From Impossibility to Inevitability

Last week, on the 17th of Tammuz, I was listening to a report on NPR about the (then) potential name change of the Washington DC professional football team. For its entire history, the team carried a nickname that was a derogatory term for Native Americans, and Monday the team announced they would retire that name in the face of popular and sponsor pressures.

The date was significant, as it is a significant date on our Jewish calendar. It is the commemoration of the breaching of the walls of ancient Jerusalem, which ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple, which we mark on Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av. Tisha B’Av is traditionally a day of communal mourning, marked by a 25-hour fast, the reading of the biblical Book of Lamentations, and refraining from joyful activities.

The 17th of Tammuz is also a traditional day of communal mourning, though it is what we call a “minor fast day.” It is not as significant as Tisha B’Av, though still observed as a day of sadness. It ushers in a period known as the “Three Weeks” which spans the period of time between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, during which certain activities are curtailed.

It is easy to understand why we would observe Tisha B’Av–the destruction of the ancient Temple, the central institution of the Jewish community, by an oppressive power was a traumatic event is the scope of Jewish history. The day has come to represent not just that communal trauma, but successive communal traumas that mark our history. But why observe the breaching of the walls, which was just a prelude to the main event?

A comment during that NPR story about team name changes struck me. Joe Posnanski, a sportswriter and author who is a self-identified fan of the Cleveland professional baseball team (which is also reviewing its name), said “One day, it feels impossible. And the next day, it feels inevitable.’

It struck me as an insightful way to think about societal change. The pressure to change builds over time–the effort to reevaluate these team names has been going on for quite some time. But then something happens, something shifts, and all of that pressure overwhelms the resistance. Its not that all is done, there is still work to be done, but what once seemed impossible, now is inevitable.

That is what the 17th of Tammuz represents, that shift from impossibility to inevitability. The breaching of the walls of Jerusalem was not the final act of destruction, the fall of the Temple followed three weeks later. But when those walls came down, the destruction became inevitable. It was the first step of a process, but without it, the rest of the events would not have followed.

While on the Jewish calendar these are dark days, we can recognize–as we do with the change in team names–that this same pattern holds for positive change as well. We must keep applying pressure and advocating for change, raising up our voices and fists until the impossible become inevitable. One day there is a wall in front of us, the next day the path is clear.

And then we take the next steps.

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