Every year as we approach Tisha B’Av, we ought to ask the question whether the State of Israel could be destroyed, as were the First and Second Commonwealths. This year, that question seems a bit more real, with corona ravaging the world both health wise and economically, with the growing sense that our and other governments have lost control, with water cannons turned against Israeli citizens (many of whom thought that only Palestinians are treated that way), and federal officers on the streets of Portland.
Some understand the prophecies as saying that, once God brings us back to our homeland, there will be no further expulsion. I too am an optimist by nature, and reject exaggerated alarmism. Despite the evil and injustice I combat on an almost daily basis, I don’t see myself as a purveyor of doom and gloom. Ultimately, I have faith that God will empower our basic goodness and decency to win out over the part of us that prefers to justify what we know in our hearts to be wrong, or to look the other way. Having said that, I don’t believe that God gives us blank checks. The very idea of Brit (Covenant), is that we have a two-way agreement with God. We must uphold our commitments, if we expect God to do the same.
This week we begin the Book of Deuteronomy, where the theology is simplistic, but clear. Act justly and follow God’s Commandments, and you will prosper. Act otherwise, and the Land will spit you out. For example t,his theology is very evident in the blessings and curses in “Ki Tavo.” On Tisha B’Av, the radio waves are filled with rabbis decrying the evils of our age (Reform Jews, and LGBTQ culture, to name a few). I will not mirror them. When I recite the concluding psalm in the Grace After Meals including “I was young, and now I am old, and have never seen a righteous person abandoned,” I first add, “May this prophecy soon come true.” I will not simplistically declare that God will evict us from our national home if we evict the Sumarin family from their home, that God will dispossess us if we continue to dispossess non-Jews. It would be all too easy to quote the demand of Isaiah in our haftarah to say that God will punish us if we fail to act more justly to the weakest and poorest among us (Isaiah 1:17). The God I believe in is a God of compassion, and second chances.
At the same time, I would not blithely and with unlimited self-confidence count on that blank check.
Yes, God is a God of compassion. Thank God, God’s compassion is not just for wealthy Jews. It extends to non-Jews, and to Jews living in poverty-the orphan, the widow and the non-jew living among us.
The words of Isaiah are not to be ignored. They must serve us as a moral compass, whether or not we believe that either God or some human agency might again punish us for our sins.
“Your rulers are rogues
And cronies of thieves
Ever one avid for bribes
And greedy for gifts
They do not judge the case of the orphan
And the widow’s cause never reaches them. (Isaiah 1:23)
And let’s look at what we are taught is the antidote. In our Torah portion Moses recalls how he set up a system of law:
“So I took your tribal leaders, wise and experienced men, and appointed them…I further charged your judges as follows, ‘Hear out your fellow, and decide justly between any person, and their kin, or the non-Jew living among you.’ You shall not be partial in judgement, hearing out low and high alike. Do not fear any person, for judgement is God’s.” (Deuteronomy 1:15-17)
Our haftarah, always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, famously concludes:
I will restore your judges as of old
And our counselors as of yore.
After that you shall be called ‘City of Justice, Faithful City’
Zion shall be redeemed through law, and those repenting (or, “returning to her”) through justice/righteousness” (Isaiah 1: 26-27)
A just law system is the key. As tragic as the toll our modern plague is, I do not believe that it will destroy the world, or the State of Israel. I am much more fearful regarding the attacks undermining our judicial system, even though I am the first to say that our judicial system often rules against what I consider to be just. It does not always act according to Moses’ instructions or the vision of Isaiah. I accept the idea that our prime minister is innocent until proven guilty. However, he is unfit for office because he has stated or hinted with little/no actual evidence that those among the police and justice system who brought about his indictments are part of a left wing, deep state plot to overthrow him. Both the Torah and the Talmudic Tractate Sanhedrin recognize that a judge can err. The first pages of Sanhedrin express great concern about the human fallibility of judges/rabbis. The rabbis go into great detail about how judges/rabbis must take care not to make mistakes, and the precautions that must be taken to check their decisions before implementing them. In his commentary to our Torah portion, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch quotes Sanhedrin to make it clear that there must be no difference between “law”, “justice” and a particular ruling. However, there is a huge difference between double checking or even disagreeing with the system, and delegitimizing the system. When a leader causes his/her followers to cease to believe in the legitimacy of our judicial system, our society is in danger of imploding from within.
This does not contradict the fact that we have a much work to do to ensure that our laws and our rulings embody justice and righteousness.
In these days when the Romans and Babylonians were at the gates, and destruction was at hand, Rashi teaches that the verse “Zion will be redeemed through law/justice” means that we will be redeemed because there will be among us those who create “mishpat.” This is the Hebrew word for “law” that can also be translated as “justice” or “righteousness” because in the eyes of the Torah/Jewish tradition they are/must be synonymous. We could read Rashi as saying that we will be redeemed by those who make law just.
Those of you who are in Israel are welcome to contact “Torat Tzedek Torah of Justice” about the pilgrimage I lead every year on Tisha B’Av visiting communities such as Al Araqib, Susya, Umm Al Hiran and Khan Al Akhmar, that have been destroyed or are in danger of being destroyed. Like last year, we may also visit Israelis living in public housing, but in danger of being evicted. On Tuesday, “Sha’alu Shalom Yerushalayim” is planning to walk from the Kotel to the Sumarin home, praying as religious Jews that they not be evicted.