Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Why do we continue to fast and mourn on Tisha B’Av?
There are days when the entire Jewish people fast because of the calamities that occurred to them then, in order to arouse their hearts and initiate them in the paths of repentance (teshuva). This will serve as a reminder of our own wicked conduct and that of our ancestors, which resembles our present conduct, and therefore brought these calamities upon them and upon us. By reminding ourselves of these matters, we will repent and improve our conduct, as [Leviticus 26:40] states: "And they will confess their sin and the sin of their ancestors. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Ta’aniyot [Fast Days], 5:1)
Much like the individual engages in teshuva (repenting for sins and misdeeds) throughout Elul through to Yom Kippur, so, too, the Jewish people as a whole must engage in a “collective teshuva” on Tisha B’Av.
Maimonides teaches us that on Tisha B’Av, we are not only mourning the actual loss of the Temples, but are primarily mourning and reflecting upon our own poor behavior as a people – abandonment of Torah and mitzvot, coupled with moral decadence – that led to both Temples being destroyed.
But Maimonides takes it one step further. He teaches us that the true power of Tisha B’Av is when we conduct a national “moral check-up” of the current state of internal affairs in the Jewish world. This means that in addition to fasting, reading the Book of Lamentations and sitting on the floor with ashes on our heads reading Kinot (dirges about loss and destruction), we must also conduct symposiums on what’s happening in our own Jewish communities. But does this happen? Are Jewish communities willing to “look and search deep within” to see what’s wrong, what requires “tikkun” (repair), and how we are going to repair what’s wrong?
One Jewish community is willing to do this. It’s name: Israel.
For many years, Tisha B’Av was off the radar of most Israelis (other than religious or traditional Israelis). They viewed it as an antiquated, outdated fast day, with no contemporary relevance. Many even said “Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron are our Israeli Tisha B’Av,” and – especially after Jerusalem was re-united in 1967 – the continued mourning over Jerusalem seemed silly to most Israelis.
Many who held these views were unaware of Maimonides’s teachings, and were also unaware of what a great 19th century rabbi -- the Netziv – wrote about the destruction of the Second Temple:
The Jewish community of the Second Temple period was a crooked and perverse generation. True, they were Tsadikim (righteous) and Hasidim (pious), and amongst them lived many great Torah scholars. However, they were not Yesharim (upright and just) in their daily conduct towards one another. Therefore, as a result of the deeply rooted Sinat Hinam (baseless hatred) towards each other, each person looked upon his own religious behavior as being the only legitimate form of religiosity, and whoever did not believe or behave according to that form of religiosity was labeled a heretic. This perverse form of thinking led to zealotry, murder and the deepest divisiveness within the Jewish community. The results of this trend led to corruption, which ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is for all of these reasons that one may even justify God’s decree of destruction, because God is Yashar (upright and just), and God does not tolerate such self-righteous individuals whose behavior, supposedly “For the sake of heaven,” is actually crooked and corrupt. The result of corrupt behavior for so-called “religious reasons” is ultimately the destruction of human society and civilization here on earth (Netziv’s Introduction to the Book of Genesis).
On November 4, 1995, when an Israeli Jew pulled the trigger on his own prime minister, Israelis were shocked into understanding what the Netziv meant. Suddenly, the concept of Sinat Hinam (baseless hatred) was alive and present in Israeli society, and had reached its low point.
On the first Tisha B’Av after Rabin’s assassination, an ad hoc group of young Israelis – religious and secular – decided to get together and have a symposium on what was going wrong in Israeli society. They felt that in light of Rabin’s assassination and the deep polarization it created within Israeli society, it was time to bring Tisha B’Av and its lessons of Sinat Hinam back into the consciousness and discourse of Israeli society.
Every subsequent Tisha B’Av, the original small group grew in size, until one Tisha B’Av, 14 years ago, one of them had the brilliant idea of turning this ad hoc symposium into a nationwide Tisha B’Av program. This idea succeeded largely due to a brilliant marketing campaign. On Tisha B’Av, it is prohibited to study Torah (the exception being studying the Book of Lamentations, or any section of the Talmud dealing with the destruction of Jerusalem). This prohibition stems from the fact that we are not allowed to engage in anything enjoyable on Tisha B’Av, and Torah study is a great intellectual, spiritual and emotional delight. Therefore, the organizers who sought to spread their Tisha B’Av program throughout Israel named this new initiative Ha-Layla Lo Lomdim Torah – Tonight We Do Not Study Torah. They picked relevant themes relating to burning issues within Israeli society, and chose various panelists who would attract crowds. This brilliant marketing campaign caught the eyes of thousands of Israelis, who began to attend the Tisha B’Av symposiums, primarily in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
14 years later – this coming Monday night – there will be 26 Ha-Layla Lo Lomdim Torah symposiums throughout Israel! The panels will feature prominent members of Knesset, religious leaders, educators, religious and secular Israelis, men, women, young and old, Sephardi and Ashkenazi – all contemplating this year’s theme: Hashvil Ha-Zahav – The Golden Path. This refers to (appropriately) Maimonides’ teaching that in all matters in life, one should thrive to achieve the cherished “Golden Middle Path,” not veering to the extreme right or left. In light of the deep political and religious divisions in present-day Israel, this is a timely and needed discussion.
In this week's Haftarah, the prophet Isaiah refers to the Jewish people in the lowest of terms: “Rulers of Sodom…People of Gomorrah” (Isaiah 1:10). Why would Isaiah use this awful metaphor? Sodom and Gomorrah represents the ultimate decadent society, totally void of morals and ethics. Pirkei Avot teaches “He who says ‘What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours’…this is the behavior of Sodom.” A selfish society where religious and political leaders are so corrupt that they don’t care about their own people, where neighbors don’t care about each other, and where the wealthy don’t care for the poor – such a society is doomed to destruction, like Sodom and Gomorrah. Unfortunately, this happened to the Jewish State twice. The organizers of Ha-Layla Lo Lomdim Torah seek to assure that the third Jewish state remains standing, vibrant and successful forever.
