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Mattot- Maasay: July 14, 2018

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

This is the second Shabbat between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. Two fast days on the Jewish calendar that mark the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, once in the year 587 BCE and the again in 70 CE. These fast days are much older than Jerusalem; they have their roots in the journey of the People of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land. The 17th of Tammuz was the day that Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and saw the people worshipping the golden calf. The 9th of Av was the day that the Spies came back and told the people that the Promised Land was populated by giants and they could never conquer the land. The Israelites cried all night and God said, “If you are crying tonight for no good reason, I will give you a reason to cry on this night” and they were all sentenced to die in the wilderness and only the next generation would inherit the land.

For thousands of years, this time of year, the three weeks between the two fast days are a time where we refrain from having celebrations. And on these last nine days, from the first of Av until after the ninth, except for Shabbat, we are not allowed to eat meat. There is a long list of bad things that have happened to the Jewish people during these three weeks and we use this time as a season of sadness as we remember the painful parts of our past.

But what does this season mean to us? We were not present in the wilderness when our people sinned. We were not in Jerusalem when the Temple was destroyed either time. We were not victims of tragedy as were so many Jews in our history. What are we to learn from our fasting and from the history of what has befallen our people? We live in an age of miracles. Israel is reborn. Jerusalem is reunited. Israel is strong and prosperous. Any Jew anywhere in the world can find a refuge in Israel. Are there still lessons to be learned from this sad time of the year?

There is a story told about the siege of Jerusalem during the Roman wars. According to the Midrash, there was plenty of food and water in the city to feed the people for many years. They were ready for a long, long siege. But the Roman general was very clever. He had moved slowly toward Jerusalem, fighting many battles along the way. He was pushing the Jewish Rebels back toward Jerusalem. Now, the many Jewish factions of the rebellion were all stuck together inside the city. And they could not get along at all. Each of the factions had their own thoughts about how to defeat the Romans. The Romans sat and waited as the Jews fought among themselves. The Midrash states that one group, to push the other groups into a confrontation with Rome, burned all the stores of food so that in their hunger, the other factions would see things their way. It was not long until famine raged within the city and slowly the defenders became too weak to fight.

Israeli politics and American politics are very similar today. Each group thinks that their way is the only way that the country should go. Each group of Jews believes that there is only one right way to practice Judaism. Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch, the Dean of the Rabbinical School at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem recently spoke on this issue and he noted that people tend to look at Judaism at some point in their life and then make a decision about how committed to the religion they want to be. Then they go out and tell everyone that “I made my decision and therefore it is the only right decision possible. Judaism has to be this way and everyone else is wrong!”

It was thought, in this era of Social Media, that everyone would have a chance to say what they like about the way they see the world. It was thought that Social Media; Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc. would make conversations on any topic possible. It has not turned out that way at all. I am sure that no one here has a large presence on Social Media but if you did, it would not make you freer to say whatever you like; it would make you less free. It is not only children who are bullied online. Whenever someone posts something that others disagree with, they can mobilize thousands of other people to bombard your account with scathing replies that not only question your opinion but question your right to state your opinion. They question your right to even post on social media. They can accuse you of all manner of questionable behavior, they can threaten your family, they can threaten your job and they can even encourage you to just end it all and kill yourself. It is not always a pretty world online. And worst of all, the entire sordid affair will be recorded online forever, so anyone can look up what we once said and quote it back to us even years after it no longer makes a difference.

The lesson of Tisha b’Av is that the destruction was brought about because the different factions in Jerusalem were not able to talk to each other. They were not interested in hearing what the other groups had to say. They did not care if the other Jews had a valid opinion or not. If you did not think like they did, then clearly you were wrong and you either should change your mind or just die. After all, the only thing the different factions agreed on was the rule that the only people who were permitted to leave Jerusalem during the siege were those who were already dead.

On the tenth day of Av, while Jerusalem was burning, the Jews finally found a way to talk to each other. Once it was too late. Once the Romans had decided that all the factions were wrong and that the only rule was now Roman rule, only then did the Jews finally listen to each other and they eventually coalesced around Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and created the Judaism that we know today, one that is based on the unity of the Jewish people and not on a Temple or sacrifices.

Must this be the only way human beings can learn to listen to each other? Must we meet disaster before we can learn to hear the positions of others with the idea that perhaps there may be some truth in what they have to say, and it may raise points that we have not yet considered? But it is not just the opinions of others that we have to hear. When we really listen to other people, we also have to hear their unspoken dream, their deepest fears and we need to understand the pain that lies behind their words. Why should we think that we can be understood unless we take the time to first understand others?

All of the rituals of Tisha b’Av, the fasting, the reading of Eicha, the sitting on the floor, taking off our leather shoes, the mourning for the Temple and for Jerusalem, all of these are the result of our partisanship, our particularism, our tribalism, that prevents us from hearing and responding to the needs of others. Must these rituals of this sad season be the only way we can remember to pay attention to the needs and pains of others if we want them to hear our needs and what pains us? Today we call this understanding of each other, “civility” but it is more than just being civil, it is about seeing the humanity in others so that those who disagree are not our enemy, but just another person on the journey through life, who may have a different idea of the right way to travel. They deserve to be heard just like we deserve to be heard and sometimes they could be right and sometimes we might be right. We will never know for sure what the correct course might be if we don’t share our ideas. There is always the chance that others may know something that you don’t know. And that something could make all the difference.

The fact of the matter is that there is no one right way to live a life. It may be the right way of living that I espouse may work for me and only me, it could be a tragic disaster for someone else. Everyone has their own right way in life and we need the see the value of their journey as we see the value in our own.

May this season of sadness remind us that it is important that we listen twice as much as we speak (we can also learn this because we have two ears but only one mouth) and let us speak with the understanding that we could be the one who is wrong. May God give us the patience to hear the words and needs of others and may we find unity in our conversations and not just anger. May God bless our conversations so that they bring less strife to the world and more peace. And let us say … Amen

I do want to mention at this time our honoree for today, Jeanne Lowrey, our very own Social Media expert and long-time keeper of our synagogue Facebook page. With quiet humility, she encouraged us to attend services, register for events, make donations and support our BSBI programming. Most of the work she has done is invisible. After all, when we read Facebook we are not thinking about who posted the notices on our synagogue page, but we are reacting to the posts themselves. But behind every post for the past three years, you can find Jeanne working her magic on behalf of our synagogue.  Many times, she guided me on how to use our Social Media accounts to teach and inform our membership.

With the degree she earned this past winter, she is now ready to move on with her life, archiving and working with Libraries as they transition from books to the multi-media world that we now live in. We are grateful for all she has done for us and we are well aware that we could never replace her in the office. Her position will be very different going forward because I don’t think any one person could have done all she has done on behalf of us all.  Thank you, Jeanne, for everything and we all wish you all the best in life.

Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, July 14, 2018.

Wed, January 23 2019 17 Shevat 5779