Tisha B’Av: Beyond the Sadness – I Must Own This Evil if I Would Behold the Good

On Monday evening July 31, and all day Tuesday August 1, the Jewish world observes this year’s onset of the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av, called simply by that name in Hebrew: ט’ באב – Tisha B’Av, the great Fast Day of mourning for what was destroyed and will never be again.

What shall we do with Tisha B’Av, we Jews who live in a time when Israel has been re-established, as flawed as any nation state but still: Jerusalem is rebuilt? There are those who assert that to observe the day of mourning as it was done for two millennia of Exile is wrong, for it ignores the historic change in our own day, in which we have seen the end of forced Exile and the rise of chosen Diaspora. And there are those who insist that we should continue to observe Tisha B’Av as we always have, as a day of Yizkor for all our people who were massacred in the Babylonian destruction, the Roman dispersal, the Crusades, the pogroms, the blood libels…
Our tradition contains this teaching: “When one human being is killed, an entire world – of potential, of offspring, of impact – dies with that person. When a human life is saved, a world is saved.” (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 37a) When Jewish people continue the practice of mourning those long dead and lost, we keep alive the practice of empathy for any human life lost, even those who die in such numbers that the Western mind turns away, numbed. Jews who keep place for mourning fluent in our hearts can demand that we never succumb to such numbness.
There are losses which are in the natural way of things. And there are losses which leave an irreparable hole behind them. Our tradition offers us not only intellectual opportunities for coping with such devastating loss when it happens to us, but also emotional outlets. Such as Tisha B’Av, and the Book of Lamentations we traditionally read on that day.

The empty chair at the Seder table. The end of a certain melody in the room. The hand one reaches for, the hug the body leans in for, before memory corrects for death. The dried up lake, the torn down house, the missing tree.

This is how death
came to the old tree:
in a cold bolt, a single
thrust from a cloud,
in a tearing away of bark
and limbs, a piercing
of much that was necessary.
We had no choice then
but to cut it down–a pine
of great height, that knew much
about weather and small life.
It had been here longer
than any of us. And now
there is a hole in the sky.
Jane Flanders, “Testimony”

We are an optimistic people, teaching our children to believe in a perfectible world and, as Anne Frank put it, goodness in the heart of every human being.  Optimism has served us well or we would not still exist. But the mystics reminds us that optimism cannot be used to shut out the unpleasant which is also a part of life, or our lives and souls will not be whole. Tisha B’Av offers us space for the sadness that comes to every life. It offers us the chance to maintain Jewish fluency in dealing with mourning – a useful corrective to the Western emphasis on winning, and on the kind of happiness that is falsely and corrosively held up on too many social media sites, a pathetically useless shield against the inevitability of pain.

At a funeral, we take time to weep, and then, in natural time, move forward. On Tisha B’Av, our people mourns as a people – the more honestly, the more likely we will move forward as a people. Individual Jews (and those who love them) who need a space where it’s okay to be silent, to be sad, to cry, are welcome to explore the personal along with the communal. The embrace of our people and its emotional depth is sufficient for both.

Tisha B’Av challenges us to grapple with that which is not happy, not easy, and not comfortable, and to consider trying on the statement I am responsible in some part for the evil of the world. It’s a powerful evocation of everything that’s wrong with our society right now, with the extra sadness that comes with realizing how many generations we have suffered the same human mistakes, the same evil. We as a community of human beings are part of this. And we as a community can do better.
It is a well known truth that people do not act upon a situation unless they feel that they “own” it in some way. Jewish tradition teaches that we were put upon this earth to own it in precisely this way: it touches us, it affects us, we are not separate from it. Coming to terms with this ownership, this responsibility, opens us not only to guilt over what is wrong, but hope that we can influence and nurture what is right.
And so at the end of Tisha B’Av we will see the Jewish antidote to despair: when contemplating the world and all its hurt, keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep looking for mitzvot to do to raise up the world and us in it. Although the holes will remain, consolation will come. It will.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

