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.

Praying After Pittsburgh

I am a Rabbi who is privileged to serve an intentional community which takes the form of an independent congregation. We are the only Jewish congregation on the east side of Portland Oregon. We are not only independent but young – only 15 years old – and thus tend to carefully think through our every act. While some might say we often indulge in over-thinking our issues, it seems to me that it’s hard to spend too much time musing, sharing our thoughts and commiserating regarding the growing sense of fear we share as Jewish U.S. citizens.

 

Our congregation’s median age is about 40, and many of our members are young parents. Like many welcoming and progressive congregations, we count many LGBTQI+ identified Jews, some Jews of Color, and a fair number of committed non-Jews – I like to call them “fellow travelers” – among our congregational family. Many of our members have had to fight to feel equally included in the Jewish peoplehood of U.S. society. It is a harsh irony that those who have struggled to be counted in our Jewish minyan of prayer, study and mutual support now feel unsafe in that identity. They now feel comfortable in a place of prayer – and now they are targets. Life is funny that way.

 

By far the most heartbreaking conversation I have had as Rabbi or as a Jew about the Pittsburgh massacre of Jews at prayer was the one I had recently at a gathering of the parents of our youngest children.

 

“As an adult, I feel I know what to do. I’m okay. I can understand what happened, in terms of Jewish history, and anti-Semitism, and the social chaos of this moment,” said one mother. “But as a parent, I’m lost.” Another added through tears, “I just don’t know what I have to do to keep my children safe.”

 

This is the long-dawning, terrible truth of our age: there is no safety. Certainly, we all know this theoretically; that at any moment, an accident could happen or an illness strike, G*d forbid. But this is different, because the evil from which we would shield our children is deliberate. When I’m at the gym, I’ve been thinking this week about the character of the mother in the old movie “The Terminator.” The magical thinking in which a parent might wish to indulge is exacerbated by such Hollywood movies, in which a mother of a threatened child goes about becoming strong enough to shield him – and coincidentally save the world. In the real world, mothers and children are, regularly, swept away together.

 

Waking up is difficult for us. We Jews don’t have the psychic muscles for this – we who have been able to take refuge in white privilege, and succeeded in integrating ourselves into mainstream, affluent U.S. society. We can’t cope with the level of stress our persecuted ancestors took for granted in their lives. Many of my people were already complaining of unbearable levels of stress and no sense of how to deal with it.

 

We are only now beginning to be able to understand the concrete reality of what it means to live in a world in which our children are not safe, just as mothers of black and brown babies and LGBTQI+ mothers and indigenous mothers – and fathers – have known for a long, weary, soul-destroying time. What we need to learn from them is this: There is no safe space for any of us right now. Safety cannot be carved out of the terror of our days. New Zealand has closed its doors and Canada looks at us askance; we can’t buy a pied-a-terre in some other saner place. There is no way to hold ourselves apart from the coming cataclysm, and be safe while all others suffer around us. As Anne Frank presciently wrote, I can hear the approaching thunder, which will destroy us too.

 

I don’t use my phone on Shabbat. On that morning, the news about the massacre at the Tree of Life congregation was shared with me five minutes before I was to begin to lead my own congregation in prayer. We were calling a young girl up to the Torah for the first time, as a bat mitzvah. I determined not to announce what had happened, lest her family’s joy be overshadowed by the horror just outside the door. We who knew sang with more fervor than usual, I think, and more joy – joy is also a form of defiance. And I thought to myself, there are worse ways to go than leading prayer, in the midst of something meaningful on which I’ve built my life. Better, even, perhaps, than the random accident or illness, in some way.

 

We opened our doors the next evening to welcome about two hundred people who sought solace with us in vigil. We lit candles and we hugged each other, and the we went back out into the uncertainty of our lives. What my people and I are realizing is that in the end, our lives are not made meaningful by living them in safety but with intention. It’s an old High Holy Days trope but now with renewed intensity: who by fire? who by water? the old prayer doesn’t ask whether or not we are going to die, but only that we consider how.

 

My people and I stand at a place where two paths diverge. Many of us will opt for the more guarded, more armed, and more anxious effort to keep ourselves safe. But in the end, it’s not really about safety. It’s all about what you are doing when death finds you. I will do my best to help my people find the way to lead with integrity, not with fear, for however many days we have. In this way, I believe, the memory of each of us can be a blessing.

 

As I say to my people: hazak hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other, and we will be all right, no matter what comes.