Matot Masei, Rosh Hodesh Av 5776 - 2016

Post date: Aug 5, 2016 5:19:45 PM

Parashiot Matot and Masei, Numbers 30:2 - 36:13

1 Av 5776 corresponding to 5 August 2016

It is Rosh Hodesh "Menachem" Av as I write this note, the first of nine somber days culminating in the observance of the full fast of the Ninth of Av. We call it "Menachem" (comforting), because the days leading up to and including Tisha B'Av are communal days of grief, and the rest of the month are communal days of reassurance and comfort.

This is unusual when you think of it, that we observe such deeply personal emotions as a community, and not simply a single event, but throughout the year. Indeed, the period following Tisha B'Av are 7 weeks of comfort that culminate with the High Holidays, which are days of communal confession and forgiveness.

Rather than thinking that we are commanded to feel grief, it helps me to understand this as a command to recognize and empathize with the pain all around us. The sages of the Talmud teach us further, that at the root of much of that pain is not external conditions over which we have no control, but internecine hatred, for which we, again, as a community, must take ultimate responsibility. The more this presidential election season unfolds, the more obvious is the wisdom of our sages.

My messages about the parsha of the week frequently lead to the core Jewish (really human) principle of taking responsibility for one's actions, but this season, from Rosh Hodesh Av, through Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the communal thanksgiving of Sukkot, is an emphatic reminder that the larger principle in Judaism is to build a sacred society (Am Kadosh) in which we care for one another, in which the weak are made stronger, in which no one is marginalized, where there is equal justice for all, but it is tempered by compassion.

In fact, that goal of bringing us together as a community, is central to virtually every major Jewish practice, from kashrut to Shabbat. It is the first lesson at the beginning of the Torah, "pru ve'urvu" (be fruitful and multiply), and at the close of the Torah, where we bury our dead.

Coming back to the current presidential race, polls have shown that we, as a nation, have become significantly more politically polarized in the last 3 decades. The acrimony has been increasing dramatically. This election, I have witnessed the acrimony leveled not only against the presidential candidates, but at their supporters as well. Words like "racist" and "traitor" are thrown without regard to their meaning or their effect. It should be unacceptable.

When we shout the other side down, when we refuse to see the valid core of truth animating the people with whom we disagree politically, when we try to humiliate one another for the political choices which are our basic right within the framework of the laws of this country, we do a disservice to ourselves and to our future.

It is understood by most that our freedoms are inextricably tied to equally important responsibilities. I used to think that the responsibility accompanying the freedom of speech (or expression) is to create and maintain an environment in which people could freely express themselves. But a brilliant modern philosopher (whose name escapes me) said, No, the responsibility that accompanies free speech is the obligation to listen.

I find that compelling. I refuse to accept that the 40% of US citizens who form the base of either major party, or the other 20% who are undecided or lean different ways, are racists or traitors. By all means, we must argue policies and change laws that are unjust, but let us remember that the people with whom we disagree are people who ultimately want to make this country better, too, and what we are arguing is precisely how to make it better.

All of this comes back to Menachem Av. "Comfort" is a brilliant word. It means, literally, to make strong together. Could there be a better message to us on this Shabbat or any other?

I pray that in the weeks ahead, we have the strength to fight passionately for what we consider to be the best course for our future, and that we exercise with equal passion our responsibility to listen and understand those with whom we disagree.

Shabbat shalom,