A Tikun for Tisha B’Av
Yehoshua Ben Perachyah omer: Aseh l’cha rav, u’kney chaver, Vehevey dan et kol adam l‘khaf z’chut
Yehoshua Ben Perachyah taught: Make for yourself a rabbi, acquire [literally purchase] for yourself a friend and judge every person meritoriously [give the benefit of the doubt].
Pirkey Avot 1:6
Hillel omer: Hevey k’talmidav shel Aharon. Ohave shalom, rodef shalom, ohave et habriyot, um’karvan laTorah/ Hillel taught: One should emulate the students of Aharon. Love peace, pursue peace, love all of humanity and bring them close to the Torah
Pirkey Avot 1:12
Habah l’l’hargecha, hashkem l’hargo / When [an enemy] comes to murder you, quickly arise and strike him dead.
Talmud Bavli, Mesechet Brachot 58a
You’ve got a friend in me
You’ve got a friend in me
You got troubles, I got ‘em too
There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you
We stick together, we can see it through
‘Cause you’ve got a friend in me
You’ve got a friend in me
“You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” by Randy Newman
Respect yourself, respect yourself
If you don’t respect yourself
Ain’t nobody gonna give a good cahoot, na na na na
Respect yourself, respect yourself
“Respect Yourself,” by Luther Ingram and Mack Rice (first recorded by The Staple Singers)
During the month of Av (which this year coincides with mid-July through mid-August), we find the “holiday” of Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av is listed as a yom tov (literally a good day) or holiday, but it really isn’t anything of a holiday at all. Tisha B’Av is an institutionalized Jewish day of mourning ostensibly concerning the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the Great Jewish Temple of antiquity, by the Romans in 70 CE as the culmination of the crushing of a Jewish revolt against Roman occupation and rule. This event was certainly a tragic, bloody, and horrendous episode in Jewish history that led to the exile of large numbers of Jews into Roman slavery and inspired a second rebellion some 50 years later that resulted in even more tragic results in the draconian response from the Romans. Ironically, however, this seminal event, as painful and tragic as it was, turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise for the Jewish people and contributed to Judaism becoming the religion that evolved into the one we enjoy and practice today and also formed the basis of the always nimble and infinitely adaptable Jewish intellect and world view.
During those Second Temple times, Judaism had developed numerous factions always opposed to each other and who often shortsightedly put the desire to have their understanding of Judaism and the needs of their sect above he good and future of the Jewish people. The most dominant and establishment faction was the Tzadukim, or adducees, the party of the hereditary Cohanim, or priesthood, who held that Judaism was about animal sacrifices that only they could perform in their elaborate Temple, which in its time was the grandest and most impressive religious structure in the world. The institution of the Temple and Cohanim had been corrupt for years. Through the financial complex of the animal sacrifices, the Cohanim exploited the people financially for their own personal gain and the office of chief Cohen was appointed by the Roman occupiers and purchased from them with bribes by ambitious, greedy, profiteering Cohanim. The Cohanim were exceedingly unpopular with the common people who, however, still revered the traditions, rituals, institutions, and Temple that the Cohanim controlled.
There were numerous parties with wildly divergent views and agendas opposed to the Cohen establishment; however, the primary party in opposition to the Tzadukim was the Perushim (a double entendre that means both those who separate [from impurity] and those who explain/interpret [the Torah]), or Pharisees, the early rabbis. The Perushim promoted a newly evolved Judaism that featured decentralized synagogues where the study of Torah and prayers replaced animal sacrifices and promulgated a belief in a Torah Shel Ba’al Peh or “Oral Torah,” which the rabbis claimed had been transmitted simultaneously along with the written Torah. This Oral Torah was not so much a collection of orally transmitted laws not found in the written text but a system of elaboration, explanation, and interpretation that made for a very flexible and adaptive religion that could be altered or allowed to evolve to meet the contemporary needs of the people. This made the Perushim very popular, the party of the common people. Differing from the other more radical anti-establishment groups, the Perushim never denied the sanctity of the Beit HaMikdash or the practices of the sacrificial rite. Like all clever revolutionaries, they claimed the venerability of their interpretations and asserted them to be of the same origin and authenticity as that of the established cult.
The destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and the elimination of the sacrificial rite and the subsequent lack of need of a priesthood left the emerging Judaism of the Perushim without serious opposition. The portable and decentralized institutions and methodologies created by the early rabbis perfectly met the unfolding needs of the times, as Jews at that time did not possess a centralized religious center and were widely dispersed throughout the known world. The descendants of the Temple officiants still carried status among much of the people despite the unpopularity of the Tzadukim; and the rabbis understanding that, coopted the surviving Cohanim and granted them a few special privileges, such as receiving the first aliyah to the Torah during services, a custom that we oddly still follow today.
We are the heirs to that revolutionary and evolutionary, flexible form of Judaism pioneered by the Pharisees. In looking for answers and solutions to the dilemmas and problems the Jewish people face today, we don’t need to grovel before a priest manipulating a breast plate, burning incense, and grilling expensive cuts of meat we’ve been forced to purchase in order to receive guidance and a guarantee of divine approval of our intentions.
Instead we only need to allow ourselves to become part of the continuing unfolding and evolving process of the Oral Torah.
As American Jews, perhaps one of the two biggest questions we face as a people is how we should relate to and adapt to the changing demographic of our nation. Many ethnic groups and religions new to our American “melting pot” are in ascendency in our country, especially Islam. What does that mean for the future of our community and what are we to do? The other big question is how should we American Jews support the State of Israel, which is continually and increasingly under siege. Following last summer’s Gaza War with the Hamas terrorists, Israel was widely excoriated throughout the world, which seemed to declare that the murder of Jews was justified and that Israel had no right to self-defense. Most recently it appears that the current US administration and other world powers are conceding to Iran in a “bad deal” that will allow the Iranians to both reap hundreds of billions of dollars to arm Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel while they will eventually have a nuclear weapon to carry out their threat of “wiping Israel off the map.”
Fortunately our Oral Torah has wisdom to offer on these issues and the wisdom to allow us to evolve updated answers upon their foundation.
The quotes above from our Oral Torah tradition should inspire and inform us as to the path to take on both issues. We need to judge the American Muslim community b’chaf z’chut. These are people who have come to America seeking a better life. The vast majority of that community only wants to be accepted in our American society as equals, and they enjoy and respect the freedoms they experience here and the diversity. The Muslims I meet are moved by my efforts to befriend them, and the respect I show them makes a deep impression. Just because there is so much anti-Israel sentiment in much of the world doesn’t mean that these American Muslims can’t be our good friends. In Pirkey Avot it literally says “buy yourself a friend.” This doesn’t mean offering a bribe. It means making an investment in your friend. When someone sees that you truly care about their concerns and needs and that they are important to you and that you respect them and take their concerns seriously, you have invested in and purchased a friend.
The above Talmudic advice can also guide our support for Israel. We, the American Jewish community, need to continue to support Israel in many ways, including continuing to support well-thought-out overtures of peace to enemies bent on Israel’s destruction. However, when those enemies erupt in belligerence and come to murder Israelis, we need to unambiguously and vocally support Israel’s undeniable right to self-defense.
These two agendas are not contradictory. We need to sincerely increase seeking the friendship of all of the growing groups of new Americans, especially Muslims, interacting with them with respect and affection and working together with them for the mutual benefit of the community we all share. This will serve to dispute and prove false the narratives of those of some of their unfortunately hostile coreligionists who would seek to recruit Muslims as enemies of both Israel and the Jewish people. As we demonstrate unapologetically and proudly our support for Israel, we importantly show the Muslim community and others that we respect ourselves. We can’t expect others to respect us and accept the State of Israel’s legitimacy unless we demonstrate that self-respect and love of Israel ourselves.
In solidarity with the entire Jewish people in all its variations and in cognizance of Jewish history, I won’t celebrate on Tisha B’Av. However, I also won’t be engaging in false demonstrations of sorrow and I certainly won’t be mourning the demise of the institution of the Beit HaMikdash and its priestly officiants.