I have been privileged to attend these symposiums the past few years, and I plan on doing so again this coming Monday night. Such gatherings give me hope that – despite all of the ills that exist within Israeli society – we are beginning to see here the shades of Isaiah’s closing words from this week’s Haftarah: Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and those that return to her, with righteousness.
Israeli society is coming of age, and Maimonides would be very proud of what happens here on Tisha B’Av.
12.5.13 at 9:06 am | Today, on the 8th and final day of Hanukkah, I. . .
9.17.13 at 9:43 pm | Sukkot challenges us to appreciate the finer. . .
9.12.13 at 3:58 pm | 40 years later, heartfelt letters from the front. . .
8.29.13 at 6:02 pm | Years ahead of his time, Sephardic Chief Rabbi. . .
8.22.13 at 4:49 pm | How foods and prayers ward off curses and bring. . .
8.2.13 at 12:08 am | Will Rav Yitzhak Yosef, Israel's new Sephardic. . .
12.5.13 at 9:06 am | Today, on the 8th and final day of Hanukkah, I. . . (27)
7.4.13 at 1:02 pm | While America celebrated its bicentennial, the. . . (6)
8.22.13 at 4:49 pm | How foods and prayers ward off curses and bring. . . (5)
July 4, 2013 | 1:02 pm
Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
It’s the one “Fourth of July” I will never forget. July 4, 1976. It was 37 years ago, and the United States was celebrating it’s bicentennial. Like all good Los Angelenos, we were in Palm Springs for the long weekend. But while the bicentennial festivities dominated the scene, events in Uganda that day would ultimately capture our attention…and our hearts. While America celebrated 200 years of freedom and independence, a tiny nation in the Middle East reminded the entire world – including Americans – what freedom and independence are all about.
I will never forget seeing my father run from our hotel room to the pool (where most of us were), announcing to us in excitement “Israel liberated the hostages!! They sent commandos to liberate the hostages!!” I will also never forget how someone we had just met that weekend – a non-Jew – jumped into the pool, opened a beer and shouted with joy “Let’s drink to Israel!” I will never forget the feeling of celebration that erupted around the pool, and how everyone – Jew and non-Jew alike – celebrated Israel’s remarkable achievement. We had only American flags to wave, but it felt like we were at a pro-Israel rally. The Jews in the crowd felt that this was one of the greatest moments of Jewish pride ever, and especially as American Jews, we were proud that Israeli/Jewish soldiers carried out this heroic act of freedom and independence on – of all days – the 4th of July.
37 years later, I find myself in Israel on this 4th of July, reflecting on that historic moment. There are many thoughts that come to mind, but one particular verse from this week’s Torah Portion pops out at me: “Why should your brothers go out and fight while you stay here?” (Numbers 32:6). It is mind-boggling, disturbing, and completely against the ethic and spirit of being a Jew, that while we bless the memory of the Entebbe operation’s commander Jonathan Netanyahu (the lone commando to have lost his life during the mission), and while we celebrate the courage of the commandos – religious and secular together -- who risked their lives to redeem Jewish captives and save Jewish lives, a debate still rages on in Israel about whether certain segments of Israeli society should be exempt from serving in the IDF because they are “more religious” than others.
Who can stand at Jonathan Netanyahu’s grave, or stare in the eyes of the IDF commandos who carried out this mitzvah of bringing their brothers and sisters home in safety, and say that there are Israeli men who – in the name of God and the Torah – should not serve in the IDF, for they are “more religious than you.” Who and what is a “religious Jew”? How absurd it is that we even engage in this debate! How ridiculous that we even give credence to such a perversion of what it means to be a “Torah-abiding” Jew. How far we have strayed from the spirit of King David, the true role model who combined military prowess as an Israelite warrior and religious devotion to God as the author of the Book of Psalms. How far we have strayed from Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh La-Zeh – “All Jews are responsible one for the other.” I am tired of hearing the argument that ultra-Orthodox yeshiva boys are displaying their “responsibility towards the Jewish people” by sitting and studying Torah all day. Enough with this silly argument, unprecedented and unheard of in Jewish history. Their Torah study has not only added nothing to the Jewish people or Israeli society, but, tragically, has given Torah a bad name, and has created a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. The very Torah that they profess to follow so closely screams out at us – and at them – this week: “Why should your brothers go out and fight while you stay here?”
In 1948, when men, women and children alike were fighting Israel’s War of Independence, a group of yeshiva students approached the elderly Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Uziel. They asked for a halakhic exemption from fighting in the war, claiming that Torah study was their contribution to the defense of Israel. He castigated them, telling them he wished he had the strength to “pick up a rifle and participate in the mitzvah of defending Jerusalem.” To prove his point, he joined the Civil Guard in Jerusalem, and when he stood guard at checkpoints, he proudly wore the Civil Guard’s armband on his rabbinical robe.
On this 4th of July, 2013 – 37 years after Jonathan Netanyahu z”l and his troops taught the world what freedom and independence are all about – I pray that Israeli society will soon see a day when all of its citizens – religious and secular alike – will partake in the mitzvah (not the “burden,” as some call it) of defending our one and only Jewish state. When I proudly graduated IDF basic training at a ceremony at the Kotel in 1984, emblazoned in fire above us were words that read: “Only those who know how to defend their freedom are worthy of it.”
Thank you to Jonathan Netanyahu, and to all of the heroes of the Entebbe mission. 37 years ago, on the Fourth of July, you taught us what it means to be worthy of our freedom.