Tisha b’Av – the low point of the Jewish year and lessons we can learn

On Tisha b’Av we remember and  commemorate the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem. A culmination of a three week period of mourning, which begins with the Fast of the 17th Tammuz, commemorating the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the destruction of the First Temple.   In the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6) we read that “Five things happened to our ancestors on the 17th Tammuz, and five on the 9th Av (Tisha B’Av). On the 17th of Tammuz the tablets [containing the Ten Commandments] were broken; the daily sacrifice was discontinued; the walls of Jerusalem were breached; Apustamus, a Greek officer, burned a Torah scroll; and an idol was erected in the sanctuary of the Temple. On the Ninth of Av it was decreed that the generation of the desert would not enter the Land of Israel; the first temple was destroyed; the second temple was destroyed; Betar, (the last Jewish stronghold after the destruction of Jerusalem), was conquered; and Jerusalem was ploughed under. When the month of Av enters we diminish our joy.”

It is quite a list. The tradition is to cluster bad things together on one date, rather than to spread the pain of Jewish history throughout the year, colouring our days with mourning. So there are texts that tell us that on Tisha B’Av the First Crusade began, Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain, and to bring us more up to date the First World War broke out on Tisha b’Av. There is a good case for observing Yom HaShoah on this date in years to come, adding the cataclysm of our times to the tragedies of our ancestors.  Others would like to explicitly add Kristallnacht, which took place on the 9th of November, the eleventh month, a sort of secular resonance with the 9th day of Av.

We need a day to focus on our mourning, a day for remembering the violence and pain of our history. And one day each year is really enough, it contains what would otherwise be uncontainable and which could overlay our national narrative and suffocate us with grief. As a Reform Jew for whom the traditional yearning for the return of the Temple is problematic, I find the only way to deal with Tisha b’Av is to place it in the context of the three weeks of increasing sadness known as “bein ha-metzarim” – within a narrow and constrained place, and then to reflect on our history, remember, acknowledge, and move on. It is no surprise to me that the 7 weeks of haftarah readings from Tisha b’Av towards Rosh Hashanah are all about hope, about return to God, about opening out to possibility and the future – we move from between the straits (bein ha-metzarim) into the wide open space of freedom to think, feel, remember and explore . Then comes Rosh Hashanah, time to make a new start, a new promise to our best selves, a new commitment to the future.

The Talmud asks the question: “Why was the First Temple destroyed?” and it answers itself thus: “Because of three things that occurred in it: Idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed…” But then it goes on to develop its thought -“the Second Temple, where they occupied themselves with Torah, Commandments and acts of kindness, why was it destroyed? Because there was a prevailing practice of baseless hatred (sinat chinam). This teaches that baseless hatred is equated with three sins: idolatry, immorality and bloodshed.” (Yoma 9b)

Sinat Chinam is equivalent to three huge sins together. It caused the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jewish people from their land for almost two thousand years. So what do we do about the hating without cause, the prejudging of others, the gratuitous dislike of the other. This is not necessarily an overpowering feeling that we are in thrall to, a visceral and ancient reflexive response that we can do nothing about. The responsa indicate that sinat chinam can be about simple ignoring of the humanity of the other, about not bothering to talk to them, to meet with them, to find out about them. Through sinat chinam we diminish the goodness in the world, as we refuse to recognise the goodness in each human person, to see them as valuable and possessing intrinsic worth. We have seven weeks now to reflect on how we treat others, both those we know and those we share our living spaces with – be it on the daily crowded train commute or the queue at the till, the person at the other end of the telephone or member of our own circle. We have seven weeks after Tisha b’Av to try to notice the humanity of each person we meet, and so to think about how we behave towards them. This is good work of teshuvah, for in meeting the other and recognising the spark of God within them, we become ready to face the spark of God within ourselves, the voice that reminds us that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we will stand in the presence of the heavenly court as we judge our lives so far, and the perspective of that court will be mediated with our own attempts to be the best person we can really be.

Elisheva: challenging the patriarchal structure with her mixed feelings. Parashat Va’era

Early in the sidra is a partial genealogy, which leads us rapidly to the Levitical line. A genealogy of the Levites takes us from Levi through Kohat to Amram father of Aaron and Moses. Unusually, three women are named in this genealogy:

Amram married Yocheved the sister of his father, and she gave birth to Aaron and Moses (Miriam is not mentioned here).

