10 August 2011

Tisha B'Av Remarks

adapted from remarks I shared on Erev Tisha B'Av at CBE
8 August 2011 :: 9 Av 5771

Prior to the rallies in Israel over the past weeks, the most disturbing use of the Hebrew word צדק
is usually found in graffiti that reads, כהנא צדק, "Kahane was right," a disturbing endorsement of the racist policy espoused by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated violence toward and mass expulsion of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.  On walls and near bus stops around the country, one also occasionally sees graffiti that reads, מות לערבים, or "Death the Arabs," an equally reprehensible expression I saw and heard chanted on a recent visit to the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.  We have seen the decrying of campaigns against human rights organizations; read disturbing accounts of prostitution and drug abuse and organized crime in Israel; and have watched the nation of Israel struggle with the moral questions around whether or not to deport Sudanese refugees and their children, who are living in South Tel Aviv.  These are the nasty ways that Jews act in their own state, a moral reckoning we have no choice but facing on, of all days, Tisha B'Av.  Long ago the Sages decreed that Jerusalem fell not once but twice due not only to outside forces and cruel, tyrannical empires--but more important, Jerusalem fell twice because of our own sin, our own moral backsliding.  These difficult and disturbing religious message is very much at the mournful center of our commemoration of Tisha B'Av:  What we do to one another is the real reckoning of this day.

To be sure, there is no shortage of external threats to Israel.  A nuclear Iran; international isolation and boycott; the political double-standards where it seems Israel is always wrong and other nations are not judged as harshly; the fear of the demographic time-bomb, challenging the idea of Jewish and democratic state.  And of course, the potential dangers of an unstable new Palestinian state as a neighbor.  What if it doesn't work out?  What if it really does become a military problem, or a base of terror?  What then?

Tisha B'Av pushes us in two directions--inward, to examine our own behavior and how our individual actions effect the greater collective; and outward, to be cognizant of and vigilant about the existential threats that are beyond us, seemingly outside our realm of control.

It seems counter-intuitive to sit on the floor, in the dark, fasting and reading old voices in a mournful tune.  But such is the nature of our Jewish practice:  we take our personal and national history down to the lowest, darkest places, intrepid in our commitment to examine it all.

The Talmud locates the origins of Tisha B'Av not in the Babylonian destruction of 586 BCE or the Roman destruction of 70 CE but rather in an incident in Torah--when בני ישראל are told to scout the land and the first spies return with the grim news that there are giants in the land.  We are nothing--אפס--they exclaim, and the diminishing of their own selves is, in God's eyes, their great sin.  This deep cynicism, this spreading of an "evil report" is poison to the communal enterprise.  It erodes faith and good will.  It saps the community of the strength it needs to prevail.

The Sages seem to be suggesting that national calamity occurs when our personal failings prevail.  National disaster strikes when we refuse to see ourselves as capable of rising to the great challenges that face us.  Who can not help but think of the frustration we feel at failures of vision and leadership in Washington during these trying times?  Who can not help but think of the frustration we feel at the failures of vision and leadership in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Ramallah as well?

If national calamity comes from personal failures, where are those who would lead from a place of personal integrity?

During these seemingly intolerably hot days of August/Av, where the sun radiates excessive and withering heat, one can only imagine the grim horrors faced by our people in ancient days when slaughter and destruction took place.  The fires of Av are foreboding, dangerous, and destructive.  However, the Torah reading for Tisha B'Av morning offers a solution.

Torah reminds us that fire not only destroys but gives life; it doesn't only burn up but in fact is the metaphor for morality and truth.

"Out of heaven God made you to hear God's voice, that the Eternal might instruct you; and upon earth God has made you to see the great fire, and you heard God's voice from the midst of the fire."

The fires of Av are here transformed into the fires of the Burning Bush, the fires of Sinai, the flames of Torah--from an agent that burns to an agent of hearing, of knowing, the right way, the way of truth, the way of justice.

Despite threats both internal and external to the ongoing miraculous enterprise of the Jewish state, thriving in all its achievements and its imperfections as a testimony to the unique and unbreakable spirit of the Jewish people, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in recent weeks in order to lead themselves, to see themselves not as grasshoppers but as men and women in command of their own destiny, insisting with strength and with pride that when the word "justice" or צדק is used in the public sphere, its message is a message of true justice and righteousness.  With concern for the poor, for the worker, for the common, hard working citizen across generations, for the Israeli--Jewish and Arab--with concern that this people, this nation, demands social justice:  העם דורש צדק חברתי

Where this movement may go in the weeks and months ahead we do not yet know; but it is, without question, one of the great hopes to emerge from the Land of Israel in more than a generation.  May it unify our people, strengthen our resolve, and bring about an ever greater commitment to justice and peace.

May Zion and Jerusalem never be forgotten and may it never be desolate. May its light shine with the words of our tradition and the deeds of another generation which demands justice for all who seek it.  And may our deepest inner yearnings, with which we mightily reckon on Tisha B'Av, and our remembrances and commemoration of those who gave their lives for the Sanctification of the Divine Name so that we may one day live, be reconciled through this day of mourning and learning and commemoration, so that we may inhabit a home of justice and peace.

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