Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Thoughts for Tisha b'Av

Received by email from Rabbi Tanchum Burton of Yerushalayim: 

There are so many outlets for "Tisha b'Av" inspiration at this point in history--in every imaginable format--that I want to convey as basic and simple a message as I can, without the formalities of a parsha sheet. 

A friend of mine was discussing the topic of Tisha b'Av with a group of students at a local Chassidic yeshiva, many of whom are fine young men who enhance the davening tremendously with their attendance at our shul on Shabbos. After a brief introduction about what this day historically and spiritually represents--a destruction of the Temples and of the glorious Jewish civilization of tzaddikim and sages and devoted people--one of the boys remarked, "if it was so great, why was there a destruction?" So incisive. His question cuts through the brush to get to the issue that is facing each and every one of us. 

The answer is, it wasn't so great. In fact, what historians refer to as the "intertestamental" period (which we call the Second Temple Era) was, from the standpoint of interpersonal relations, probably the most tragic in our history, presaging two millennia of dispersion, persecution, alienation, and even genocide for our people. And what is worse, is that the underlying causes of the destruction of the Temple are still present and as potent as they ever were. This did not change with the founding of the State of Israel. I think that many people have or are coming to the conclusion that you can achieve all of the trappings of a modern, thriving country with a government, an army, a robust economy, and a booming hi-tech industry and still not fulfill the hopes of the Jewish people for true Redemption as foretold by our prophets. 

But there are preconditions for Redemption, and they, too, remain unfulfilled. Here begins my message. 

If I cannot recognize that I occupy the same space as other living beings, from the inanimate, to the floral, to the faunal, and most importantly, other human beings; if I cannot understand that those other living beings have needs and feelings, and will either thrive or suffer based on how I interact with them; if I cannot feel love, compassion and empathy, even reverence and respect for all of the members of G-d's creation, there is no way that I can experience Redemption. 

There is no way, because these feelings and Redemption are both revelations of the total unity of G-d Himself; that is why we say, "on that day the L-rd will be one and His Name will be one" (liturgy). G-d is One. 

This is the most important belief we have; we say it three times a day. Ultimately, all of creation is one. And we don't need a Torah to know this. We need our kishkes to be turned on. We need a Torah to tell us not to speak loshon hora. We don't need a Torah to tell us to acknowledge the presence of another human being, to extend him or her our greetings, to smile at another person, to enable them to feel that they matter, and to not harm them, G-d forbid. 

Our sages tell us, derech eretz kadma l'Torah. This has two meanings; either, derech eretz, ("sound interpersonal skills") preceded the Torah chronologically, or they are a prerequisite to fulfilling the Torah. The fact that the world managed to exist civilly for twenty-six generations before the Torah was given is proof of both. But even though these skills are sufficient to sustain a world before Torah, to reach Redemption, they cannot be simply be skills; they must be the fruit of an integrated love, compassion and awareness. 

We are commanded to fulfill the mitzvah of ahavas yisrael, loving one's fellow Jew. That is understood by various different sages in the negative and positive sense: do the right thing, and don't do the wrong thing. You are probably familiar with Rabbi Akiva's famous statement, "this is the overarching principle of the Torah". Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, who is known as the Ba'al HaSulam, equates the fulfillment of this mitzvah with the negation of the desire to receive and its replacement with the desire to give. In his work Matan Torah, he explains that, the Torah was given to facilitate our loving each other. In addition, he states that achieving this goal is the first step towards a larger reality. In the Yerushalmi, Ben Zoma counters Rabbi Akiva, by saying, "I have a more overarching principle: 'this is the book of the generations of man'", i.e. the love of humanity as a whole is, ultimately, the apex of human achievement. 

And what a world that will be. A world free of hatred, racism and prejudice; a world where the most vulnerable are protected and the elderly are cherished; where children are kept safe; a world where G-d's creation (read: environment) will not be inappropriately exploited in any sense. Without question, we must begin this process at "home", but we must also realize that creating our smaller covenantal community is a stepping stone to uniting the world. What am trying to say, is that experiencing the Jewish utopia is only possible through creating a human one. As the verse states, even about so Jewishly proprietary a thing a the Beis HaMikdash, "for My House will be a house of prayer for all nations". 

I can guarantee you that the Messianic world that we pray for, the one that should be cannot come into existence without love, compassion and empathy. These are human experiences that we can have, traits that we can integrate, and goals for us to work for. 

To this end, I am announcing the advent of Ahavath Olam, an association of friends dedicated to planting seeds of consciousness, love, responsibility and empathy in ourselves, our communities and in the world. I envision it as a community, but one without borders, as we are spread out all over the world. We will no longer be pulled into the conflicts of the Jewish world, or of the world in general, but will work for reconciliation and understanding, for the health and safety of our societies, and for the protection of the most vulnerable amongst us. Eventually, we may need the official structures of a non-profit corporation, but for now I invite everyone and anyone who is moved by this idea to join me to imagine together what we can do. 

In the merit of this fast, of our hopes, and of our future actions, my we merit to hear of the coming of the redeemer and participate in the building of the Holy Temple, speedily, in our days, amen.

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