Aaron married Elisheva, the daughter of Amminadav, the sister of Nachshon; and she bore him Nadav and Avihu, Eleazar and Itamar.

Eleazar Aaron’s son took him one of the daughters of Putiel to wife; and she bore him Pinchas.

It is unusual for the wives to be named in these genealogies and so we must explore this further to see what Torah is trying to tell us.   Amram and Yocheved are nephew and aunt –both descendants of Levi, so Aaron and Moses are, so to speak, doubly Levitical.

It is not clear who Putiel is – he appears only here. Nor do we know how many daughters he had, or the names of any of them.

But Elisheva is given a much fuller ‘yichus’ – she is the daughter of Amminadav, the sister of Nachshon and we know from later in bible that her tribe therefore is that of Judah.  Not much is known of Amminadav, but Nachshon features further in text and tradition.  We learn in the book of Numbers that under God’s instruction, Nachshon ben Amminadav was appointed by Moses as ‘Nasi’, leader/prince of the Tribe of Judah (Num. 1:7), to stand with Moses and to help him lead the people.  We can also see that through Boaz he will be a direct ancestor to King David; and curiously he sits exactly half way in the biblical genealogy that leads directly from Judah to David.

Because of his descent from Judah and his many regal descendants, Nachshon is praised in the rabbinic literature. Most famously – even though the biblical text does not mention him there – he is said to have shown real faith at the Reed Sea. The Israelites having left Egypt after the final plague, found themselves trapped. In front of them was the water and behind them the furious pursuing army. They complained bitterly to Moses asking why he had brought them there only to die in the wilderness.  And while they were standing there, each one angrily refusing to go further, and while Moses was praying to God for help, Nachshon ben Amminadav jumped into the water and when it reached his nostrils, the waters parted. (BT Sotah 36a; Mechilta Beshalach)

This is the brother of Elisheva, a man apparently of great qualities – and as Elisheva is introduced to us as his sister – an unnecessary addition in the generational genealogy- it is assumed that something else is being alluded to here beyond the blood relationship. Elisheva brings into the Priestly line that will descend from her and Aaron the qualities of leadership embodied by her own family which will provide the Royal line.

Elisheva will give birth to the four sons of Aaron, two of whom, Nadav and Avihu, will suffer a terrible and violent death shortly after being inducted into the priesthood. The other two will continue the hereditary line of the Cohanim – the Jewish priests.   She is, with Aaron, the root of the priestly tradition. And she also brings together the two formal leadership roles within the biblical tradition – she brings the royal line of Judah which is already generations old, (Judah having been blessed by Jacob on his deathbed as being the Royal line), together with the brand new line of hereditary priesthood.

Elisheva is understood in tradition to be a woman who had reason for great pride and joy by virtue of her relationships to male leaders:  The Talmud (Zevachim 102a) tells us that on the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan “Elisheva had five additional joys over other daughters of Israel. She was the sister-in-law of the king (Moses), the wife of the High Priest (Aaron), her son (Elazar) was the segan (deputy high priest), her grandson (Pinchas) was anointed for war, and her brother (Nachshon) was a prince of the tribe of Judah [and the first of the twelve tribal leaders to make a gift offering for the inauguration]  One can add to this list that it was Betzalel ben Hur her nephew  of the tribe of Judah, who was the architect appointed by God to build the Mishkan.

Talmud however goes on to note “yet she was bereaved of her two sons”

I find this extraordinary. The Talmudic text is well aware that Elisheva, like Aaron, is bereaved of two of her adult children in a moment – destroyed when beginning their work as priests, but offering strange fire before God. We don’t really understand what happened here – were they drunk? Idolatrous? Inefficient?  Improperly dressed? – but we do understand that they die instantly. And we also understand that while a male response is described to these deaths, (Moses speaks to Aaron about God’s demands for the priesthood, Aaron is silent, Mishael and Elzaphan the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron are instructed to bring the bodies out of the mishkan and put them outside the camp, Elazar and Itamar are instructed about their priestly duties, along with Aaron…) Nothing is said about the response of Elisheva, the mother of the dead boys.

Aaron is famously silent – we are told this and it is understood that he is able to accept that the greater good of the priesthood is more important than the individual fates of his two sons. But his enigmatic silence is at painful odds with the complete erasure of the response of Elisheva. I cannot for a moment imagine that she would have taken the deaths quite so phlegmatically.

