Shabbat Nakhamu: Consolation?

This Shabbat, called Nakhamu after the first word of the Haftarah, meant to be a Shabbat of consolation. The first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, that time of terrible destruction once long ago and now a time to face the equally terrifying consequences of our actions in our own days, is meant to reassure us that, after all the suffering and loss, consolation is possible.

But on this day it is difficult to feel consoled.

A Jew in Jerusalem – called the City of Peace! – attacks fellow Jews marching in the Gay Pride parade with a knife. Other Jews set fire to a Palestinian home and murder a child. Both in the name of religious faith.

Jews in our own community attack each other. Not with weapons, not yet – G-d forbid – but the Rabbis of the Talmud taught that the tongue is as sharp as the sword, and a person can be attacked just as viciously with words as with weapons. All in the name of faith.

According to those Rabbis, our Jerusalem Temple was destroyed as an echo of the destruction we were visiting upon each other. No Jewish organization can exist without the acts which uphold it – which literally hold it up – study of Torah, Avodah – mindfulness, and Gemilut Hasadim – loving kindness. The Temple was destroyed because we pulled its foundational supports out from under it, in acts of commission and omission.

There are many ways to express the foundational structure of organized Jewish life; they all have in common a search for meaning and purpose guided by learning, mindfulness, and acts of loving kindness toward others. They are all variations of one structure: the Jerusalem Temple, symbolized by all the good we are meant to do and taught to do.

And there are as many ways to destroy the Temple and all it symbolizes. The self-destruction we bring down on our own sacred community increases with each act of violence, each religious hypocrisy, each arrogant, “noble” political stand.

It’s no wonder that many Jews are turned away from the Jewish community, as daily we fail to practice the ethics we speak. Where we will find the consolation promised by the Prophet Isaiah in this week’s haftarah?

א  נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.

Comfort, be comforted, My people, says your God.

ב  דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ–כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ, כִּי נִרְצָה עֲו‍ֹנָהּ:  כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד יְהוָה, כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל-חַטֹּאתֶיהָ.

Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, proclaim to her, that her time of service is accomplished, that her guilt is paid off; that she has received of the hand of ‘ה double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40.1-2)

Our time of service is clearly not yet accomplished. As it was put in an old makhzor, “our sins are confessed in the daily papers.” What will each of us do, in our own small way, to stand against the anger, and fear, and despair of our own day, lest we contribute to the undermining of the three pillars of our spiritual existence as Jews? What are you doing to help hold up the beacon of hope that Jerusalem is supposed to be? 

We cannot hope to act for good in the larger world until we stabilize what should be the source of our inspiration. We must be learning all that strengthens us, each of us, as a Jew; we must be mindful always; and we must act knowing that our every act of loving kindness does, in a small but real way, repair the world. 

Begin now; continue now; redouble your efforts now, that we might yet come to a place of consolation in our days.

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Shabbat Pinkhas: How Will You Answer Evil?

This week’s parashah is named for Pinkhas, who acted impulsively and killed two people. Incredibly, the Torah records G-d’s appreciation for the deed, awarding Pinkhas a divine and eternal “covenant of peace” (Numbers 25.12).

The Rabbis of the Talmudic Era were troubled by this passage no less than we ourselves should be. “The law may permit it, but we do not follow that law” (Talmud Bavi, Sanhedrin 82a). They turned away from the horror of the passage; in this case, they did not seek deeper meaning. This may be because they were too concerned to give any opening to the zealots of their own day, against whom they taught and, when necessary, fought.

And yet there is a desire to find meaning even in such a deed – witness President Obama’s eulogy for the nine killed in Charleston, in which he described the killer as “being used by G-d”. That is a credible theology for some, including some Jews: our own prophets regard the Babylonian Empire, which destroyed Jerusalem and nearly erased the People of Israel from history in 586 BCE, as G-d’s instrument to punish us for our sins.

But there is a way to think about this more deeply,  toward a different, and perhaps more challenging, theology of the evil that was done in Charleston and in too many other places and times in human history. It is this: Judaism teaches that all is one and all is included in the all-embracing reality that we call G-d, the Universe, Eternity, All, Ayn Sof (Without End). If we take this seriously, we must confront the reality that Dylan Roof is not a demon any more than Pinkhas was; both of them are expressions of a truth – however disturbing – about us and our world.

Put another way: family systems psychology teaches that the member of your family who is acting out, getting in trouble, making everyone angry or uneasy or sad, is not the cause of the family’s problem, but the symptom of something else that is not being addressed. Apply this to the human family, or the world family of all that is, if you will: evil takes root because of a larger dynamic in which it is able to find room to flourish. It is possible for us to live an entire lifetime distracted from those dynamics, that underlying narrative of our lives, but that does not mean that it does not exist – only that we exist more comfortably when we don’t think about that today.

What do we do when events silence us with horror? too often we feel enervated and withdraw, which is what Moshe our leader did in those moments when Pinkhas was committing his murders. We may feel that, as Yeats wrote, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.” 

But our Jewish tradition teaches that in the moment when we must face the evil that exists in our lives, we must act to nurture the good – in ourselves, in each other, in our society – because action for good is the only antidote. But – and here’s the difficulty – we do not vanquish evil by being nice to each other. Unless we are willing to look fearlessly for the underlying narrative of which this evil is only a symptom, we are doomed to continue to suffer from it.

Why does G-d give Pinkhas and his descendants a “covenant of peace”? It is taught that Pinkhas is meant to stand as an enduring example to us all of what happens when we do not work for peace, when we are not aware that our wholeness depends on that of those with whom we share this world in so many unspoken, elemental ways.

The Talmudic teacher Beruriah taught that we are not to pray for the death of an evil-doer, but to pray – and act – for such a one to repent. May we all find our own way toward thoughtful acts that will bring the world closer to the wholeness and peace that will finally, one day, end evil, and bring evil-doers into the peace of a whole, healed world.