Our Continued Mourning: Renewing Tisha B’Av

Parashat Matot-Masei

Delivered at Temple Emanu-El on July 21, 2017

On Tisha b’Av, the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, which this year begins on the evening of July 31st, is a day of mourning, a day in which we recall the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. The Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE, and the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE.

Even before we mark the 9th of Av, our tradition holds three weeks of mourning known as yamei bein hametzarim, "Between the Days of Calamity," starting with the 17th of Tammuz and ending on the 9th of Av. Tonight begins the 28th of Tammuz, so we are in the midst of yamei hametzarim, the days of calamity.

Historically, the Reform Movement distanced itself from the observance of Tisha b’Av because the mourning of the Temple seemed out of place. Our community does not mourn the end of animal sacrifice, the theological implications of such worship, or the hierarchical system that was in place for the performance of such sacrifices by the priestly class. It is not the Judaism that provides meaning in our lives today, and so to mourn the loss of such Judaism does not compute.

However, in recent years, there has been a reclamation of the holiday. Many rabbis and communities have shifted their focus from mourning the loss of the sacrificial cult to a focus on the loss of life during the conquering and the loss of a symbol. The Temple does not speak to our modern intellectual notions of a relationship with God. Nonetheless, it was a central symbol of the relationship between the Jewish people and God. The Babylonians and then the Romans destroyed that symbol.

Later, the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, from Spain in 1492, and the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, were said to have all taken place on or near Tisha b’Av. These events marked a transition for the Jewish community, a time to mourn what was and to look ahead to what could be.

We can even take the summer weeks and months of modern Israel and find tumult and turmoil. We have two distinct issues that complicate our love of this amazing place. First, is the issue of Israel’s portrayal in the media. In most recent years, Israel has had difficult summers with the war in Gaza known as Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2012, and knife attacks and car rammings in subsequent years. Just last month, another soldier, Hadas Malka, was murdered outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate by three young Palestinian men — and just this week, two Druze officers were murdered during the Temple Mount attack while tensions in that space remain high to this very moment in time.

Following the attack that killed Hadas Malka, BBC published a headline, “Three Palestinians killed after deadly stabbing in Jerusalem.” After substantial pushback from its readers, the headline changed to “Israeli policewoman stabbed to death in Jerusalem.” Clearly, the first headline displayed a bias against Israel and the second headline more accurately reflected the sequence of events. After this week’s Temple Mount attack, the New York Times’ headline read “In Jerusalem, Gunmen Stage Brazen Attack Near Temple Mount.” The Headline later read, “2 Israeli Police Officers Killed in Attack in Old City of Jerusalem." Unpacking the roots of this media bias, the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the current temperament in Israel, are items that we should continue to discuss on a regular basis.

Second, is the issue that Rabbi Colbert spoke of just a few weeks back and one that remains in the headlines of the Times of Israel, Ynet, and Haaretz — that those outside the Ultra-Orthodox community are being treated as second class Jews in the act of sinat hinam, senseless hatred, from the Ultra-Orthodox communities toward those who express their Judaism differently.

Sinat hinam, senseless hatred, is cited as the very cause of the Israelites’ downfall in Temple times! Jews fighting Jews in the holy city of Jerusalem is present here again in our modern day. Jews are fighting Jews over how to pray at the Kotel as our progressive ranks seek to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in addition to the men’s and women’s section already present. 

But some ask, “Why do Reform Jews care about the Kotel?” The Kotel should be a place for all Jews because it is a symbol of our historic presence in the land and a place where Jews from all over the world should be able to gather and pray as one. We deserve to feel connected to that space by praying the way we pray every day…or every Shabbat..or every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur…out loud, and together. Our practice of Judaism is not a second class Judaism, and we should not be treated as second class Jews.

Both the issue of Israel’s portrayal in the media and the case of sinat hinam among Jews has led to the age old questions of “how?” and “why?”

This questioning word, “how,” is as relevant now as it was in biblical times. In our Haftarah portion this week, coming from the second chapter of Jeremiah, we encounter Jeremiah’s repeated exclamation of אֵך, meaning "how?" Jeremiah is referring to the behavior of the Israelites, puzzled by how poorly they follow God’s commandments and how terribly they treat one another. This word, אֵך, "how," is connected to the opening word of the book of Lamentations, אֵיכָה, "Oh How," that we will read on Tisha b’Av in just over a week. The Book of Lamentations, a difficult text, recounts the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem. As the biblical commentary, Eitz Chayim explains, “For biblical tradition, the verbal connection of אֵך / אֵיכָה evokes the spiritual and physical doom that awaits those who follow the path of paganism and ignore their covenantal obligations.”

For Jeremiah, his role as a prophet was to steer the Israelite community away from paganism and toward a path that fulfilled the covenantal relationship that they had with God. For us today, when we call out, אֵך, “how,” we are crying out, “How can we change the narrative so that Jews are not fighting Jews? How can we have such hatred toward one another? And at the same time, we have to uphold another cry for how. “How can the world portray Israel with these misleading narratives? How can we fight for Israel’s fair portrayal in the news and media?”

We recognize that though we have come so far and, in many ways, rebuilt a beautiful Judaism that has continued to evolve throughout modernity; simultaneously, we call out אֵך, “how?” Because though we have come so far, we still face tumult and turmoil, be it with bad press about Israel in the news, terror attacks in our sovereign state, or sinat hinam between the Ultra-Orthodox and the progressive and secular Jews in Israel.

And so we mourn, we mourn the portrayal of what was lost in the Temple, and we rejoice in the Judaism that we have crafted since those days. We mourn the loss of life that continues to occur in our sovereign land, and we rejoice that we have a Jewish State to call our own. We are saddened and angered by the portrayal of Israel in the media, and we reflect on how we can be an active voice of reason and balance in Israel’s depiction. We are angered by the power the Prime Minister has given to the Ultra-Orthodox leaders to maintain his coalition, and we are motivated to act in favor of an Israel that reflects our egalitarian ideals.

As we finish another week in preparation for the 9th of Av, we reflect not only on the “how” of why things happen to the Jewish community, but we also dream about how we will make changes. Whether we engage in dialogue when we hear Israel depicted unfairly or we post on social media to hold up biased headlines; whether we call the Israeli embassy here in Atlanta to give our voice, or we send funds to progressive organizations in Israel, the call to respond is of the utmost importance in these weeks and always. So join me in stepping up to answer the call. Ask yourself how you can help, ask me how you can help, reach out to pro-Israel organizations like AIPAC, reach out to progressive organizations like the Israel Religious Action Center, Hiddush, or New Israel Fund, and if those were new names for you, let’s talk about it. May we hear the calls from Jeremiah and our fellow Jews in Israel and may we continue to make our voices heard because we all have a stake in the continued existence of a safe and secure Israel for all Jews.


Shabbat Shalom.