Our thoughts and prayers will be with the people of Italy on this Shabbat, as they continue the heartbreaking work of digging out the city of Amatrice after a 6.2 earthquake toppled the beautiful city and environs in central Italy earlier this week. We know that their mourning has only just begun, and the devastation that nature has wrought is horrible to behold.
In Jewish tradition, this Shabbat Eikev is the second in a series of seven Shabbatot that are intended for comfort, particularly through the Haftarah portions. The 9th of Av, Tishah B’Av is a day of remembrance and mourning for us, as we mark the Destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. These were devastating destructions both of beautiful buildings and communities of people. Yet these were perpetrated by other people; first the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., and then the Romans in 70 C.E. While the horror and devastation were just as real, they are, on a certain level, easier to understand. This was war, and the violence and destruction that comes with war.
The difference, of course, is that human perpetrators of violence and devastation have control over events. This earthquake, of course, and natural disasters like it, are beyond human control, and thus exacerbate the feelings of helplessness, disorientation, and grief that we experience. We are moving closer to the High Holy Days, and with them, the ultimate acknowledgement of our powerlessness in the face of natural disaster. Perhaps the ultimate expression in the Holy Day Liturgy is the Unetaneh Tokef: On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, etc. Ultimately the Unetaneh Tokef is a stark acknowledgment of our vulnerability against the forces of nature and the randomness of tragedy. But the Rabbinic tradition also reminds us of the final verse of this devastating litany, which, according to tradition, is supposed to be recited in a louder tone – even shouted – as if to rise above that which is out of our hands: But repentance, prayer and charity temper judgment’s severe decree! We cannot control the random cruelty of nature. What we can control is the attributes of human kindness and empathy; our ability to act to help other people, and allow them to help us – in pain and grief, and in trying to rebuild in the wake of tragedy.
In the end, the comfort that these weeks between Tishah B’Av and Rosh Hashanah are meant to give us comes from our own confidence in our ability to rise up out of tragedy; to help others, and accept help from others, so that we can put our lives back together again. During this particular week, this is what we pray for the souls of Amatrice and their compatriots. May God give them strength, and bring them healing, especially now in the immediate aftermath of tragedy.
This Shabbat immediately following Tishah B’Av is known in our tradition as “Shabbat Nachamu,” “The Sabbath of Comfort,” after the first few words of the Haftarah portion from Chapter 40 of Isaiah: Nachamu, nachamu ami – Take comfort, take comfort, O My people.
During the Winter Study Retreat of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative of the Hartman Institute this past January, my colleagues and I stayed at a residence on Derekh Bet Lechem (the Bethlehem Road) in a neighborhood in southern Jerusalem called Baka, not unlike Park Slope, where many “Anglos” reside. (“Anglo” is the term applied to olim – immigrants – from English speaking countries. In Baka, many of them are from the United States.) In order to get to Hartman every day, we would proceed down Derekh Bet Lechem, and then turn left onto Lloyd George Street, which leads to the next “main drag,” as it were, Emek Refaim, in the neighborhood known as the Germany Colony. From there, we would proceed further uphill to Hartman.Also this winter, I joined some colleagues for dinner one evening in a nice Tel Aviv restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean called Herbert Samuel. There is also a Herbert Samuel Hotel in Jerusalem, in Nachalat Shiv’ah, an active club district with lots of restaurants and fine gift shops, and the Hebrew Music Museum. One more road to mention today, Ruppin Boulevard, takes us to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, one of our favorite places.
All over Israel, streets, hotels, businesses and historic sites are named in honor of builders of Judaism and the Jewish State, from antiquity through the present day. And so, with a nod to streets I have traversed many times, of restaurants and hotels that serve the public regularly, and mostly, in recognition of this Shabbat Nachamu, I would like to bring you this article by Larry Domnitch, the author of “The Jewish Holidays: A Journey Through History,” published by Jason Aronson. It is an interesting note of history, accompanied, as are so many things about Israel, by a note of touching memory and pathos.
A Message was Captured in Jerusalem One Shabbat Morning
By Larry Domnitch
The Haftorah (prophetic portion) read on Shabbat Nachamu, the ‘Shabbat of Comfort’ which follows Tisha B’Av, expresses the message of conciliation expressed by the prophet Isaiah to a nation that would endure a prolonged exile. In the Old City of Jerusalem in 1920, a particular event on Shabbat Nachamu captured the essence of its theme.
During the First World War, the British government foresaw their victory over Turkish forces in Palestine forces as imminent and issued the Balfour Declaration supporting Jewish aspirations for a Jewish Homeland. Not long after the declaration was issued, opposition mounted from members of Britain’s government and military administration who were against Zionism. However, the British government was under the leadership of the staunch Zionist Lloyd George, who was determined to stand by the Declaration. George appointed a Jew and a Zionist, Sir Herbert Samuel, as the first British High Commissioner of Palestine. Samuel’s appointment signified the beginning of the British mandate over Palestine.
