Thursday, July 27, 2023

Concluding Words for Tisha B’Av Evening 2023

Traditionally, this moment is used to offer words of consolation.

But there is no comfort this year. The sins of the past are being repeated in the present.

The Second Temple was destroyed because of unnecessary hatred. That is not just a Talmudic homily, It is a historical fact. 

No less than three factions of “baryonim”, zealots, took control of Jerusalem at that time: Eleazar ben-Simon’s group held the Temple itself. John of Gischala (Gush Chalav) and his faction occupied the outer courts of the Temple as well as a portion of the lower city. Simon ben-Giora retained control over the entire upper city. 

And even with the Romans standing at the gates of Jerusalem, these men fought a vicious, bloody civil war, killing each other whenever they could. The hatred they had for their fellow Jews destroyed the Temple.

This year the nightmares of history have returned to the headlines. Israel is filled with anger, hostility, and strife. There is no spirit of brotherhood, no interest in consensus. Israel's enemies laugh at her, and these internal conflicts threaten to undermine the Jewish State. 

It is difficult to find comfort when old wounds have been ripped open again. What consolation is even possible?

Yet I still have hope; perhaps the very essence of this day, Tisha B'Av, will lead us back onto the path of unity. It is true that one of the lessons of Jewish history is division is a direct cause of destruction. But there is a second lesson of Tisha B’Av as well: shared loss can inspire unity.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his essay Kol Dodi Dofek, explains that a common fate has brought Jews together during their years of exile. We have always been one nation and one family; unfortunately, this has been ignored all too often. But even though discord often arose among Jews, the indiscriminate persecution they shared was a constant reminder that Jews are one family with one fate.

This lesson was brought home to me on our recent KJ mission to Poland. During the trip there were some very difficult moments when we felt profound grief; the heartbreak experienced beside a mass grave where 800 children were murdered is indescribable. But what gave us hope and inspiration was that our group was not alone. Multiple Jewish groups of all different ideologies and backgrounds were there as well, with black kippahs, knitted kippahs, and no kippahs at all. And everywhere we went there were large cohorts of Israeli students, proudly wearing Israeli flags on their backs.

Walking through the valley of the shadow of death we realized how important it is for us to love our brothers and sisters unconditionally.

This year on TishaB’Av, I pray that the Jewish people will remember this lesson: After a churban, after destruction, love is the only way forward. 

On the final day of the trip, I told a story from Yaffa Eliach’s Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, one that has been retold many times before.

In it, the Bluzhever Rebbe, Rabbi Israel Spira, recounts what happened one day when he was in the Janowska labor camp.

The Rebbe had befriended an irreligious freethinker, who quickly became his daily companion.

One day the Nazis made a cruel selection. They dug a vast pit and said that in order to survive, the starving Jews, whose bodies had been beaten and broken, must jump across the pit to reach the other side. Those who fell into the pit were to be shot immediately.

The Bluzhever’s friend turned to him and said: “Spira, all of our efforts to jump over the pits are in vain. We only entertain the Germans. Let’s sit down in the pits and wait for the bullets to end our wretched existence.” 

The Rebbe refused to accept this suggestion and insisted to his friend that they both must jump. And so they did.

Moments later, they were both on the other side. The Bluzhever’s friend said to him:  “Tell me, Rebbe, how did you do it?”

The Bluzhever responded: “I was holding onto the coattails of my father, and my grandfather and my great-grandfather, of blessed memory.” 

But then the Bluzhever turned to his companion and asked:

“Tell me, my friend, how did you reach the other side of the pit?”

“I was holding on to you,” replied the rabbi’s friend.

This is what we must learn today: no matter how different we are from each other, no matter how many differences we have with each other, we can only survive if we hold on to each other. We will only find strength in unity, and only find comfort when embracing our brothers and sisters.

May God inspire us to do so.

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