In the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 20:2) we see the situation from the viewpoint of Elisheva. “Elisheva, the daughter of Amminadav, did not enjoy happiness in this world. True, she witnessed the five crowns [attained by her male relatives] in one day…but when her sons entered to offer incense and were burnt, her joy was changed to mourning.”

The Midrash not only allows her mourning, it accepts that the deaths of her sons affected her profoundly so that even the achievements of her other male relatives would not give her any happiness.  Mourning as a parent is all-consuming. It is not ever something that one can recover fro;  the best that can happen is that joy can once again be experienced tinged with sadness, with an awareness that life is incomplete and will remain so.

Elisheva, the woman who brings together the lines of power and leadership – monarchy and priesthood, who is the foremother therefore of all those who have to care for the people, who have to lead it thoughtfully and in is best interest; Elisheva, matriarch and founding spirit of all the leaders whose job is to serve, to provide security, to be thoughtful about the impact of their decisions in the wider world –  brings not only the qualities of power that leadership needs, she brings another quality – the awareness of incompleteness and imperfection that we must live with.

It is a truism that peace/shalom is never fully here – the most we have is an absence of conflict and we must work to stop such conflict breaking out and gaining ascendancy. Our hope for each other uses the prefix le – leshalom, TOWARDS shalom, rather than b’shalom –IN/WITH peace because we are constantly striving towards it – we only reach our individual shalom when we are dead, as the biblical language confirms.  It is also true that every joy we have in life is good but it is temporary and it is always susceptible to change. We live in a world of uncertainty and entropy, change will happen and we must be able to cope with it.

Elisheva had so much in life – she came from a successful and value driven family, she married into another one, she had children and grandchildren, she features (albeit briefly) in bible. But as the midrash tells us, she did not enjoy happiness in this world, she lived in the liminal space where the pain of her mourning, and her awareness of the continuing fragility of the lives of those we love can  tinge, if not overshadow all happiness.

At a Jewish wedding there is a tradition to break a glass at the end of the ceremony. There are many reasons given – to scare away demons who may be lurking and to remember the destruction of the Temple  are two of the most famous, but the most likely is to remind everyone in the room that joy is transitory and good times must be enjoyed when we encounter them.

Life is hard and we shall all encounter a mixture of good and bad, of ease and difficulty, of problems and effortlessness as we go through it.  We will all meet difficulties, many of us will face fear and anxiety, some of us will have to deal with tragedy. We cannot allow fear or pain or sadness to overwhelm us but neither must we suppress the realities that they exist.

Elisheva encountered both extreme highs and lows of life. Bible is silent on her way of dealing with it, but rabbinic tradition uses her as a model, in the full knowledge that the people it is writing for would also face good times and bad, and needed to find resilience beyond that of blind faith. Elisheva lives on after the tragedy of the deaths of her sons, she continues to experience joy and sadness, she is able to experience both but neither of them can be untouched by the other. She is a human being who copes with life.

The name Elisheva can mean either “my God has sworn an oath” or it can mean “my God has satisfied”. What is the oath that is sworn? That God will remain our God through the ages, through good times and bad. And in what way is Elisheva ‘satisfied’? She has had a lot of good in her life, which enables her to deal also with the bad.

We learn from Elisheva that we can both enjoy life and mourn for what we no longer have, or might never have. We must live with the mingling of light and dark, knowing that each will tinge the other but each must be lived through. We learn that holding a constant sense that we are still connected to God, even in the dark times, even when may be afraid or sad or even angry with God, will help us through our lives.

No one gets away with a life that has no loss and no pain. No one escapes pain – it is an elemental human condition and closely allied to the ability to love. The men around Elisheva take refuge in their status, but Elisheva stands out, a scion of the royal line, the mother of priests. She may appear to have everything, but what matters can be taken away in a heartbeat and then the “everything” shows what it truly is – momentary, material, and irrelevant. Elisheva reminds us that relationships not only underpin our lives, they provide connection and the place to be ourselves. Everything else will pass.

Chukkat: how to remove the ritual impurity that is confusion so that we see the world more clearly

The sidra Chukkat is named after the instructions about the red heifer – instructions that even the learned commentators on Hebrew bible found mysterious and puzzling beyond understanding. A person made ‘tum’ah’ – unclean through contact with a corpse, was to be sprinkled with special water made with the ashes of a sacrificed perfectly red cow with absolutely no blemish upon it. The ritual is given in great detail over five verses, and is described as Chukkat Olam – a law for all time.

