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 Matot-Masey: We’re In This Together

Shalom Shir Tikvah Learning Community,
On this Shabbat we read a double parashah, both Matot and Masey, and at the end of it we finish the Book BaMidbar, the account of much wandering in geography and in relationships.
And in this specific Torah narrative, part of the second year of the Triennial Cycle of reading, we begin with the story of two brothers who decide that they will better off if they separate from the larger family.
The tribes of Reuven and of Gad were herders, and they saw that the land on the east side of the Jordan river was good grazing land. So they said to Moshe, “this land through which we are traveling is good land for grazing. Rather than cross the Jordan river, we prefer to stay on this side and settle here.”  –BaMidbar 32.1-5, excerpted.
It seems a reasonable statement of intent, not unlike the act of the one who gets to camp first and chooses the best spot available for her tent, or the volunteer who joins the moving crew on behalf of a helpless older person but leaves when it suits him. We’re all part of the group, until the individual in each of us emerges to claim our individual status. And it’s all innocent enough, until the desire to take care of oneself becomes après moi le deluge, as King Louis XIV was supposed to have said: after I get mine, who cares what happens?
In times like ours, fear of personal danger or loss may cause us to feel something similar, to hesitate before joining a group to protest, or putting oneself at the front line of a cause. It’s a natural enough human desire, to stay safe and to keep those one loves safe with one – to circle the wagons against the common threat, but to look for the best and safest place among those wagons for oneself.
And so Moshe confronted the leaders of the tribes of Reuven and of Gad, saying “will you abandon your family now, when you are needed to help protect and defend the group? Will you betray the people of which you are a part because you have found a separate place to which to escape?” – BaMidbar 32.6, more or less.
Moshe’s point echoes that of Mordecai, the Jew in Persia who confronted the Queen his niece at a similar moment:
Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace. One the contrary, if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your family’s house wil perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained your royal position just for this purpose?” – Megillat Esther 4.13-14.
None of us can truly separate ourselves from what is happening all around us. Those people who are homeless are no different from us, and thus all our homes are less secure. Those children who are separated from their parents are our children, and the world of our children is less safe. Those immigrants, people of color, Muslims, trans people, and all other targeted human beings are us, and we are all in this together.
If we have position, privilege, and resources, now is not the time to hoard them, but to hear Mordecai’s question: what have you been given these blessings for? If we would leave the group because there may be a more comfortable reality that presents itself to us, would considering Moshe’s demand change our thoughts? Would you leave your people – your fellow Jews, your companions in Portland citizenry, those who are not your social class but who share your life with you every day?
During the Three Weeks period we are encouraged to reflect upon not our personal faults, as we do on Yom Kippur, but upon our communal failings. What part did each individual play in the fall of the Jerusalem Temple on the 9th day of Av, Tisha B’Av, 2000 years ago? What part does each of us play in the destruction we fear in our own lives?
Neither personal, nor local, nor national borders will protect us from the acts we allow, enable, or fail to stop. This is one of the first lessons of Jewish ethics: that which you do to another affects you as well. But let this also be a reason for hope: when each of us commits to each other, none of us need ever be alone.

Shabbat Nakhamu: Sometimes the Answer is No

This Shabbat we study the second parashah of Devarim, Deuteronomy, called Va’Etkhanan, “I implored.” The name refers to the pleading of Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher, to be allowed to enter the Land of Promise which has been his life’s dream and every day work. According to the Midrash (ancient Rabbinical literature which show us how to explore for deeper meanings in the Torah text), after G*d does not relent, Moshe tries to bargain (an honorable Middle Eastern tradition):

Then Moses said, “Master of the universe, if I am not to enter the Land alive, let me enter dead, as the bones of Joseph are about to enter.” … ‘No’ is G*d’s reply… Then Moses said, “Master of the universe, if You will not let me enter the Land of Israel, allow me to remain [alive] like the beasts of the field, who eat grass, drink water, and thus savor the world–let me be like one of these.” At that, G*d replied, “Enough. Speak no more to Me of this matter” (Deut. 3:26).

