In this month of Adar, I’m thinking about the month of Av.
In particular, I’m remembering the waning moments of a Tisha b’Av not too long ago, when I was telling stories to my children of blunders and heroism from Tisha b’Av past.
I told them at length about the opposing Jewish forces during the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. We spoke of the “Biryonim,” the Jewish zealots whose focus on rebellion made them callous to the horrific suffering of their own brethren, and about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who deliberately prioritized humanitarian relief.
Finally, I recounted to my children the fall of Betar, the final stronghold of the Bar Kochva revolt, on the day of Tisha b’Av in 135 C.E. In trying to capture the magnitude of the calamity, I rhetorically asked how anyone could have imagined that just 65 years after the cataclysmic destruction of Jerusalem, Jews would be mercilessly slaughtered in a massacre so great that Maimonides would pronounce it “a great tragedy akin to the destruction of the Temple”?
And then, I panicked.
You see, in constructing a useful metaphor for my children, I turned to the Holocaust, and started to ask what it would be like to suffer another massacre a mere 65 years later. Suddenly I did the math and realized that we are right there, and that so is the potential for tragedy.
My thoughts turned to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as I realized that a contemporary narrative of death and destruction does not even require a lot of imagination.
Then my thoughts turned to the people of Betar, who may have presumed, however implicitly, that they were immune from another catastrophe so soon after the earlier one. I wondered how much we perhaps live with a certain sense of entitlement, in the shadow of the Holocaust, to a thriving Jewish inhabitation of the Land of Israel that could not possibly be slated for annihilation just 70 years after the crematoria burned.
Finally, I thought of Rabbi Akiva’s students, who in that era of the Bar Kochva revolt were punished “for they did not show respect to each other,” and I thought about our own increasingly alarming public squabbles.
Instantly, I transformed from a natural optimist into Rabbi Elazar of Modai, who in the last days of Betar would beseech God, “Do not sit in judgment today.” He understood the magnitude of the existential threat that hung over an essentially unworthy people and realized that God’s wrath could not be held back forever.
After a long, terror-filled pause, I returned to my bedtime stories, but not before my epiphany had sunken in. With a mortal threat hanging over our nation, our gravest danger lies in nothing more than our incessant infighting. And nothing in our recent collective history precludes the possibility of destruction being visited upon us, Heaven forbid, again.
A confluence of recent events—the approaching endgame of Western negotiations with Iran, an acrimonious election season here in Israel, and the upcoming holiday of Purim, which commemorates how a different Persian threat was overcome by Jewish unity and collective introspection—brought back this memory.
I am frustrated, and I am scared. I am frustrated because I feel powerless as an ordinary Israeli citizen to influence global politics, and yet I am scared by the possible outcomes of the current diplomatic process and of the violent, volatile Middle East in which we reside in general.
But if the month of Adar teaches us anything, it’s that a Jew doesn’t despair and that the answer ultimately lies with all of us.
I share my personal insight with the hope that it might inspire others to weigh the gravity of our situation and to consider what we can all do to help combat the threats against us. More, I want to offer one specific suggestion (inspired by my mother-in-law) for how we can possibly grow ever so slightly more worthy of salvation:
Let us not stop fighting and arguing. Let us celebrate our differences and continue to stand strongly for what we believe in. But can we do that without having to call each other names?
Psychologists have long encouraged married couples to avoid blunt character assessments (e.g., “You’re always so self-centered”) and to focus instead on describing the problem (“I feel like my interests are not being taken into account”). Can warring factions in Israeli society, without whitewashing their differences, not aspire to the same?
Can we not have and express opinions without having to personally defame our adversaries? Must we attach unflattering adjectives to the individuals and groups whose ideologies and policies are what really bother us?
I propose a simple, self-imposed ban on name-calling. No unattractive labels, no slurs, and no defamations—not for politicians, not for demographic groups, and not for our neighbors. No more insulting “bumper-sticker” slogans on bumper stickers, or on Facebook pages or in posted announcements or in YouTube clips. Disarmed of this all-too-easy tactic, we might actually have to explain what we believe in and why, rather than just call an opponent “dangerous” or “out-of-touch” or “power hungry” or an “enemy of the Jewish people.”
Genuine unity is difficult and far-off. Simply modifying our vocabulary, though , is a concrete, achievable goal. We can demand it of ourselves, and we can demand it of our politicians, who both represent us and rely on our support. We can launch a campaign to clean up the vocabulary of Knesset debates. We can insist of our friends and relatives that they direct their feelings and comments—however animated—towards issues and away from people. No one—no matter what political orientation, religious affiliation, cultural background, or country of origin—should be absolved of this basic responsibility.
I deeply believe that we are capable of civility. To give up on it is to give up on ourselves. For the price of too much civility might be a slight edge in the polls, but the price of too little could be far, far worse.