Special Message - July 20, 2021
Tisha B’Av in the Age of Covid
This sermon was delivered at a Zoom Shabbat service on Friday, July 16 by Judy Heller.
If we were in person, I would ask “how many of you have heard of Tisha B’Av? I would assume that there would be several of you who would raise their hands, particularly anyone who was at services a couple of weeks ago when Rabbi Sobo mentioned it. I would also ask “how many of you observe the day in any manner?” I would assume that very few of you would answer that you do. That is understandable.
At its root Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning for the destruction of the first and second Temples, along with Jerusalem. Reform Judaism, a movement born in 19th century rationalism, has been hesitant to observe a holiday grieving the Temples, whose religious role feels opposite to our modern sensibilities. We don’t long for the day when the Temple in Jerusalem can be rebuilt and the idea of animal or even grain sacrifices is something between appalling and laughable. And even reading Lamentations which starts “Alas! Lonely sits the city/ Once great with people” feels incongruous with our current experience of Jerusalem as a vibrant city in a rebuilt Israel. Why bother?
For over a thousand years, Jews have mourned, chanted the book of Lamentations, and fasted on Tisha B’Av not only for the destruction of the Temple, but in memory of all Jewish suffering. Indeed, some of those disastrous events, like the beginning of the First Crusade in the 11th century and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, occurred on Tisha B’Av. Unlike Yom HaShoah, which was established to commemorate only the Holocaust, Tisha B’Av has been THE day to mourn all Jewish loss.
I was raised in Reform synagogues and never heard about Tisha B’Av until I was in college and read Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s book Godwrestling. The first time I attended a Tisha B’Av service was the year after I graduated from college when I was living in Washington D.C. Rabbi Waskow, who had recently moved to Philadelphia, came back to lead that service at the congregation he had once attended. I found the chanting of Lamentations in a darkened room hauntingly beautiful. It was the early 1980’s and the middle of the Cold War. Rabbi Waskow gave a sermon connecting the fires that destroyed the Temple with the ongoing potential for nuclear destruction. Today, Rabbi Waskow often writes about the connection between the fires of Jerusalem’s destruction and the fires created by global climate change. My experience then, and my point now is not the specific examples that Rabbi Waskow has given, important as they are; but that Tisha B’Av, like all Jewish holidays, is constantly being given new meaning by every generation.
At major Jewish holy days, we are encouraged to think about what the holiday means for us as individuals, for the Jewish people, or for the world given the current circumstances of that particular year. At Passover we ask what types of liberation we need. At Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we reflect on the past year, think about what we could have done better, and resolve to try to improve our behavior. Every year at Tisha B’Av I find myself asking “are there losses that need to be mourned?” Personal ones? Communal ones?
In this second summer of the pandemic, which is both so dramatically different than last year, and in some ways too similar, the question of what needs to be mourned is like the blast of a shofar demanding my attention. A year ago, four months into the pandemic, I remember thinking about the number of Americans who had died—about 151,000 at that point—and our need to grieve not only that, but also that our sense of normalcy that had utterly collapsed. Not talking to people in the grocery store, minimal in-person contact, and adjusting to life on line gave Tisha B’Av a special poignancy. We were mourning the world as it had been.
Here we are a year later, sixteen months into the pandemic and over 605,000 Americans have died. Are there any of us who don’t know at least one person who has died from COVID, or has long-haulers effects, or was in the hospital with it? There were weeks last winter when the point of my getting on line was to check if my friends and family were safe and if I needed to offer support and condolences to those who had lost loved ones.
While we have made advances, our sense of fragility remains. There is a vaccine, although getting it to seven billion people is a huge challenge. As it turns out even getting it to some in the United States, who have been willingly vaccinated against polio, mumps, and whooping cough, has become a monumental task. The societal fractures which were exposed under the pressure of the start of the pandemic have turned into fissures and fault lines threatening to tear the country apart. My sense for the need for mourning this year is even greater than last year.
Rabbinic tradition teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. I find that idea both attractive and profoundly disturbing. It disturbs me because it is a way of blaming the victim, even if it is the victims who are blaming themselves. Self-blame for what one has no control over is a way of trying to convince oneself that you really have control.
On the other hand, there is a truth in connecting the ideas of mourning and baseless hatred. We are not at our best when we are in the midst of grief. The known world with a loved one in it, or a job that we loved, or a society that we understood is gone and we feel raw and vulnerable. Our grief may turn to fear or rage.
There is a Talmudic story about Kamtza and Bar Kamtza that Rabbi Sobo told during services two weeks ago. The shortened version is that Bar Kamtza was mistakenly invited to the party of his enemy, who then kicked him out. Bar Kamtza begged for his honor to be retained, but the host refused and the others at the banquet, many of whom were leaders in the community, didn’t come to his defense when he was being publicly humiliated. When the Talmudic rabbis discuss baseless hatred, they seem to mean this. One shouldn’t shame, even an enemy, if one can avoid it. I completely agree.
The question remains, however, is there more to understand about the term baseless hatred. If there is anything that I have thought about in this last year and especially in the last three or four months, it is the amount of baseless hatred in the United States that has increased over the past several years, but particularly since the start of the pandemic.
What does it mean to hate someone for no reason? Aside from the Talmudic rabbis who, as I stated above, seemed to mean publicly shaming someone and refusing to stand up for someone being shamed, the rabbis aren’t particularly clear about what they mean. Most of the time if we are angry or go so far as saying we hate someone, we can give a reason. Perhaps it is a legitimate reason or perhaps it is an excuse, but I suspect very few people perceive their hatred as baseless. Even someone expressing hatred of another person because of race, gender, creed, etc. will argue that their hatred is justified.
In the last sixteen months we as a nation have been dealing with both a pandemic and dramatic political events. There have been good reasons to be frightened, to feel angry, to feel powerless. So many Americans are acting out their feelings. People are driving recklessly and too fast. Road rage has increased. Mass shootings over the past sixteen months have skyrocketed past our already dramatically high numbers. Domestic violence and mental health issues have become a top priority of police and medical personnel. The political tensions in the country are erupting in the personal lives of many Americans. We have reached a point where we assume the worst of those with whom we disagree. Berating and shaming people on line or in person has become far too normalized. As the Talmudic rabbis asserted-- baseless hatred of those with whom we are in conflict can lead to disaster.
So how do we change? Can we remember that the person with whom we disagree is also B’tzelm Elohim, made in the image of God? Can we remember that as we might be feeling overwhelmed by fear and anger at changes that seem out of our control, that those with whom we may have the most profound disagreements are also most likely driven by fear and a sense of loss? Recently I have been thinking about the response of the Park Hill neighborhood in Denver to white flight in the 1960’s. They began a series of afternoon teas, followed by some evening programs to get neighbors talking to one another. White flight never happened there and it is still the most integrated neighborhood in Denver. Somehow, in some way, we need to learn to talk with our neighbors again, and our co-workers, and even our enemies.
It is unrealistic to expect that we will never get angry, never give into our fear, especially when it is elicited by grief. For me, the gift of Tisha B’Av is to be able to take an evening or a day to remind myself to grieve those communal losses that might otherwise lead me to yelling or self-righteous condemnation of others, and to try to respond instead with random acts of kindness. If the driver next to me is in that much of a hurry, I can let him in. If my neighbor insists on explaining why Covid isn’t real, I can still ask how her aging parent is doing. Basic human decency can heal a lot of wounds.
Tisha B’Av begins Saturday night. May this be a weekend of healing from our individual and communal losses, as well as a time for renewed trust and faith in one another.