Friday, September 20, 2019

Division and Destruction on Tisha B’Av: Where do we go from Here?

The following piece was originally published here in The Times of Israel Blogs.
“Two Jews; Three Synagogues” is a classic Jewish joke that addresses the division within our community. It could not be more emblematic of our history and the challenges we face today. This week we will be commemorating two of the most catastrophic events in the history of the Jewish people: the fall of the First Temple, Solomon’s Temple, and the subsequent destruction of the Second Temple. On Tisha B’Av, we fast and abstain from work and dedicate this as a time for reflection and a living yahrzeit for each and every moment of catastrophe in the Jewish story. Not only do we spend time mourning the loss of the First and Second Temple, but also the thousands of Jews killed during the Crusades, the millions slaughtered at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust, to name a few.
Notably, reflection does not begin with the fast day itself. It is in reality a three week long process beginning on the 17th of Tammuz, which is in itself a fast day commemorating the Roman infiltration of the walls of Jerusalem that led to the destruction of the temple. During this three week period, observers are tasked with abstention from joyous occasions such as wedding ceremonies. Often we focus on mourning the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem, but how often do we truly consider why its loss is so significant to our people? How often do we consider the historical conflicts that would result in destruction and exile? Most importantly, how can we take these lessons of the past and make them relevant for our modern world? In the words of Spanish philosopher George Santayana, “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
From the very beginning, the Israelites faced class division and internal struggle. Not too long ago we studied Parashat Korach, the Torah portion named for Moses and Aaron’s cousin who would gather a small group of supporters to carry out a takeover of God’s chosen leaders for the Children of Israel. Korach demands of his cousin Moses to explain to him from where he is given his authority to lead the 12 tribes. Korach demands an answer, asking of his cousins, “all the community is holy, why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” Moses, as a response, falls on his face—physically bringing himself down to Korach’s level, a symbolic gesture indeed — only for Korach and his followers to be swallowed up and buried alive by the Earth. While we typically use this story as a way to discuss the imbalance of authority, I find immense value in utilizing the text to discuss division between people and Jews. Instead of accepting God’s punishment for Korach as acceptable, perhaps we should question why such division occurred to cause a rebellion to take place. How can we actively ensure people are included so that they don’t feel left out of the conversation? How can we do a better job of working together for the good of Klal Yisrael — The Community of Israel — instead of actively seeking to destroy it? When will we, after thousands of years, realize the trend that senseless hatred between ourselves leads to destruction?
When the Israelites finally arrive in the land of Canaan and are victorious in their war against the Canaanites that had occupied that land, the only ruling authority are Judges appointed by each Israelite tribe to serve as its leadership. This loose confederation of tribes does not last, as conflicts over resources between them become too divisive, and eventually Judges are no longer sufficient for leading the Israelite community. Kings rise to power, awarded by God divine authority that would remain significant well after the appointment of King Saul. It isn’t too long until the United Monarchy ruled by Saul, David, and Solomon breaks apart into two kingdoms in the North and the South. The North taken by the Assyrians, and the weakened Southern Kingdom eventually falls siege to the Babylonians in 586 BCE — the Israelites exiled and the Temple destroyed. We cannot ignore this reality, that the Jewish people first face destruction because of divisiveness that weakened them to the extent where they could no longer protect themselves from outside forces. We see the same events reproduced after exile and the erection of a second temple, which would be destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
Fast-forward to 2017 in Israel. The tensions between the progressive Jewish community and the religious community surrounding egalitarian prayer and conversion in particular, have become increasingly more uncertain. We now find ourselves at a crossroads, once again, where division threatens the destruction of the Jewish people.
When we look to our textual tradition of Torah, we find unity expressly sought after by Israelite leadership. Last week, we took a brief look at Parashat Devarim. This Torah portion begins the fifth and final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, saying, Eleh hadivarim asher diber Moshe el Kol Yisrael — “these were the words that Moses said to all of Israel.” He isn’t addressing select tribes, he doesn’t focus only on the purest members of the congregation, there isn’t any distinction in gender, and he doesn’t hold a separate council meeting with the Elders. He addresses every single Israelite.
I implore my brothers and sisters to take time to return to our scriptural traditions. The same texts that calls upon me to pursue justice, the same scripture that commands me to love the stranger as myself, the same scripture that in truth calls for a more perfect world that reaches the maximum output of love, acceptance, and cooperation.
As Jews of the Diaspora, we have a responsibility to fight alongside Israelis who desire equality and opportunity for living a life of informed choice. We have a responsibility to speak up for women who are screamed and spat at, terrorized, and made subhuman for their “rebellious” acts of reading from Torah, wearing kippot and talitot, or even speaking in the presence of the Kotel. We have a responsibility to ensure Kol Yisrael is welcome under our tent: Jews of matrilineal and patrilineal descent; Progressive Jews; Observant Jews; Jews of color; LGBTQ Jews — all are welcome, all are accepted, all are loved.
On this Tisha B’Av, let us take time not only to reflect on the utter loss of our greatest “Jewish community center,” the Temple, to remember where we came from, but let us also take this opportunity to ultimately to reflect on why catastrophe took place. We know how this story ends. Let us not be as divisive as our ancestors to allow the division of our community, our family. Instead, let us strive to come together as one Kehillah Kedosha, one sacred community, so that we may survive our biggest threats today and tomorrow.

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