Tonight begins Shabbat Hazon, the Sabbath of Vision: the vision of Isaiah, a prediction of the destruction of Judaea and the temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians as a consequence of the evils of society. Saturday night (8/10) through Sunday evening is the full day fast of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, marking the destruction of the ancient Holy Temple along with other catastrophes of Jewish history, such as the exile from Spain in 1492.
Tisha B'Av itself is a day replete with mourning: not only fasting but chanting the book of lamentations and other kinot (dirges), sitting on the floor like mourners, refraining from greetings. These concrete rituals create a sort of psychodrama or affective education in Jewish history. They evoke our difficult national memories of sieges, exiles and deportations. This summer observance has little appeal to non-Orthodox Jews and I have seldom been able to convene a service or program with more than a couple of people.
But the meaning of this day is more relevant than ever, and let me explain why.
This Shabbat is a Shabbat of preparation, and vision. It is striking to me that the book of Isaiah provides the most beautiful and uplifting visions of world peace and harmony in all of the Bible. And yet the Shabbat that we call the “Shabbat of Vision” has a negative vision of destruction: “Your land is waste, your cities burned down.” And the cause is clearly spelled out, an unjust and unfaithful society: “Ah, sinful nation! People laden with iniquity! Brood of evildoers! Depraved children! (You get the point).
G-d is apparently tired of empty “thoughts and prayers” and desiring of right action: “Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained…wash yourselves clean…cease to do evil; learn to do good! Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow... [then] be your sins like crimson, they can turn pure as snow.”
Some modern day prophets had a way of motivating with a positive vision, like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “I have a dream speech” of an equal and just society in America. Many more who predict our global and national future paint dire pictures of where we are headed, be that an unraveling of democracy or a growing environmental disaster.
I have always been opposed to scaring people into doing the right thing. Our Sages preferred to emphasize the positive. Indeed after Tisha B’Av, we will turn to seven weeks of beautiful and uplifting prophetic visions in our haftaroth leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
But once a year, we have to confront the darkest visions, the most destructive destinations of our current trajectory. We are indeed headed toward environmental meltdown at a growing pace, and yet our government is removing environmental regulations and withdrawing from international treaties. We turn on the news to fatal mass shootings on a regular basis. Children cry because they are separated from their parents due to immigration violations or for seeking asylum at our borders. Our national conversation has turned to anger and mocking, and we fail to find common ground to address some of our biggest problems. Like the Judeans at the time of the Roman destruction, as Americans (and also as Jews on many matters) we are bitterly divided among ourselves.
Contemporary Jewish thinkers like Rabbi Arthur Waskow have universalized the meaning of Tishva B’Av, by tying it to the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which also occurred at these seasons, or by singing a modern lament for the destruction of species and natural habitats on the planet.
Like all our rabbis of old, I encourage us enter that heart of darkness. . .but then to turn around, as we embark on our annual season of teshuvah, sacred return. We have looked unblinkingly at the worst of history and envisioned a future of destruction. But we cannot despair and stop there. We must pull back from that brink, turning toward a positive vision and making the necessary changes to realize it. My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi often said that the 20th century offered us two competing visions: the mushroom cloud (today I would say the melting polar icecaps and burning cities of climate change) on the one hand, and on the other the shining universal vision of our blue earth as seen from outer space.
To choose life is to confront the reality of the first, and then consciously pivot to the second.
As a rabbi, I believe in motivating with positive visions, with love of our fellow beings and love of our natural world. I think those are the only long-term ways to make deep and enduring change. But to do so while ignoring the dreadful potential of our current trajectory would be fantasy, not faith. My personal definition of emunah, faith, is “affirmation in the face of uncertainty.” I am not certain, but I affirm.