On July 1, 1920, Samuel disembarked a British battleship at the port of Haifa as the new commissioner or, as his biographer John Bowle put it, “the first Jewish ruler in Palestine since Hyrcanus the II,” whose reign ended 40 B.C.E. Samuel seemed to be the answer to the Zionists’ prayers. A Zionist leader Arthur Ruppin, described in his diary the ceremony held nine days later on the Mount of Olives in honor of Samuel’s appointment. “Until now, pronouncements about a Jewish National Home…had only been words on paper; but now they rose before us embodied in a person of a Jewish High Commissioner…Many of the Jews present had tears in their eyes.”
Just a few weeks later, on the morning of Shabbat Nachamu, Samuel set out on foot toward the famous Churva Synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. Surrounded by an entourage of advisors and guards, he entered the Old City’s Jaffa Gate and headed toward the Jewish Quarter. As he entered, spectators gathered on the streets, which were adorned with flowers, to glimpse the man who represented their highest hopes and dreams. As he passed by, the onlookers cheered and expressions of joy resonated. A sense of euphoria quickly came over the crowd.
Samuel entered the Churva Synagogue where there was not an empty seat. He had arrived prepared to chant the Haftorah. Soon, the gabbai (sexton) summoned him to the Torah, calling out the words Ya’amod HaNasi Ha’Elyon (may the High Commissioner arise). As Samuel stood up, the entire congregation also rose to their feet in a show of respect and admiration. Samuel made his way to the bimah (platform from which the Torah is read) and proceeded to recite the blessings over the Torah and then the blessings over the Haftorah. The British High Commissioner began chanting the Haftorah, echoing the words of Isaiah, which expresses the hopes and dreams of the nation. “Comfort, comfort My people, says the Lord. Speak to her heart of Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her time [of exile] has been fulfilled, that her iniquity has been conciliated, for she has received for the Hand of God double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:1-2) The entire congregation shuddered upon hearing the words that embodied their greatest hopes and dreams. It was a moment of intense emotion. An aid to Samuel described the scene as ” a golden moment where the Jews in the Synagogue felt as if the hour of redemption had arrived.”
Unfortunately, Samuel did not live up to the people’s hopes and expectations. Despite his devotion to Zionism, he was caught between two sides. As Arab riots increased and pressure against the Zionists intensified in British circles, Samuel made concessions to the Arabs and their British sympathizers. Jewish immigration restrictions were imposed and Haj Amin Al Husseini-a vehement anti-Zionist and later a staunch supporter of Nazism-was appointed by Samuel to the position of Mufti (religious interpreter) of Jerusalem. A British policy of appeasement was set into motion. The restoration of the Land to the Jewish people would be a slow arduous process fixed with obstacles.
However, the course of events did not change the impression of that Shabbat morning. That morning was a special moment that would live forever in the memories of those present. It was a moment that belonged not to the messenger, but to the age-old message of hope brought on Shabbat Nachamu.
This coming Shabbat is the 9th of Av – Tishah B’av. Because Tishah B’av is a day of mourning, our tradition prescribes that when it falls on Shabbat, we delay its observance until Sunday, because no mourning is permitted on Shabbat. Thus the observance will be on Sunday this year. Tishah B’av commemorates the destructions of the Temples in Jerusalem: the first in 586 BCE by the Babylonians, and the second in 70 CE by the Romans. The first destruction was bad enough, followed by years of exile in Babylon. The second was almost more than the Jews could bear, and for generations the Rabbis tried to make sense of it. The following is from the Talmud, Tractate Yoma. (Yoma is Aramaic for the Hebrew HaYom, The Day, referring to Yom Kippur.)
Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b
מקדש ראשון מפני מה חרב? מפני שלשה דברים שהיו בו: עבודה זרה, וגלוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים. . . . אבל מקדש שני, שהיו עוסקין בתורה ובמצות וגמילות חסדים מפני מה חרב? מפני שהיתה בו שנאת חנם. ללמדך ששקולה שנאת חנם כנגד שלש עבירות: עבודה זרה, גלוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים
Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three evils in it: idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed . . . But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that during the time it stood people occupied themselves with Torah, with observance of precepts, and with the practice of charity? Because during the time it stood, hatred without rightful cause prevailed. This is to teach you that hatred without rightful cause is deemed as grave as all the three sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed together.
The three mortal sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed, are those for which capital punishment could be imposed. While this virtually never happened, it was, in theory at least, the law of the Torah. According to Yoma, the Jews of 6th-century BCE Jerusalem had been committing all three of these sins, weakening the very foundations of their community and of the Temple itself. That is why the First Temple was destroyed, according to this passage.
But with the Second Temple it was different. The Jews were not committing the mortal sins named in the Torah. Instead, they fell into a far worse pattern of behavior, according to the Rabbis. They allowed themselves to be taken over by baseless hatred of one another. Thus the Rabbis taught that so destructive is the sin of hatred without cause, that it is equal to all three of the mortal sins put together. The explanation for the destruction and dislocation that was foisted upon the Jewish community with the Second Destruction was sinat hinam. We brought down our own house, as it were, through baseless hatred.
