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.”
He shall be like a tree planted by waters,
Sending forth its roots by a stream:
It does not sense the coming of heat,
Its leaves are ever fresh;
It has no care in a year of drought,
It does not cease to yield fruit.
– Jeremiah 17.8
Thus the prophet Jeremiah speaks of the one whose trust is in God.
On a quiet hilltop in the heights of Rosh Pina in northern Israel, overlooking the Hula Valley and the Golan, there is a small stone monument carved with the beginning of this verse from Jeremiah. It stands within a lovely little park at the scenic overlook, as if in silent watch over the hamlets and villages in the valley below. There is a tree and a few brightly colored benches, which offer visitors a quiet place to sit and think for a few minutes, as they take in the exquisite expanse.
Written on the monument is the following, with the caveat that I have rendered the two last lines not literally, but in a way that makes the most sense to me in English.
THE BE’ERI LOOKOUT
(followed by the verse from Jeremiah)
In memory of BE’ERI (BARRY) OVED, zichrono liv’rachah
Born 19 Sivan, 5742 – June 10, 1982
Killed in a terrorist attack on the #37 bus
on Moriah Boulevard, Haifa,
1 Adar II, 5762 – March 5, 2003
BARRY, you were a well of fresh water for us;
Your beaming smile of grace will remain with us forever. . . .
Throughout Israel, there are quiet monuments similar to this one, though in its simplicity and quietude, this one is particularly moving. At his funeral, Barry’s sister Limor said: “He was modest and shy, and gave all he had to everything he did.” A Staff Sergeant in the Army, Barry was in Haifa to visit his grandparents, when he boarded the No. 37 bus, along with Christians, Druze, and Jews. 15 people were killed on that bus, 8 of them children under the age of 18. There was also another soldier killed with Barry, who was 20. Barry was laid to rest in the Rosh Pina Military Cemetery.
It seemed particularly meaningful that we happened by this overlook on this past Sunday, as the country marked the observance of the 9th of Av – Tishah B’av. It is the day that memorializes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and then, became the assigned date as well for numerous other disasters that followed. Tishah B’av is traditionally observed as a day of fasting and mourning. Reform Jews have never observed this fast, by and large, because at least ideologically, we have not considered ourselves to be “in mourning” for the Temple, and don’t particularly hope to see it rebuilt anytime soon. . . . Nevertheless, Reform Jews as well, over recent years, have developed a keener sense of historical identification with these events, and the observance of Tishah B’av, at least in some form, has come into the Reform consciousness much more palpably. In addition, it is virtually impossible to be here in Israel, particularly in Jerusalem where the Temple once stood in all its splendor, and not be aware of the terrible destruction that took place here, plunging our people into a state of exile and depression. Certainly we New Yorkers can relate, when we remember what we went through on 9/11. As the ruins of the Twin Towers covered the streets of Lower Manhattan, so did the huge stones of the Temple and its precincts cover the broken streets of Jerusalem. And certainly, Tishah B’av as a day of commemoration of disasters that have befallen our people is a day for us to take into our hearts, regardless of the fine points of our modes of observance.
The quiet little park dedicated to the memory of Barry Oved reminds us of all the victims of hatred and fanaticism whose lives have been so wastefully cut short in the name of – – something-or-other. . . . Whether Jew, or Muslim, or Christian or Druze, or the appropriate counterparts elsewhere in the world, humanitarians and peace-loving people everywhere have been hurt and brutalized. Yet, the quietude of this park can also remind us of our capacity for good – our aspiration not to tear down but to build; not to hurt, but to comfort; not to dominate, but to live in peaceful coexistence.
This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu – the Sabbath of Comfort. “Comfort, O comfort, My people. . .” says Isaiah. Perhaps the overriding message of Tishah B’av is to reject destruction and brutality and instead work to build a just and peaceful society.
Nachamu, nachamu ami, yomar Eloheichem. . .
Comfort, O comfort, My people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. . .
A voice rings out:
“Clear in the desert
A road for the Eternal!
Level in the wilderness
A highway for our God!