But Moses spoke up again, “Master of the universe, if not [like a beast of the field], then let me become like a bird that flies daily in every direction to gather its food and in the evening returns to its nest–let me be like one of these.” The Holy One replied again, “Enough.”

This Midrash reflects that our ancestors did not believe in magic, nor in miracles that a human could pry out of the Divine; more, the Rabbis of antiquity knew very well from their own experience that bad things happen, even to good people, and while we may plead with all our heart, it may not change the outcome. Sometimes, even when we pray our hardest and most creatively for what we want, the answer is still going to be No.

This Shabbat marks the days after the biggest NO our people can experience; it is the NO to the plea to be spared, to not let destruction happen, to not let all be lost. Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av), now three days ago, marks our memory of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of our people. Much prayer seemed to be for nothing.
But this Shabbat, only a few days after that nadir, is called Nakhamu, “be comforted.” It seems a surprising and perhaps even offensive idea; awful things happened although I prayed and pleaded and hoped that they should not, how am I to find comfort? The Prophet Isaiah, who saw terrible suffering and destruction in his lifetime, offers this:
 נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵ-כֶם. Comfort you, O be comforted My people, says your G*d.
דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ–כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ, כִּי נִרְצָה עֲו‍ֹנָהּ:  כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד י-ה, כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל-חַטֹּאתֶיהָ. Tell Jerusalem to take heart, proclaim unto her that her time is accomplished, that her guilt is paid off; that she has received of HaShem’s hand more than enough reflection back for all her sins.
קוֹל קוֹרֵא–בַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ י-ה; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵאלֹהֵ-נוּ. Listen! a voice calls out: ‘Clear in the wilderness the way of HaShem, make way in the desert a highway for our G*d.
כָּל-גֶּיא, יִנָּשֵׂא, וְכָל-הַר וְגִבְעָה, יִשְׁפָּלוּ; וְהָיָה הֶעָקֹב לְמִישׁוֹר, וְהָרְכָסִים לְבִקְעָה. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the rugged shall be made level, and the rough places plain;
וְנִגְלָה, כְּבוֹד י-ה; וְרָאוּ כָל-בָּשָׂר יַחְדָּו, כִּי פִּי י-ה דִּבֵּר.  {פ} The glory of HaShem shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of HaShem has proclaimed it.’
קוֹל אֹמֵר קְרָא, וְאָמַר מָה אֶקְרָא; כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר, וְכָל-חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה. Listen! a voice calls out: ‘Proclaim!’ and there is a reply: ‘What shall I proclaim?’ ‘All flesh is grass, and all the goodness of it is as the flower of the field;
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ, כִּי רוּחַ י-ה נָשְׁבָה בּוֹ; אָכֵן חָצִיר, הָעָם. The grass withers and the flower fades when the breath of Eternity blows on it; surely the people are grass.
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵ-נוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם.  {ס} The grass withers and the flower fades; but an Eternal word stands for ever.’  (Isaiah 40.1-8)
All of us, and all of our struggles and pain, are not all that there is in this world. While suffering is real and terrible in one place, joy and gratitude are equally real in another. Rather than a comforting which promises an answer for our pain, so that we can understand it, Isaiah reflects the reality of the Rabbis who chose this text for this week many generations ago: we are like grass, which fades so quickly; all our joy and our pain fades as fast.
If it all passes, then our tradition offers us not answers, but how to respond, and what to do while we are here. Our daily prayers tell us that we are to follow G*d’s example as demonstrated in the Torah:
to somekh noflim, hold each other up as each of us falls,
to rofeh holim, care for those who are suffering,
to matir asurim, help those who are trapped to become free,
and
to m’kayyem emunato lisheyney afar, faithfully maintaining the memory of those who “sleep in the dust.”
The comforting, we are promised, will come of itself; not because we found someone to make our suffering central, but because we’ve found a community in which to make sure that it does not become central to us, through seeking and doing the mitzvot that make our lives holy, no matter how long or short, happy or troubled, they may be.
Thus, we are told, we are able to immerse ourselves in the ultimate comfort: imitation of G*d, leading us closer with every act to G*d. Rabbi Akiba called G*d Mikveh Israel, “the Hope of Israel.”

