In an ironic way, it does seem a shame that Tish‘a B’Av is over. It was the one appointment in the Jewish calendar that somehow felt consonant with 2020’s chaos. We have been going through major upheaval — what Harvard Business Review termed “collective grief”¹ over the old normal — and where normally we feel Tish’a B’Av as something of an intrusion upon our lustrous summer vacations (let’s call a spade a spade), this year somehow the grief of Tish‘a B’Av felt familiar and welcome. At last, for a brief moment, we and the times ‘matched up’.
Yet now, we are most of the way through Elul, the month building up to the Jewish New Year, and there lingers pain rather than happiness; uncertainty, not clarity and resolve; vulnerability, not confidence; fear, not hope. Confusion is in the air, not renewal.
This is a time where nobody — not Rabbis, not doctors, not politicians — knows what is going on. How do you set a course for the new year if the ground is liable to turn to quicksand at moment’s notice?
In such a climate, apples in honey and sweet new year wishes can feel quite farcical.
There is serious dissonance here. It’s as if 2020 were a runaway train with jammed brakes, from which our souls were hurled off at Tish‘a B’Av — yet our bodies continue onboard, poised to launch off of a cliff into the new year.
I have written this essay to argue that this is not the case: our souls haven’t been left behind. For better or for worse, our souls are on the train as well, and if we look close enough we may find the controls.
I maintain these are precisely the feelings we should be feeling now: these are the necessary feelings for handling the aforementioned “collective grief” , and they are also profoundly Elul-appropriate feelings. This is not a coincidence, and I believe we may gain some very useful insight by exploring the connection — insight into the collective grief as well as into Elul.
But before I explain why, I would like to backtrack for a moment, to reflect on the following:
How can I justify such self-involved sentimentalism in the first paragraph? This “reading-in” seems useless and even borderline offensive. Useless, because why should we be looking into the past — whether in terms of Tish‘a B’Av or in terms of Elul — to help us deal with how we are feeling now?
Offensive, because how dare we read in our trials and tribulations into the destruction of the Temple, how do we take the Churban and compare it to the issues in our little local lives; how can we project our feelings into arguably the most traumatic (and yet, strangely, one of the most emotionally irrelevant to us) event in Jewish history?
Tish‘a B’Av and Elul and Us:I dare do this because that is precisely what Tish’a B’Av is all about, according to Rambam:
Rambam Hilchot Ta’anit: “… that this [Tish‘a B’Av and the other fast days mentioned there] will become a context for our current behaviors AND those of our forefathers that were like our own, which eventually culminated in both us and them being thrown into the same stew and suffering the same predicaments… and through contextualizing we may return to our senses”
According to Rambam’s definition, the Halachic(!) purpose of Tish’a B’av² is precisely to find a context for our contemporary mess, and for the underlying issues that caused these breakdowns.
More precisely, it is about becoming sensitive to common threads. It’s about seeing the threads linking between the predicaments of the then and the predicaments of the now, and between the root causes of those predicaments then and now. This is supposed to emerge into a context capable of explaining how both we and they got into this mess — and of offering a hand to help us climb out, which will then rectify the previous generations as well. This is the purpose behind an otherwise-condescending focus on our parents’ folly — something that comes up every Yom Kippur as well when we say “but we, and our parents, have botched up”³.
Now, this may be fair enough in terms of Tish’a B’Av, but it doesn’t address the whole question: how does this help with Elul? If anything, we seem to have missed the opportunity to address the issues and should bite the bullet. Why should we be turning to Elul to look for how to deal with our feelings?
The answer lies in a hidden face of Elul — a face typically overlooked, yet it impinges upon us so powerfully this year. This is Elul’s face of Nechama, or “comfort/consolation”. For the 7 weeks between Tish’a B’av through Elul, all the way to Shabbat Shuva (the Sabbath following Rosh HaShana) are defined Halachically as the “7 weeks of comfort”. They are seen as a comforting period in which we are meant to process, integrate, absorb, and deal with the issues experienced on Tish’a B’Av.
It is a process that I find particularly necessary this year. Trying to skip over this process and somehow connect to the Jewish New Year and Teshuva etc. is ignoring the elephant in the room, and it can come back to bite us — as suppressed grief always does.
