Our regular scheduled broadcast has been pre-empted to bring you this special Tishah B’Av message.
“The harvest has passed, the summer is over, and we have not been redeemed.”(from the Haftarah for Tishah B’Av morning, from Yermiyahu)
I was sitting on the floor last night, as is our custom, during the reading of Eichah, generally known as the Lamentations of Jeremiah, which is read, as is our custom, the evening of Tishah B’Av; and is my custom, I was listening and following with one ear and eye and thinking with both sides of my brain. Following Eichah, several Kinot are read (how to translate that, dirges?) as part of the davening (i.e.; everyone reads it to themselves), by which point, I don’t even make the attempt. This is a time to do my best thinking.
Eichah and the collected Kinot, most of which are read Tisha B’Av morning, are written in very difficult, perhaps problematic, Hebrew, well above my level of comprehension, and the English translations are, even on a good, day, of limited use. Here is a sample, which I selected by opening my ArtScroll “The Complete Tisha B’Av Service” entirely at random and running my finger down the page: He [God] remembered when [my sin withthe Golden Calf] putrefied my nard.Therefore He told the bride,“Descend from [your place of] honor!”
I remember one year, complaining to a friend who has impeccable Hebrew, expressing my total frustration at sitting there while people around me were whizzing through something which was completely incomprehensible – in any language. We went back to his house and spent a profitable afternoon wrestling with one kina, trying to understand it. Suitably impressed with my friend’s mastery of the material, I subsequently suggested to someone who was a decision maker that my friend be asked to give a series of talks on the Kinot before the following Tisha B’Av. The decision maker could not imagine why I thought these sessions were necessary; all you have to do is look at the ArtScroll.
As many of you know, I have been studying literature for most of my life, mostly in English, but at various times, doing a little bit in Latin, Ancient Greek, Anglo-Saxon, French, and Spanish, so I think I have a sense of the effort involved to understand what a great poem is about, how if you work at it, the layers of meaning begin to unfold, sometimes very slowly. I cannot imagine picking up a copy of Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury and zipping through it as fast as the Kinot are read. I never have and never will embarrass anyone by asking him to translate, let alone explain, what he has just read. My assumption is that spending two or three hours on the floor in shul on a Tisha B’Av morning going through the Kinot is an exercise in piety, part of the general suffering on this day when so much tragedy befell our people.
So if these abstruse liturgical poems are designed to ‘put me in the mood’ to understand how awful this day is, I’m afraid it doesn’t work. I would need better cues, better props. I would need to conceptualize a specific task I would have been prevented from doing in my capacity as a Cohen when the Temple was destroyed – a second time. The Holocaust I can dimly grasp, in part because of the testimony of so many people and the multiplicity of audio-video tools that are available. I figure that if I imagine the worst day I could ever have, intensify that by a hundred, and multiply that by how many days, weeks, months, that’s what it must have been like to be in Europe in 1940. I can imagine police coming to my door and taking my family away. And I realized long ago, that if it had been me that the Nazis came for, almost certainly I would not have survived.
But my time spent thinking about my lack of comprehension of the enormity of the Churban (destruction) has not been for naught. I have been focusing my powers of concentration, such as they are, on the concept of sinat (in Brooklyn, sinas) chinam. For it was this sin which, we are told over and over and over again, caused the destruction of the Second Temple. We are also told with the same regularity that these words mean ‘baseless hatred,’ causing some to suggest that the antidote is ahavat chinam ‘baseless love.’ The problem is, if we think about for longer than it takes to whiz through a kina, that everything a person does is for a reason, however stupid, irrational, or subconscious it may be. (Except possibly a four year old, who has no explanation for why he through his two year old brother’s pacifier down the toilet; he just felt like it. Of course you can say that ‘just feeling like it’ is in and of itself a reason.) So if you want to tell me that the generation of Jews living around 60-70 C.E. were Torah scholars, but that they just didn’t like each other for no reason at all, I would politely suggest that you reconsider. Do you mean ‘no good reason?’ That doesn’t help much, because generally we are convinced that when we do something, it is for a very good reason; at least we think so at the time. For example, when you bought the five pound bag of peanuts at the market, you were convinced that it would be eaten right away; of course, it’s still sitting there on your shelf three months later. No one, even the most deranged of us – even the Nazis – would say, “I hate him (them) because I feel like it.
