Rabbi Cardozo, Tisha B’Av remains all too relevant

On Sunday, the rabbi did not go to shul.

It would, he said, have been a slap in the face to God to recall tragedies when outside his windows; Jerusalem bursts with life. So Rabbi Cardozo skipped synagogue services on Tisha B’Av because he could not bear to hear the cheerless words of the Bible.

I have great respect and affection for Rabbi Cardozo, but his call to cancel the cantillation of the Book of Lamentations is itself lamentable. Here’s why.

Life has never been better for Jews, but Judaism is an ambitious religion. Our thirst for justice, compassion and spirituality is not quenched. While on every other day, we celebrate our blessings, it would be wrong to reckon that all our ambitions are achieved, and the Jewish mission is over.

When I was training to be a rabbi, my teacher, Rabbi Reuven Kruger taught me that while it is fabulous to officiate at celebrations, there is no greater privilege than to stand alongside a family at the open grave of their loved one. All masks are removed as they confront the grim reality of their loss. Tisha B’Av is the day when we do that on a national level.

This day prises open the heart of darkness forcing us to confront historical tragedies and current failings. Thankfully, our suffering does not compare with the horrors facing Jewry 2,000 years ago or even 100 years ago, but all is not perfect, and in reading the Book of Lamentations, we probe our situation asking Eicha? Why?

Why do some of our neighbors refuse to accept Israel’s existence and daily plot its destruction? Why must we live with the constant fear that they will develop nuclear capabilities and hold the world to ransom? Why are we forbidden from murmuring a short prayer on the Temple Mount — our holiest site? Why across Europe is terror and anti-Semitism on the rise forcing many Jews to leave their homes and abandon their countries?

Beyond the confines of our Jewish state and Diaspora communities, we live in the shadow of refugees, flood victims, child slaves and those surrounded by scarcity, war and disease.

I met some of them on my American Jewish World Service’s delegation to Ghana; wonderful people who live in abject poverty, with no toilets or running water and little access to medicine except for the local witch-doctor. It shocked me to the core; but these were not the most deprived. Every single day, approximately 20,000 people die for lack of food and medicine. It would not take much to stave off their hunger and save their lives.

In these circumstances, we have no right to complacency and no room to relinquish the biblical book reminding us that life has had and continues to have threads of tragedy.

We have wonderful days to celebrate our successes; the establishment of the State of Israel and the liberation of Jerusalem. These days of jubilation focus on thanksgiving to God for the dramatic and astonishing change in the fortunes of the Jewish people. Now, we must use Tisha B’Av to build on those successes inspiring further improvements to our nation and our world until there is no more tragedy, inequality, unkindness or unhappiness.

My teacher, Rabbi Sacks, quotes Antoine de Saint-Exupery who said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” The same may be said of Tisha B’Av.

In our generation, many people struggle to relate to the loss of the Temple and its service. But responsible rabbis should not call for us to forget our tragic history, and the ritual of one of our holiest days. If we want to understand Tisha B’Av, let us reflect on what a world of decency, justice and compassion would look like.

When we connect to this profound moral compass, we will not want to skip shul. Instead, we will dedicate this annual commemoration to understanding what is missing, what should be mourned and what we must do about it.

When we build our world of righteousness and kindheartedness, then we will be ready to cast aside the mourning of Tisha B’Av, fulfilling the prophecies that it will be transformed from a fast day into a festival of celebration.

About the Author
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's rabbi in Israel. Prior to making aliya, he was rabbi of Radlett United Synagogue, Britain's fastest growing Modern Orthodox synagogue. Rabbi Gideon served as Senior Rabbinic Educator in Israel for T'ruah – The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and has worked as an adviser at the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel. He directed the Beit Midrash for Human Rights at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is studying for a doctorate at Bar Ilan University. Gideon writes in a personal capacity and tweets at @GideonDSylveste
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