Devarim, Tisha B'Av, 2016 - 5776

Post date: Aug 14, 2016 1:09:56 PM


Parshat Devarim

This week we begin the final book of the Torah – the book of Devarim. In general, the book of Devarim reviews all that has happened in the previous four books of the Torah. Scholars in biblical criticism note that this book was likely written much later than the other four, and may have been intended as a summary of sacred texts, in case the sacred texts should become lost or destroyed. In the first parsha in Devarim, God describes all of the conquests that the people of Israel have had over their enemies, and reminds them of what they have overcome up until this point.

This week, however, is not only the beginning of the book of Devarim. This week marks erev Tisha B’av. Last week, Sam wrote beautifully about our obligation to build a society where we care for one another, take responsibility for our actions, and truly listen to the stories of those around us. I want to take a moment this week to build on these ideas.

Tisha B’av, for me, marks not only a day of communal mourning for the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem, but also a day of personal mourning and sadness. It is the yahrzeit of my friend, Mike, who died ten years ago, the day before Tisha B’av. Mike was a vibrant, loving young man who moved from Philadelphia to join the Israeli army at age 19. Mike was loyal and dedicated to everyone in his life, and devoted to keeping the land of Israel a home for Jews around the world. As a chayal boded (a lone soldier) in the Israeli army, Mike was given special leave to visit his family back in the States. On one of these trips, the war in Lebanon broke out. Mike cut his visit short, and returned to his unit on the front lines. Mike was killed in combat, fighting for an ideal he believed in deeply, and a land he loved with all his heart.

After learning of Mike’s death, I felt an uncomfortable amalgam of pride, anger, sadness, and guilt. I asked questions of myself and of God, and struggled to find answers. Why? Why had Mike died? Why had the war happened at all? Is Israel worth fighting for, if fighting means losing loved ones and friends? Why had I not joined the army, too? If I am proud of Mike, am I not brave enough to do what he did?

Tisha B’av brings back these questions every year, and still, I cannot find answers. Sam talked last week about a freedom to speak, and a responsibility to listen. In my professional life, I train to listen – to hear where others are coming from, and to honor their experiences and points of view. But when the conversations turn to Zionism, after 10 years, I am still left angry and frustrated and unable to hear.

This is where I believe Tisha B’av can be most powerful. It is not a day only to mark sadness, but also a day of deprivation. Deprivation forces us to access those places within ourselves that we bury deep down and keep as hidden as we are able. Deprivation brings out the anger and the sadness, and allows us a chance to sit, albeit uncomfortably, with these feelings. Each year, I return to Mike’s story and feel the same feelings, and ask the same questions. Much like the book of Devarim, Tisha B’av marks, for me, an opportunity to recap all that has happened since that day 10 years ago. I can return to those memories with another year of experiences, knowledge, relationships, and maturity, and revisit the questions that remain unanswered.

My hope is that, one Tisha B’av, I can engage again with the ideas of Zionism – those ideas that drove Mike to join the army, and which I believed in whole-heartedly years ago. Growing up, I understood Zionism to be an ideal - Jews living, working, and growing old in a place all their own. Living in a country ruled by Christian ideology, Israel was a place I could belong and feel safe. Like all ideals, my ideal of Zionism did not hold up to the test of time.

This Tisha B’av, I also hope that I can learn to listen to people’s perspectives and stories, and participate in dialogue that brings the Jewish community closer together and closer to peace with our neighbors. When our emotions are so strong that they cloud our thinking, we are unable to engage in meaningful conversations. It becomes impossible truly hear that which another is saying, because coping with our own pain or anger or sadness has taken over all of our mental space.

This year, on Tisha B’av, I hope that we can all find that place within ourselves where we have buried things deeply – that place where our emotions prevent us from listening and engaging – and bring something out in the open to question. The questions may not be answered, but we must begin by allowing ourselves to ask them. Asking these questions now gives us the opportunity to take all that we have gained over our lives, and return to those memories that cause us pain and anguish. The memories cannot change, but our ability to engage with the thoughts, feelings, and ideas that come from those memories can.

It is by no means an easy task. But, if we can try just on this one day, then perhaps, over time, we will all be better able to hear one another.

-Yvonne Asher