Here in The Land, the word chinam has a slightly different connotation. You go to a museum during Chol Hamoed and you take out your money to pay to get in. The clerk will tell you that it’s chinam, free during the Holiday. Just walk right in; no one will stop you. The JPost is chinam today; just take one; no one will stop you. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the key to the puzzle. Chinam is being no longer restricted by what you would expect; you can be as outrageous as you want because nobody will stop you. Everyone may not agree with what you are doing, but the collective ability to maintain what used to be acceptable has been eroded. The ‘rules’ have been changed, not always for the better.
The year 5769 has not been an illustrious one for the Yidden. You all know about Bernard Madoff, and I offer him as an example of what I am trying to say. But there are other examples, more recent, closer to home, and, in a way, even more upsetting. But let’s take a step back for a moment. Many of us are old enough to remember way back when various minority groups in the States were rioting, burning down their own neighborhoods. There were, of course, the usual apologists: we don’t understand their problems; they’ve been victimized for so long; it’s not everybody; it’s only teenagers, etc. Most of us were not amused by these antics and by these apologies. So I must insist (I must, I must) that the worst aspect to the recent riots in Jerusalem (both the ones over the parking lot being open on Shabbat and the subsequent ones over the hospitalized child) by the lunatic fringe of hareidim was the pathetic attempts to justify this insanity and the cowardly silence by their rabbis. It so happened that Barbara managed to get herself in the middle of a fracas one recent Thursday morning when all this was going on. She was on her way into Jerusalem to assist in the weekly packing of comestibles provided for ‘Victims of Terror.’ The buses couldn’t go their normal way because of all the garbage being burned, so my wife got off the bus and tried to get where she was going on foot, winding up somehow (you’d have to ask her how) in Kikar Shabbat, ground zero for trouble-making in the Mea Shearim area. She was so incensed by the hooliganism around her that she lost her cool and started yelling at the men responsible. For her trouble, she got knocked to the ground. You see, a man shouldn’t sit in the same section of a bus as a woman, but it’s OK to knock her down. Just as it’s OK to destroy the traffic lights that are regulating traffic where you live to make sure no one gets run over by a car. If you ask these pathetic specimens why they are doing these things, they will certainly give you an answer because they know that they are right, and it’s only ‘the goyim,’ the ‘Nazis’ who don’t understand. So my wife and a number of other would-be volunteers from Maale Adumim never got to perform their mitzvah that day. Fortunately, Hashem provides, and a busload of teenagers was able to get to the packing place, so the needy people did have supplies for Shabbat. Sinat chinam? You bet your booties.
And then we have the photographs which, I imagine, were front page in every newspaper in the world, from Bridgeport to Borneo: rabbis being led off in handcuffs, along with the usual assortment of political riff-raff in New Jersey (the state I lived in for about twenty five years; but remember, I’m from The Bronx.) It would be inappropriate to comment on their level of culpability before they have been tried in a court of law. But they were arrested based on the testimony of another Orthodox Jew, a man who, we can assume, was himself in so much trouble with the Law, that he had no choice but to ‘cooperate’ with the authorities. All this happened during the nine days. DURING THE NINE DAYS!!!!! An Orthodox Jew accuses other Orthodox Jews of laundering money through tzedekah funds and making obscene profits on human organs at that very time when we are supposed to be eliminating sinat chinam. Or at least repeating the mantra: Bayit sheini was destroyed because of ……………..”
Perhaps you sense my feelings of frustration: the path to our ultimate salvation is relatively straightforward. We have to first and foremost convince the Jewish people of the pleasantness of the Torah and the integrity of our rabbinic leadership. Having done that, we can demonstration to the world that we are truly ‘a light unto the Nations.’ From there, it’s only a short drive to The Final Redemption, however that will come. None of the above will be easy; but consider the alternatives. I’m not just saying that. I want you to consider the alternatives. Some of them are mighty scary. And in the meanwhile, can we announce a moratorium on all platitudinous, feel-good expressions relating to Geula and our being in The Land when we’re not. Pretty please!