First there is “what we do.”
Is it the phone call and fresh meal to share with a family just home with a new baby? Is it a word of encouragement during the stress leading up to a Bar Mitzvah? Is it volunteering together to give back — making a meal or providing clothing for the homeless; writing letters to protect immigrant children; supporting a worthy project in Israel? Is it consolation and comfort after the loss of a job or a loved one? Is it remembering to remember — an important date, a beloved friend, parent or grandparent?
There are so many ways to connect and one of the vibrant aspects of the JCP community these past fifteen years has been the awareness that whatever it is that brings us here and brings us together is a desire to be in touch with what makes us feel so vibrant as Jews. From Shabbat and holidays to the transmission of tradition through education and experience and music and art; and on to a broader expression of connection with the greater world, JCP is many voices coming together as one.
But then there is “what we think.”
The other way we are part of a community is when we realize we share a narrative, we share a story, we are part of a greater whole. At Hanukah we marvel at the “miracle of light” and the resilience of Jewish identity in difficult times; at Passover we celebrate the freedom from slavery and our obligation to remember the stranger because we were “strangers in a strange land;” at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we remember the heroic commitments of faith and practice that our ancestors held on to, passing on to us the values, laws and stories of our people’s three thousand year journey.
But in mid-summer each year, our calendar turns to a particular moment of historical reckoning, Tisha B’Av, the annual date in which we Jews commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the violent hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC and then the Romans in 70 AD. These great cataclysms of destruction and exile would have ordinarily wiped out other ancient communities but there was something remarkably unique about the Jewish system of faith and action, of Torah and Mitzvot, of language and calendar and memory and connectedness in community that gave those exiled generations the power to imagine and then carry out a plan to keep the people together.
We survived because we remembered. We survived because we preserved. We ultimately thrived and continued to thrive because in each generation we gather as communities and determine what our own sense of Jewishness will mean. In other words, we survived because we adapted. We once knew God’s will because Abraham or Moses told us what God said. Then we relied upon the Prophets. When a Temple stood, we spoke to God through the agency of animal sacrifice. But with the First and Second Temple’s destroyed, Learning, Prayer and Deeds of Lovingkindness became the three things “upon which the world is founded.”
Adaptation, re-invention and yet still — maintaining and reifying tradition is what sustains us.
This week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13) includes as the Haftarah an amazingly bone-chilling prophetic rebuke from the prophet Jeremiah, who argued to the people that their own immoral behavior caused God to allow the Temple to be destroyed. As moderns, as contemporary people, we might dismiss the notion that there is direct, Divine connection between our actions and its consequences. Most don’t believe in that kind of God. But Jeremiah doesn’t hold back. Why did bad things happen to Jews and Jerusalem? He makes plain that the Israelites didn’t obey God’s law, they forget the Exodus and its meaning, they worshipped idols, they led others astray, they behaved more like a band of thieves than a holy nation. He really gives it to them. And no small wonder that at various points in his career, Jeremiah had to flee and hide: he so angered the Jewish authorities with his scathing criticisms.
But what does it mean for us today? What does it mean to think of destruction in the middle of summer, at an historic remove from that ancient time? Why remember an historical destruction when we don’t even worship in a Temple with animal sacrifice anymore? While it’s true that we Jews came to thrive in the Diaspora, diversify our culture and practice, we never forgot those destructions and even read fate into new ones: one tradition holds that the expulsion from Spain in 1492 was decreed on Tisha B’Av.
And yet, despite this cycle of destruction and remembrance, of wanderings and dislocations, or arrivals and departures and continued existence in the Diaspora, we had, by the 19th century begun a new kind of return to the Land of Israel, establishing a state again in 1948. In fact, an early proposal from rabbinic authorities in the new state was to actually commemorate the Holocaust –Yom HaShoah–on Tisha B’Av. Others suggested it be held on a Fast Day in December. A debate ensued. Some were concerned with the theological problematics of declaring God’s will in the destruction of European Jewry. Others thought the commemoration should echo themes of the struggles of the first Passover or the tragic heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and so it was finally established.
What is interesting to note is that in both instances of commemoration, there is a commitment to remember what the cataclysm meant for an earlier generation that experienced it and what it means for us who continue to remember long after the first witnesses are gone.
There’s a great Yiddish proverb that reads, “Troubles overcome are good to tell.” Tisha B’Av is one such occasion where perhaps the wounds of cataclysm have healed but the act of remembering yields lessons in every generation.
I think that’s why, long after the events of the First and Second Temples’ destruction, the rabbis of our tradition preserved Jeremiah’s words, read in the Haftarot during the weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av. In short, they believed that remembering an old rebuke can still work as a corrective on our own contemporary behavior.
After all, what harm is a little corrective? Even a little criticism. A teacher’s guiding hand makes a student term paper better; a coach makes an athlete reach new heights with a change of form or approach; a parent sharpens a child’s discernment, making better young people who can accept their mistakes, improve, and grow.
Our national days of commemoration are examples of opportunities for “correction” at a whole other level. Just as we bear our individual souls each Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av asks us to consider how our collective or national behavior needs to be examined and corrected. In Jeremiah 3:4, the prophet implores the people to return to God like a child returns to a parent. Jeremiah seeks to make whole what he sees as a fateful tear in the fabric of Jewish life. He then goes on to say, “If you return, O Israel, if you return to Me, if you remove your abominations from My holy presence, and do not waver, and swear “as the Lord lives” in sincerity, justice and righteousness — nations shall bless themselves by you and praise themselves by you.” (Jeremiah 4:1-2)
In other words, Jewish civilization offers us moments to reflect on and then act upon the fissures in our personal and communal life. Judaism offers a way back of return, always. And the Jewish people and their prophets and teachers, have always believed that the greatest of reckonings occur and the most beneficial results are attained when we root ourselves and our communities in “sincerity, righteousness and justice.”
It means sharing Shabbat at the beach and helping someone find a minyan to say Kaddish; it means learning the Hebrew alef-bet and working a shift at a local shelter; it means welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, lifting up the fallen — precisely the words our prophets and rabbis encoded in the texts of our tradition.
My hope for this community and all communities on this Shabbat is that we can find our way back, always, to the place that is good and just. That we can deflect and defeat the harbingers of destruction with presence and kindness and acts of love and as a result, join together to build communities and a world at peace.