What I Will Pray For This Tisha B’Av

This week, the Jewish world will observe Tisha B’Av, a solemn day on which we recall catastrophes that have happened to the Jewish people throughout our history, primarily the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of our people from the Land of Israel for a period of time that lasted nearly 2,000 years. Tisha B’Av (the name means simply “the 9th of Av,” which is the current Jewish month) is one of two 24-hour fasts on the Jewish calendar (the other being Yom Kippur), and includes the reading of the mournful Biblical book of Lamentations and chanting of kinot (dirges). In our day, so far removed in history from the time of the destruction of the Temple, Tisha B’Av has become a time to focus on Jewish peoplehood and the importance of unity. Often, texts and stories about the perils of people engaging in acts of gratuitous hatred and insensitivity are the focus of our discussion on Tisha B’Av.

This year, I expect that my prayers on Tisha B’Av will be infused with concern and worry about the war going on between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. I’m imagining that my mind and my heart will be focused not on the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, but on the danger, pain and suffering that are the offspring of war. I want to share what I think I’ll be praying for when I close my eyes in Tefilah on Tisha B’Av.

The first thing I’ll pray for is that the soldiers of the Israel Defense Force can come home to Israel in safety and unscarred by battle. I’ll pray for an end to war, and for an end to the reasons that this war had to be waged. I’ll pray that the young men of the IDF no longer have to risk their lives in battle, and that the reservists who have been called up to supplement the standing forces can return to their lives unharmed. And I’ll pray about the sadness of the lives of Israel’s soldiers that were cut short, and the pain that is surely endured by their families and loved ones.

I’ll pray that all the innocent men, women and children of Gaza who have suffered at the hands of despotic leaders and who have had their hopes for peaceful, productive lives sacrificed on the altar of ideological hatred, find their lives restored and their fears calmed. And I’ll pray about the tragedy of the civilian lives that are lost each day this dreadful conflict goes on.

The next thing that I’ll pray for is that in place of chaos, conflict and violence, the world in which we live becomes a place of wholeness where everything is in its proper place. On Tisha B’Av, we speak about the world being “overturned” (Olam Hafuch in Hebrew). Where people, communities and nations should be peaceful and tolerant of one another, we have conflict marked by violence. Where Israel, a democratic and peace loving nation that seeks to defend itself against terrorism, should be admired, instead is vilified in the media and leaders and followers cheer for the terrorists to be victorious. Where the Jewish people, who have contributed so much to the advancement of human civilization and who should have the respect of the world community, are instead the targets of hatred and disdain. Where people should love and embrace one another in a spirit of co-existence and tolerance, we have instead hatred marked by the desire to destroy the other. Where people of all ages should be able to pursue their dreams, they are drawn into war and violence. Indeed, on Tisha B’Av we symbolize Olam Hafuch by not wearing Tallit and Tefilin during the morning service (the only weekday morning in the Jewish year on which we should but don’t wear them), but we do wear them at the Mincha service in the afternoon. This year, I’ll pray that the acts of violence that shake our world every minute of every day, and the violence of war that has rocked Israel these past three weeks, are no more.

In the spirit of Tisha B’Av, I’ll pray that the destruction wrought by war, the broken lives, the broken homes, the shattered dreams, be replaced by new growth, new planting, new hope and fresh promise for the future. This is the rhythm of Tisha B’Av, one that I first experienced at Camp Ramah where this mournful day is experienced in a profound and impactful way. We begin with tasting “churban” (destruction), by telling stories of loss and tragedy. The first part of the day is marked by solemn chanting of our prayers, spoken and not sung, by reciting sad dirges and reading the Book of Eicha (Lamentations) whose words and cadence and melody quietly speak to us of the awful price of hatred and violence. But as the day goes on, we begin to focus on “binyan” (building), on gaining strength and confidence and hope that our dreams and ideals can be realized. This year, I’ll pray that the destruction, the hatred, the pain and suffering, the churban in this world, be replaced by binyan, by building up and by wholeness.

This is what I’ll pray for on Tisha B’Av…perhaps it should be what I pray for every day.

