1. jimbomack66 on Wikimedia Commons
2. AllaSerebrina on Deposit Photos
4. The US National Archives
This week, I am THRILLED to share with you a D’var Torah that my mother, Debbie, shared with her Executive Board of Women’s League. My mom is a Jewish educator with over half a century of teaching experience. She is also an active member of her synagogue in central New Jersey, and serves (or has served) on countless boards and committees in all aspects of Jewish life. And, quite frankly, I’m a bit embarrassed that I haven’t invited her to guest blog for me sooner!
Jewish calendar is filled with wonderful joyous holidays and days when we
remember some of our victories in Jewish history. But it also has sad and
mournful days when we recall some of the terrible moments in our past. One of
those sad days is coming up this week – on Sunday. It will be Tisha B’Av-
the 9th day of Av. This is a day to remind us of many of the
worst dates in Jewish history which all happened on or close to the 9th of
Some of the major ones are:
- In the second year after the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites listened to the spies and refused to go into the Land of Israel. Their cowardice and lack of faith led them to spend a full 40 years wandering in the desert.
- Many of you may know that in the year 586 BCE the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and the Second Temple by the Roman Emperor Titus in 70 CE; both on or near this date.
- Another lesser known event was the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from England which was signed by King Edward I in 1290 around this date.
- The beginning of the Inquisition in Spain - where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled 100,000 Jews and forced them to board ships to leave Spain -happened also on the 9th of Av.
So we recall these awful incidents by fasting and not drinking for a full day in the middle of the heat of summer. But in the calendar we have actually been building up to remember these terrible events for several weeks. Three weeks prior to Tisha B’Av, we don’t schedule weddings or musical celebrations, we avoid getting haircuts, and we do not buy new clothes. The nine days before the fast day are a more intensive period, beginning on the 1st day of Av, where the custom is to stop eating meat and drinking wine.
Then, on the fast day itself, there are special customs that more intensely show that we are in mourning:
- The meal before the fast is a simple one including boiled eggs and lentils- foods often eaten in a house of mourning.
- We shouldn't bathe or use any skin oils or creams
- lovemaking is prohibited on this day.
- When arriving at the synagogue, people don’t greet one another as they usually do when they come to a service.
- In the synagogue, shoes are not worn, and we sit on the floor or low benches with the lights turned down low, or often just with candles burning to provide dimmed lighting.
- The book of Lamentations - Eicha - is chanted in a low voice using a special plaintive melody. - - The ark is sometimes draped in black shrouds and the Sifrei Torah are also covered in black cloths.
The rabbis of the Talmud also said that there was a strong connection between Tisha B’Av and our duty to others. The First Temple was destroyed, they say, as a punishment, but the Second was destroyed because of causeless hatred. People need to learn to treat each other with love and respect. WE all need to work together - B’yachad - to make this world a better place.
We cannot understand why the terrible things we remember on Tisha B’Av happened – nor why God let them happen. We can not understand why bad things happen to us or our families in general, but as we look back - particularly as we get older - over the history of our people, something becomes clear: We may not be able to find a reason for everything that has happened to us in our past, but Jews have been able to find a lesson in almost everything that happens, and it has helped us become better people. We Jews are still here and we need to work B’yachad, together, to preserve our people and our heritage.
So, what lessons does this fast day have for us? In his book, When a Jew Celebrates, Harry Gersh writes: “The cycle of sorrow and comfort, pain and joy reminds us once again that life is precious and must go on. We remember and we mourn but not for too long. After the mourning we return to our lives once again.” The whole Jewish calendar - the whole Jewish sense of time - is a series of lessons about appreciating life and where we’ve been, while also recognizing and being thankful that we are still here… and, God willing, we will continue to be here for many generations to come.
This week, the Torah wants to teach us the value of multiple perspectives… and in particular emphasizes how critical it is that people who don’t feel seen or acknowledged speak up and advocate on their own behalf. Our specific example comes in the form of five daughters (with wonderfully unpronounceable names…) whose father died in the wilderness before the Israelites could enter the Promised Land. These confident women approach Moses (and God) and point out that since their father is dead, and they have no brothers, their families will receive no land allocation once they enter Canaan. They declare: “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Num. 27:4) Moses brings the matter before God, and God agrees with the daughters.
And from a leadership perspective I think the lesson is equally crucial! You don’t know what others are seeing or feeling. There’s simply no way for you to know! So you have to solicit feedback and create an environment where people feel their input is valued and heard. For me, as a white, straight, cisgender male, I need to invite anyone and everyone to offer their opinions - their own Takes on Torah, if you will… - to enrich and expand my outlook. I can’t know what it looks like from your seat, so please tell me. But it isn’t all on you to speak up. I’m not released from any obligation to be inclusive, just because others haven’t spoken up. It is absolutely my responsibility to create the space and vulnerability for others to know their input is welcome and appreciated. This Biblical story is about one, ancient, brave, trailblazing, confident group of women; but right now, today, we all can truly learn from their example!
Right now, we’re in the Book of Numbers. Parashat Chukat places us in the fortieth year of the Exodus, and the Israelites are getting both very good at, and very sick of, wandering. In chapter 20, we read:
hardships that have befallen us, that our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors… Now we are in Kadesh, the town on the border of your territory. Allow us, then, to cross your country. We will not pass through fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells…’” (14-17)