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Devarim/Hazon 5783      August 6, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom – It is good to be back; it was no fun at all being sick.

     My good friend and colleague, Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein of Jerusalem reminded me of a calendar quirk that I have not thought about for some time. He reminded me that the first day of Pesach and the fast of Tisha B’Av always fall on the same day of the week. This year Pesach began on Shabbat and today is the Ninth of Av, but the fast, because of Shabbat is postponed until tomorrow.

     We might think that there is not much in common, other than the day of the week, between Pesach and Tisha B’Av. Pesach is about our redemption from Egyptian slavery and Tisha B’Av takes place some five hundred or more years later when the Temple in Jerusalem, both the first Temple and the Second Temple, were destroyed. Pesach is a holiday of joy and celebration. Tisha B’Av is about sorrow and fasting, a fast day second only to Yom Kippur. Rabbi Silverstein reminded me that there is more to these two days than we might see at first glance.

     The first night of Pesach is marked, as we all know, by a Seder. We hold a meal in our home, surrounded by family and friends and the point of the meal is to use the foods we eat to tell the story of our liberation from slavery. Maror is about the bitterness of slavery. Haroset represents the mortar for the bricks we used to build the storehouses when we were slaves. Salt water represents the tears of the slaves as they endured their cruel bondage and Matza represents both the bread we ate as slaves, as well as the bread of freedom, a liberation that came upon us so quickly that we did not have time to let our bread rise. We sing songs of joy about the miracles of the plagues as well as the great crossing of the Sea of Reeds. We drink four cups of wine to recall the four promises of redemption that God made to our ancestors, and we eat and drink not as modern citizens, but as if we were the ones who experienced the great redemption; and we are teaching our children the story of our people.

     Tisha B’Av is a vastly different day. We read the book of Eicha/Lamentations, songs of despair as our people watched the Temple, the center of our faith, go up in flames. It speaks of the horrors of war and the desperation of siege. The book paints a picture of horror that we can see with our own eyes if we look at the devastation of Ukraine in its war with Russia. The terrible war crimes that one people inflict on those they wish to conquer.

     Tisha B’Av is a fast day. How can we eat when we have witnessed such devastation? How can we go out wearing leather shoes when our people were sent barefoot into exile? How can we enjoy the luxuries of life when everything was taken from those who defended Jerusalem? It is a custom that as the day of disaster approaches, we do not even eat meat, a sign of the depravations they endured during the last days of the siege. Pesach and Tisha B’Av are two vastly different days on the Jewish calendar. Other than falling on the same day of the week, how could they possibly be related?

     But they are. Pesach is about the story of the Jewish People. It is our story of origin. We do not celebrate the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, nor do we honor Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, or Leah. It is only in Egypt that the twelve tribes were forged into a nation, a nation that would evolve into the Jewish People that still live on today. When we left Egypt, we became a nation. When we received the Torah at Sinai, we became a holy people. This is our history. It is our own version of the Fourth of July. We celebrate our Freedom and what our people stand for; One God, Justice, Kindness, and Peace.

     Tisha B’Av marks the end of our nation. All that we stood for. All that we believed, all that was central to our identity, was destroyed. It is not just about animal sacrifices. Tisha B’Av marks the end of our freedom as a nation. We would be oppressed and suffer for some two thousand years until the State of Israel would be founded and even then, we would fight too many wars to preserve our freedom and what we believe. Tisha B’Av marks the end of our story, or what should have been the end of our story. It marks the beginning of our fight for survival in the face of one persecution after another.

     These years of persecution, which culminate in the Holocaust, seemed to have become a Jewish identity for many Jews; a nation of mourners; a nation in tatters, and nation in tears. When I learned the lesson of the race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma that destroyed what was then the “Black Wall Street” I understood exactly that experience. I could recall the Inquisition in Spain, the Cossacks of Ukraine, the Pogroms of Russia, the ghettos of Europe with its rumors of Jews causing the Black Death and the Blood Libels that destroyed homes, synagogues, and schools and then one exile after another as we left behind everything except our books and our traditions. Tisha B’Av came to symbolize all of that, along with the destruction of the Temple.

