We can differ on the causes or the solutions to the problems plaguing our country, but neither our political bents nor partisan biases should move the needle on our moral compasses. So whether you support the Trump administration, limits to the Second Amendment, or the crackdown on illegal immigrants, I’m confident that every NJJN reader is sickened by the shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, and disturbed by images of children forcibly separated from their parents.
By that measure, at least, we can all agree that these have been a tough few weeks.
Which is appropriate, I suppose, as we just completed the three-week mourning period between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, better known as Tisha b’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. But here’s the odd thing about this ominous day: Though we commemorate the destruction of both our holy temples and other tragedies that have occurred throughout our long history, Tisha b’Av ends on something of an optimistic note. Whereas our sorrow is at first unqualified, in the afternoon we perk up and abandon some of our outward signs of mourning, such as sitting on a low chair or not greeting friends. And we remember that, according to tradition, the Messiah will be born on Tisha b’Av, which will become a day for celebration when the Temple is finally rebuilt.
Easier said than done, I thought as I sat on the synagogue floor this past Sunday, hungry and wearing my dorky, all-canvas-no-leather shoes and reciting Kinnot — elegies of the exiles and violent ends that have befallen my people over the centuries. How, I wondered, is it possible to see a light at the end of the tunnel after reading, in great detail, about the brutal murders of our greatest leaders and scholars, like the righteous King Josiah and the brilliant Rabbi Akiva? How can we ever move past the destruction of the temples, the taunting of God by the conquerors, the Inquisition, the pogroms, the mass burning of our holy texts, the Shoah?
As I often do when I’m stumped, I asked my brother, Rabbi Scott Kahn of Ramat Beit Shemesh in Israel, a former head of a yeshiva and the executive producer of the Jewish Coffee House podcast network (please excuse this gratuitous plug), for help.
He said that the original sin, so to speak, that tarnished the 9th of Av was the evil report the spies gave to the Jewish nation, then still dwelling in the desert, about Israel. But as their reports were factual, including noting the presence of giants in Israel, their sin was in refusing to see what was good about the
“Anything can be understood in a positive or negative sense,” he said. “Seeing those giant grapes, they understood that as, ‘It’s a land of giants!’ as opposed to, ‘Look at what an amazing place this is!’”
That concept ties in nicely to our understanding of the major reason for the destruction of the two temples, sinat chinam, baseless hatred of others.
“Sinat chinam doesn’t mean you hate people for literally no reason,” my brother told me. “Sinat chinam more likely means that you hate them because you interpret everything in a negative sense, rather than trying to look and say, ‘Maybe I can understand this in a different way. Maybe when I thought this person was trying to insult me, he was having a bad day. Maybe I simply took it the wrong way.’”
In other words, it’s a matter of perspective. We can’t move past the calamities that have plagued us throughout our long history, nor should we try. Our survival as a nation depends on our remembering what we were, what we lost, and what, we pray, we will merit to return to one day.
“Our survival.” This, I realized, is one aspect of this depressing day we can take comfort in. Our focus on Tisha b’Av is, as it should be, on what we’ve lost. But for all we’ve suffered at the hands of Pharaoh, Amalek, Nebuchadnezzar, Haman, Antiochus, Titus, Ferdinand and Isabella, Hitler, and so many other wicked despots who have targeted the Jews in the last three millennia, we’re still here. And because, for all their treacherous efforts, they couldn’t destroy us, I’m of the belief that no one else will.
There’s something else. If our suffering is a direct result of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, our salvation lies in reversing that trend. As Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder sang in “Ebony and Ivory” — which I have to assume is the biggest regret of their respective lives — “There is good and bad in ev’ryone,” and the trick is in trying to see the good and looking past the bad.
It’s important to remember this during these dark times, an era defined by bitter partisan politics and a month away from yet another mudslinging Israeli election. Not only are we still here, but against the odds, we’re thriving. And despite our differences, we’re still Am Echad, one nation.
Isn’t it about time we started acting like it?