Fellow Americans: The Talmud was addressing internal Jewish relations, and the warning is as relevant for the Jewish community today as it was two millennia ago, whether in the United States, in Israel, or wherever Jewish communities exist. But for the moment, I am concerned about us as Americans. Perhaps it would behoove us to look around at our country, listen to the rhetoric, and consider the destructiveness of sinat hinam. Of course we hold different perspectives on the specifics of policies that would achieve economic, social and political well-being for the United States, and for the world. All us are entitled to hold our perspectives and advocate for them. What we cannot afford to do is engage in destructive and hateful actions and rhetoric. It is difficult in a heated campaign season such as this one; since in fact, never before has there ever been a campaign season such as this one, marked by bigotry, violence, incitement, xenophobia, mistrust of those with opposing points of view, and so on! Nonetheless, every one of us, no matter where we find ourselves along this strange spectrum, needs to be on our guard, lest we ourselves fall into the trap of sinat hinam.
“Sinat hinam, hatred without rightful cause, is deemed as grave as all the three sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed together.”
Moses and the Israelites move closer to the Promised Land, preparing to cross the Jordan and conquer the Land. But two of the tribes, Reuben and Gad, approach Moses and tell him they do not want to cross over. They want to remain in the region of Gilead, where the land is more favorable to the cattle they have acquired. Moses is incensed at the thought that they would abandon their kinsmen to potential danger during the conquest. But they mollify his anger: “We will hasten as shock-troops in the van of the Israelites until we have established them in their home. . . we will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion.” (Numbers 32.27-18) So we read in our Torah portion this week.
On our last full day in Jerusalem for this summer, Steve and I had a bit of free time before dinner, so we decided to take a drive up to Har Hatzofim – Mount Scopus – “Mountain of the Watchers,” as translated – to revel in the breathtaking views. We had been there many times before, and while the vistas were not new to us, they never get old.
One of the views looks out over the nearby community of Ma’ale Adumim. But farther in the distance is the Dead Sea, with the reddish glow that often emanates from it. And even beyond it, on a very clear day, one can just about make out the Jordanian hills. It is extraordinary to behold.
The second vista is of the Temple Mount – the Dome of the Rock, Al Aqsa Mosque, and the Arab village of Silwan. The mountain over which the Dome of the Rock is built is the one from which the prophet Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven. Jewish tradition, however, identifies this place as Har Hamoriah – Mount Moriah – where the binding of Isaac took place, as we read every Rosh Hashanah. Later, it became Har Habayit – the Temple Mount. In that place was the Kodesh Kodashim – the Holy of Holies – the Inner Sanctum – where the sacrifices were offered by the Kohanim, the Priests of Israel, every single day.
To the east of the Temple Mount is the Mount of Olives, upon which there are several Christian churches, and the Augusta Victoria Hospital and Church of the Ascension, built in the 19h century by the German Templars. There is also one of the most revered Jewish cemeteries. As one casts one’s gaze further to the west, the new city of Jerusalem comes into view: the King David Hotel, the YMCA, Hebrew Union College and the campus of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, the Russian Compound, and beyond. Absolutely extraordinary.
Up on Mount Scopus is a campus of Hebrew University and a branch of Hadassah Hospital. There is also a campus of the Brigham Young University – of the Church of Latter Day Saints – a prime piece of real estate. In 1948, the Arabs gained control of the only road leading up to Mount Scopus, effectively isolating it from the rest of Jerusalem. During the Six Day War in 1967, Israel regained control of the road, and Mount Scopus was reunited with the rest of the city.
Mount Scopus is fully ½ mile high, and the views from there are indeed breathtaking. But during that afternoon, there was something else that struck me up there, that in its own way, is also majestic. At both lookout points, there are beautiful stone monuments with names, upon names, upon names, of Jews from different parts of the world who donated money to construct these observation points, to give visitors the maximum views of these vistas, and also to help build the community on Mount Scopus. The monument at the lookout toward the Dead Sea records donations primarily from Jews, or in memory of Jews, from all over Canada – Montreal, Winnipeg, Owen Sound, Calgary, and so on. The monument at the Temple Mount lookout bore the names of Jews from all over the United States, and elsewhere in the world. All those Jews, I thought – our people – all over the world. They may live or have lived in far-flung places of the world, but their hearts were pointed toward Jerusalem. Now their legacy is there as well, and their names are remembered among the builders.
The Gadites and the Reubenites said. . . “Whatever the Eternal has spoken concerning your servants, that we will do. We ourselves will cross over as shock-troops, at the instance of the Eternal, into the land of Canaan; and we shall keep our hereditary holding across the Jordan.” (Numbers 32.31-32)
The Psalmist wrote:
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither;
let my tongue stick to my palate
if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory
even at my happiest hour.