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The Importance of a Single Hebrew Letter

A lot has been written and said about the tragic war between Israel and Gaza that is nearing the end of its third week. Countless blog posts from analysts and commentators around the world have offered a wide variety of perspectives on nearly every dimension of this terrible conflict. The most moving piece I read this week came from Rabbi David Golinkin, head of The Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem, who wrote about the funeral of Second Lieutenant Yuval Heiman, z”l who was killed in battle in Operation Protective Edge near Kibbutz Nir Am. Rabbi Golinkin attended the funeral because Yuval was the son of Zohara Heiman, a veteran worker in the Accounting Department at the Schechter Institute. The eulogies offered in memory of this fallen soldier of the IDF described him as a modest person who sought to excel in everything he did in life. His grandfather Yehudah, whose own father was killed in the War of Independence, quoted from the Book of Numbers (32:32) where it says: “And we ourselves shall cross over as halutzim before God into the land of Canaan.” In his eulogy Yuval’s grandfather noted that the word “we” in the verse (“anachnu” in Hebrew) is spelled in an unusual way, without the customary letter “aleph.” Why? Because the soldiers, the halutzim who go before the rest, are modest and they hide the “aleph”, the “I,” because they are acting for the good of the entire Jewish people.

That is the nature of the soldiers of the IDF. They fight with modesty, with the intention of putting aside their own needs for the sake of the needs of the State of Israel and the People of Israel. They fight to protect and defend Am Yisrael, not so they will have a place to live but to ensure that the Land of Israel is there for all who love and cherish the land as the homeland of the Jewish people. They fight not only to win today’s battle, but with the weight of all of Jewish history and all of Jewish destiny on their shoulders. When the soldiers of the IDF fight, they set aside the “aleph.”

I considered writing this week about an overturned world in which justice and morality are scorned, and terrorism, hatred and violence born out of narrow minded fundamentalism are rewarded. I thought about writing about the sting of anti-Semitism and the outrage and fear of being hated by so many in the world. I thought about writing about the importance of unity, felt so deeply at the Solidarity Rally organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey this week. But the funeral of Yuval Heiman speaks to me powerfully about what it should mean to be a Jew and a Zionist. We’re all called upon to suppress the “aleph” in the word “we.” In our support of Medinat Yisrael and Am Yisrael, whether in times of calm or times of crises such as we are now living through, we ought to act for the good of the entire Jewish nation. We are not soldiers in the IDF, who are too often called upon to risk their lives in defense of the State of Israel, nor are we citizens of the state who live under threat of missile attacks. But we can set aside the “aleph” by giving our resources, spiritual, emotional and financial, for the good of the nation of Israel. If we love Israel, if we are concerned about her welfare, that is the least we can do.

Supporting Israel From Afar

With all that’s going on in Israel, I wish I could be there. That’s not only because my son Josh lives there, or because my son Benji is on a summer program touring the country, or because my in-laws just arrived at their home in Israel for a six week stay, or because Amy and I have extended family members there. I wish I could be there because there’s a crisis going on and part of me feels strongly that being a Zionist, even a Zionist who doesn’t live in Israel, should support Israel by being in the land. Of course, the IDF (Israel’s armed forces) doesn’t need me, nor do Israelis need my personal encouragement to cope with the stress of living under the threat of attack. But each day that the war with Gaza goes on, each day that millions of Israelis have to endure the threat of missile attacks launched by terrorists motivated by ideological hatred of Jews and the State of Israel, I feel that I want to be in Israel. I’m not able to be there now, but I would be if I could.

So I read with special interest the story in this week’s parasha about the proposal by the Reubenites and the Gadites, made to Moses and the elders of the community, that they settle not in the Land of Canaan (later to become Israel), as God promised the people, but rather in the lands east of the Jordan river. As the narrative tells it, these two tribes wished to settle east of the Jordan because those lands “were a region suitable for cattle” and they had a lot of cattle. Moses responds to their request with bitter criticism, chastising them for being no better than the people who supported Korah in his rebellion. He says, “Are your brothers to go war while you stay here? Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that the Lord has given them?” Clearly, Moses is concerned that if the Reubenites and the Gadites don’t cross the river and fight to inhabit the land along with the rest of the people, they will send a message that the land can’t be conquered. Others would then want to follow suit and remain on the east of the Jordan where they think it will be safer. The Midrash also questions the motives of the Reubenites and the Gadites, citing that their proposal to Moses prioritizes grazing for their cattle over building homes for their children.