In the midrash Tanhuma, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is described as telling the outer world that this ritual is one of exorcism, of ridding oneself of something awful – but tellingly to his own disciples he declares “the corpse does not defile, nor does the water cleanse. The truth is that the ritual of the red heifer is simply a decree of the Sovereign above all Sovereigns, and we are not permitted to transgress it…”

So our portion is named for a ritual that has no rational meaning, and that we cannot in truth really understand – something that we just do because God tells us to do it. It is a difficult concept to embrace in the twenty first century for modern progressive Jews.

But maybe we might understand it more if we don’t focus on the nature of this law as being an illogical diktat from on high, but we look instead at the nature of tum’ah that the ritual is designed to remove.

In the 19th Century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch commented on the relationship between tum’ah – described as ritual impurity, and timtum – confusion. He suggested that the connection between them was that of the intensity of physical experience, that what renders a person ‘tam’ei’(ritually impure) is the state of being emotionally overwhelmed and unable to focus on the present context. This idea builds on the Talmudic comment that the nature of tum’ah is one ‘she’metamem et halev’ – one that blocks or paralyses the heart. Essentially to be ritually impure means to lack any mindfulness of self or context, to not be able to locate oneself fully in the world.

Ritual impurity – tum’ah – then can be seen as a function of the clarity of our consciousness, or lack of it. It is something that has to be removed, unblocked, or given a new frame and lens through which to understand what is happening and so change our response to it.

Suddenly this apparently irrational ritual of the red heifer has meaning – we have to do something to change our world view, do something to clarify our perceptions and to move on.

It is no accident I think that the sidra also contains the reporting of the deaths of first Miriam and then Aaron. When Aaron dies the community mourns and sheds tears for him for thirty days, but in the case of Miriam’s death the mourning is not reported – instead we are told that the source of the water dried up and the Israelites became thirsty and frightened.

A frequently quoted Midrash on this text tells us that Miriam had been the source of water for the Israelites, so that when she died the water too went away, but Rabbi Moshe Alsheich’s comment is I think more interesting – “Because they did not shed tears over the loss of Miriam the source of their water dried up”.

Because the children of Israel did not know what to do at the sudden loss of the woman who was the source of water, the source of life, their response was one of confusion – timtum – and of anger. We know about the anger because its most potent expression was that of Moses in response to the anger of the people. Against God’s instruction simply to speak to the rock he made an emotional speech accusing the people of rebellion and then he struck the rock not once but twice in front of the community, and the water poured out of it. Moses’ anger almost burns the page as we read it. Bereaved, lost, his world turned upside down, and with a community who are simply unable to cope with what has happened, his response is to give way to his fury – a completely human reaction but unfortunately not one that was helpful to anyone. Both he and the community are trapped in a state of tum’ah – blind confusion where no possibilities of renewal can be perceived, where everything is terrible and lost and lonely, and the future a bleak and frightening place.

The anger is the first response of the timtum, but it is ultimately a very damaging one – for this anger Moses and Aaron will not enter the Promised Land. The healing response comes after the death of Aaron when we are told “All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron for thirty days”. These tears are curative, part of the necessary process of mourning. And restorative life giving water comes in response to the waters shed in the tears.

The tears bring relief from tum’ah, from the intense confusion and pain and depression caused by the loss of Miriam and Aaron. But tears alone do not bring full cleansing – the waters of the ritual are mixed with the ashes of the red heifer, the emblematically perfect animal sacrificed for this ritual.

What can we use instead of the ashes to help ourselves out of the state of tum’ah?

Some mix whiskey with their water, but it will only help the tears to flow and ultimately prolong the state of timtum.

Some sacrifice themselves, their joy in life, their interest in the world, sinking into depression and despair.

Some sacrifice their future, holding on the state of anger and confusion, in order to punish the one who put them there.

Many rabbinic traditions (BB10a) suggest that instead of ashes we use tzedakah – for as our liturgy for the Yamim Noraim tells us, tzedakah, acts of righteousness and charity, save from death (proverbs10:2) or at least will blunt the severity of the decree against us.