Shabbat Pinhas: Too Easy to Blame a Person

This parashat hashavua is troubling; in the last verses of last week’s parashah, a young man named Pinkhas (or Phineas in English) who serves as a kohen, a priest (grandson of Aaron the High Priest, no less) has murdered two people who were perceived to be publicly flouting the authority of Moshe. The parashah clearly describes his extrajudicial action: he saw the behavior, and he picked up his spear and ran the two through.
The opening verses of our parashah do not describe his punishment for going outside the legal system, for neglecting to give each person the benefit of the doubt, or for taking the law as he saw it into his own hands. Rather, the opening verses describe G*d’s “reward” for his behavior:
פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי, בְּתוֹכָם; וְלֹא-כִלִּיתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקִנְאָתִי. ‘Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel in My anger.
לָכֵן, אֱמֹר:  הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, שָׁלוֹם. Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him My Covenant of Peace;
וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו, בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם–תַּחַת, אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאל-הָיו, וַיְכַפֵּר, עַל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. and it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his G*d, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’  (Num. 25.11-13)
This is upsetting to read, and it was so for the Rabbis, our ancient Sages, as well. They did their best to rule out Pinkhas’ behavior as an aberration, as something not to be emulated, nor he himself to be held up as a role model. Not unlike what we ourselves do when we rule something to be “the exception that proves the rule.”  Some have taught that you could expect nothing less of a priest, a descendant of Levi, that bloodthirsty son of Jacob, anyway; best that they be the ones assigned to slaughtering animals for sacrifice.
But the reality is more difficult and more compelling. The argument that sometimes a stroke of violence is necessary has fueled every assassin’s argument, from Gavrilo Princip to John Wilkes Booth to Brutus – and as well to those who, at a cocktail party, ask you if, having the chance, you would have killed the leader of Germany in World War II.
The belief that a well-placed murder will change the world is deep enough to emerge in a muted form in social media, as Kathy Griffin and Johnny Depp have recently demonstrated.
In Jewish history, the murder of the Babylonian-appointed governor of Judea, a man named Gedalyah. To this day, the Jewish people has kept this day as a minor fast day on our calendar of religious observances. This murder, of a man who was no doubt considered a tool of the enemy by many Jews, in essence made us worse off, for it ended Jewish autonomy in Ancient Israel after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire.
If only it was so easy to remove all that plagues us – by doing away with the person who represents it, who is empowered by it, who seems to be controlling it – when in reality, we have placed that person there, and we empower it. He does not control it, any more than the symptoms of dysfunction in a family are caused by the person who acts them out.
Pinkhas did the lazy thing. It’s so much harder to work for real, deep, thorough-going social healing. Or personal healing – much easier to find some one thing or person to blame, when, really, that thing or person is doing G*d’s work as a holy messenger of Truth, if we learn how to hear it.
The work that heals us is more difficult and less dramatic. We’re engaged in it every time we see a mitzvah and do it. We’re closer to the world we want every Shabbat, and every time we pause to encourage each other and ourselves by being together and comparing notes.
During these Three Weeks, when we focus on all that has gone wrong, and the sadness we carry in our peoplehood and in our own hearts, may we help each other remember that every goodness also counts, and is gathered up.

