Thursday, July 30, 2020

Rescuing History

Today marks Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating nearly all Jewish tragedies, most especially the destruction of the first and second Temples, and the subsequent 2000-year exile from the land of Israel.

Our weekly portion appears to foretell this cataclysm.
Should you, when you have begotten children and children’s children and are long established in the land, act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness, causing the Lord your God displeasure and vexation, I call heaven and earth this day to witness against you that you shall soon perish from the land which you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you shall not long endure in it, but shall be utterly wiped out. (Deuteronomy 4)
Not only do these verses foretell tragedy, they also assign blame. We are the victims of our own wrongdoings. No wonder that the prophet Jeremiah castigates the people and blames them for causing destruction of the first Temple, even though it was the Babylonians who laid siege to Jerusalem. No wonder that some 500 years later, the rabbis again fault the people for the decimation of first century Jewry, the destruction of the second Temple, and the slaughter of Jerusalem’s inhabitants at the hands of the Romans.

It was all because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred among Jews, the rabbis argued. This provided an opening for Rome to conquer Jerusalem. Jeremiah earlier laments: “Jerusalem has greatly sinned. Therefore, she has become a mockery.” (Lamentations 1) We stand guilty. History is evidence of our sins.

Generations of Jews find blame for historical tragedies in our own actions. “If only we had been more faithful to God. If only we had not disobeyed the commandments. If only…” Such are the explanations offered for millennia. And while there is great spiritual power in seeing historical tragedies as occasions to reexamine our ways, and to look within our souls to discover how we might be responsible and how we might even be deserving of blame, it appears blasphemous when looking back at more recent tragedies. To suggest that the Jewish people are somehow to blame for the Nazis murderous rampage is sacrilege.

It may be in keeping with Deuteronomy’s thinking, but it has no place in my faith. Even the teachings offered by the rabbis explaining this day of Tisha B’Av cannot, and should not, be reckoned with the historical record. Sure, it is always better to ask, “What can we learn? How can we do better?” than to point fingers at some mysterious other. Isn’t that what the Nazis did? “Why did Germany lose World War I?,” they asked. And they shouted in response, “It was because the Jews stabbed us in the back.”

“Why is this pandemic raging throughout our country?” we now ask. Do we say, “It is because of him or her or them?” Or do we ask, “Is it because we think too much about ourselves and not about others?” One answer leads to name calling and despair. The other offers the potential for spiritual growth and change. It may not make for the accurate telling of history, but it can offer the opportunity for repair.

And thus, I resolve. No more blaming of victims. Look within for rescue.

The Torah continues, offering an antidote to its own stark theology. “The Lord will scatter you among the peoples…. But if you search there for the Lord your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul…”

When you find yourself distressed and despairing, start up the search once again.

The Hasidic rabbi Menhaem Mendl of Kotzk teaches: “The very act of seeking God, the longing to find God, means ‘you shall find God’; that in itself is enough.”

For now, that will have to be enough.

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