As we sit here on Tisha B’Av reflecting on events of the past, it is difficult not to think about events of the present. This morning, while sitting in shul reading the various Kinot (Lamentations), I could not help but think about how the Jews living during such holy times got to such low points. If we were lucky enough to have a Beit Hamikdash (Temple) today, would we really still be dealing with so many ethical and moral issues? I would like to think that perhaps we would learn from our past, but I am not so sure that this is a realistic expectation.
During the 40 plus years that the prophet Jeremiah warned the Jews to change their ways, the Jewish people refused to listen and to take a hint. It seems so obvious. Being able to go outside and see the holy Temple should be proof enough that God means business. How much more convincing did the Jewish people need? Yet, we saw that the Jews could not get it together, and they squandered numerous opportunities to change their ways. There are various reasons for the destructions of the Temples and historians have offered many different opinions to explain the events that took place. Some of these reasons were based on military issues, while some had to do more with the actions of the Jewish people themselves. In both cases, it is clear that a lack of leadership played a significant role in the Jewish downfalls.
Towards the end of the first Temple era until its destruction, the Jewish kingdom had eight different kings. While they were not all evil, most of these rulers set poor examples for their people, and plunged their kingdoms to new lows. The first Temple’s destruction in 586 BCE was the culmination of years of the downwards spiral. While blame cannot be placed squarely with the Jewish kings, the Jews as a nation have always looked to our leadership for direction. When we have had effective leaders, the Jews have prospered, but when we have been led by unethical and incompetent leaders, the Jews have experienced crushing lows. This pattern is no accident. Strong leaders can make the difference in our lives.
Sitting in shul, my mind raced forward to today. I started to think about my own actions if I were living during the times of the destructions. Would I have been able to look past the poor leadership and the actions of my friends to behave properly? I would like to think that the answer would be “yes” but to be honest, I have to say that I am not so sure. We have all heard the phrase “everyone is doing it.” Many of the Jews who lived during the time of the Temples definitely behaved improperly, but were they all terrible people? Could a better king have led to a different outcome? What if the events leading up to the destructions were happening today? What could we do to make sure that we did things differently?
It is difficult to answer this question, but I think that we must look to our own leaders to provide proper examples. We must ensure that the people we place in charge are acting the same way that we would want our children to act. There have been so many stories over the past several years about Jewish leaders who have let us down because of criminal and immoral actions. While these stories are terrible, what is even worse is that many of these people have been defended by members of their communities. Some, even after being exposed are still in these positions of power. We as a people must set the bar higher.
Leadership is a responsibility that must be taken seriously. We may not even realize it, but we all look to our leaders for inspiration and to lead us down the correct paths. These may be our religious leaders, political leaders, or even our educational leaders. About two years ago, I was speaking to a long time school principal who had clearly lost interest in his position. He basically admitted to me (a stranger) that he was simply riding out the next two years so he could collect his full retirement benefits. When this principal told me this, I was literally speechless. This person was a respected member of his community, and I knew for a fact that an entire community of people looked to this person for advice and guidance in Jewish education. Here we are around two years later and that person is still, somehow “riding it out.” The members of this community are not dumb people. They are well educated people who invest a great deal of money and other resources into their community’s Jewish education. Yet, the person they have entrusted as their leader, clearly has no passion or interest in his position. Imagine what this community’s school could become with an effective and interested leader. Imagine what a real leader could do to strengthen the Jewish education that this school is providing.
For better or worse, a strong leader can make the difference. The Jews living at the time of the Temples stood by and let their leaders lead them towards a path of doom. They ignored the words of Jeremiah, and they ignored what deep down, they probably knew was the wrong way. Today, thousands of years later, we really have not learned our lessons. We still support leaders who have led us in the wrong directions. We still condone unethical and immoral behaviors that we know are wrong. What will it take for us to wake up? Clearly, the destructions of 2 Temples was not enough. Is there anything that can reverse this pattern?
The Sages teach us that our God is a God of mercy. We know from our own history that God always provides us opportunities to change our ways and to repent. It is never really too late to reverse our actions. Maybe this year will be the year. Maybe, we can make this Tisha B’Av our last day of mourning.
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