Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Parashat Va'etchanan - In Defense of Tisha Be'Av

BS"D

If any one thing can be said with certainty about the Torah, it is that none of us can truly state that we comprehend G-d’s meaning. As Jews, we recognize that we have an obligation to sanctify the world in G-d’s name, to make of this world a better world, a just world, a compassionate world. If Jews can agree on anything, at least as far as religious observance is concerned, we may be able to agree that our religious observance is based in the Halachah. For some – the Moderns, the Intellectuals – this may mean that it derives from Halachah. For others – the Ultras, the Ultra-Ultras – this may mean that we must keep every practice in form unchanged from Temple times.

Where do we begin? There is so much worthy of discussion in this week’s Parasha: the exposition of the eternal theme of Exile and Return, the restating of the Ten Commandments, the first paragraph of the Shema, the command to convey and teach Torah down through the generations. Where to begin? And where, indeed, to end?

Chapter 4, verse 2: in preparation for the restatement of Mattan Torah – the Giving of the Law, in the form of the Ten Commandments – Moshe enunciates a specific Halachah: a prohibition against adding to, or subtracting from the Torah.

There are those who claim that, by struggling to hold onto the Gaza settlements, Israel is committing the sin of “Lo tosifu” – adding to Torah. And of course, there are those who object that, by forcing the return of these captured territories to the Arabs from whom they were wrested – as legitimate trophies of conflict, many would add – that the secular State of Israel is committing the sin of “Lo tigre’u mimenu” – diminishing Torah.

The only thing I am willing to say for certain is that neither side in this argument knows The Truth, knows G-d’s Truth. And yet there are those who state publicly that they do. These people not only proceed at their own peril, they imperil the existence of Klal Israel and of the Torah. Do not misread my meaning: there are Zealots on both sides of this argument: there are those who defy any earthly government to Do Their Worst, clinging furiously to the certainty that G-d has commanded them – Them! – to march into Gaza and refuse to be dislodged. There are those who state that the notion of a G-d-centered polis is nonsense; that the Will Of The People must rule (“Vox populi, vox Dei” it reads: “The Voice of the People is the Voice of G-d.” One can hardly be more explicit.)

Each year at this season, the debate surfaces around the observance of Tisha Be’Av. The most frequently voiced position I hear against the observance of this fast is: now we have the State of Israel. Now things are different.

To which I can only comment: Lo tosifu: do not add to Torah.

In light of the truly “Biblical” timing of the Israeli government’s carrying-out of the Hitnakut – the Disengagement – the debate looms particularly massive this year.

Bereshit 1:1. Rashi asks why the Torah, a Book of Laws, begins with the beginning of Creation – an unnecessary point of departure, and one which requires that an entire book be written down before we come to our theme. Rashi tells us that future generations will rail against us. “You are thieves!” they will say, angry that we have stolen the Land of Israel from its inhabitants. “No!” we will reply, pointing to the opening verse of the Torah. “G-d made the World, and G-d gives the Land to whom G-d pleases. It pleased G-d to take the Land away from them and give it to us!”

Thank G-d for the existence of the State of Israel. But let us recall that inheritance and safety and ownership of the Land – all these are tied, in Torah and in the rest of the Bible – to a Moral Imperative. We are held to a moral standard. The message implicit in Rashi’s famous statement is: G-d can change G-d’s mind.

We believe in G-d’s Promise to Abraham: this Land is ours for all time. But there are Conditions. The Promise becomes part of the Covenant, and a Covenant is a contract which requires Performance of both parties. Our side of the Brit is to Be Holy and the Make the World Holy. G-d’s side is to continue to deliver on the Promises – and over time, G-d adds to these Promises. There is the Promise to Abraham, of an eternal possession of the Land. But when Rashi explains the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Flame, we learn that Perpetual does not literally mean At Every Moment; rather, the concept of Perpetual means Repeatedly. Are we to possess the Land repeatedly, gaining it and losing it, until we break through at some far-off End Of Days to take final possession in fulfillment of the Promise to Abraham?

There is the Promise to David of the Eternal Kingship.

Some argue that G-d has Promised us a Mashiach. Some are holding out for two Messiahs: Ben Aharon and Ben David. I am not sure which is the one on the billboard.

And so, let us ask again: What of Tisha Be’Av? Are we to continue to observe it? Or is it time to cast aside outmoded observances and embrace the Political Reality as evidence of the Earthly working-out of the Divine Plan? Can we now consider that G-d’s Promise has been kept?

If so, what of our side of the Covenant? Tread carefully, I beg you!