“… The worst kind of grief is unacknowledged grief.” — Gerry Adams
I have embarked on a personal journey, from Tish’a B’Av till now, to trace some of these patterns. I feel like I have just scratched the surface, yet I have already found some surprising connections, between things like twitter mobs/warped justice/divisive extremism, and between many of the root causes of the destruction which we confront on Tish’a B’av.
It is this journey I wish to share with you in this first essay. I hope that by identifying the issues we are struggling with from within this context, it may serve as a somewhat humble first step in a process towards Nechama, a word which literally means “to see anew”⁴.
But it is not enough to simply point to the problems, just as it is not enough to identify but not handle properly feelings of grief on an individual level. In the second essay, I hope to examine the nature of Nechama. I hope that this will provide some perspective as to why we have been feeling dissonance rather than progress and why, as (article name) says, we haven’t been coping properly. More importantly, exploring the implications of Nechama for this process may provide us tools to move on properly.
Disclaimer: I attempt (successfully or otherwise) to avoid taking any political stance in this article — since the purpose of this article is not political, and I believe these issues apply to both sides of the fence. Any political stance remaining in this article is unintentional and should be ignored.
And after this rather long introduction, I invite you to embark with me on an (also rather long) journey, that will hopefully be enjoyable and well worth your while.
The Roots of Our Grief
Let us start by looking more closely at what we have been going through. There is quite a lot here, some very big changes in issues constituting the makeup of society, culture, civilization. Many things which had stayed static for 100s of years within a blink of our eyes have flipped 180 degrees. Anti-Semitism and related monsters that have stayed down for decades have started rearing their ugly heads (with exponential growth).
These types of big things have a way of making big impressions on people. But big things are made out of smaller things. Smaller things may make less of a splash, but they are also much more subtle, much more pernicious — and therefore much more potentially dangerous. After all, the small are the building blocks of the big.
A smaller “big thing” is the twitter hordes. There are now throngs of people who don’t know you, but will happily destroy your life on a dime’s notice.
They stalk hungrily 24/7, anxiously auditing the internet, hungrily awaiting their next victim; the next fool who releases a statement that can be misconstrued, the next person who dares to stand next to the wrong person — or some other similarly criminal offense.They aren’t picky.
This isn’t just “sticks and stones”; every day, this costs a growing number of people + families their social standing, their livelihood, their ability to get a job anywhere, years upon years of psychological trauma… etc. THIS is something we can sink our teeth into; this is our first thread.
For the Torah gives a very clear definition for the octane on which twitter hordes run: She calls it “Lashon Hara”, and defines it as the root cause of Tish’a B’av, and of the mourning for generations hence.
Culture of Evil
Lashon Hara accurately translates as “the language of evil”.
A language is the bedrock of a culture. And since it is not a reference to a particular dialect or language — you can speak Lashon Hara, unfortunately, in any language/dialect — Lashon Hara effectively means the culture of evil.
We are all-too-well acquainted with this culture of evil. This is the culture we have suddenly discovered ourselves in — where:
- The “land of the free” has suddenly stopped believing in free speech.
- Journalism has come from “only the facts ma’am” to a syndicated villainization machine, often run by these selfsame twitter hordes.
- Newspapers, instead of reporting facts simply MUST add their venom in a slight (or often not so slight) editorial slant.
- Where EVERYBODY needs to add their bias, and a negative take of the enemy political candidate, etc.
- Where a shocking number of opinions held by the average individual are based on emotion rather than fact. NOT their own emotion, but emotion that was fed to them through some Lashon Hara source or another.
- This is a culture in which people have learned to hate rather than love, to verbally abuse rather than share, to demean rather than respect.
- Instead of civility in human discourse, the norm is slander, anger, out-of-control emotions presented as facts.
These are big things, and yet the “little things” of life in this Culture are the most pernicious. They are what allowed this Culture of Evil to overtake the world we used to know and love.
- The difference between teachers protecting students from bias and not revealing who they will vote for — this was the norm when I was in elementary school — to what we have today.
- Where public and private school teachers are unabashedly advertising that they are out to brainwash your kids and to recruit them to their ideology.
- Where schools have become a place you are inculcated into a way of thinking
- Where freedom of speech is abused to manipulate, rather than share.
- Where language and terminology are carefully crafted and then foisted upon the public, such that they unwittingly adopt causes they did not realize they had bought into.
- Where causes like racism are cynically used for people to buy into a manifesto that has nothing to do with racism.
