Jewish Days Of Mourning Shabbat Nachamu

AUGUST 4, 2006

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


My goodness, it has been two months since I have given a sermon. And so much has happened, which is grist for the homiletic mill. So, sit back folks, this has the potential of being a long night. I’ve heard it said that rabbinic sermons are our own form of self-persecution. But you can relax my friends, I am not one who believes that the Jewish people must continue to suffer. We have done that long enough. In fact suffering is a theme appropriate for tonight.

As some, but probably few of you realized, a relatively major Jewish holy day was on our calendar yesterday, Tisha B’Av. You missed it? Darn! Well, the good news is it will be back next year. Tisha B’Av, which simply means the ninth day in the Hebrew month of Av commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples of Jerusalem, traditionally a day of mourning and fasting. Over time it has been linked with other events of suffering and persecution, most prominently the expulsion order of the Jews from Spain and the fall of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.

Personally and as a movement, we Reform Jews have had an ambivalent relationship with the observance. None of us still mourn for the destruction of the Temples of Jerusalem. I am not anxious to rebuild it, to bring back that old time religion with animal sacrifices, grain offerings, incense and libations. However, Tisha B’Av is more than the Temples. It marks the fall of the Jewish nation to the Babylonians and then later the Romans. I could mourn for that, except for the fact that Israel has been in existence since 1948. So, you will understand how I erred when planning our summer Continuing Education program, totally forgetting about Tisha B’Av and scheduling of all programs, one on Jewish Cooking for the evening of Tisha B’Av. Mea Culpa- I will say an extra Al Chet for that come Yom Kippur.

Still, Tisha B’Av can speak to us, providing a prism for how we see our world. After all, what can be more relevant than our Jewish homeland fighting for survival? Over two thousand years ago Israel and Judea were monarchies. Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians around 710 BCE. Then Judea became the sole Jewish independent entity. Ancient power politics involved deciding whether to align with Egypt, Assyria or Babylonia. Whichever you chose, the other was not pleased. Judea was often a pawn in a global political game. Babylonia conquers Judea, destroys the Temple in 586 BCE and exiles the leadership. 60 years later, Assyria defeats Babylonia and Judea becomes a reality once again, albeit tied to foreign powers. Later it will be the Romans, who exercise their might.

To some extent the reality of modern Israel is no different. It was founded as the fulfillment of Jewish dreams, but as a concession by world powers. While its birth pains and continued travails involve its Arab neighbors, Israel was first a pawn of European Imperialism, then the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and now I would argue between western values of democracy, as reflected by the United States and Israel, and Islamic Fundamentalism, as embraced by Iran and Syria. Israel and Hezbollah, Israel and Hamas are doing the fighting, but to some extent they are proxies. This does not change the fact that real death and destruction is currently taking place.

The current crisis is my fault. Some of my Gates of Prayer members may have noticed. The moment I put a message in our weekly e-mail newsletter about the possibility of spending Mardi Gras in Jerusalem, the fighting with Lebanon broke out. Sadly it continues. I certainly hope and pray that a meaningful and yes, “enduring,” cease fire will come soon, perhaps along the lines that we have heard with international troops providing a real buffer zone and Hezbollah being disarmed or at least moved away. There has been much too much death and destruction. I am not one who believes “Israel right or wrong”, but in this case I do believe that Israel was right to aggressively respond and I do not believe that it is “disproportionate”. After 9/11 the United States launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While they have been criticized as foolish, we have heard few say they are disproportionate.

Hezbollah intentionally initiated the conflict by crossing into Israel and kidnapping Israeli soldiers. They knew full well that Israel would respond and were strategically waiting with their rocket launchers already aimed in the general directions of. Haifa, Tsefat, Nahariya, Kiryat Shmoneh, the civilian populations of northern Israel.

My main criticism of Israel has been its public relations. Israel operates under principles of Tohar Neshek- purity of arms, which means that they do everything in their power to spare innocent civilian lives, which is the opposite of the Hezbollah rockets and missiles and their aim. Their rockets are launched from apartment balconies. Their soldiers are housed in civilian homes. Israel drops leaflets, uses radio and all means possible to tell civilians to flee, while Hezbollah keeps them in harms way, using them as human shields. Civilians are not the innocent victims of Israeli bombing. They are cynically placed in danger by their own people as part of a conscious plot.  That message needs to be broadcast loudly. To date Israel has not been effective in this regard. Tisha B’Av reminds us that we must fight to maintain our independence in spite of what others may say about us.

How is all of this negative press possible, when we all know that Jews control the media and are the cause of all wars? Thank you, Mel Gibson. I needed something else to talk about on my first week back. Let me simply say that this event is not surprising. His family background includes a father who is an unapologetic anti-Semitic Holocaust denier. His response to Jewish criticisms of his movie the “Passion of the Christ” reflected at best insensitivity and as now seems evident, deeply felt hostility towards Jews and Judaism. He has exposed himself and his prejudices. I’m sure that Mr. Gibson is sorry for what happened, but at this time his words are self-serving and meaningless.

He has appealed to meet with the Jewish community and reportedly received an invitation to speak to a congregation on Yom Kippur, which is ludicrous. I do believe that one can repent and change, but it is a process that must be entered into with sincerity and proven through appropriate words and deeds over time, not over night. Our Tisha B’Av prism reminds us that there are those who hate us and to some extent we must be wary.

Of course for all of us, we have another frame of reference through which everything is refracted and that is Katrina. Tisha B’Av commemorates destruction and exile, followed by return, rebuilding and renewal. Those themes certainly speak to us. I don’t believe I have to spell it out any further. I have previously used the language of Jewish bereavement to help us move forward in coping with Katrina. At Yom Kippur Yizkor, we were still in sheloshim the initial month or so of mourning. Now we are in the 11th month. Traditionally, this would be when one conducts an unveiling and ends daily recitation of Kaddish. The focus is no longer what we lost, but where we are heading in the future, while honoring the past. Perhaps Tisha B’Av this year can serve to mark that next stage in our process.

“Nachamu, nachamu ami- Be Comforted, Be Comforted O My people.” These are the words of Isaiah spoken each Shabbat after Tisha B’Av. We pray that the people of Israel and Lebanon will soon know safety and security once again. We pray that all who endure destruction and loss, may find comfort and hope.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *