Friday August 5, 2022 – ח׳ אָב תשפ״ב
(וְיֵשׁ־תִּקְוָ֥ה לְאַחֲרִיתֵ֖ךְ נְאֻם־יְהֹוָ֑ה וְשָׁ֥בוּ בָנִ֖ים לִגְבוּלָֽם׃ (ירמיהו לא:טז
“And there is hope for your future —declares Adonai: Your children shall return to their country.” (Jeremiah 31:16)
We Jews have a long memory.
In the early 19th century, the French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte looked in on a synagogue in Paris. It happened to be Tisha B’Av, and Napoleon saw Jews sitting on the floor chanting lamentations and shedding tears. He inquired about the reason for their mourning and learned that they were lamenting the destruction of their Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Astonished that he had not heard about this tragedy and that his advisors had not updated him, it was explained that this event took place 1700 years earlier. He reportedly declared that a people who can continue to mourn their losses after so many years have real hope for regaining those losses.
Napoleon was partly right.
Yes, a unique character trait of Jews is maintaining the memory of ancient loss(es) and, often to our detriment, to thinking of ourselves as victims. We include memories of our tragedies in rituals, in educational settings, and as part of what it means to be Jewish.
Let me be clear, there is good reason to focus on real threats to our lives and sense of security wherever we live. After all, it has only been eight decades since the Shoah, and understandably we harbor fear and apprehension about the rise of antisemitism and anti-Israel animus in many places around the world, including our communities in North America..
Are we really afraid, however, of another Hurban (destruction) like those we mourn on the 9th of Av? Some are, and some of that fear can be substantiated especially with regards to threats against Israel from Iran, on the threshold of nuclear capability, that openly threatens to destroy the Jewish state. This is a real and serious threat, and we Americans and Israelis must do everything in our power to prevent it from ever happening.
There is substantial antisemitic online hate speech, and last week Miloon Kothari, a member of the UN Commission of Inquiry into last May’s war between Israel and Hamas proclaimed on a podcast that the “Jewish lobby” was controlling social media, and he questioned why Israel is allowed to be a member of the United Nations thereby questioning Israel’s legitimacy as a state.
Despite how serious or imminent these antisemitic threats are, there are still so many positive reasons to live meaningful Jewish lives that have nothing to do with those tragedies that befell our people or the fear that many today feel.
The Rambam (Mishna Torah, Laws of Fasting 5:1) explains that the purpose of fasting on days commemorating tragic events (there are 4 on the Jewish calendar) is not to mourn the loss commemorated on this anniversary, but rather to reflect on our ancestors’ mistakes that served as catalysts for the tragedies in those days.
What lessons can we learn from the story of our tragic past commemorated by Tisha B’Av?
Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai (1st century CE) one of the greatest sages in Jewish history, escaped out of the city of Jerusalem that had been sealed off by Jewish Zealots, and understood that he had to respond creatively to a radically new situation for the Jewish community.
When given the opportunity to make a request from the newly appointed Roman Emperor Vespasian, Rabban Yochanan limited his request to acquiring a small city called Yavneh to relocate the seat of rabbinic leadership and provide answers to his students’ many questions about how to live Jewish lives now that they were suddenly without the central institution – Jerusalem Temple – around which all Jewish life was centered. The most important of which was how do Jews now worship without making offerings in the Temple? Thinking quickly, Ben Zakkai quoted the prophet Hosea:
כִּ֛י חֶ֥סֶד חָפַ֖צְתִּי וְלֹא־זָ֑בַח וְדַ֥עַת אֱלֹהִ֖ים מֵעֹלֽוֹת׃ (הושע ו׳:ו׳)
“For I desire goodness, not sacrifice; Obedience to God, rather than burnt offerings.”
Goodness and adherence to God’s word developed into prayer as we understand it today thus replacing the sacrificial cult until the Temple could be rebuilt. The verse was perfectly suited for the needs of this new era. It offered a practical alternative to ritual practice and brought legitimacy, authority, and authenticity by virtue of the biblical verse addressing contemporary needs and sketching a way forward.
With four words – “חֶ֥סֶד חָפַ֖צְתִּי וְלֹא־זָ֑בַח”– Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai gave license to change Jewish practice and history by reaching into the sources to find a suitable outcome for the time-bound conundrum.
Ben Zakai modeled an essential characteristic of Jewish behavior. First, he turned to the sources, and then he reworked those sources to begin a new Jewish era.
When we think about the destruction of ancient Jewish society, we learn from Ben Zakkai that the response was not to fight militarily against the Romans, to assimilate, or to lament antisemitism, but to create a legal and intellectual system of Torah learning that would provide a structure for living a Jewish life after the Destruction. This is also our challenge today. As my colleague and friend Rabbi Leon Morris recently claimed:
“We haven’t been investing enough in content or in producing our future intellectual powerhouses.” Many of our members are highly skilled professionals whose Jewish education and experience remains remedial, and who might come to synagogue occasionally, but might find more engagement with the beit midrash, the house of study. Why, with all of our skepticism about dogma, did we create synagogues that we only occasionally went to, rather than houses for conversation, reading, arguing, and discussion, which is what we love to do?”
This has been the story of the modern State of Israel. It is not primarily about how many wars we survived, or about Israel inventing the Uzi, the Tavor, the Merkavah tank, or employing the Iron Dome system.
It is about the unfathomable breadth of Jewish creativity that has come with the birth of the modern Jewish State after the near destruction of our people in the Shoah. It is this contribution to Jewish life and creativity in history that is in fact the Third Temple. It is where Jewish life is thriving and inspiring communities around the world.
Today’s question is the same as it was for Ben Zakkai in his post-Temple reality. How to create a relevant and vibrant, authentic and meaningful Jewish life for a diverse set of Jews confronting the challenges of today’s reality?
This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Hazon, or Hazon Yeshayahu, in which we read about Isaiah’s vision for the fate of Jerusalem. Tisha B’Av is our time to mourn and reflect. We should make it the time to find a balance between the lachrymose fate of our past and a hazon (vision) of what we want our future to be.
One such vision comes from the 20th century Jewish scholar, philosopher, Hebraist, and ideologue Simon Rawidowicz (1896-1957). He articulated his innovative vision of how to re-think the relationship between Israel and the Jewish communities living outside of the Jewish State:
“’Two that are One,’ must not be understood as a one-sided obligation; each must mutually recognize the other. The Diaspora of Israel must build the State of Israel with all its strength, even more than it has in the past seventy years, and the State must recognize the Diaspora as of equal value, and an equally responsible co-builder and co-creator of all Jewish life.”
The lesson of Tisha B’Av is the lesson of Yochanan Ben Zakkai. Yes, terrible things have happened to us, and sadly they will likely continue to happen. To combat antisemitism, we have to strengthen each other in our identity as proud engaged and educated Jews. A qualitative military edge over our enemies is still necessary. However, protection against external enemies is not what will perpetuate the wisdom of our tradition nor give meaning to future generations. Nor will a pre-occupation with antisemitism, despite it being a real threat, take the place of our primary agenda to build Jewish life in Israel and Diaspora communities.
Redemption will come not from an army, but from Jews living active and meaningful Jewish lives who continue to innovate, create, and breathe fresh air into our ancient wisdom.
Shabbat Shalom and Tzom Kal.