Shabbat Balak: the Holy and the Idolatrous

Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishk’notekha Yisrael, “how beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” – these words, which appear in the siddur at the very beginning of morning Tefilah, are part of our parashat hashavua, called Balak. The words are those of a mercenary prophet, Bil’am, hired to curse the people Israel by King Balak of Moab. How do the words of a foe become quotable? how does the name of an adversary become that of the parashah?
The Primishlaner Rebbe explained this, saying that there are those who hide their anti-Semitism and say that they are friends; Balak did not hide his, and for his honesty he merited having his name given to a parashah. (Fun di Chasidishe Osros, in The Soul of the Torah, ed. Victor Cohen)
It’s a useful reminder: someone we dislike may still be capable of saying something we need to hear. Bil’am wasn’t even a Hebrew prophet and our tradition keeps his words so close at hand that they are part of daily prayer. It is possible to hear what we need to learn any where, in any place, if we are listening – but only if we are ready to hear that which challenges ideas and convictions we have already built our lives and beliefs on.
Bil’am spoke of both the tents of Jacob and the homes of Israel. It is taught that the “tents of Jacob” refer to the women, and the “homes of Israel” refer to the men. If we view gender identity as a spectrum, these are the poles between which we find ourselves. Bil’am asserts that both are beautiful, and in so doing evokes an embrace of all that might be within and without those tents but somehow is a necessary part of their beauty – even including him, who came to curse, but ended up blessing.
Here are some words from different tents of our Jewish community, some of which we might dislike, all of which we need to hear.
“Ancient humans looked up to the stars, modern humans down to the headlines. Both are fools.”Torat Menakhem 5742. The lesson here is that we are no different, no more sophisticated and advanced, than our ancestors. We want to put our faith in something we can grasp. Whether it’s an answer that you can hold fast as the political waters roil, or a therapy that will carry you through physical or mental challenges, or a belief you’d like to develop as strongly as a rock that never has to move – the urge to depend upon something is deep. But if in order to hold it fast we simplify it or narrow it, that to which we would hold fast will be too small, too shallow, and it will not hold.
Those small things, to which we’d like to hold fast so that they can keep us safe, those answers to the question of life – they are our idols. Your financial advisor, your doctor, or your religious belief that distances you from hearing others- all idolatry. As the theologian Rachel Adler teaches, idolatry is that which follows from any definition of G*d which diminishes G*d in any way. Calling G*d “He” and believing that G*d is literally male and not all genders is idolatry, as is believing that G*d favors one people over another, or one person over another – or that G*d can be defined, at all.
Lately the Western Wall, it too has become an object of idolatry, distracting us from the real religious teaching – and opportunity – of the moment. From a Progressive Rabbi in Israel:
As an Israeli Reform rabbi I am depressed by the behavior of North American Jewry. We have been fighting the battle for religious pluralism for so long. I did four weddings this month – all of the couples had to go abroad to be married civilly so their union would be recognized in the Jewish State. The struggle for a pluralistic prayer space at the Kotel is not at the heart of the matter for most Israelis in general or for Israeli Reform Jews in particular. We have extremely mixed feelings about the Kotel for many reasons (a religious site that has become a fetishization of stones, an historical/national site that has become a place for military ceremonies…) .  This is a symbolic issue that reflects the growing power of the Ultra Orthodox rabbinate.
The general Israeli public appreciates that we are at the frontline in the battle to make Israel as pluralist as possible. They are confused by our obsession with the Kotel.
My prayer is that North American Jewry throw itself into the real struggle for religious pluralism in Israel even if it is less sexy then being dragged away from Kotel by the police while wrapped in a tallit and holding a Torah.
This could be a chance for North American Jews to support issues (beyond religious pluralism) that reflect the values of justice and morality that are at the heart of our beliefs. This would demand a total reshaping of how Diaspora Jewry relates to religious life in Israel. It would demand that Israeli and Diaspora Jews recognize our real power and our real limitations. That is called political maturity.
– Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman
Jerusalem Congregation Kol HaNeshama


On this Shabbat, consider the ways in which you are distracted from the vision of wholeness you seek, that we all seek; for anything that leads us to rule someone (anyone) out of such a vision is not, after all, really about wholeness. Bil’am is a wonderful role model: he came prepared to curse (and get paid for it!) but when he saw his target, he realized he could only bless. May we look for the blessing in the most cursed of places, and in that way overcome the yetzer hara’ – the evil inclination – that blocks our view of true wholeness for ourselves and our world.

In closing I offer you this redemptive vision as the great Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai described it in this excerpt from his poem “Tourists
Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists
was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see
that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch
from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”