Let every valley be raised,
Every hill and mount made low.
Let the rugged ground become level
And the ridges become a plain.
The Presence of the Eternal shall appear,
And all flesh, as one, shall behold –
For the Eternal God has spoken.”
– from Isaiah 40.1-5
This is The Night of Tishah B’av… the 9th day of Av, a day of mourning, as Jews all over the world remember the Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, first in 586 BCE at the hands of the Babylonians, and then the Romans, in 70 CE. Services are characterized by sitting on the floor in the dark, a 24-hour fast, and wearing canvas or rubber shoes instead of leather – kind of like a mini-shiva. In addition, the Scroll of Eichah (Lamentations) is intoned, with its mournful timbre reflecting the poetry of bereavement.
The Stones of Destruction … This year, instead of going to synagogue on this night, Steve and I did something different, that one can only do here in Jerusalem. We spent the evening at Robinson’s Arch – the archaeological site of the remains of the Temple. There we gazed upon the huge stones, strewn about just as they have been, since they toppled to the ground some 2,000 years ago. This is what is left of the magnificent structure that once stood towering above Jerusalem, now reduced to a pile of rubble. From there we walked a bit further uphill to the main Kotel area – the Western Wall – a section of the retaining wall that surrounded the Temple Mount. It is perhaps the most iconic symbol of our deep roots as Jews in the Land of Israel. The plaza was filled with people tonight, as was the entire city, as Jews devoted this night to memory and prayer.
As New Yorkers, unfortunately we can relate all too well to a place of destruction such as this. The devastation at Ground Zero is seared into our memories forever. We remember the The Twin Towers, once rising above all New York, gleaming in the sunlight. And we watched them as they fell to rubble and ash over over a huge area of Lower Manhattan. Every year on 9/11, solemn memorials are held all over the country; the most significant in New York, at Ground Zero.
The Difference, of course, is that even in the face of this horrific destruction, we New Yorkers did not lose our city, nor our freedom or national identity as Americans. Twelve years after the catastrophe, our businesses are back, and the new towers are on their way up, though the losses of loved ones are permanent. For us as Jews, however, the destruction of the Temple meant the destruction of Jerusalem itself, exile from our land, and loss of our sovereignty. For some two millennia, our people dreamt of our homeland and restoration of our independence. “Next year in Jerusalem,” we have echoed through the centuries. Finally, in the late 19th century, we began the process of reclaiming Jewish sovereignty, which culminated in May of 1948 when the State of Israel was born. Now, 65 years later, Israel is a nation seething with excitement; with scientific and high tech advances, a rich and profound cultural and intellectual life, an animated political and philosophical discourse, and economic progress and creativity, all of which far exceed her size. Yet with each year we understand more acutely that the responsibilities and challenges of sovereignty are manifold. There is much work yet to be done, so that Israel can evolve into all that she is capable of being, as a modern democratic nation. Yet we give thanks that the State of Israel is alive and flourishing, and that the process of rebuilding that state is ongoing, and continuously evolving. We will remember that during this coming Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, as we begin the anticipation of our rejoicing in the New Year.
The Reform Movement, historically, has distanced itself from observing Tishah B’av, on the ideological grounds that we do not mourn the Temple, nor the Priesthood, nor its sacrificial cult. While that is still the case, there can be no doubt that Reform Judaism in recent years has sought to link itself to the shared history of ALL the Jewish people. The Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, along with the Exile that ensued, is a seminal moment in our people’s history, and thus we have much more willingly embraced this memory. As I beheld that pile of rubble tonight, I felt this link most profoundly.
This Coming Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, as we read words of consolation from the Prophet Isaiah:
Nachamu, Nachamu Ami – Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God,
And declare to her that her term of service is over. . . (40.1)
Youths may grow faint and weary, and young men stumble and fall.
But they who trust in our God shall renew their strength.
They shall run and not grow weary, they shall march and not be faith. . . (40.30-31)
Fear not for I am with you. Be not frightened, for I am your God;
I strengthen and I help you, I uphold you with My victorious right hand. (41.10)