Moses and our Sages were very concerned about how and what we learn from history. So should we.
This week’s Torah portion is Dvarim. In this first parasha of the last book of the Torah which is mostly Moses’ final words to the Israelites before he dies, he reviews what has happened in 40 years of journeying through the desert. This is always the Torah portion before Tisha B’Av. It is also called “Shabbat Khazon,” because Isaiah’s dire warnings in the haftarah begins with the words “Khazon Yishiahu,” “The vision (prophecy) of Isaiah.”
We get a premonition of the book of Lamentations that we will read on Tisha B’Av because the word “Eikha” (“How” or “Alas”) that opens Lamentations is also found in the haftarah Many congregations read that line with the same special trope we will use when we chant Lamentations.
Moses doesn’t just give a dry and neutral account of event. Everything that Moshe Rabeinu (Moses our Teacher) says this week and in the coming weeks is designed to shape how we will remember or history, and what lessons should be drawn.
I asked how we choose to remember Tisha B’Av when I spoke at an Israeli Negev Bedouin demonstration this week in front of the Bedouin Directorate, calling for an end to the recent escalation of government and JNF actions against the Bedouin, and the dismissal of Yair Ma’ayan. Ma’ayan, the head of the agency supposedly looking after the welfare of the Bedouin, was recently quoted in Germany repeating the worst stereotypes about them. In recent weeks, steps have been taken to wipe out an entire neighborhood in the recognized village of Bir Hadaj. In Umm Al HIran, work resumed to build Jewish Hiran on the place where the State told the Bedouin to live in 1956. Chillingly, the date was July 18th, six months to the day of the tragedy that took the lives of resident Yaakub Abu Al Qian z”l and police officer Erez Levy z”l. (Leaks from the yet to be released police report indicate that the initial claims that Yaakub was a terrorist trying to kill officers were far from the truth.) In Wadi Na’am residents suspect the directorate is trying to get around the government’s recognition of the village, and build them a school in the nearby township. Between Tel Sheva and Um Batin, the JNF has begun work for a new forest on disputed land it a way that will cut off development of all of the villages in the area….
Citing the quote that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, I asked whether the message of Tisha B’Av is only one of Jewish particularistic pain giving us privilege, or whether the pain we feel over that demolition can sensitize us to the pain of a Bedouin family when their home is demolished. That is why my Tisha B’Av tradition is to travel after the minkha service between Bedouin and Palestinian villages that have been demolished, or are in danger of demolition.
When our sages asked how we are to remember the destruction of the Second Temple, they emphasized sinat khinam,” (causeless hatred) . At the demonstration I sadly had to recognize that there are those for whom the prohibition against hating fellow Jews does not extend to non-Jews. However, the midrash, Tanna d’Vei Elihahu Zuta teaches us that we should not delude ourselves into thinking that the hand that strikes the non-Jew won’t eventually strike the Jew as well. Hatred, once unleashed, knows no boundaries. Others argue that the hatred is not causeless in this case, because the Bedouin are thieves and violent and squatters taking over land that doesn’t belong to them. (Funny, given the fact that the pre State Zionist Movement listed 2.6 million dunam as belonging to the Bedouin in the Negev, and we are now quibbling over 650,000 dunam.) Throughout history, those who wished to perpetrate hatred, discrimination and oppression have used the big lie. The ruthless disinformation about the Bedouin taking over the Negev knows no bounds. Can we learn from all the times that the big lie was told about us that we should not do the same to the minorities under our control?
In our haftarah, Isaiah minces no words for those who in the name of religion oppress the weakest and most helpless members of society. He concludes with the belief that we can redeem ourselves through law and justice. Law and justice are not always synonymous. But they can be, if we choose to treat others justly because from Egypt onwards we know all too well the soul of the mistreated.