In the end, the two tribes promise to fight alongside their fellow Israelites and then return to settle on the land to the east of the Jordan. What can we draw from the story? Perhaps the message here is that the Reubenites and Gadites erred by separating from the rest of their people. Perhaps their motivations were not so pure and instead were based on financial gain, as the Midrash suggests.

But perhaps we can read the story from the perspective of those who love Israel but live in the Diaspora. Perhaps it is a story about people who care deeply about the fate and welfare of their people, despite wishing to live outside of Israel. The Reubenites and the Gadites offered to support their fellow Israelites despite the fact that they ultimately chose to live elsewhere. Rather than condemn them, we can understand them and appreciate their good intentions.

Fast forward to the days we are now living through. Israel is facing a serious threat, with no end in sight. I hope and pray that a cease fire will be declared and Israeli soldiers and civilians will not face the danger and threat of missile attacks, just as I hope and pray that all innocent people caught up in this terrible tragedy are spared any further pain and suffering. I hope that the community of civilized nations will finally accept the fact that Israel faces a threat to the safety and security of her citizens, and will abandon their petty and close minded criticism of Israel’s military response to terrorists. I hope that one-sided and biased reporting of events in Gaza will be replaced by a more comprehensive and even-handed perspective about a tragic situation made necessary by terrorists firing missiles into Israel.

Until then, what can we do? Like the Reubenites and Gadites, who opted to live outside of Israel but continued to care about their people, their nation and their land, we can offer Israel our love and our support. We can contribute to the emergency campaign organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey. We can attend the Solidarity Rally sponsored by our Federation on Monday, July 21 at 9:30 AM…I plan to attend and I hope you will as well. We can be informed advocates for Israel, able to answer her critics and enemies with accurate information. We can support organizations that seek to support and advocate for Israel.

I want to be in Israel, but I can’t right now, so that is what I’ll do.

Extremism in the Name of God Is No Virtue

The events of the past few weeks in Israel have been horrific, to say the least. There was the kidnapping of three Israeli Yeshiva boys, followed by a heart wrenching search that went on for two weeks and fading hopes that the boys would be found alive, the discovery of their bodies, and then the funerals. The poise and dignity of the boys’ parents during a time of searing pain and loss has been uplifting. It seems that this terrifying and tragic incident unified the Jewish world in protest against an attack on innocent boys on their way home.

Then came the murder of Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, a 16-year old Arab boy who was abducted, burned alive and murdered in what we now know was a revenge killing carried out by six Jewish extremists in retaliation for the killing of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shayar and Eyal Yifrach. In recent days there have been appropriate and necessary condemnations and expressions of horror by Israeli officials and Jewish leaders around the world. Prime Minister Netanyahu called the boy’s parents to express sorrow and to promise that the perpetrators would be brought to justice. Ministers in the Israeli cabinet and Knesset members condemned the attack, rejecting any form of revenge killing. Good and decent people everywhere have expressed horror not only at the killing of another teenage boy, but at the very idea that such a thing could have been by Jews who claim to be observant of Jewish law and faithful upholders God’s Torah. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that is “Jewish” about killing an innocent human being to avenge outrage or suffering or to settle a score. Such acts, like the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin or the murder of 29 Palestinians in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein, must be rejected and repudiated completely.

It’s shocking, of course, that not everyone is absolute in their rejection of the murder of Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir. It’s been unsettling to read certain Facebook posts by people who would not normally be defined as “extremist” but who, while condemning the crime, found ways to justify it. One such post read, “The act should be condemned…but at least there was a reason it was carried out. There was no reason for the killing of the three Israeli Yeshiva boys.” What would make someone say something like that? What part of the Jewish soul gives rise to a justification for the murder of an innocent teenager?