So whether or not you fast on Tisha B’Av, I encourage you to open to the vision today, and to lament that vision tomorrow. And then get up from the floor, dust ourselves off, and get back to the work of Tikkun Olam.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day:
What I'm lamenting this Tisha B'Av is the gun violence in our country. I just got back from my summer break, sadly sitting down to post about Tisha B'Av (Saturday night-Sunday's fast for the destruction of the ancient Temples and a variety of other sad events). On this full fast day we read from the book of Lamentations in the Bible. The scroll's resonance with current events is pronounced: violence, mistreatment of refugees, hatred and division in society.
Looking at my blog, I was shocked to notice that my last post this spring was about synagogue shootings and the insecurity that we are feeling as Jews with the rise of antisemitism. This week brought two more terrible mass shootings just a day apart in El Paso and Dayton, one directed against Mexican Americans by a white supremacist, and another at random strangers (and his own sister) by a hateful misogynist with a history of violent threats. But the one thing they had in common was the easy means to carry out their evil plans: "The gunman, who was wearing body armor and a mask, opened fire with an assault-style rifle fitted with a high-capacity ammunition drum that could hold 100 rounds, police said," enabling him to kill 9 people in 30 seconds (NY Times, on the Dayton killer).
People used to ask whether it was safe to visit Israel due to terrorism. Now mothers are dying protecting their babies in American cities. We are suffering from a plague of domestic terror in the form of mass shootings that have set the country on edge. It doesn't matter if those mass shootings are (as one misguided scientist tweeted), not the most statistically likely way to die. It matters that they have created completely unnecessary tragedies for scores of citizens, and left everyone else feeling vulnerable for themselves and their loved ones in public gathering spaces, schools, and houses of worship.
As a rabbi I know that all problems are complex. I know that we also have to confront the deadly ideologies and address the mental health issues and the websites that glorify violence. But we can't ignore that our great nation is exceptional in our tolerance of gun violence. We have 5% of the world population, and arguably about 42% of the world's guns. As a result, we suffer from far greater deadly gun violence than other wealthy and developed nations.
Every time I voice my concern about the proliferation of weapons in our country, I get emails from people who chide me about the right to bear arms. So let me address that up front. Leaving aside what our founders meant when they spoke of a "well-regulated militia" back in the age of muskets, I know that guns have long been part of American culture, particularly in the West. We kept guns at our Texas ranch growing up and I learned to fire one. My youngest sister even won a shooting prize at summer camp. I know that they are part of a way of life, and a necessity for many in rural areas. I know there are arguments pro and con about the scope of gun control, and I'm not trying to take away yours. But who could dream of a day when citizens would be allowed to own military-style weapons with high-capacity magazines that allow them to slaughter their fellow citizens within seconds, whether from racism or antisemitism or simply from being deranged and hateful? When children and teenagers would be murdered in schools and our elected leaders offer nothing much more than sympathy?
As a rabbi, I do believe in "thoughts and prayers," as long as they actually make you think and get motivated to make the world better.
The tide should have turned on this issue long ago. Judaism is a religion of idealism and also of persistent, cumulative action to help repair the world. We have to keep going with organizations and protests and citizen actions. But we are also allowed times to grieve and to almost indulge in despair ... before we pick up and start working again on the never-ending quest of Tikkun Olam, repairing our world. That's what Tisha B'Av was meant to do. To wallow in the sadness once a year, and then pull up our bootstraps (or tefillin straps!) and keep going. We have seen worse in our long history, and we know that change and progress can happen.
This Tisha B'Av, I lament the destruction of two temples in Jerusalem ... and I lament two precious human temples in the form of young parents Jordan and Andre Anchondo of El Paso, who died shielding their baby and one another, leaving behind two other children. I lament the exile of the Jewish people from our land by the Romans ... and I lament the children and teens, the Jews and Christians and Muslims, the people of all races who have been targeted and killed in mass shootings. I lament our powerlessness over the centuries ... and I lament our current lack of courageous leadership and communal resolve to address the issues of gun violence and hatred in our society.
For now, I mourn. I lament.
And then, as a Jew, I will get back to work.
"It is not up to you to finish the work. But neither are you free to desist from it."