore our relationship with God, is a fair request, and one that God will answer.

‘Let your good spirit lead me on a level path’ (Psalm 143: 10) … a pathway through the woods at Ballysaggartmore, Lismore, Co Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Psalm 143 (NRSVA):

A Psalm of David.

1 Hear my prayer, O Lord;
give ear to my supplications in your faithfulness;
answer me in your righteousness.
2 Do not enter into judgement with your servant,
for no one living is righteous before you.

3 For the enemy has pursued me,
crushing my life to the ground,
making me sit in darkness like those long dead.
4 Therefore my spirit faints within me;
my heart within me is appalled.

5 I remember the days of old,
I think about all your deeds,
I meditate on the works of your hands.
6 I stretch out my hands to you;
my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.

7 Answer me quickly, O Lord;
my spirit fails.
Do not hide your face from me,
or I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.
8 Let me hear of your steadfast love in the morning,
for in you I put my trust.
Teach me the way I should go,
for to you I lift up my soul.

9 Save me, O Lord, from my enemies;
I have fled to you for refuge.
10 Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God.
Let your good spirit lead me
on a level path.

11 For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life.
In your righteousness bring me out of trouble.
12 In your steadfast love cut off my enemies,
and destroy all my adversaries,
for I am your servant.

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) this week has been ‘Partners in Mission.’ It was introduced on Sunday.

Saturday 16 July 2022:

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us pray for churches working in ecumenical partnerships in their communities. May they work well together to be a faithful presence in their local areas.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org