How to grasp the depth of despair at the destruction of the temple?
The Book of Lamentations, read on the eve of Tisha B’Av, with its heart rending language, captures the intense grief, likening the destroyed city to an inconsolable widow weeping bitterly in the night.
So it is that we remember the overwhelming loss of the temple in Jerusalem, not once but twice, on the 9th of Av.
I recall vividly the wrenching wail of sorrow, as I was sitting cross legged on the floor in an Israeli classroom with fellow Wexner Heritage students, as our teacher chanted the ancient Hebrew.
This year, days before the somber three week mourning period preceding the day, I am again in Jerusalem, in another classroom, surrounded by other students and rabbis and scholars.
I am part of a group of Jewish leaders from across North America, and beyond, who have gathered at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem for an intensive week of learning.
And I am struck by the timing, as the 9th of Av approaches, as Israel’s current nationalist government readies to pass controversial legislation that limits its highest court’s authority and augers more conservative reforms while hundreds of thousands protest in the streets, waving blue and white flags and chanting “demo-cra tya.”
Walls have not been breached, as in ancient times, but there is concern that the very moral and spiritual foundations of the state are crumbling.
Amidst this turmoil, it is particularly meaningful to be in Israel and to come together to study.
Israel is struggling with its identity as a Jewish state and its identity as a state founded on the values of freedom and democracy. It is struggling with widening rifts between the religious and the secular, with those more religiously observant and those less so. It is struggling with how to preserve Israel’s identity as a Jewish homeland, and how to make it home for all its inhabitants, including the Palestinians.
Such struggles demand intellectual rigor and spiritual wisdom to inspire serious conversation.
And so, I am sitting again in the Beit Midrash at Hartman. Turning on the seemingly provocative theme of the liberal Jew, the week of study explored the core commitments of Judaism and Zionism. It pushed us to consider what it means to be a Jew in a liberal world, a world informed by values of liberty, freedom, equality. A world informed by personal autonomy and individual choice.
And it also looked at what it means to be a serious Jew in this world, what it means to be a Jew in thought, in belief, in action.
We explored notions of conviction, of compromise, of commandment, of obligation, with close readings of Jewish text and cogent analysis. What does it mean to be present, to be responsible, to be moral, to sacrifice for something bigger than ourselves?
And what does it mean to believe, to seek divine presence, to know it? What does it mean to be part of a people? To be part of a community? To be transgenerational, made of what came before and what will come after?
What does it mean to be part of a shared land? What does it mean to create relationships, to build trust, to work together to bring that shared land into being?
And what do we need to do?
It ended, not with a grievous woeful moan, but with a call to action to speak out, to step up.
The week provided me a needed opportunity to enhance my understanding of the issues and what is at stake, to become more fully informed and more fully engaged and energized.
So even as the troubling legislation was passed, even as the protests continue, even as the pundits predict grievous ramifications, even as we will sit on the floor and again chant the mournful words, I remain hopeful and grateful, for the wisdom of our tradition and the value of study and reflection.
In the opening session of the week, we were reminded of Hillel’s concise distillation of the Torah: “What’s hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”
The rest, as the sage added, is commentary.