Sunday, August 25, 2019

A Disloyal Jew* Reflects on Second Chances

On Tisha B'Av, Jews remember many calamities--and mourn.**
So already, a few weeks ago, I observed the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av for the the first time. No, I didn't fast as one is supposed to do on that holiday. Nor did I sit on the floor of the synagogue to emphasize my role as a mourner, as is customary. But I showed up at my synagogue and was present for the reading of the Eichah portion of Jeremiah's Lamentations, a book of the Bible I hadn't read since my required Bible-as-literature course in college.

Tisha B'Av is about loss--collective loss--specifically of those spiritual and actual homes that we cherished and that supported us as a community of faith and tradition. And we're not blameless in their loss. Nor it is the end of our story. We need to be reminded of those final two points annually.

Because for most of my adult life I had understood Tisha B'Av as nothing more than the commemoration the destruction of the First and Second Temples, I had generally disregarded it as irrelevant to me personally. But in the last decade, three books have given me a much deeper appreciation of the potential of a number of the Jewish calendar's many holidays for creating a better world. Please note I didn't say they were important for creating a better me: how much solace can there be in knowing I'm doing "great" if the world isn't doing great at all? 

Those three very important books, in the order in which they entered my life, are Simon Jacobson's 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holiday***; Abigail Pogrebin's My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays,  One Wondering Jew****; and Alan Lew's This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.*****  

Jacobson's book, which I first read some years ago, helped me understand the month of Elul as the time to turn toward a welcoming God in preparation for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The book's Jewish history timeline first put Tisha B'Av on my radar as part of the High Holy Days-preparation mindset.

Pogrebin's book helped me understand the significance of Tisha B'Av, which had eluded her also until she interviewed many rabbis in connection with writing her book. As one of them, Judith Hauptman, explained,
"'I used to think mourning for the destruction of a building . . . made little sense. I could easily see mourning Jews killed in pogroms, massacres, the Holocaust. But a building? Until 9/11******; that symbolized, as did the Temple in Jerusalem, the body politic. It had a grand name. It was lost. If we celebrate history that ended well for us, like Passover and Purim, we should also celebrate history that ended badly. If one thinks about Tisha B'Av, it forces introspection as a community, not as individuals--as on Yom Kippur. . . . It means to think about where we go from here so that catastrophes don't befall us again'" (267).
Lew's book emphasizes the importance of the destruction associated with Tisha B'Av as the precursor of any kind of transformation, collective or individual. It also emphasizes the importance of second chances. The First Temple is destroyed, but a Second Temple is built. And in the Book of Deuteronomy, the reading of which begins around the time Tisha B'Av is observed, the Israelites are about to have their second chance to enter the Promised Land, which they chose not to enter when they first had the chance in the Book of Numbers.

As Lew explains,
     ". . . Once again Moses and the Children of Israel stand at a moment of transformation; once again they stand at the edge of the Promised Land with an opportunity to go up and take it. The last time they stood at this point, this moment of opportunity, they failed to seize it, and they became alienated from God and began a protracted period of exile as a consequence.
     "Now they are being given a second chance. Forty years before, they stood exactly at the same spot, . . . , and now it is time to see if they have learned anything, if they can move past this experience and get on with their lives. Or if they failed to learn, will this same calamity continue to replicate itself until they do?'" (41) 
So why am I thinking about this right now? Because I'm thinking a lot about national second chances. Because I'm struggling with the questions of how nations learn, and what happens when they can't--or won't, especially in terms of their ability to take advantage of second chances to realize the promises and principles for which they stand.

But wait, you're wondering: what does this have to do with the destruction of the Temples? Weren't the Babylonians the destroyers of the First Temple, and the Romans the destroyers of the Second Temple? Did they fail to learn something they should have learned? Abraham Lincoln would have made the connection: he famously described the tug-of-war between opposed peoples and positions in terms of the metaphor of a potentially collapsing house:
"A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other."
Until today, I did not know Lincoln's words alluded to the Gospel of Mark. And today, I don't know if the American house is about to fall into shambles, or if it already has done so.******* Though nominally and legally all Americans are "free," our house is still very divided, and the efforts of some Americans to orchestrate and secure the supremacy of white Americans--particularly white Americans who are wealthy and Christian--over other Americans despite those articulated legalities are extremely robust.

