Sunday, August 07, 2011

A Thought for Last Week

Here's a little bit I wrote for last week's online thought for Liberal Judaism:

"The Shabbat before the fast of Tisha B'Av is sometimes referred to as the Black Sabbath. It marks the third Shabbat between the 17th of Tammuz, when the Babylonians breached the walls of Jerusalem; and the 9th of Av, when they destroyed the Temple (in the year 586 BCE). These three weeks are historically a period of misfortune for the Jewish community, and traditional observances follow various aspects of mourning, for instance, no weddings are celebrated, listening to music is prohibited and haircuts are eschewed.

It is also Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision, named for the Haftarah portion read at this time. The prophet Isaiah tells his vision of God's frustration and anger with the Children of Israel, who have strayed far from the path of righteousness. "The whole head is sick," says God, "the whole heart is ill. From head to foot, nothing is sound." (Isa. 1:5-6) The Israelites continue to pray and make sacrifices, but God considers it to be lip service, "Bring me no more futile offerings ... I cannot endure festivities along with evil!" (ibid. v 13) God's people have turned their backs on the teachings handed down through the generations, "O how the faithful city played the whore! Once [she was] so full of justice; righteousness dwelt there; and now - murderers!" (ibid. v. 21)

It is easy to distance ourselves from the behaviour of ancient people following ancient practices. Yet we too are Children of Israel. We also live in times of misery and destruction. We make mistakes, and we behave badly - are we really so different from the people portrayed in the Tanach? Why then is it so hard to learn from their examples?

Perhaps we are embarrassed by the wrongdoing of our ancestors. We glance at the stories now and then with the same disdain with which we would consider a prurient article in a tabloid newspaper. Jews don't do things like that. Or is it that our Progressive perspective distances us from the simple descriptions of reward and punishment related by the prophets in their books? Jews are more civilised than that. The fact is: for every human being in every era the pull of the yetser ra - the evil inclination - is equally strong. Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu; we have all been tempted, we have all betrayed our potential, we have all wasted time and energy inappropriately. It is disingenuous to think that any one of us is exempt from reciting the litany of misdeeds included in our High Holyday prayers.

What then is the example that the prophet Isaiah is presenting to us in this portion? First, we might note that rather than lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem itself, he focuses on the reasons for its downfall. While it is important to mourn what has been lost, it is essential to consider what caused such a calamity. With such information we may begin to repair the world. Isaiah highlights the hypocrisy and the corruption of his generation. In turn, we need to look at the relationships that trouble us, and try to find the source of the discord. Then we must approach the problem and start to solve it. If our vision is not clear, Isaiah's is: "Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes, cease to do evil. Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow." (Isa. 1:16-17)

From the famine in Somalia, to an argument at work; the sister with whom you do not speak, to the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo; from children in need, to a lie you told to save face; the advent of Tisha B'Av reminds us that it is never too soon to turn away from temptation, nor to be proactive in the healing of ourselves and the world around us. The vision of Isaiah gives us hope that it is not yet too late to avert a disastrous fate. We can make a difference. If we choose to."

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