Sunday, August 3, 2014

Tisha B'Av and the Brokenness of the World

There's so much going on in the world, and in my heart, that I almost don't know what to talk about. So I'll start with the calendar.

Monday night and Tuesday mark the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av. It commemorates, first of all, the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, the first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE. In their times these were cataclysms unimaginable in their scope. The second destruction in particular led to a loss of Jewish life which was, in proportion, likely comparable to that of the Holocaust. Beyond that, though, the second destruction marked the end of Jewish sovereignty for almost 2000 years, and the experience of exile.

It's difficult to overemphasize how important these events have remained, how closely they've been held. The weekday Amidah prayer contains prayers asking for the rebuilding of the Temple and the gathering of the exiles, as does the Birkhat Ha-mazon, Grace after meals, so religious Jews would be asking for these things at least 5 or 6 times a day. The custom of breaking a glass at a wedding is to remind us that our joy cannot
be complete as long as the Temple remains destroyed and the Jewish people remain in exile.

The rabbis established Tisha B'Av as a day of mourning, and it is the second sundown-to-sundown fast on the calendar. It is marked by strict mourning practices, many the same as on the other full fast day, Yom Kippur: no food or drink, no sexual activity, no wearing of leather shoes, no bathing or wearing perfume. People sit on the floor or on low benches at services, and the Book of Lamentations is read, recounting in harrowing detail the destruction of Jerusalem. We're meant to refrain from pleasurable activities, including Torah study – the only time in the year that that's prohibited.

As time went on, the rabbis added more significance to Tisha B'av. It was when the Romans crushed the Bar Kochba revolt in 125. It was the day the Jews were expelled from England in 1290. It was the day the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. It was the day the Final Solution was approved in 1941. The historical accuracy of these sitings are not important. What's important is that there was a day to commemorate all the evil that has been done to the Jewish people since the time of the Temple.

Modern Jews have always had a ambivalent relationship with Tisha B'av, which I attribute to a number of reasons. First is practical – it occurs in the summer, when most Jews are not that active Jewishly, and it doesn't get covered in religious school. There's also the discomfort with the association of the holiday with the ancient sacrificial system. One of the first changes the Reform movement made was removing the prayers asking for the restoration of sacrifice. The classical Reform movement also had a problem with the idea of the return of the exiles – they wanted to be full citizens in their country of origin, and not be perceived as waiting for the opportunity to return to the ancient homeland.

The issue changed after the establishment of the state of Israel. Why should we continue to mourn for destroyed Jerusalem when Jerusalem is rebuilt​? Why not acknowledge our people's at least partial redemption? Traditionalists would point to the unbuilt Temple. Others would point out that past tragedies are still tragedies even if they are not happening directly to us, and we observe Tisha B'av as a kind of Yohrzeit for all that has befallen the Jewish people throughout the ages, as an act of solidarity with them – of memory. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who I really intend to talk about one of these days, suggested that we acknowledge the partial redemption of the Jewish people by fasting for part of the day, perhaps until noon or 3 o'clock.

But I have to say, I'm feeling the brokenness of the world very closely this year. Very closely. The world seems to be falling apart before our very eyes. Syria, Libya, Iraq and the so-called Islamic State, Ukraine and Russia, Israel and Palestine. Death and destruction, fear and hatred, displacement and homelessness, a horrible carousel with, seemingly, no way out. Dissension and anger amongst friends and relatives over Israel's actions.

The response to Israel's actions is leaning heavily into antisemitism, particularly in Europe. Foreign ministers from France, Germany and Italy had to issue a joint statement condemning the actions. “Anti-Semitic rhetoric and hostility against Jews, attacks on people of Jewish belief and synagogues have no place in our society,” it read. So much brokenness.

But I'm most concerned about the level of discourse in the Jewish community. A wave of racism and hostility amongst Jews, both here and in Israel. Anti-war protesters in Tel Aviv set upon by right wing counter-protesters. An Israeli soldier posts a picture saying, “This gun killed 13 children, all you Muslims are next.” Yesterday a friend approvingly posted an article from state-supporting media in Egyptians saying that if Gazans didn't rise up against Hamas then they all deserved to get bombed. Today there was an article in the Times of Israel arguing the halachic (Jewish legal) question of “When Genocide is Permissible.” Later the post was removed and the site apologized, but the question remains whether this was really outside the norm or if it represents an unacceptable exaggeration of an increasingly acceptable dehumanization of the Other in our community.

Please note that I'm not talking about the war itself, or the actions Israel has taken, I'm talking about the terrible passions that are accompanying it. Things happen during wars, temperatures rise, I get that, but where is the Jewish reliance on the rule of law, on ethical standards, that we have been so rightly proud of? If we lose that, what do we have left? We are told that the second temple was destroyed due to “sinat hinam” - the senseless hatred of other Jews. I wonder if, God forbid, we lose the third republic, if the reason will be sinah le'acherim, or the senseless hatred of others. So, so much brokenness.

Even here, in our own community, a person we know, who many of us have been fond of, has been accused of a terrible act. Over the course of the last year, the sweet girl struggling to make a go of it has deteriorated before our eyes into someone we were frightened to be around – for good reason, as it turns out. I don't know the whole story so I don't how this happened, though I know that mental health care is a disaster in this country and now I have seen with my own eyes, we have all seen the line between evil actions and mental incapacity get blurry, and now this girl is lost. Such brokenness.

And lest we forget, California is undergoing a paralyzing drought, June was the hottest June on record world-wide. This is from Mother Jones: On June 28, a fire broke out at a Halliburton fracking site in Monroe County, Ohio. As flames engulfed the area, trucks began exploding and thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals spilled into a tributary of the Ohio River, which supplies drinking water for millions of residents. More than 70,000 fish died.  The earth itself, it seems, is broken.

Sometimes the brokenness gets so bad, it's paralyzing. The Jewish tradition, in its sometimes really profound wisdom, said that at times like this, when the brokenness gets so bad that there seems to be no way out of it, we stop, we take off our shoes, we sit on low benches, we read sad poetry, and we mourn. We mourn for the dead and wounded. We mourn for the frightened population in their shelters. We mourn for the morals and ethics that are the first casualties of war. We mourn for the soldiers, who do what we make them do, no matter how unwise that might be. For the girl whose mental illness proved stronger than she was. We mourn for the fish, for the damaged and battered earth. We just mourn.

And that's what Tisha B'av is. That's why I encourage you to observe it in some way this year. Even if just a piece of it, such as fasting after dinner on Monday, or skipping breakfast on Tuesday, or sitting on the floor, or reading sad poetry. Just so you acknowledge the brokenness.

And you know what we do after that? We break the fast, we put on our shoes, we stand up, and we go on about the work of repairing the world.

Shabbat shalom.  


  1. Moti, this is from Gail, the SpiritedNP. You made me weep. Yes, when we recover from our mourning, we embrace tikkun o'lam. It is the only way to justify why we keep going in spite of the brokenness. One day at a time.