- People become cynical of beauty, of morality, of themselves and everything they once held dear.
The Fist of Flattery
But HOW does such a thing happen? Where is the step between a few people with an agenda and Lashon Hara, and the complete shift of a culture?
Here lies another thread which weaves through the ages. You see, the Torah has a definition for that force as well — and wouldn’t you know it, it is also central to the Churban. It is called חניפה — Chanifa, or “flattery” (rough translation).
Chanifa is normally seen as an un-endearing character flaw — the unctuous and contemptible personality trait of an individual. Yet Chazal define it as a powerful and evil societal force.
This selfsame Chanifa was a hidden culprit of our demise (seeds that ultimately sowed our demise (that ultimately reaped us into demise):
“Don’t worry Agripas, you’re our brother, you’re our brother, you’re our brother…
The sages said in the name of R’ Nasan: “at that moment the enemies of the Jews (euphemism) earned their destruction, because they participated in Chanifa to Agripas.”
If any of this sounds moralistic, try this on for size — and see if it feels at all familiar:
“From the moment of the ‘fist’ of Chanifa came into the world, all justice and standards became warped, and the [meaning] of deeds became gutted, and one is no longer able to say to another ‘my deeds are better than yours.’”
We have of late become acquainted with this ‘fist’, and there can be no doubt but that it is a profound social force indeed… truly a fist of power.
The grip starts off almost unnoticeable at first, but quickly becomes overwhelming. Give in once, and Chanifa already has you in its clutches. It is a slippery slope from the first subtle concession to full-blown sycophantic ingratiation. An individual who has made that first concession soon has no choice but to go in all the way.
The fist slowly gains momentum, until it is not just one person or two people, but a critical mass.
And at that point, people from the outside are sucked in against their will. People start losing jobs. All of a sudden they are blackmailed to voice opinions that they never had before. People who disagree with the masses are shut up, forcibly. People are no longer willing to speak truth — or even risk publicly holding an “unpopular” belief or opinion. At this point, all of the major corporations start kowtowing down and paying homage. Even law and order are rendered impotent, as police find themselves kneeling to the fist.
This social force is being cynically and consciously exploited in the creation of protests — allegedly in the name of democracy — with a subject matter that is constructed to make people feel vaguely guilty. It doesn’t matter whether or not the arguments are cogent, you just need to rinse wash and repeat. Things that initially speak to no one — after being repeated over and over again — inevitably draw the chanifa-support of a few people, and then of a few more, until droves of people start mindlessly following along.
At that point, it is nearly impossible for an individual to retain grasp on his own moral compass — even if he hasn’t made a concession — as the very presence of such a population forces him to become shaky in his convictions of what is right and wrong.
The fist has now become a monster — completely out of any control, sense of balance or proportion.
This is the frightening face of Chanifa, and it has the following particularly dangerous result.
Sentimentality vs Justice
Emerging from ‘the fist’ is the creation of a whole society which has willingly adopted an entirely new and foreign hierarchy of values. One that is based on feelings, opinions and editorial slants rather than on intelligent interpretation of objective facts. One in which consistency is irrelevant, and in its place is “people like us believe things like this”, whether those beliefs hold together (even internally) or not.
In other words, baseless beliefs with only biased sentimental emotion supporting them.
These sentimental yet baseless beliefs — the word for them in Hebrew is Chinam, another thread central to the Churban story; another thread connecting us to “our parents’ mess” — are then used as the scaffolding to create a new “modern” system of morality and justice.
Now this is a very cynical ploy. Because the implicit assumption in creating morality based on sentimentality is that there is no inherent Truth about morality, and that it is free for me to define personally.
Yet the reason that both morality and justice are so respected in the Judeo-Christian world is precisely because we view them as coming from G-d, and therefore of necessity on a Higher Order.
What we are witnessing is a hijacking, then. Hijacking a concept which can have no real meaning to the members of the fist — but which they know has profound meaning to us — all in order to give undeserved power and credence to their agenda.
With their contemptuous disregard for consistency, they use their newly-discovered ‘morality’ to question the very basis of morality. They define the Bible as outdated and cruel, G-d as fundamentally immoral, etc.
JD Salinger defines sentimentality as “loving something more than G-d does”.
This may explain the holier-than-thou tone — they view themselves as holier than G-d Himself.
