In this week’s parashah we follow Joseph down to Egypt. This is a time of terror for him: his brothers sell him as a slave and he is taken far away from home. He is bought by a minister to Pharaoh and seems to be doing well; he gains his master’s trust and is put in charge of the household. The future is beginning to look brighter; maybe he will be able to become free, or at least become a higher rank of slave….
Then, one day, his master’s wife tries to seduce him. The story goes that Joseph was a very good looking young man, and like many young men is, well, not uninterested in sexual advances. Joseph knows it is wrong to sleep with his master’s wife, but, according to the midrash, he is, naturally, tempted.
How does he manage to refuse? According to a fascinating teaching by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger,
….there are two sorts of trials. One sort can be overcome by a person’s own efforts. The other trial is the greater one, in which sheer strength cannot be victorious at all. In a case like this, the pure desire and the honest and just heart of the righteous person allow choice to be removed all together, thus avoiding the trial. This is considered divine intervention.
This is what Joseph is really saying where in the Torah it is written, He refused, saying to his master’s wife: My lord knows nothing of that which I do in the house; all that is his he has placed in my hands (Gen. 39.8). G-d gives us choices in all we desire to do, asking only one thing of us: that we remember the yoke of G-d’s kingdom, recalling that all comes to us from G-d. This much we surely have to keep in mind.
Now understand this meaning within the words of Joseph: “…he [He] has kept nothing from me, except for you insofar as you are his wife.”
In this way Joseph was able to avoid having to choose; he remembered that choice itself is given by G-d. In this way, even though he could not overcome the temptation by his own strength, the pain he felt over this helped him to access G-d’s help in overcoming this trial.
This was our first preparation for exile, since Egypt contained within it all of our exiles. The essence of exile is that it makes for additional choice. If there were no need to choose, humanity would be truly free. When we are able to avoid choosing we will come to complete redemption.
(from Sefat Emet: The Language of Truth, ed. Arthur Green, p. 56-57)
Choosing, for the Sefat Emet, is a trial of exile – and exile is wandering, lost among competing claims for meaning, without an orienting compass to help distinguish between them, distant from a sense of certainty and a clear path. On this Shabbat, consider this insight into the halakha, the path of Jewish going. Its guidance may seem constricting, but within the certainties one is liberated from a basic level of choice. Consider the discipline of exercise; if you don’t have to waste time deciding if you’re going to, you’re already ahead. Similarly, What might you do with that extra energy if you weren’t using it deciding whether or not to do mitzvot?
Today, the 9th day of Av, is one of intense mourning. For two thousand years the People of Israel has mourned the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple on this day. In 586 BCE Solomon’s Temple, paneled with cedar from Lebanon, was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire’s army; in 70 CE the Second Temple, begun by those who returned from Babylonian Exile and renovated by Herod of Rome to great beauty, was razed by the army of Rome.
The full horrors of siege and massacre were recorded in the Book Eikha (“Lamentations”), traditionally attribute to the Prophet Jeremiah. Ever since, we read from that book on this day and cry; we recite laments written in fantastically artful rhyming acrostics, two, three, and four times repeating each letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order. Some of the kinot are anonymous; some of the most beautiful are attributed to the poet Eliezer ben Kalir (7th century). The words within each beautifully written kinah (“lament”) describe the horrifying details of suffering and death – all the more awful in that stark contrast.
The kinot give voice to a despair that, though it may change its specific circumstances, remains tragically the same in all human experience: How can our lives have become so wretched that some seek to kill others? How has the Garden of this beautiful world into which we are born, a beautiful gift that we did nothing to deserve, how have we turned it into such a radioactive dump?
The classic Jewish response is this: for our sins we were exiled from our land. The responsibility for our exile from happiness, from peace, from safety, from delight, is the work of our own human hands. I do not mean to say simplistically that an individual deserves what happens to her; rather, to recognize that none of us is an individual in that radical way. Our acts are dependent upon, and affect, each other, not only in our own day but throughout time.