May this Shabbat bring you comfort in that you are able to offer love and support to others, and in so doing immerse yourself in the love and support and hope that you, and we all, need.

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

Shabbat Hazon and erev Tisha B’Av: a Shabbat of Vision

This is a Shabbat of vision, and of the center falling apart. Although it would be easier, more poetic, to see a vision rising from destruction, life these days is not so lyrical. Rather, on this Shabbat, the last before Tisha B’Av, the vision we contemplate is of destruction, misery and death:

עַל מֶה תֻכּוּ עוֹד, תּוֹסִיפוּ סָרָה; כָּל-רֹאשׁ לָחֳלִי, וְכָל-לֵבָב דַּוָּי.

What blow will fall next, as more and more violence and corruption is unleashed in the land? If the nation were a body, the whole head would be sick, and the whole heart faint;

מִכַּף-רֶגֶל וְעַד-רֹאשׁ אֵין-בּוֹ מְתֹם, פֶּצַע וְחַבּוּרָה וּמַכָּה טְרִיָּה; לֹא-זֹרוּ וְלֹא חֻבָּשׁוּ, וְלֹא רֻכְּכָה בַּשָּׁמֶן.

From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and festering sores: they have not been treated, not bandaged nor soothed with medication.

אַרְצְכֶם שְׁמָמָה, עָרֵיכֶם שְׂרֻפוֹת אֵשׁ; אַדְמַתְכֶם, לְנֶגְדְּכֶם זָרִים אֹכְלִים אֹתָהּ, וּשְׁמָמָה, כְּמַהְפֵּכַת זָרִים.

Your country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire; strangers devour your land in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by floods. (Isaiah 1.5-7)

 

On the heels of this Shabbat, on which we are meant to face the very real horrors of our society, the Jewish people moves into the fast day of Tisha B’Av. This date commemorates the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans and the Exile of the Jewish people into statelessness wandering. On this date we remember what statelessness meant to us: the mass slaughter of pogroms, expulsions, and crusades, and the every day humiliations and persecutions of living in a society that did not recognize Jews as equals, or even as human.

Once upon a time not so many years ago I was told that Tisha B’Av is no longer relevant; it’s hard, after all, to feel the pain of past destruction when there is a State of Israel today, and, well, the weather is so nice. Who can relate when there’s a brilliant blue sky overhead?

The vision of this Shabbat Hazon answers: bring your eyes down from the blue sky to behold the earth beneath; listen to Isaiah; see that, although the Jews live in relative peace and safety, our task is to work for freedom for all. We must still hear the ancient words of the Torah, echoed through Pesakh Haggadah: proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants (Lev.25.10) 

On this Tisha B’Av we gather not only to mourn what was, but also to learn from it: to ask how did we get here, and what shall we do now with what we know? We come together to remember who we are, to empower ourselves through our tradition’s wisdom, and to plan our shared path forward into action for racial justice. Because there are still those who experience slaughter, expulsions, and crusades, and the everyday humiliations and persecutions of living in a society that does not recognize them as equals, or even as human. Because “them” is us, and if we do not remember and act upon that truth, we will never turn away from Isaiah’s horrific vision of what is and toward the consolation of what might yet be.

How to think about engaging as a self-aware Jew in the 21st century, yet so much a part of all that has come before us, here today? As part of the learning and thinking we all must do, I invite you to consider this brilliant offering:

https://medium.com/@YotamMarom/toward-the-next-jewish-rebellion-bed5082c52fc#.35uv3ux8q

And remember that none of us is alone in this struggle. We are not only here to comfort each other, though: our shared strength is only blessed when we use it to do justice. Thus we summon the last utterance of the Prophet Isaiah: “Zion will be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness.” (Isaiah 1.27).

Tisha B’Av 5774: May Our Mourning Soon Turn to Celebration

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.

 http://youtu.be/g_1Mv7F9pyc

…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.

 http://youtu.be/g_1Mv7F9pyc

.A bit of sanity for us all, please share with the world…