Thus does G-d-given morality get displaced by a pseudological hodgepodge, a “morality” and inconsistent “social justice” invented yesterday. Rife with terms nobody had heard of before, concepts foreign to all of humanity throughout all of history. A morality that was unknown to all — even its inventors — a matter of mere months or years ago. And yet, universally accepted as the self-evident truth that no intelligent person could deny.
Without a trace of irony, the enlightened ape judges all of history by his own measuring stick. He looks back on its ancestors. He scorns all of them, and dubs them “primitive, contentious and hopelessly backwards” gorillas — it is only he that has magically become enlightened beyond all the apes that gave birth to him, it is only he that sees the self-evident truth. It is only he that is above error, above all contention.
Just so does the fist free itself from the need to report to a higher authority — or to any standard of consistency.
The fist ventures a step further: to put tolerance higher on the totem pole than G-d Himself — such that believing in G-d is a life choice, whereas offending someone is a capital offense.
And after G-d follows everything but including the bathwater.
The mobs proceed to attempt to rewrite history in the image of their sentiments and biases, canceling all that they disagree with.
With holy religious fervor — nay, holier than religious fervor — they proceed to denigrate every national or international hero, to rewrite people’s lives and narratives — with again little to no interest in the facts, and certainly no interest in context.
And as the statues begin to fall, the fabric of civilization comes slowly undone. The enlightened attempt to remodel our civilization’s identity — and to switch it for one which is incompatible with our civilization by definition.
This alternate system of faux-justice is not just an affront to our sensibilities. It is also subtly, deviously, and extremely dangerous. It empowers people to do the most insane things in the name of their view of justice. It means that certain people’s beliefs become everyone’s law. And it means that whatever the hordes don’t like is morally reprehensible and they are allowed to do whatever they can to destroy it.
It starts with costing innocent people their jobs and reputations. But historically, these kinds of arbitrary systems of values have been the causes of crusades as well as Nazi torture doctors.
It is no wonder then, that the Torah views cynical manipulation of justice as, in a sense, the root-seed of the Churban. For it is the warping of Mishpat (justice and sensibility) that is the source of the first Eicha lamentation in the Torah:
“Eicha (how) can I deal with your attempts to warp justice.”
This is a thread in which we find ourselves tightly ensnared. It ties us inexorably not just to the destruction of the Temple, but to breakdown within the human condition itself.
Conclusion: Weaving the Threads Together
This type of article has a danger. It is all too easy to use the build-up of this article to launch into a soapbox speech telling you who to vote for, or selling some religious quest towards repentance, or else try to tell you in some other way what conclusions you should draw from all of this — “what this all should mean to you”.
I would like to give you the job of figuring those things out for yourself, rather than shoving my answers down your throat. And I would advise you refrain from force-feeding yourself any simple answers — or any answers at all, at least for a little while. Because premature answers are inevitably ‘simple answers’, born of helplessness.
We are faced with problems we do not yet know how to deal with. We are only beginning to recognize them for what they are: how deep their roots go, what the issues underlying them are, etc. It’s human nature to avoid uncertainty by looking for concrete solutions.
But in this case, it would be equivalent to putting band-aids on cancerous tumors — something one would do only because they do not yet understand cancer.
There is an alternative, and it is called Nechama.
It is the journey of grappling with the issues; coming to see them for what they are; learning to live life despite them; and ultimately growing into a new perspective and way of handling the world.
I invite you to join me in part two of this essay where we will explore Nechama and its implications for healthy and productive entry into a new year — hopefully to be posted soon.
² among a small select group of other fast days
³אבל אנחנו ואבותנו חטאנו
⁴ רש״י פרשת בראשית ד״ וינחם ה״ כי עשה את האדם בארץ, ועוד בפרשת בשלח ד״ה ולא נחם א״ דרך ארץ פלשתים, וכן רבות
⁵ Something Rabbi Sacks refers to as “the unforgiving culture”. https://rabbisacks.org/an-unforgiving-age-watch-rabbi-sacks-pre-selichot-address/
⁶As opposed to the moralistic “speaking evil-ly” which it is commonly mistranslated as. If that were accurate, the Hebrew would be לשון רע, rather than לשון הרע as it is.
⁸Talmud Bavli, Sotah, 42.
¹⁰Without getting too political, it is telling to note that the BLM icon is — of all things — a fist