Amidst Tragedy, a Vision of the Possible

It begins on the 9th of Av, if we are willing and able to answer the summons
A time of national self-assessment for the Jewish people
We are counting our way through the Three Weeks – and now the Nine Days – leading to Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av, which translates to “the 9th day of [the month of] Av” is a day in Jewish history of absolute national mourning.  

For generations, the phrase Tisha B’Av has been a watchword, just as “Nine Eleven” has become. Everyone knows what you mean when you say that phrase: horrifying, human-caused death and destruction. But for us, so many years removed from that time, the words have lost a great deal of relevance. 

On this day 1948 years ago* Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Imperial Army, and although there would be more resistance, the cohesiveness of Jewish life as we knew it, as a self-determining society, was over, and the long awful years of Exile had begun. 

Why should we continue to observe the day? Many have asked. After all, there is a re-established homeland for the Jewish people. Exile is over, or at least now merely self-imposed. What is the purpose of remembering that we were massacred, our home destroyed, our future blighted?

Two thousand years later the Dalaï Lama asked the Jewish people for our insight into survival that might give his Tibetan people hope as they faced their own long exile. It is this: in all our dark nights of the soul, we never concluded that we were powerless. 

This is an incredible source of strength for those who suffer oppression and persecution. But there is a deeper insight beyond it: no matter what happens to us, we have the power to choose our response. The Jewish people’s response was to ask what we might have done differently.  

Even as Yom Kippur is a national day of personal soul-searching, Tisha B’Av has developed into a personal day of national soul-searching. On both days, we set ourselves the difficult task of honestly regarding ourselves.  On Yom Kippur we ask ourselves: in what ways have I failed to strengthen and fulfill my potential as an agent for redemption, of myself and others? On Tisha B’Av we ought to be asking ourselves: in what ways has the Jewish people of which I am a part failed to strengthen and fulfill our potential to bring about redemption in the world? 

The consolation of being a Jew in these days of U.S. moral collapse has been that we are a cohesive community, and we each benefit from our belonging to something larger than ourselves, following a path on which we share strength, meaning, and ways to mark time. This is one of those ways, and we should seize it. 

On this Shabbat, only a few last days remain before the entire Jewish people observes Tisha B’Av next Wednesday night and Thursday (Shir Tikvah details in the Week’s Worth). Tisha B’Av begins a seven week journey toward the High Holy Days and our Yom Kippur opportunity. How might we fulfill the mitzvah, the obligation, of observing Tisha B’Av this year? 

The sacred book recited on Tisha B’Av is Eikha, in English called “lamentations.” Its heartbreaking prose and poetry are attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. In it he urges us to understand that all life is intertwined, and that my actions affect you in ways that the butterfly teaches us when its tiny wings stir up a hurricane. Ignoring the suffering of the vulnerable in our society, he declared, sets that society up for internal rot, and the corruption will then make the society itself as vulnerable as those it refused to care for. 

Anyone unable to see the relevance to our society today has not been paying attention.

Social and even global destruction is not beyond our horrified imagination in these days. It is all we can do not to turn away from our own part in it, looking for someone else to demonize and to blame. But the true courageous genius of the Jewish response to evil, as we have known it as well as anyone, is to refuse to demonize it as beyond human.
All is one, and as we are part of that all that also includes evil, we can touch it, and that means not only that we are at fault, but that we can overcome it. 

The special name of this Shabbat is Hazon, “vision,” for the opening words of the haftarah. The vision is terrifying, because it shows us what happens when we ignore the fundamental ethics that a healthy society requires. The haftarah comes from the words of Isaiah, who’s got our number more than any other prophet: 

וּבְפָרִשְׂכֶ֣ם כַּפֵּיכֶ֗ם אַעְלִ֤ים עֵינַי֙ מִכֶּ֔ם גַּ֛ם כִּֽי־תַרְבּ֥וּ תְפִלָּ֖ה אֵינֶ֣נִּי שֹׁמֵ֑עַ יְדֵיכֶ֖ם דָּמִ֥ים מָלֵֽאוּ׃
And when you lift up your hands,  I will turn My eyes away from you;  Though you pray at length,  I will not listen.  Your hands are stained with crime—
רַחֲצוּ֙ הִזַּכּ֔וּ הָסִ֛ירוּ רֹ֥עַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶ֖ם מִנֶּ֣גֶד עֵינָ֑י חִדְל֖וּ הָרֵֽעַ׃
Wash yourselves clean;  Put your evil doings  Away from My sight.  Cease to do evil;
לִמְד֥וּ הֵיטֵ֛ב דִּרְשׁ֥וּ מִשְׁפָּ֖ט אַשְּׁר֣וּ חָמ֑וֹץ שִׁפְט֣וּ יָת֔וֹם רִ֖יבוּ אַלְמָנָֽה׃ 
Learn to do good.  Devote yourselves to justice;   Aid the wronged.  Uphold the rights and defend the cause of the vulnerable. 

