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.
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Shabbat Nakhamu: Consolation?

This Shabbat, called Nakhamu after the first word of the Haftarah, meant to be a Shabbat of consolation. The first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, that time of terrible destruction once long ago and now a time to face the equally terrifying consequences of our actions in our own days, is meant to reassure us that, after all the suffering and loss, consolation is possible.

But on this day it is difficult to feel consoled.

A Jew in Jerusalem – called the City of Peace! – attacks fellow Jews marching in the Gay Pride parade with a knife. Other Jews set fire to a Palestinian home and murder a child. Both in the name of religious faith.

Jews in our own community attack each other. Not with weapons, not yet – G-d forbid – but the Rabbis of the Talmud taught that the tongue is as sharp as the sword, and a person can be attacked just as viciously with words as with weapons. All in the name of faith.

According to those Rabbis, our Jerusalem Temple was destroyed as an echo of the destruction we were visiting upon each other. No Jewish organization can exist without the acts which uphold it – which literally hold it up – study of Torah, Avodah – mindfulness, and Gemilut Hasadim – loving kindness. The Temple was destroyed because we pulled its foundational supports out from under it, in acts of commission and omission.

There are many ways to express the foundational structure of organized Jewish life; they all have in common a search for meaning and purpose guided by learning, mindfulness, and acts of loving kindness toward others. They are all variations of one structure: the Jerusalem Temple, symbolized by all the good we are meant to do and taught to do.

And there are as many ways to destroy the Temple and all it symbolizes. The self-destruction we bring down on our own sacred community increases with each act of violence, each religious hypocrisy, each arrogant, “noble” political stand.

It’s no wonder that many Jews are turned away from the Jewish community, as daily we fail to practice the ethics we speak. Where we will find the consolation promised by the Prophet Isaiah in this week’s haftarah?

א  נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.

Comfort, be comforted, My people, says your God.

ב  דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ–כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ, כִּי נִרְצָה עֲו‍ֹנָהּ:  כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד יְהוָה, כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל-חַטֹּאתֶיהָ.

Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, proclaim to her, that her time of service is accomplished, that her guilt is paid off; that she has received of the hand of ‘ה double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40.1-2)

Our time of service is clearly not yet accomplished. As it was put in an old makhzor, “our sins are confessed in the daily papers.” What will each of us do, in our own small way, to stand against the anger, and fear, and despair of our own day, lest we contribute to the undermining of the three pillars of our spiritual existence as Jews? What are you doing to help hold up the beacon of hope that Jerusalem is supposed to be? 

We cannot hope to act for good in the larger world until we stabilize what should be the source of our inspiration. We must be learning all that strengthens us, each of us, as a Jew; we must be mindful always; and we must act knowing that our every act of loving kindness does, in a small but real way, repair the world. 

Begin now; continue now; redouble your efforts now, that we might yet come to a place of consolation in our days.

Shabbat Nakhamu: let hatred give way to kindness

This Shabbat bears two names, one for the parashat hashavua, the “parsha of the week”, and one which reflects the fact that we have just passed Tisha B’Av, the “9th of Av”, the day on which we reach our lowest, saddest point as a people and a nation. On Tisha B’Av the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and we went into exile, stateless, homeless refugees. This happened not once but twice, both times during the hot summer days which are so harsh in the Middle East.

The first time that the Temple was destroyed, and our people were led into slavery and a fifty-year exile, was at the hands of the Babylonians, in 586 BCE. The Rabbis state in the Talmud that the first Temple was destroyed because Israelite society was guilty of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. In other words, cynicism and hypocrisy, disrespect for one’s body and that of others, and callous disregard for life were the conditions our ancestors contributed to or stood by and witnessed. The destruction of the first Temple was understood after the fact (and by the prophets way before) as a direct result of the corrosion of Israelite society’s ethics and behavior.

The second time that the Temple was destroyed, and our people were led into slavery and a two thousand year exile, was at the hands of the Romans, in 70 CE. The Rabbis ask in the Talmud, why did this happen? Our people was not idolatrous, nor sexually immoral, nor wantonly violent. The answer is that our ancestors of the Roman period, we are told, were guilty of baseless hatred. For no real reason, our ancestors assumed the worst of each other’s actions and words and responded with hate. The destruction of the second Temple was understood to be the end result of baseless hatred. Therefore, our Jewish tradition teaches that baseless hatred as as destructive as idolatry, sexual immorality, and callous bloodshed together.

Baseless hatred – sin’at hinam in Hebrew – is a judgmental anger that finds fault and assumes the worst of others, without any justification at all. It is the result of the sin of not giving the other the benefit of the doubt. It is a sin that is doubled by the sin that follows, of treating the person we’ve judged unkindly, instead of respecting as we wish to be ourselves respected. We are warned that, even as a mitzvah will often lead us to another mitzvah, an averah often leads directly to another averah. Once they pile up, it is difficult to dig oneself out. On the bright side, the world will one day be healed of the horrors we inflict upon each other, when we stop reacting as children to what life brings us, and instead consider, as adults, not only how we feel, but what we’ve learned.

On this Shabbat Nakhamu, the first Shabbat after the mourning over destruction on Tisha B’Av, the rituals of our tradition encourage us to lift up our hearts from sadness and be willing to be consoled. The Rabbis who, two thousand years ago, set this meaning for this Shabbat, had lived through total catastrophe. Everything was destroyed – yet they insisted that we refrain from despair. On this Shabbat Nakhamu, as the rockets fly again and peace is nowhere in sight, we who are experiencing something much less total, have all the more reason to pull ourselves and our morale together and hope. More, in good Jewish fashion, let us see the task of making Shabbat Nakhamu a real and complete consolation in the future. May we live to see many more of them, and may we strengthen each other to work for a time where no baseless hatred remains to corrode our vision of what might yet be. The most difficult work, of course, is within ourselves: if each of us tries never to give in to thoughts of intolerance and hatred, the small ripples of our influence will have an impact on all those with whom we interact.

Let that work begin for you today, with three small acts of Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Hasadim: learn something, meditate upon it, and let it lead you to a random act of kindness. Let that be your small observance of the true meaning, and hope, of Shabbat Nakhamu.