Yesterday’s date on the Hebrew calendar, the 17th of Tammuz, marks what the Tradition says is the beginning of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred three weeks later, in 586 BCE. It was a national calamity the likes of which the Jewish people had never known. And it would be repeated, following exile and return and 600 years, when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 CE, giving birth to a two thousand year Jewish diaspora from the blood and flames of destruction. In rabbinical literature, this time period known as “the Three Weeks” is considered a national time of mourning, which is reflected in the Haftarah readings for the next several Shabbatot. Lamentations, the Biblical dirge written to commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem, states clearly that “Judah has gone into exile because of misery and harsh oppression; when she settled among the nations she found no rest; all her pursuers overtook her in the narrow places.”
The 17th of Tammuz is a fast day; the 9th of Av is a fast day as well. This ancient custom, shared for millenia by faiths across the globe and used even by contemporary spiritualists as a cleanser of bad vibes, is designed to focus us internally on our personal responsibility for destruction that supposedly comes from the outside world.
For example, the rabbis deployed the phrase “because of our sins we were exiled from the land” to indicate that as the prophets warned, our people’s fealty to idols and false gods provoked God to allow other nations to conquer Israel. We might understand this to mean that ancient Israelite culture lost its way, fell off a path of righteousness, perverted the values meant to undergird the obligation “to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan and to free the captive.” Selfishness and narcissism — a worship of the self — were seen as corrosive false worship. In the Roman era, the Sages expanded their reasons for the destruction and exile by looking even more closely at intra-Jewish behavior. The factionalism of the people tore the nation apart; trust was broken; violence threatened all around. “Because of free and causeless hatred,” the rabbis stated, God allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed again.
It may be tempting for the contemporary reader to reject such an analysis of cause and effect. Our post-Enlightenment tools of critical thinking would claim simply: God doesn’t work that way.
And yet, as we examine things more closely, even in our own day, who among us would say that when things go wrong, it is not due in large measure to human agency? Why is there poverty? Why is there racism? Why anti-Semitism? Why mass incarceration? Why are basic services like an excellent education and accessible healthcare so difficult to fulfill? And when we experience the kind of unrest that we have recently seen over these past many weeks, surely it is not punishment from God (late-night cable televangelists notwithstanding).
Indeed, from the smallest catastrophe to the greatest, there is human agency and responsibility. This has always been Judaism’s message. It is why we argue, why we protest, why we march, even to war, when every reasonable definition of doing what is right is threatened by those who would destroy the good, oppress the helpless, and seek gain only for its own reward. Tradition says we are God’s partners in the ongoing acts of creation, each and every day. Rabbi Tarfon, perhaps in a nod to the skeptics, said, “Ours is not to finish the task but neither are we free to sit on the sidelines and watch.” Or kibbitz. Or criticize.
We all gotta do something to make this world a better place.
The opening lines of Jeremiah, the 7th century BCE prophet who foresaw Jerusalem’s destruction, are the verses that comprise this week’s Haftarah. Like Moses before him, Jeremiah is a reluctant prophet. Chosen from birth to serve God, he is even touched by God, in the mouth, signalling either his own speech impediment or the acquisition of a particularly powerful skill of accessing a Divine voice in order to guide the people.
This motif (also shared by the prophet Isaiah as Robert Alter points out) is one of Judaism’s most enduring ideas: that the truest leadership comes from humility, even reluctance at first, and then blossoms into fortitude, vision and a tenacious duty to justice.
“And the Eternal reached out His hand and touched my mouth, and the Eternal said to me, ‘Look, I have put My words in your mouth. See, I have appointed you this day over nations and over kingdoms to uproot and to smash and to destroy and to lay waste, to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:9-10)
It is a terrifying notion and a harrowing task. It brings to mind President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, where he said, a short time before his own death:
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Lincoln’s words are their own American prophecy. Jeremiah survived attempts on his life; Lincoln did not. But their messages are the same: We can see God’s hand in our troubles only insofar as we deploy what we know to be true about God for the betterment of all humankind, sharing a world that is built upon a “just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
These are hard days for our community, our city, our nation and the world. That is undeniable. But the alleviation of suffering; the ability to love our neighbor; and the determination to not allow our spirits to be broken are Jeremiah’s uplifting reminder to us that the power to grow, change and heal is in our hands.