     Rabbi Silverstein writes, Tisha b’Av is not a day exclusively dedicated to mourning physical loss and destruction. The Temple in Jerusalem may be gone but the spiritual Temple in each of us continues on, but without the perpetuation of our story, what makes us who we are, it, too, stands no chance and will turn to rubble. It is not easy being Jewish, being part of a minority with a different story from those who surround us - who express ourselves differently. The Torah reminds us that it was never easy being different. Still, losing one’s sense of identity and one’s story is too tragic and too sad to even mourn.”

     The physical Temple may be gone, and we are no longer interested in reviving animal sacrifices as was once done there, but we can still carry in our hearts a spiritual Temple, a Temple built on who we are as a people and what we stand for. We can recreate the great glory days of Israel if we but remember the stories of Pesach. The story of our liberation, the story of the miracle of our birth as a nation. The story of our redemption from slavery so we could receive the Torah and serve only God. Is the story WE tell one of miracles and redemption or is it the story of Tisha B’Av, the story of death and destruction?

     What is YOUR Jewish story? What is the story we live as we live our lives as Jews? What makes us different from the others among whom we live? Do we live a story of death and sorrow, or do we live a life of spirituality and joy? Is our faith one that is a history of one Tisha B’Av after another or is it a story of redemption and freedom? Who are we? Pesach or Tisha B’Av? Are we rebuilding our faith or living in it ruins? That is a decision that we must make as Jews in the modern world.

     Rabbi Silverstein has his own way of describing our choices: “The questions we ask are real and will remain so, but for many of us, to live in a void, without a story, without meaning and purpose, without a sense of grand appreciation, awe and a sense of blessing, despite the doubts, is no less difficult. Still, there is also comfort in being part of tradition that offers us the ability to challenge, question, and explore and to know that this is something that Jews have done since Judaism’s very inception, in the Torah itself, in the Tanakh and throughout our sacred literature. Judaism’s heroes have been questioners and challengers and this is, part and parcel, of what it means to be a Jew.” 

     There is pride and faith that comes with a life lived according to Jewish principles. We sometimes think that there are only two choices, to live rigidly observant or to live a fully secular life. Even in Israel, Jews believe that these are the only options available to them. There are those who want to play it both ways; they want others to hold on to an extreme fundamentalism while they enjoy a secular life.

     But Rabbi Silverstein is right. When we do not have a story of our own to tell; when we do not have a story of faith, revelation, redemption, and prayer, we can undermine our own spiritual temple and find ourselves living in the ruins of what used to be. It takes a certain amount of work to live as Conservative/Masorti Jews; to study, to contemplate, to practice and challenge, to find the right faith to fit our lives. We must, every day, think about how our life, how the way we live, speaks to what it means for us to be a Jew.

     I understand that I am preaching here to the choir. You have made the decision to spend Shabbat Morning in prayer and Torah study. Each of us has our reasons for spending this precious time on the weekend reaching for a connection to God and to our faith. I really cannot complain because you even stick around and listen to me as I try and teach everyone some new lesson in faith every week. It is frankly miraculous that all of us find our way to these seats on a Saturday morning and open our hearts and minds to what Judaism has to offer us.

     But I am going to challenge everyone for just a bit more. To think about Judaism on a day other than Shabbat. How would our lives be different if we were available for daily minyan? What would it mean to us to be more aware of what we eat? Could we wear, every day a token of our personal faith? Maybe a Star of David, an Israeli flag pin or even, (dare I say it) a kipa out in public? How would that change the way we practice our Judaism when it is clear to everyone that we are Jewish? When all that we do reflects not only on ourselves but on our faith as well.

     The Temple is destroyed when we let it lie in ruins in our hearts. We can rebuild it through every Jewish action, every Mitzvah that we perform. Tisha B’Av also marks seven weeks until Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. If we genuinely want to live a better Jewish life in the new year, now is a suitable time to start practicing, to start trying out the moments of faith that we wish to bring into our lives. It is not for me to tell everyone what to do. We each must search our souls and find one more way we can light the spark of Yiddishkeit in our hearts. We can put one more stone back into its place in the ruins of the Temple. Which stone would YOU choose?

     May God always help us find our way closer to Torah, closer to faith and closer to God. As we say….   Amen and Shabbat Shalom

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