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.

Parashat Shelakh L’kha: Not So Close

This struggle is harder, and taking longer, than we thought

This week’s parashah tells the story of how, in the old Yiddish expression, mahn trakht und Gott lakht, “people plan and G*d laughs.”

Our ancestors, the ancient Israelites, expected that the journey to the Land they were promised would be their new home would be just a few days of hard hiking and lack of water. For a Rohingya family fleeing persecution in Burma, Venezuelans migrating to Ecuador, and a family standing on the other side of a river separating Mexico from the United States, it can seem so heartbreakingly close: that freedom and safety are just over the hill, around the bend, across the river.

Human migration for the sake of survival is as old as the species homo sapiens and the walk out of Africa that took place 100,000 years ago and more. We do not stay in one place for long – another reason why the idea of owning land and refusing to share it for the sake of another human being is inherently unethical. Seen from this perspective, anyone without a haven might confidently assume that they can pitch a tent or erect a lean-to on any available and promising piece of ground, and it would be hard to gainsay them.

As our Torah tells it, our ancestors’ arrival, finally, to a safe haven they can call home is delayed because of their own lack of ability to trust each other. The brutalization they experienced as slaves in Egypt impeded them just as surely as lack of documentation or hostile border patrols. It took our ancestors a full generation to overcome their trauma, and informs our urgent sense that what was done to us should not be done to anyone.

We as Jews know that treating the migrant as the home-born is a primary ethical imperative of our tradition: “the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you” (Num.15.16) appears in this week’s parashah, one of thirty-six times we are commanded not to oppress a stranger, but to respect them as we wish to be respected.

We also know that to speak out is not enough; we must also act. This week I offer you opportunities to act on behalf of the wandering refugee who traces the steps we once trod:

  1. support Refugees International with a donation
  2. contact your elected representative (even if you know that they agree with you) to express your opposition to the camps in which the Trump administration is incarcerating innocent children

It is human to long for a better, more secure life. It is Jewish to help make that possible. In our supportive community we can take turns acting, then resting, then despairing, then acting, in hope, once again.