Tzedakah, deeds of righteousness and charity, along with our freely flowing tears and expressions of our inner pain, do seem to be the way towards cleansing ourselves from our state of tum’ah, our pain filled confusion of timtum. But it is hard to do. Maybe this is why the heifer of the bible had to be so perfect, so completely red, so unusual that few have ever been born. It is hard but not impossible. For the people did it – they learned to mourn for Aaron fully, they learned to let go of the feelings of fear and confusion and express them in a structured and ultimately contained way. Only after that did they begin to live again, and to go on to new things, symbolised by the water which once again was accessible to them, the living waters of restoration and new ways of being.

Va’etchanan: Shabbat Nachamu – the mourning after cataclysm and the hope which remains

This week, the Shabbat after Tisha b’Av, we begin reading the series of seven haftarot of consolation – known by their Aramaic name : – sheva’ de’nechamta.  The progression of special haftarot will take us to the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, when we begin the New Year and hopefully able to leave behind us the pain and trial of the life we have lived, and can looking forward to starting again with a clean slate.

 All of the haftarot of consolation are taken from the preacher-poet known as “second Isaiah” or “Deutero Isaiah”, who is an unknown figure who lived among the exiles in Babylon in the 6th century BCE, and whose writings were later attached to those of the first Isaiah, who lived well over a century earlier. They appear as chapters 40 to 66.

 This second Isaiah is a mysterious figure. We know nothing about him. Not about his personal life, nor the circumstances of his prophesying. But we do know that the big powers of the time were Egypt and Babylon, one to the North and the other to the South, pressurising the land in which the Jews were living.

 The Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar, had plundered Jerusalem in 596 BCE and destroyed it 10 years later. They had carried the members of the political, religious and intellectual classes into exile, hoping that in time they would be assimilated and any threat they posed be disarmed.  This had worked well 130 years earlier when the Assyrians had conquered the northern kingdom and carried the ten tribes away, but the effect was not repeated with the exiled Jews from the southern kingdom who developed ways to keep their identity and religion alive – they created rituals to substituted for the lost Temple, read from sacred texts, created prayers and a liturgical framework, and laid the foundations for the institution of the synagogue.

 One of the people who were part of the process of recreating a form of Judaism possible for the exiles to cling to was this second Isaiah.  His message was simple – Jews have an ongoing relationship with God.  Because of our actions the Temple had been destroyed and the nation exiled from the land – but if the people would repent and return to God with sincerity they would be pardoned, because God is unfailingly merciful and forgiving.

 His message of consolation came at a crucial time. The people desperately needed something to comfort them as they faced an unknown future, hoping it seemed against hope that there could be an end to exile.

 And there was. In 539 BCE Cyrus, the king of the Medes and the Persians, overran Babylon and allowed the Jews to return home. We cannot know if this Isaiah was still alive at the time to see that his words had come to pass, but they were recorded for us to read and remember– albeit attached to the great prophet Isaiah – and we read more haftarot from his book than we do from any other.

 It is appropriate and it is necessary to begin reading from this prophet of hope immediately after the darkest time in our calendar, the Fast of Tisha b’Av. This year more than ever, the world feels bleak and frightening; it is unclear what is going to happen even in the near future. There is currently no way we can see of making things better and so there is no point in false cheer, nor in trying to explain and rationalise the situation we find ourselves in.

As with all mourning it must be endured and survived.  All there can be to help us is the warmly expressed comfort offered for the pain that is felt, the awareness that we are not ultimately alone or friendless.

The words “Nachamu Nachamu Ami –Comfort, Comfort My people” – is really all that can be said in the face of the reality of painful destruction and exile that is the world just after Tisha b’Av.  Be comforted that God is still with us, and never give up hope.Digital Camera Pictures 102

Chayei Sarah, the value of each of her lives as seen from the perspective of her death

      Sarah’s death is recorded unemotionally and briefly – her age, her location, and then the focus is on Abraham who came to mourn her and to bury her appropriately

      More interesting is that it her death is recorded in the context of her life. We are told
“And these were the lives of Sarah. A hundred years and seven years and twenty years were the years of the lives of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriat Arba–the same is Hebron–in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.” (Gen 23:1-2)

      Linguistically this announcement is a strange construction, and we can’t help wondering about it, and seeing it in its immediate context of the story of the binding of Isaac – that Sarah’s reaction to Abraham’s treatment of Isaac, her only son whose wellbeing meant everything to her, was to be living away from Abraham and ultimately to die of her distress.

      It may be that Sarah did die of the heartbreak occasioned by learning of the Akedah, of what Abraham was prepared to do to Isaac in order to pass a test of loyalty from God. But her death is of much less relevance here than her life – more specifically in the Hebrew text, her lives.