Take one example from political science: After World War I, a supremely confident victorious group of allies divided up the spoils, just as victors always have. In this case, the spoils were the Ottoman Empire, and the victors were the colonial powers of Europe. The victorious imposed arbitrary “states” and “nations” upon the vanquished, and in so doing created the conditions for great suffering among those whose lives and identities were peremptorily reassigned. Much of the unhappiness in the Middle East today is more easily understood simply by recalling those days, and the Islamic State newly self-styled (and appearing in the areas of Syria and Iraq, tellingly ignoring those Western-drawn state borders) declares itself a direct reaction against that time.
What each of us does, affects us all. In Jewish tradition we recognize this reality through the Talmudic teaching What is the best practice to which a person should adhere? Always consider what is being born. (Pirke Avot 2.12)
Jewish tradition is optimistic; since human beings are created in G-d’s image, we are capable of creativity, love, and beauty – not just the horrors we tend to inflict upon each other. Thus, on this day of Tisha B’Av 5774, when there is much about which to despair, let us consider our power to work for good even in the midst of darkness. If we are in exile because of our sins, it is an ethical exile, not geographical, and we cannot return from it physically or mentally but only morally. We are capable of this return, but only after we come to terms with our acts, and seek healing from them for ourselves and for those we have injured.
The most optimistic teaching of all is that one day, Tisha B’Av will become a day not of our greatest mourning, but of our greatest celebration. On that day we will look back at all our former struggling, and our unkindness towards each other, and then we will laugh it away, and sing our sorrows into delight.
If you have a hard time fighting off despair, you are not alone. But there are those who wrestle a blessing even from the current darkness that seems to surround us. This link shows you a short video of people helping people, in the midst of the destruction. They might be Israelites or they might be Babylonians; they might be Israelis or they might be Arabs. What matters is that they are choosing life in the midst of death.
…May the day that turns our mourning into song come soon – it cannot come soon enough
Because for now, we find ourselves situated within the difficult and sad work of coming to terms with what we, the people of Israel, and what we, human beings on this earth, have wrought. May this Tisha B’Av be one of fasting from denial, fasting from hate, and fasting from despair.
Here are a few excerpts from the kinot. May these songs of sorrow turn soon to their opposite, and may we all see the day of joy on the other side of this darkness.
Oh how they have cast down my glory from my head when they set up an idol opposite G-d’s Throne, when they profaned the conditions the prophets had counselled, saying “If you walk in My statutes”….G-d has cut down the cornerstone of the city which was full of righteousness, for in her chamber of imagery He found every kind of impurity.
How lonely sits the rose of Sharon! Song is muted on the lips of the Levites, and the priests, the offspring of Aaron, were moved away from their watch-stations when the Temple was delivered into the hands of those who rebel against G-d.
The five-fold Torah cried bitterly when the priest and prophet was slain on the Day of Atonement, and over his blood the young priests were slaughtered like young goats, and the priests of Tzippori scattered like birds in flight.
On account of the iniquity of tithes and the sabbatical year, Israel, the bedecked bride, was exiled from her land.
When I think how the tongue of the suckling child could cleave to his palate through parching thirst, oh woe!
When I think how the daughters were swollen from starvation in their mothers’ laps, oh woe!
When I think how women were burdened with miscarrying wombs and dried-up breasts, oh woe!
When I think how the mother weeps over her children that are sinking toward death, oh woe!
When I think how the young warriors dropped in the desert of Arabia, oh woe!
When I think how in exhaustion the exiles diminished from a thousand to ten, and ten to one, oh woe!
When I think how their breath became flame from thirst, and were given empty skins of water, oh woe!
When I think how nine kavs of children’s brains were piled up on one rock, oh woe!
When I think how three hundred babies were impaled on a single lance, oh woe!
When I think how the young men and women fainted through parching thirst, oh woe!
Palestinian children from border crossings to Israeli hospitals and back. It was shot during the first week of Tzuk Eitan (the current conflict w Gaza) and it features my cousin Yuval, the founder of Road to Recovery.
.A bit of sanity for us all, please share with the world…