The lesson here is not that any one of us has hands literally “stained with crime.” Like the white supremacy in which the U.S. is bathed every day, the lessons is that we are part of a human organism so vast and so intricately interconnected that we do are not aware of either the good or the ill that our daily acts channel, all without our awareness – but that have consequences nevertheless. 

On this Tisha B’Av, this time of remembering with horror the Holocaust of the ancient Jewish world, may we set ourselves to begin to search out the ways in which we are unaware of the suffering and social destruction of our own day that we cannot see, but nevertheless are part of causing. We don’t mean it, but as Isaiah and Jeremiah would point out from their experience, that’s not an excuse, and certainly will not stave off the impending catastrophe. We are not powerless, most certainly not over our own acts.

I invite you to join me, beginning now in the sorrowful depths of Tisha B’Av. Join me in the hard but necessary work, especially for those of us who live in racist Portland Oregon, of learning about white supremacy. It will be part of our journey to consider how the Jewish community can move from a feeling of being wronged and personally hurt by Black anti-Semitism and Black Power movements, to truly understanding in our hearts and souls the Torah’s command: you shall love the stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger; you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

We are not to love when it is easy and when we are welcomed. We are to find a way to respect, as much as we do our own, the stranger’s struggle for peace, for dignity and for life. May we find consolation in the knowledge that although we have been part of the problem, we are also strong enough to bring about the healing, and that through helping others to heal, we ourselves will find wholeness as well. 

Shabbat shalom

  ___________________
*attention gematria junkies: 1948 is of course the year of the establishment of the modern state of Israel, which ended the exile which began on the 9th of Av 1948 (in Hebrew -!! – ה’תשמ״ח) years ago.

The Torah of Protest: Til The World Be Perfected

“You have been told what is good, and what HaShem requires of you: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with the holy.” Micah 6.8

On the day I write this, we have witnessed 50 days of daily protests in the streets of downtown Portland Oregon. After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, it was awe-inspiring to see myriads of thousands rise up across the US. Horrified by the blatant injustice, peaceful crowds observing safe physical distancing demand mercy and human decency under the slogan Black Lives Matter. Walking with those who marched across bridges and filled parks, I knew I was in the presence of something holy.

Something drew many of us to the Justice Center; perhaps its name. There I have seen young people, and some not so young, create meaningful community around a shared consciousness of urgency. Pizza and hand sanitizer are shared, musical instruments accompany are played, signs naming too many dead at the hands of police (over 1000 in 2019) are raised.

The police violence wreaked upon our fellow residents is shocking, unjustifiable under any circumstances. And it is an ongoing problem. In December of 2012, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 against the City of Portland based on the conduct of the Portland Police Bureau, because the police were the ones committing the violent crimes.

The blood of our Black sisters and brothers cries out to us from the ground. The world is broken in terribly difficult ways and the work of tikkun olam is a profound, and inconvenient – and sometimes incoherent – struggle of good against evil. Our ongoing obligation (mitzvah) is to learn, to participate, and to care. The words of Portland’s NAACP President summon us to our Jewish dream of a world perfected in the Image of G*d:

“A belief in our perfectibility is written right into our constitution, and defines what it means to be a hopeful nation. We the people, in order to establish a more perfect union…establish justice.” (Pastor E.D. Mondaine)

It is unjust to blame protestors for the violence perpetrated upon them, the press, and the medics with them. It is absurd to decry protestor graffiti when we give no thought to the much more violent graffiti inflicted upon the bodies of protesters with rubber bullets, mace, tear gas, sound weapons, and batons and fists. 

We are not free, in any case, to only support those whose behavior we like.

When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it. (Ex. 23.5)

If an enemy, how much more so a fellow human being with whom you agree and only have an issue with tactics? 

Jewish tradition charts a clear path for us to follow:

If a person of learning participates in public affairs and acts, one strengthens the world. If a person sits at home and says, “Why should I bother with social problems? What do I care about their laws? Why should I trouble myself with the people’s voices of protest? I want peace!,” if one does this, one destroys the world. (Midrash Tanhuma, Mishpatim 2)

The protestor who yells an obscenity at a police officer is not the problem, and certainly not deserving of being shot with a rubber bullet or tear gassed. That protestor is a symptom of social agony; we must learn, and participate, and care, if we would understand the real challenges of our day, and heal them.

The rising up of bodies and spirits in Portland’s streets is a holy moment; the prophetic voice of G*d is heard everywhere downtown. May we hear it. May we obey it. May we rise to this moment.