      Rashi tells us that this odd construction means that at one hundred years old Sarah was like she was at twenty in respect of sinning, (meaning that she did not sin till she was one hundred, since before the Torah God did not punish the sins of those under 20 years) and at twenty she was as beautiful as an innocent and perfect young girl of seven. And Rashi further tells us that the repetition of the word “years” indicates that all the years of her life were equal in value. (Rashi, Tractate Shabbat 89b).

      This may not exactly resonate with us, but the thought behind it does – that Sarah’s life was made up of different segments, and each period, though maybe not quantitatively long, is of equal value to other times of our lives. Also, that we carry elements of each episode of our lives with us, building up a portfolio of memories and experience to contribute to who we become.

      Sarah was a woman who lived a long and complex life. Married to a half brother with an orphaned nephew (Lot) to bring up, she travelled extensively away from Ur of the Chaldees through Canaan to Egypt, then back, and seems to have live in Philistine territory and also in Beer Sheva and finally Hevron. She wanted a child but did not conceive until old age, and then she fought hard for that child (Isaac) to receive his inheritance. Twice she entered the harem of the ruling king in order to protect Abraham from death, and twice she was returned to him. She was clearly not a doormat however – It was Sarah who decided to bring God’s prophecy about by giving Hagar to Abraham in order for him to conceive a son. Sarah was the one who told Abraham then to remove that son Ishmael from proximity to their own child Isaac, and an unhappy Abraham, protesting to God, was told to obey her. Sarah was a woman fully in control of her own life and pretty controlling of others lives too. By the time of her death the only thing she did not seem to have, was a relationship to Isaac, possibly because in her destroying the relationship between the two half brothers, she also destroyed the trust between herself and her son.

      But her life was clearly full and fulfilled. While not perfect, she was a woman who contributed to her world extensively – one might also note here that when Abram and Sarai had their names changed in order to signify their new position in relation to God, Abram had the letter ‘hay’ added to his name to make it Abraham, and to add the letter used to describe God to his own name, whereas Sarai had the ‘yod’ in her name removed and a ‘hay’ returned. in effect a letter worth the numerical value of ten was removed, half was given to her husband and half to her (‘hay’ has the numerical value of five) – from which one might deduce that all the godliness that came into Abraham’s life came to him from Sarah, who had a surfeit.

     Be that as it may, Sarah’s life was made up of a number of lives, and each of them had value and impact. Each of us too has a number of lives, as children, in different work or leisure roles, in different family constructions and so on. For some of us we go on and on, adding shorter and longer sections to the span of our time on earth, for others that span is cut short through illness or accident or war. But what is important is not the quantity of years we live, but the quality and richness of the experiences we have while we are living. Our lives are not to be measured and judged simply by length of time, but about how we live the years given to us. A shorter but well lived life is a triumph and a complete whole in itself.

From MiDBaR to DVRim – the life learning of Moses in Devarim

When Moses first encountered God at the burning bush he told God ‘lo Ish Devarim anochi’ – I am not a man of words (Ex 4:10).  Yet here we are towards the end of Moses’ life with a book that begins ‘eleh hadevarim asher dibber Moshe el kol Yisrael – these are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel.’ 

What has happened to turn this man who had no confidence in his ability to speak, into one of the greatest orators?  What processes did he pass through to become a man of words?

            The word Devarim comes from a root dalet, bet, resh – davar.  So, curiously, does the word which names the previous book – Bemidbar, in the desert.  There is a connection between the word we use for ‘words’ and the word we use for ‘wilderness’ – both emanate from the same Hebrew root ‘davar’, a root which implies substance and meaning.  Bemidbar is a book about growth and chaos – it is in the wilderness, the midbar, that the Israelites rebel, that they challenge Moses and even God’s authority.  It is in the wilderness that Moses negotiates and manipulates, that he demonstrates enormous fluctuations of confidence and despair, of temper and temperament.  Moses is a tortured soul, alone and frightened, filled with anger and with insecurity, with self doubt and with some arrogance.  And it is this mixture of fury and passion, of neurosis and obsession, which eventually cause him to lose everything he holds dear.  Moses’ words in the wilderness alternate between despair and compassion, between fixation and thoughtfulness, between a hope for the future and a concern for the meaning of that future.

