פרשת דברים, תש״פ
Parshat D'varim, 5780
by Rabbi Sydni
Saturday, July 25th, 2020
Tisha B'Av and Combatting Wanton Hatred
Tisha B’Av, the most devastating day of the Jewish calendar, begins this Wednesday evening and proceeds through Thursday night. Tisha B’Av acts as the symbolic date for one particular event in our parashah, in which a group of scouts travels to the land of Israel to see the quality of the land they are about to enter. Depending on the version of the story (it occurs twice in Torah), the scouts either come back with overly negative news or with balanced news that is blown out of proportion by the rest of the people. Either way, the people Israel refuse to enter the land, and God assigns them forty more years of wandering in the desert; only their children will live to see the land of milk and honey. In later history, Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of both Holy Temples in the years 587 BCE and 70 CE. It also commemorates dates in more recent history - the Jews’ expulsion from England in the 13th century and our expulsion from Spain in the 15th century. We may even recognize that World War I began right around Tisha B’Av, beginning a prolonged period of tragedy for the Jewish people, from pogroms in Eastern Europe, to eventually, the Holocaust itself.
On Tisha B’Av, we fast from food and water, and we refrain from wearing leather shoes, bathing, putting on makeup, engaging in physical intimacy, and pursuing joyful experience or study. Just like with so many other holidays within Judaism, we engage in our physical ritual to more readily access the emotional. We experience discomfort so that we can truly mourn, not only for the loss and pain experienced by our ancestors, but for the reality of certain loss in our present and future world.
The Talmud blames the destruction of both Temples on the Jewish people themselves - Tractate Yoma teaches us that the first mikdash was destroyed because of the idol worship, sexual immorality, and bloodshed practiced by the people Israel. Even though the people who lived in the time of the Second Temple were engaged in Torah study, mitzvot, and acts of loving-kindness, they caused the destruction of their own Temple because of their sinat hinam, their wanton hatred. According to the Rabbis of the Talmud, while the Jewish people were victims of destruction by the Babylonians and Romans, they were at fault for their own acts.
Now, such a Talmudic notion of our own responsibility for our own tragedy complicates our perspective on Tisha B’Av as a representation of so much Jewish tragedy in history. Were our expulsions our fault as well? What about World War I? What about Eastern European pogroms? The Holocaust? Modern antisemitism?
I cannot teach or believe that we are fully responsible for our own persecution; our ancestors did not deserve any of the horrors they had to undergo. And although our modern notions of Rabbinic Judaism grew out of the destruction of both Temples, and the creativity of American Judaism grew out of diaspora inspired by persecution, none of that pain was worthwhile. And yet, I do believe that the rabbinic notion of communal Jewish responsibility is one that we should embrace through the observance of Tisha B’Av.
We may not be fully responsible for our own persecution, but we are responsible for the lessons we learn as a result. We are responsible for monitoring our own practice of hatred, knowing that we have experienced the results of that hatred firsthand. We know that hatred comes not just in the form of direct expulsions and invasions, but also, in the form of snide comments, of discrimination in business and public policy, and of personal inaction in times of communal need. Just because we have been victims does not mean that we are immune from becoming perpetrators. We are responsible for creating a world in which neither we nor any other group of people ever has to experience that expulsion, that death. And we are also responsible for upholding a positive image of what it means to be Jewish, learning about our heritage and enacting our greatest values in order to show the world that we belong at the table. Every year, in every generation, we remind ourselves of the potential of history to become present and future reality. We do so not just to feel sad, to feel victimized, but to empower ourselves to be vigilant in noticing where we can be better, in noticing how our individual actions and inactions can affect our Jewish community - truly, our wider community - as a whole.
In his book on the High Holy Day season, Rabbi Alan Lew writes, “Tisha B’Av comes exactly seven weeks before Rosh HaShanah, beginning the process that culminates on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Tisha B’Av is the moment of turning, the moment when we turn away from denial and begin to face exile and alienation as they manifest themselves in our own lives - in our alienation and estrangement from God, in our alienation from ourselves and from others.” This year, dive into Tisha B’Av with me as an opportunity to explore our own wanton hatred, our own biases and misguided notions. Through physical vulnerability, let us find emotionally vulnerability and identify the parts of ourselves that need work right now. Through Tisha B’Av this year, let us begin the process of t’shuvah, of turning that is so vital to a safe, sacred Jewish people - to a safe, sacred world - in the year 5781. Shabbat Shalom.