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National Despair

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During these Three Weeks which we are presently experiencing on the Jewish calendar, we are not just marking the historical destruction of our Temples in Jerusalem which threw us into the tragedies of the Diasporas. We are marking these very tragedies, the very events and occurrences which we also continue to experience in our present day and which reflect the ongoing evils that brought about the destructions of our Temples and these very misfortunes and calamities, both personal and national, that we continue to confront. As such, it is not an easy time. The laws associated with this time call upon us to focus on the evils that surround us and which only cause pain – and to mourn their continued existence.

I have always found it interesting how some people wish to mark this time, and the specific observance of Tisha B’Av (the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av on which the Temples were actually destroyed) with programs that mirror the tragic works of literature that bring forth catharsis. While I always understood how such endeavours developed, still I found them not truly in the spirit of this time. People watch and read such works despite their sad nature for they bring out this experience of catharsis which people seem to find beneficial. The Three Weeks and Tisha B’Av have no such catharsis. They reflect the ultimate statement of despair. The evil yielding this pain is not redemptive; it simply exists. This time period simply calls upon us to face this reality.
 
There is an interesting theory within the study of medieval Jewish history which attempts to explain how the forced movement of Jews from country to country in this time period may have actually further increased their persecution. When Jewish communities were forced to re-locate, their members became more vigilant in their attempts to bond with the resident population. While they always attempted to be good neighbours and help all, Jew or non-Jew, they felt they even had to do more so that the natural citizens would see that the Jews also wanted to connect, fit in and be part of the general society. This, they felt, should result in the community not being exiled again.
 
The result, however, was just the opposite. As Jews began to develop positive relationships with their Christian neighbours, helping them in so many ways, these neighbours began to wonder why their Church was so critical of the Jews. A Christian woman, for example, would go to her priest wondering why her Jewish neighbour, Sarah, is so condemned within the faith. Sarah was wonderful in helping her give birth and then took care of her kids while she recuperated. Sarah was obviously a good person so why is she going to Hell? Similar queries regarding the Jews kept coming up over and over again.
 
The priests faced with this theological conundrum didn’t know what to do so they went to their archbishops for answers and so on up the line. The Jews were a problem. They were not acting as they should be, i.e. broken and withdrawn, but were actually behaving with the highest standards of a connecting humanity. This challenged the whole, simple Christian understanding of good and evil. The Cardinal then came up with an answer: we need to force the Jews to withdraw and avoid contact with their neighbours and, in that way, we can prevent them from being seen as good. The answer, as such, was a pogrom to get the Jews to stop being nice to their neighbours. And so, the persecution began again even as the Jews wanted to end it by just reaching out to all their neighbours with caring.
 
This is also, actually, the world we live in. Whatever you do, sometimes you just can’t win. This is what the Jew considers during the Three Weeks and especially on Tisha B’Av. No matter what you do, the result can be negative. You try to do what is good and right and it is interpreted and read as wrong.
 
The reality is that people want simple answers but the world, though, is actually complex. Torah recognizes this and so Jewish morality reflects this complexity of life. This is the reality of a belief in One God, that everything comes from One God. It is a challenge to comprehend and properly actualize through our behaviour and thoughts. Many people, as such, even as they may pursue an ethical agenda, can only do so in a framework of simplicity which then results in possible other evils and, for sure, a rejection of this reality of complexity. This was actually the very basis for idolatry and its simple promotion of one view without a consideration of others. As Jews have always stood for this recognition of the One God and the resultant complexity of life (as reflected in our continuous respect for thought), we become the targets of simplicity on all sides. It was actually only when we started to include such a perspective of simplicity within our own perspective that we suffered the fate of the destruction of our Temples.
 
This is why the Three Weeks are such a time of national despair. The worst evils perpetrated in the world were not done by individuals and/or groups motivated by hedonistic drives which we could simply describe as evil. The worst evils were, and are, actually perpetrated by individuals and/or groups who believe that their views are just and good and reflect the highest standards of ethics and morality (as they simplistically define them in a false, one-sided manner). And, invariably, the Jew is always a major target of the hate of such entities for the Jew represents the reminder that a simple reading of what is right is inherently wrong. The result is that we are attacked from all sides. As that Tom Lehrer song from the Sixties concluded: ”And everybody hates the Jews.” This is what we really mark during this time.
 
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see www.nishma.org and nishmablog.blogspot.com. You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.
 
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