Shabbat Pinhas: The Three Weeks

This year, Shabbat Pinhas is the first Shabbat of the Three Weeks.

 

These three weeks are the least auspicious period in the entire Jewish year, leading up as they do to Tisha B’Av, the day on which, two thousand years ago, the Second Jerusalem Temple was destroyed. Our people began a two thousand year Exile of homeless wandering, stateless immigrants, without rights, escaping one persecution only to find another, over and over again.

 

Since the establishment of the modern State of Israel, there are those who have suggested that Tisha B’Av should be superseded by celebrating the homecoming of Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel Independence Day.  Yet old traditions die hard, and it is much more like us to mine them for the continuing relevance they offer – thus, it has been suggested by religious Zionists that Tisha B’Av now becomes an opportunity for a collective Yom Kippur of the State and People of Israel.

 

Simply put, Yom Kippur is a time of mourning the destruction we contribute to by our individual human behavior, as well as resolving to  atone; Tisha B’Av is a time to mourn our behavior as a people, and to seek atonement on a national level.

 

We are a people; when one Jew acts, all Jews are implicated, for good and for ill. To understand this is to see the need to look closely at events as they transpire, and consider what action we might take on behalf of our people’s well-being and ethical conscience.

 

The first day of the Three Weeks is Tzom Tammuz, the Fast of Tammuz, marking the day the Romans breached the outer walls of Jerusalem and began their relentless destructive march toward the Temple Mount. All that was left when the smoke cleared and the bodies were buried was the retaining wall; a section of that became the famous “Wailing Wall” at which Jews would weep for the home that was lost.

 

We are taught that Jerusalem was destroyed by sin’at hinam, “baseless hatred” toward each other and others beyond our people. Not just violent hatred, but also the quieter but no less destructive postures of cynical indifference, callousness, and turning away.

 

In our own day, the outer walls are breached by our own kind of sin’at hinam: by our community infighting, by the fear that makes us pull away from trusting each other, and by our cynicism and despair.

 

For two thousand years since the destruction, the bad energy of these Three Weeks has caused Jewish communities to avoid scheduling happy events during this time; no weddings, no young person called to the Torah for the first time.

 

In our own day, Tisha B’Av has become a stark reminder that nothing lasts, and that small acts of evil undermine the institutions we once believed in. According to the Rabbis’ teaching, it was a small act of public humiliation which triggered the destruction of Jerusalem and all Judaea. In this way they remind us that every act can, in a small but real way, bring about a better world – or lead us toward misery and death.

 

This year consider some way in which you will spend these weeks in awareness of the sadness of all that is destroyed, all the lives that are lost. Cease to do, or change in some way, a practice that normally brings you joy and comfort between now and Tisha B’Av. Let that small reminder, cumulatively over this time, show you the true power of the way we spend our days, and re-inspire you to acts of compassion, of kindness and of justice.

Advertisements

Shabbat Hukkat: I Have Seen Outrage

This parashat hashavua, this Torah reading of the week, chronicles a time of terrible crisis for our people. The leaders we rely on are disappearing; the path is lost in a cloud of doubt and fear; the G*d of justice feels very far away.

 

The relevance of parashat Hukkat is profound and somewhat unnerving to those who believe that human nature forces us to repeat our mistakes unendingly. I’m grateful that Judaism offers a more hopeful answer to our existential questions: we are capable of learning from the past, and doing better.

 

In this parashah, Miriam dies, shortly followed by Aaron; in between, Moshe makes the fatal mistake that dooms him to die before the end of the journey. For the people of Israel, we are losing our parents. In these moments we see them for who they really are – flawed and precious human beings – and realize that it is now our turn. Old certainties die with the elders who knew more than we, and we see that there is no one else to lead us forward in these times but us.

 

And these times: the Psalmist offers a striking description of our situation.

 

Listen to my prayer, do not ignore my plea

I sway and moan

From the crushing force of the wicked

My heart quails within me

And death-terrors fall upon me

Fear and trembling enter me

And horror envelops me

I say “would that I had wings like a dove

I would fly off and find rest.”

I have seen outrage and strife in the city

Day and night disaster upon the walls

Guile and deceit never far from the square.

Tehillim 55.3-12 (excerpted)

 

In these times there is no one who can say with a voice we innately trust, as a parent might, that everything will be all right; many of us find ourselves following one voice, then another, as if jumping from rock to rock to cross a stream. This, too, is progress of a sort, and it can even be constructive, if we are choosing well where to put our feet.

 

Our Jewish tradition offers support for our feet as well as our tired hearts in an obscure story at the end of our parashah. It records that our people found themselves in a wilderness called by the Torah’s narrator Be’er, a word for “well” in Hebrew.

 

The people sang a song to the well:

Spring up, O well – sing to it!

The well which the leaders dug,

Which the generous of the people started

With their own hands.

BaMidbar 21.17-18

 

For Jewish tradition, a well is a common symbol for Torah. Even as water is life, for Jews, Torah is life-giving. Not the scroll itself, but what it represents: the Jewish community gathered around it to together puzzle out our responses to the mysteries of our lives; the source of the Jewish ethics and history that reassure us that we are not the first to struggle.

 

The leaders we seek – the leaders we must ourselves become – are those who dig for that sustenance; they are those who are generous with their time, the fruit of their study, and their resources that support our Torah study. Each one of us has a role to play in making sure that we all have access to life-giving, passionate Torah – the supportive source of that which sustains our ability to survive in these times of wandering and fear.