Such expressions, and others like it, remind us that there is such a thing as Jewish extremism. It’s difficult to admit an ugly truth, but it’s there. It’s true that we live by a high moral code, that we strive to act only in self-defense, that we’re civilized and only do things that uphold human dignity, that Israeli society is based on laws and justice. But it’s also true that Jewish extremists are out there, ready and willing to do abhorrent things. We can’t ignore their existence in an effort to persuade ourselves that Jews don’t do such things. To be sure, they are a minority. But in order to live up to the high standards Judaism demands of us, such people must be completely eradicated from our midst and shunned. There is no place for extremists who are willing to commit violence in the name of Jewish values.

Sometimes such extremists look to the Torah itself to justify their way of thinking and behaving. In fact, in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, who had committed murder by taking a spear and killing an Israelite and the Midianite woman with whom he had been intimate, was awarded “Brit Shalom,” a pact of peace and friendship, from God. Some of the early commentators defend Pinchas and welcome his zealotry. But most of the post-Talmudic commentators condemn him and his fanaticism. And so they should, for we cannot claim to have a moral society based on justice while entitling ourselves to kill those whose behavior we deem unacceptable.

In the Torah scroll, the Hebrew letter “yud” in the name of Pinchas and the Hebrew letter “vav” in the word Shalom, two of the letters in God’s Holy name, are written to appear diminished and broken. The scribal tradition of writing these two letters in such a fashion should be a lesson to us that committing violence diminishes the light of God in each of us, and that random killing, out of rage or revenge, may very well extinguish that light. It’s up to us to keep God’s light aglow and to see the Divine spark in every human being we encounter.

What Now?

It’s been a difficult week for the people of Israel.

The murder of three Israeli teenagers—Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar—has deeply affected Israelis in a very personal way. When Prime Minister Netanyahu says that all Israelis weep with the families of the victims, he means it. There are makeshift memorials all over Israel and gatherings of hundreds, even thousands, of people coming together to talk, sing and pray. Kikar Rabin, the square in Tel Aviv where Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated that was made into a permanent memorial to that moment of searing pain almost two decades ago, is a powerful and poignant place to be. My son Josh, who now lives in Israel, sent us a photo of Kikar Rabin taken on Tuesday night with the simple caption “the start of an incredible evening.” Candles, placed on the ground to form words of hope and the names of the victims, are everywhere, and Israelis are drawn there, perhaps by the memory of the late Prime Minister who inspired hope that Israel might one day live in peace with its neighbors. And here in New Jersey, just as in Jewish communities across America, we share our feelings of grief and bewilderment and gather to honor the memory of three young, innocent Israelis who were killed by people who hated them solely because they were Jewish and Zionists.

What now? Will this event simply fade from memory as life returns to the normal daily routine that we have created for ourselves? Will we be changed in some way by this heinous act and, if so, how? Among the conversations I’ve had in recent days about the discovery of the boys’ bodies and the funeral, one person expressed curiosity about why there hasn’t been more dialogue about the political realities that lurk beneath the surface. Why, it was asked, aren’t people talking about what type of long term political solutions are required to prevent this type of terrorist act from happening again? I suggested that now is the time for grief and anguish, a time to express sympathy for the families of the victims and to stand in solidarity with Israel. Perhaps with the passage of time the dialogue will slowly be directed toward political themes.

Yet the events of the past few days can have a positive influence on us. It is possible to draw out something hopeful from these days of anguish. Among all the e-mails and Facebook posts I’ve read, there have been many that have moved me. One organization sent an e-mail with its condolences and included this teaching by Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook:

The pure righteous people do not complain about evil but rather they add justice, they do not complain about heresy but rather they add faith, they do not complain about ignorance but rather add wisdom.

Our tradition teaches that when we face darkness we seek light. When we encounter injustice, we seek to make things right. When there is pain and suffering, we seek healing. What now? Inspired by Rav Kook, and moved by an act of senseless hatred committed against three innocent boys and against the people of Israel, may we all seek to add justice, faith, and wisdom to our own lives, to our community, and to the world.