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America's Tisha B'Av

08/08/2019 04:46:54 PM


Our American community is still reeling from two mass murders that took place last weekend, in El Paso, Texas and Dayton,  Ohio.  The details and motivations may be different, but in both cases, troubled young men armed with automatic weapons shot into crowds of innocent people.   These are, of course, just the latest in literally hundreds of mass murders in recent years.  Cities and communities will continue to mourn and attempt to recover.

This weekend, Jews around the world will be observing our own national day of mourning, Tisha B’av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.  As night falls Saturday night, we remove the curtain from the ark, move from our seats to the floor, and begin a 25 hours of fasting and reflection.  On one day, we mourn the destruction of two temples, exiles from Spain, crusader massacres, the Holocaust, and many more localized tragedies like the AMIA bombing. We remember these tragedies together as a way of seeking a path towards a better world.  The American community can learn from our Jewish observance.

When faced with so many tragedies, our tradition asks a question first found in the book of Lamentations:  “Eichah,”- how and why could we be the victims of so many tragedies?  The sages in the Talmud offer many possible reasons for our suffering. Abaye places the blame on ritual transgressions, like violations of the Sabbath.  R. Hamnuna says it is because the education of children was neglected.  R. Amram says that it is because people did not rebuke each other for negative behavior.  Raba says it was because people were dishonest.  Others say that it was because of baseless hatred, sinat chinam.  Rabbi Yochanan, say that it was because leaders were scrupulous about the letter of the law, without thought to the consequences.  What unites all of these sages is an understanding that when we are faced with a string of tragedies, we must reflect on their causes, and act to make a change.

Our American Society would be well-served to have a real Tisha B’av, to reflect on the causes, and common threads that tie together these attacks.  Pundits have suggested many causes for the ongoing string of tragedies that have afflicted America, that parallel the causes described by our sages for the tragedies that have afflicted Jewish people.  They describe a lack of support systems for those who are struggling with mental illness, and a society where it is too easy for young men to become disaffected and disconnected.  They observe incendiary and false racist language that inspires the most harmful kind of baseless hatred. Of course, these factors are not mutually exclusive, and many may even reinforce each other.

And of course, none of these tragedies would have taken place at the horrific scale they achieved, if it were not for the availability of powerful automatic weapons to the general public.  Rabbi Yochanan’s words about the letter of the law ring true for me.  Those who seek to be scrupulous about the “letter” of the second amendment, irrespective of the impact on the safety of the larger community, have this blood on their hands as well.

Alas, I have grown cynical.  The story is told of one rabbi who every year would discard his Tisha B’av prayerbook, in confidence that the messiah would come before the next year, thus ending the tragedies of life and the need for the observance.  This year I will put my Tisha B’av book into storage, resigned to the likelihood that we will have to bring them out again next year,  perhaps with a new page of lamentations to add to the book as well.

I fear that our American society will do the same.  The El Paso and Dayton attacks, like the ones in Sandy Hook, Orlando and Parkland, will recede in the hearts of all but their most immediate victims, and we will trot out the same platitudes for the next ones, and the next ones.  America is doomed to have Tisha B’av not just every year, but every week until we can do better.

Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784