Rabbi Seth Goldstein has served as the rabbi of Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia, WA since 2003,
after graduating from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. He is a member of the board of
the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, served as a co-chair of an RRA task force examining issues of
Jewish status and identity, is a participant in the Clergy Leadership Program of the Institute for Jewish
Spirituality and a fellow of CLAL's Rabbis Without Borders.
Tisha B’Av (“the ninth of Av”) is a day of fasting and mourning for the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem, and is observed this year beginning the evening of July 25. Like Yom Kippur, it is a full day fast (The fast is being observed on the 10th of Av this year because the 9th falls on Shabbat, and thus the fast is postponed.)
The Temple holds an important place in the collective spiritual consciousness of the Jewish people. It is seen as the place where the community was in deep and close connection to God. The destruction of the Temple led to the separation from the land, the dispersion of the community and a need to rebuild the ritual infrastructure of Judaism, so its loss is remembered as a great tragedy. In addition to setting aside this one day to mourn, prayers for the rebuilding of the Temple and Jerusalem punctuate our liturgy.
In lamenting the destruction of the Temples, the ancient Jewish sages sought to identify what brought about the destruction. And even though they knew it was an external enemy that toppled the walls—the first Temple fell at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE—the ancient Jewish sages turned inward to identify potential causes. The rabbis blamed the destruction of the Temple on a variety of ethical shortcomings: senseless hatred, overscrupulousness in the law at the expense of others, public embarrassment and exploitation of others.
In the rabbinic mindset, the destruction of the Temple was punishment for these sins. And while this theology of external punishment for internal sin may challenge us, the general idea of being able to examine how our own faults and limitations—in conjunction with external pressures—may bring about a destructive end, is instructive.
For the past 67 years, we have marked Tisha B’Av at a time that the State of Israel is a reality. That is an interesting exercise: what does it mean to continue to lament and pray for Jerusalem at a time that the city exists? On the one hand, we can still hold on to the prayers as a symbol of a greater messianic vision. Saying “Next Year in Jerusalem” at the end of the Seder doesn’t mean we should be buying our plane tickets for the next year. It is rather a general statement of redemptive hope. On the other hand, it is hard to ignore the fact that part of that ancient redemption narrative has been realized through the creation of a modern nation state.
Yet, Israel continues to find itself in a state of no peace. This fact is worthy of lament. But while we lament the fact that there is no peace, we can take a cue from the ancient rabbis, and at the same time we acknowledge the real external threats to Israel, we must also look inward to see where our actions are also perpetuating a destructive situation.
How has Israel contributed to the current situation? By perpetuating an occupation of another people for almost half a century, for the daily limitations and injustices meted out on the Palestinians, for the inequities of power and resources and access perpetuated by Israel. These need to be acknowledged and confronted.
Israel does many things right and good, but we can’t be absolved of our own wrongdoings just because we also do good. The ancient rabbis were wise to point out that these situations are much more complex and nuanced, and that we need to take responsibility for our own actions. We need to fully acknowledge how we have contributed and continue to contribute to the situation.
To do that, the rabbis give us a guide. In the morning service of Tisha B’av, we read Jeremiah 8:13-9:23, a passage which includes the words:
Let not the wise glory in wisdom
Let not the strong glory in strength
Let not the rich glory in riches
God, through the prophet Jeremiah, is telling us that we should be wary of wisdom, strength and riches. But aren’t these virtues? They can be, but they can also be corrupted: If we “glory in wisdom,” then we may become blinded with our own truth, unable to see or understand another’s wisdom or narrative. If we “glory in strength,” then we may tend to abuse the power that we have, and use it to oppress another. If we “glory in riches,” then we may tend to exploit others financially.
But there is hope: we can, on the other hand, turn to three traits lauded by Jeremiah later in the passage, and we can understand them to be direct contrasts to the first three. For if we act with lovingkindness (hesed), we will be able to have humility and concern for the other, and hear their story and acknowledge multiple truths. If we act with justice (mishpat), we will have a check on absolute power and ensure that all are treated fairly and with dignity. If we act with righteousness (tzedakah), we will ensure that all are treated equitably and all will have their needs met.
These verses, then, contain both a warning and a hope. A warning in that they point out three attitudes which contribute to destructive behavior. A hope in that they point to three attitudes which can help contribute to overcoming that destructive behavior. Regarding Israel, we should heed these warnings and embrace the hope.
On this Tisha B’Av, may we have the ability to look inward, acknowledge our destructive behaviors, push aside “wisdom, strength and riches” and embrace kindness, justice and righteousness, in order to bring about the peace we so desperately desire.