            By the time we come to the book of Devarim however, Moses has worked through much of his pain and has undergone a radical transformation. The Moses we see in Devarim understands that his days are numbered, and the self pity of the earlier years has given way to self awareness. As he coaches and cajoles and chastises his people, he realises that every moment and every word counts.  He has moved through the ordinary and everyday relationship of interaction and transaction and is more comfortable within his skin, and so more able to make the connections that enrich and affirm his life. In Devarim he teaches us about relationship with each other and with God that is far removed from the self based needs experienced so far.

            This week, as every year when reading Devarim, we are in the week commemorating the events of Tisha b’Av, the blackest and bleakest day of the calendar. We remember disaster and calamity in great measure, including the destruction of both Jerusalem Temples. Traditionally a day of mourning and fasting, the mourning of the Jewish world has been growing for three weeks, gaining in intensity since the 17th Tammuz and its fast. 

            The tradition of mourning attached to the calendar at this period, is one that we Reform Jews have ambivalence about, but there is still a lot we can learn from it.  The laws of mourning were instituted to help us get through the tragic and difficult experiences in our lives.  But they were also established so as to help us find the opportunity to re-examine our lives and create the time and the focus to enable us to transform everyday existence and see our lives in the perspective of relationship with God.  The mourning period is the equivalent of the Bemidbar, the wilderness and chaos through which we grow and transform ourselves from self-centredness to self-awareness.    

The period of Jewish mourning is a time when the mourner isolates themselves from society and from the clamour of the world.  It provides a time for introspection and evaluation.  By tradition much of the material and trivial pre-occupations – haircuts, new clothing, physical appearance etc are sloughed off during mourning, as are the anxieties about how we are doing in the world in terms of wealth or success, reputation or achievement.  Suddenly we are faced with an awareness of what really matters in life, and given the time to consider ourselves and our activities.  There is a tradition in some parts of the Jewish world to demonstrate our lack of interest in the external and material appearances of things by covering the mirrors, a tradition I have always found folkloristic and uncomfortable, but there is a genuine message within it – that to really experience ourselves at this time we don’t look outwards but inwards, don’t use the silver glass of a mirror but the instead look into the mirrors of our own souls.

            There is a real connection between Devarim and the mourning period that is Tisha b’Av.  We begin reading a book where Moses has taken the davar that is within the midbar and transformed it into Devarim – he has taken the chaos and anxiety and self doubt within the wilderness and transformed the self same substance into matters of weight and meaning and of importance.   Here just before the black fast of the ninth day of Av we are taking the mourning and the introspection and transforming ourselves and our lives through what we find.  It is no coincidence that next week we will begin on the haftarot of consolation which are prescribed for reading immediately after Tisha b’Av and which will lead us liturgically on to Rosh Hashanah, the time for self examination and the trigger once again for renewal and redemption.  Just as Moses was able to leave the midbar and form the Devarim, so we too should be able to travel through our own midbar, and to understand our own role in life and grow in the depth of our humanity.

            Some of us never quite leave the midbar, for it can trap us into staying there, never emerging into the Devarim, the ability to see our lives more clearly, to experience the connection with God and each other as it truly is.  Most of us fluctuate most of the time between the two realms of the everyday transaction and the life-changing connection.  We shift between the higher and lower domains of consciousness and connection, intermittently aware that there are no wasted words, that all davar can become Devarim.

            During this week the calendar commemorates a terrible series of catastrophes by creating a period of mourning.  Whatever our theology or our political orientation, it provides us with the space for reflection, for the sense of our being in the chaos and loneliness of wilderness, and gives  us a time to become conscious of ourselves, our lives, our pain.  It is an opportunity for us to begin the process of radically transforming ourselves as we begin the run-up to Rosh Hashanah.  It gives us the opportunity to make connections and to see words differently, so as to experience the holiness that is all around us.. 

 

Leading up to Tisha b’Av, the choices we make

women against women

Today is Rosh Chodesh Av, the month we will see the commemoration of the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, which we will remember on Tisha b’Av, the culmination of a three week period of mourning, which began with the Fast of the 17th Tammuz, commemorating the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem which led to the destruction of the First Temple.  

In the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6) we read that “Five things happened to our ancestors on the 17th Tammuz, and five on the 9th Av (Tisha B’Av). On the 17th of Tammuz the tablets [containing the Ten Commandments] were broken; the daily sacrifice was discontinued; the walls of Jerusalem were breached; Apustamus, a Greek officer, burned a Torah scroll; and an idol was erected in the sanctuary of the Temple. On the Ninth of Av it was decreed that the generation of the desert would not enter the Land of Israel; the first temple was destroyed; the second temple was destroyed; Betar, (the last Jewish stronghold after the destruction of Jerusalem), was conquered; and Jerusalem was ploughed under. When the month of Av enters we diminish our joy.”

It is quite a list. The tradition is to cluster bad things together on one date, rather than to spread the pain of Jewish history throughout the year, colouring all our days with mourning. So there are texts that tell us that on Tisha B’Av the First Crusade began, Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain, and to bring us more up to date the First World War broke out on Tisha b’Av. There is a good case for observing Yom HaShoah on this date in years to come, adding the cataclysm of our times to the tragedies of our ancestors.  Others would like to explicitly add Kristallnacht, which took place on the 9th of November, the ninth day of the eleventh month, a sort of secular resonance with the 9th day of Av.

We need a day to focus on our mourning, a day for remembering the violence and pain of our history. And one day each year is really enough, it contains what would otherwise be uncontainable and which could overlay our national narrative and suffocate us with grief. As a Reform Jew for whom the traditional yearning for the return of the Temple with its associated priestly and sacrificial system of worship is problematic, I find the best way to deal with Tisha b’Av is to place it in the context of the three weeks of increasing sadness known as “bein ha-metzarim” – being within a narrow and constrained place, and then to reflect on our history, remember, acknowledge, and move on. It is no surprise to me that the 7 weeks of haftarah readings from Tisha b’Av towards Rosh Hashanah are all about hope, about return to God, about opening out to possibility and the future – we move from between the straits (bein ha-metzarim) into the wide open space of freedom to think, feel, remember and explore . Then comes Rosh Hashanah, time to make a new start, a new promise to our best selves, a new commitment to the future.

The Talmud asks the question: “Why was the First Temple destroyed?” and it answers itself thus: “Because of three things that occurred in it: Idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed…” But then it goes on to develop its thought -“the Second Temple, where they occupied themselves with Torah, Commandments and acts of kindness, why was it destroyed? Because there was a prevailing practice of baseless hatred (sinat chinam). This teaches that baseless hatred is equated with three sins: idolatry, immorality and bloodshed.” (Yoma 9b)

Sinat Chinam is equivalent to three huge sins together. It caused the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jewish people from their land for almost two thousand years. So what do we do about the hating without cause, the prejudging of others, the gratuitous dislike of the other.

This is not necessarily an overpowering feeling that we are in thrall to, a visceral and ancient reflexive response that we can do nothing about. The responsa indicate that sinat chinam can be about simple ignoring of the humanity of the other, about not bothering to talk to them, to meet with them, to find out about them. Through sinat chinam we diminish the goodness in the world, as we refuse to recognise the goodness in each human person, to see them as valuable and possessing intrinsic worth. We have just over eight weeks now to reflect on how we treat others, both those we know and those we share our living spaces with – be it on the daily crowded train commute or the queue at the till, the person at the other end of the telephone or member of our own circle.

Today is Rosh Chodesh Av, and in Jerusalem this morning right on the site of the Temple precinct we have truly seen a demonstration of “sinat chinam” leading literally to “bein ha-metzarim.” Women of the Wall, a group who come together to pray together each Rosh Chodesh at the Western Wall that retains the Temple Mount, have once again found themselves the target of those who try to prevent them praying in tallit, speaking and singing their prayers out loud, and reading the Torah scroll in their service.  Ultra Orthodox girls were bussed in to the area on the orders of their rabbis in order to crowd out other women who come to pray there. These girls were used as bodies in order to create a physical shortage of space, bein ha-metzarim. They were not primarily coming to pray, though some of them may well have done so, they were coming primarily to deny others their chosen prayer. Early photos and video show some faces contorted with hatred and anger, some comments on the Facebook page are vitriolic, for me the saddest photo is of an older woman, all her hair modestly covered in a blue scarf, blowing a whistle while staring balefully at the Women of the Wall in order to disrupt their prayers.  

We have seven weeks after Tisha b’Av to try to notice the humanity of each person we meet, and so to think about how we behave towards them. This is good work of teshuvah, for in meeting the other and recognising the spark of God within them, we become ready to face the spark of God within ourselves, the voice that reminds us that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we will stand in the presence of the heavenly court as we judge our lives so far, and the perspective of that court will be mediated with our own attempts to be the best person we can really be.