So who's to blame in all of this? In the case of the two Temples, Lew explains that despite the historical reality of the Babylonian and Roman domination, "Spiritually we are called to responsibility, to ask, What am I doing to make this recur again and again?"--and by extension, what can I do so it won't happen again? (45). According to the scholars of the Talmud, the Jewish people were complicit in the destruction of the Temple 
"Because of sinat chinam--gratuitous hatred; because the Jewish people had fallen into factional bickering; because they had broken into warring cults and were busily engaged in fratricidal religious disputes, each one claiming to be the true Israel and denying the legitimacy of the others" (44).********
Yes, the empires were acting like empires--seeking to add people and places to their dominions--but that didn't make the Jews beyond reproach. While there are powerful, tech-savvy nations with whom America has tense, volatile, and changing relationships, we are not in grave danger of being overcome by any of them. We are, however, in grave danger of not being able to capitalize on a very important second chance: the chance not to elect Donald Trump as president. And that's because of sinat chinam.*********

Moses on My Bookcase
Maybe I'd be feeling more hopeful if Moses were the president of the United States--but he's not. And, of course, Americans are not a people of one faith; we're emphatically and deliberately a people of many faiths, a people of many peoples (yes, I'm in one of the Americans who believes that's true and that's good). But Moses was good at explaining things, he never believed he himself was the ultimate authority, and he cared more about "the people" than himself. He certainly never sowed divisions among the Israelites to secure his position of leadership; in fact, he knew it was important that the people not be divided in their infancy as a people. And when God told him he wouldn't enter the Promised Land, he did not begin a smear campaign against Joshua, who would lead the people into it.

So bad leadership is a problem. And so is the fomented hatred that's so much part of American political life right now--witness our current president's efforts last week to demonize Jews who might not vote for him in November 2020 by casting them as "disloyal." 

But what's really most worrisome is the sinat chinam that often seems on the verge of erupting among relatively like-minded Democrats who have different ideas about how best to realize the goals and visions that reflect their remarkably similar priorities and values. If those who oppose Trump, be they contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination or those who support those various contenders, devolve into enemies rather than opponents who can and do engage one another respectfully for the sake of America, we will probably squander our important second chance. Our hate will play right into the hands of those who believe in an America that excludes so many altogether and relegates others to permanent inequality.

by Scott Ketcham
Furthermore, it will compromise our efforts to do better,  regardless of who wins. If we become overly engrossed in blaming and calling out those whose views we detest--even for good reason--we may inadvertently blind ourselves to the bodies piling up and the tears flowing. And if we can't feel, if it all becomes about triumphing over adversaries or resenting that we didn't, we won't make the world a better place for those whose safety and lives are at risk.

I'm still steaming over President Trump's comments about Jews this week. How dare he? And I know hate energizes in a way that sorrow does not. It can become addictive and gratifying. 

But I also believe in second chances. So I'm trying to step back but not step away. It might get worse before it gets better, but some of that really is up to us.

Maybe it's Jewish history and the wisdom about people that emanates from Jewish texts that makes me optimistic about our ability to meet the challenge. Maybe it's the resilience of so many Americans who never give up, despite setback after setback. Maybe it's my belief in third chances as well as second ones. And maybe it's that as a former teacher, I always think everyone can learn, especially if given the chance to develop the abilities to speak and listen thoughtfully. I think it's all of the above. 

The most useful kind of optimism is the kind that combines hope, vigilance and effort. Yes, I'm very worried. But I'm not hopeless.

* During the week of August 18, Donald Trump said any Jews who voted for Democratic rather than Republican candidates should be considered "disloyal."
* Screen shot of an image on the web site, article entitled "Three Weeks Laws and Customs: A 21 Day Period of National Mourning":

***Jacobson, S. (2008) 60 Days: A spiritual guide to the high holidays. 2nd Revised ed. New York: Kiyum, 2008. Print.  
**** Pogrebin, A. (2017). My Jewish year: 18 holidays, one wondering Jew. Bedford, NY: Fig Tree Books.
***** Lew, A. (2018). This is real and you are completely unprepared: The Days of Awe as a journey of transformation. New York: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company.
*(6) Screen shot of Photo found on Wikimedia Commons: 
*(7) Screen shot of image on Pinterest: "Mark - English and Thai Script":
*(8) Eichah, the section of the Book of Lamentations that was written by Jeremiah after the destruction of the First Temple and that is read on Tisha B'Av, captures the dual attribution of blame for the calamitous event:
In Verse 18 above, the nation, speaking as "I," takes responsibility for behavior that led God to precipitate the destruction and crisis; in the verses below it, there are also external others responsible of the the nation's calamity, and the "I" asks the Lord to punish them. 
*(10) Of course, from another perspective, this is the second chance to elect Donald Trump as president. The groups for and against Trump both are angrily grieving America's failure to date to realize their very different visions of what America is and really should be. And these groups snipe at each other and march against each other rather than actually talk to each other. And when the mass shooters take it all a lethal step farther, their motivations are ignored by those in power.