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.

Shabbat Hazon: A Vision To Hold On To

This week we begin to read the final book of the Torah, called devarim, “words”. The entire book consists of Moshe’s parting words.

The Israelites will soon cross the Jordan River, under the leadership of Joshua. Before the crossing, a moment of reflection: Moshe is reminding the Israelites of where they came from, and how far they have come. Over and over he will urge us, remember your ancestors, and what they did; remember your forebears, and what they taught.

As we face the challenges of our lives, it may help to consider that, whatever we are facing, there is a good possibility that either we have been in a similar situation before, or that our friends, our colleagues, even – yikes – our parents, may have, and may have the wisdom of experience to share. None of us need ever be alone in a stressful situation.  As Jews, we are told this over and over again: you are part of a community that remembers, that seeks to learn from experience, and that holds before it an ideal against which we measure ourselves, our experiences, and our beliefs.

Our starting point is the belief that life is a gift, and that it is not enough to be grateful. We have a responsibility as receivers of the gift of life, to respond out of that gratitude, and ask what is my obligation? what do I owe to Life, having been given life? The answer, of course, is to become the best life-form we can be: to be open always to learning, to pray and meditate upon that which is learned, and to practice loving kindness at all times.

It is easy to understand a teaching when one agrees with it; it is easy to pray and meditate when one is serene; it is easy to do kindness to those we like or feel sorry for. But our obligation to uphold our ethics is no less when it’s difficult – rather, that’s where we find out what we really believe, and what we really worship. It is in the face of anger, frustration, stress, and fear that we discover what we’re really made of.

On this Shabbat we are challenged by a special haftarah to consider how we are doing. This special Shabbat is called Shabbat Hazon – the “Shabbat of vision”. The vision is that of the Prophet Isaiah, whose words supply our haftarah for this Shabbat. On this Shabbat, consider his words as they echo in your life and the life of our People:

21 How is the faithful city become a harlot! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her once. 

22 Your silver is become dross, your wine mixed with water. 

23 Your leaders are rebellious, and companions of thieves; every one loves bribes, and follow after rewards; they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them.

24 Therefore says our G-d, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will ease Me of Mine adversaries, and avenge Me of Mine enemies; 

25 And I will turn My hand upon you, and purge away your dross as with lye, and will take away all your alloy; 

26 And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counsellors as at the beginning; afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. 

27 Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness. 

Evil, whether done by us or by others, will not endure, if we are committed to its end. This is the vision that we are called upon to believe in and to make real through our words and our acts. On this Shabbat, consider your own power to create a more just world in every small act, in every situation, and that real justice will only come from finding within ourselves a willingness to learn also from those whom we don’t like, to pray and to meditate upon our acts and our attitudes when we are not serene, and to practice kindness with those from whom we recoil. Such behavior can only come from constantly reminding ourselves, in the moment before crossing from a word to an act, to consider G-d’s command to us to, at all times, to

do justice

love mercy

and walk humbly with G-d. (Micah 6.8)