The Rabbis tell us that the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash – both the first and second – came about as a result of Sinat Hinam – Baseless Hatred. Indeed, is there any other kind?

The destruction of the Beit HaMikdash by the Romans, which led to two thousand years of dispersion, was the culmination of generations of Jews warring against Jews. From the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel, down to the expulsion of the Jews under the Romans, no people wrought more cruelty upon us than we managed to carry out on one another. This is not to minimize the horror of the Roman occupation, the near-destruction of the Jewish People. But it was we ourselves who opened the door to Rome, opened it by our own internal divisiveness.

Through the gift of technology, we can now watch, on our television screens, as the IDF and Israeli Police descend in vast numbers on the Gaza settlements. I can hardly recall an event on the world stage that has moved me as much as watching, reading about, or merely contemplating the events unfolding at this moment.

I am heartened to see IDF soldiers advancing slowly, unarmed, with neither helmets nor body armor. I am heartened to see combat troops locked in brotherly embrace with men wearing Pe’ot, and clad in Tallit and Tefillin. As heart-wrenching as the Hitnakut is, perhaps we are seeing the beginnings of Ahavat Hinam – of Freely-Given Love. My prayer is that his Love may continue. May we continue to love one another – fellow Jews. May Ahavat Yisrael become the foundation for a universal Ahavat Hinam.

Throughout the opening sections of Sefer Devarim, Moshe dwells, not on the Sin of the Golden Calf, but on the Sin of the Spies. In the Sin of the Calf, we did not believe what we did not see with our own eyes. When Moshe failed to return, we gave up hope. In the incident of the Spies, we refused to believe that which we did see with our own eyes: G-d had promised us this Land, G-d brought us to the borders of the Land, permitted us to walk the very roads and fields and mountains of the Land, to taste its fruits, to breathe its air. And we refused to go up.

G-d, as Rashi says, had been pleased to give the Land to us. And we did not take it. When we reject a gift, we reject also its Giver. When we refuse to accept a gift, saying it is False, we are also saying that the Giver is False.

In our Parasha – 4:25-28 – Moshe warns us that the price for our rejecting G-d will be Exile. Exile, accompanied by the dramatic reduction of our numbers. If we are to believe the evidence of our own eyes, we have certainly witnessed this in the course of history. When, in verse 30, Moshe reassures us that we shall return to G-d at the end of days, it is not a prediction of the Coming of Mashiach, but rather a reassurance that, when all our wanderings and our rage have finally worn us down, we shall recall that we have a Covenant with G-d. We shall then reach out and try to reconnect, to embrace that Covenant and beg G-d to take us back. And when that time does come, Moshe assures us, G-d will be waiting.

The Abarbanel, in a typically astonishing insight, tells us that the Exile from the Land is not the Punishment, nor is the decimation of our numbers, the living in poverty and misery and terror. The real Punishment, he says, is that we shall worship other gods. We shall know that G-d is Truth, yet we shall turn our backs on G-d and on Torah. Worshiping strange gods, says the Abarbanel, is not the cause of punishment: it is the punishment itself.

Let us not worship the false gods of our own rage, of our own close-mindedness. Lo tosifu ve-lo tigre’u. Let us neither add to, nor subtract from Torah. Let us, rather, admit that all our learning is emptiness and hollow, and let us strive to understand Torah. If we pray for anything at all, let us not pray for land, for wealth, for military victory. Let us pray for humility. Let us pray that, now that G-d has finally given us the Land, and we have accepted, we remain worthy of continuing to live in it. At peace with one another and, with G-d’s help, at peace with the world.

And Tisha Be’Av?

Let us always remember the high price of Pridefulness – for stony self-certainty is the very base of Baseless Hatred. In Parashat Zachor, we are exhorted to Remember, to make of our Remembering an active form of Forgetting. The dangers of Amalek lurk about us at all times. No less so, the dangers of Sinat Hinam. The whole tragedy of human history is reduced to the fable of Kamtsa and Bar Kamtsa. Jerusalem fell, the Temple was destroyed, three million Jews were massacred and two millennia of Exile were launched, all because one man didn’t want to invite another man to his birthday party.

Is it ever the Wrong Time to do Teshuvah?

Jews! Reach out and embrace one another! There is so much hatred in our world, we need not add to it by pretending to have an exclusive on G-d’s message. Even G-d tempers Stern Justice with Compassion and Mercy. Can we not offer one another a Kol she-hu of the same? A minimal amount?

I have been taught that the ultimate Good is to make the world a better place, one person at a time. In this lifetime, I am trying to make of myself that One Person. I urge you to do the same.

Yours for a better world.

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