Shabbat Devarim: It Gets Worse

An ox knows its master and an ass knows where the food is; but Israel does not know, my people is thoughtless.”  (Isaiah 1.3)
 
The haftarah for this Shabbat gives the Shabbat its name: Hazon, “[prophetic] vision.” It is always chanted on this Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem which caused the Jewish people to be exiled for two thousand years.
For the last three weeks we will have heard the chanted words of warning: turn back to the right path, don’t you know what your behavior is risking? And now on this Shabbat we will hear
Your land is a waste, your cities burned down; before your eyes, the yield of your work is consumed by others….we are almost like Sodom, another Gomorrah. (Isaiah 1.7-9 excerpted)
The prophets of ancient Israel did not tell fortunes, they foretold the ethical consequences of behavior. These prophecies are put in front of us at this time because tomorrow evening will once again be the 9th day of the month of Av on the Jewish calendar, that day on which Jerusalem was destroyed.
It is Jewish practice on Tisha B’Av to mourn the destruction and the loss, and to consider how we as a people might have acted differently. It is not the way of the teachings of our religious tradition to look at destruction and blame someone else. Even as on Yom Kippur we consider our individual actions and their effects, on Tisha B’Av we look at ourselves as a people. On both days we fast and mourn; on both we seek wisdom to build a better life.
The story is recounted in the Torah of a person who discounted the public humiliation of another person, and how one thing led to another, and because of the fact that people responded to each other with assumptions based in distrust and fear, finally Jerusalem was lost. The striking aspect of the story is that it was a Jew who allowed another Jew to be hurt which started the deadly cycle. And so we learn from this tragedy that big bad things begin with small bad things; that when one’s attitude about the world is suspicious and self-involved, we all end up suffering from the social debilitation that occurs when everyone becomes self-involved.
The problem is called sinat hinam, “baseless hatred.” The Israeli journalist Bradley Burston (whom we once hosted for a standing-room-only talk at Shir Tikvah) in reaction to the Israeli government’s passing of the nation-state law this week, writes that
the Sages taught that the ancient Temples were destroyed [on Tisha B’Av] because of sinat hinam on the part of Jews – gratuitous hatred, hatred without just cause, hatred which does nothing but take a place of conflict, despair, bigotry, violence, and make it worse.
This week it has been one blow after another for us Jews of the United States and the people who love us. From the disaster of Helsinki to the pain of Sheridan Federal Prison to the betrayal of Jewish values in Tel Aviv, we must ask: what have we participated in allowing to happen? In what way have we allowed hatred to” take a place of conflict, despair, bigotry, violence, and make it worse”?
Our tradition teaches that wisdom is the ability to see the consequences of acts, according to our tradition. May we all – you and me, our elected leaders and those whose responsibility it is to tend our planet – become more wise in the days to come.

Shabbat Balak: Do You Know Where You Stand? Do You Know Why?

Thousands of years ago, a prophet appearing in our parashat hashavua, Bil’am ben Be’or, stood on a high place overlooking the tents of the people of Israel. He had been tasked with cursing the people, at the order of King Balak, who had hired him. Balak feared the presence of these immigrants at his border and it was Bil’am’s job to drive them away.
I write you this erev Shabbat email from the front line of @OccupyICEPDX, literally from the line of chairs set in front of the yellow police tape separating pro-immigrant, anti-ICE protesters from DHS police.
People on our side of the line are sitting in camp chairs, standing holding signs, reading, handing each other water. The poiice must stand next to the cars blocking the road, in full uniform, taking turns standing in the sun. This is now the second day of this confrontation. While the protesters and their tents were careful never to block the road or any access, even to the bike route, the Federal DHS has blocked the street with cars marked Federatl Protective Service Police. The word is that OHSU lawyers are working to force DHS to allow traffic through. For the meantime, the protesters are aware that those who need to commute to the south waterfront are losing patience with the situation, and they can’t help but blame all sides – as if all sides were equally at fault!
Why are the people depicted in this photo there? What inner sense of certainty does a person need to have in order to live in a protest encampment for over a week now? What kind of ethical clarity moves those of us who seek to support them? For that matter, what is the person in the uniform, wearing riot gear, armed with a gun, need to know with all his or her heart to be true?
Well, we might say, they are Americans – by which we mean citizens of the United States; there are many other Americans in South and North America. Many of us who oppose the acts of ICE would say that we seek to uphold the true values of the U.S., as enshrined in Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty: “give me your tired, your poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless, tempest-toseed, to me. I lift my light beside the golden door.”
Emma Lazarus was born in 1849 into a large Sefardi Jewish family and well-educated from an early age; one of the early influences upon her life and beliefs was that of the Civil War. Although she wrote much poetry and was a social activist, it took the immigration of Jews from Russia, her people, to inspire her to her greatest work, and lead her to create the poem that sums up the special nature of the United States as a haven for immigrants.  (Read more about her here.)
Although she was very much a patriot and very much a citizen of the United States, it was only when Emma Lazarus deepened her sense of identity as a Jew and a member of her people that she was able to do her greatest work.
We find ourselves in a curiously similar state today. Many of us “just feel that we have to do something” as people who are citizens of the U.S. Like Emma Lazarus, we are lucky enough to also be Jews, and to have a strong and ancient tradition in which to ground ourselves. It is in this older, multi-valent tradition that we will find the certainly and ethical clarity that will root us when the controversy over how to be an “American” is violent and angry.
Jews can quote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with the best of them; thank G*d, we also have justice, justice you shall pursue (Deut. 16.18) and you shall not oppress the stranger (Ex.23.9). With the Jewish value on one hand and the U.S. ethic on the other, we can know more clearly where we stand, and where we should.
Some will march tomorrow morning, on Shabbat; others will study Torah, or daven. May we all know where we stand and why as clearly as possible, lest our attempt to stand for something be as misunderstood as poor Bil’am, who wasn’t even there because he believed in what he was doing, only because someone else invited him.