Thursday, 26 Jul 2012

Written by Alasdair Nisbet

At last, after six years of waiting and nearly £10 billion spent the Olympics are upon us.  The opening ceremony on Friday night, we are told, will be a very British affair that will also celebrate the coming together of many nations, colours and creeds. I hope that we have a successful games for the competitors but also for London and Britain.

I am delighted that the Leo Baeck College will be represented by our Principal Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris who will be one of the Jewish chaplains in the Olympic village. 

Within all this festivity we Jews commemorate Tisha B’Av on Sunday.  This is the day when we remember the destruction of the Temple both by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then the Romans in 70 CE. We also remember the atrocities that have been carried out against Jews through the ages, many that became associated with this date.

It seems a fitting occasion to remember the Israeli athletes who were murdered in 1972. The poignancy of a tragedy to Jews in Munich,  the City that celebrated the Nazi ideal under the Olympic Rings seems lost on the non-Jewish world. I welcome the ideal to keep politics out of sport but the Olympic Games, by their very nature, is the biggest global sporting occasion and provides plenty of opportunity for politics.  Whether it is the spats between America and Russia that prevented athletes attending the others games to China wanting to make a statement about its arrival as a superpower.

This Shabbat we read the third Haftarah that prepares us for the commemoration of Tisha b’Av on Sunday.  It is from the beginning of the book of Isaiah warning the people to return to God or the army of King Sennacherib of Assyria, who threatened Jerusalem during the reign of King Hezekiah in about 700 BCE, would destroy them.  Despite laying waste to much of Judea the Assyrians were however never successful in capturing Jerusalem and eventually withdrew (2 Kings 18).

Traditionally, Jews fast on Tisha B’Av and read the Megilah of Lamentations (Echah meaning ‘alas’ in Hebrew and referred to as kinot in the Talmud).  The book, attributed to Jeremiah, is made up of five separate poems that seem to have been written soon after the destruction of the first Temple.  

All of the chapters have a similar theme – Jerusalem was destroyed because its people had strayed from God and were being punished.

“Jerusalem has greatly sinned, therefore she has become a mockery.  All who admired her despise her, for they have seen her disgraced” Lam 1:8

“The punishment of thine iniquity is accomplished, O daughter of Zion. He will no more carry thee away to captivity: He will punish thine iniquity, O daughter of Edom, He will uncover thy sins”. Lam 4:22

In the third chapter, a triple acrostic, there is some hope in verses 22-41.

“Adonai is good to those who trust in Him, to the one who seeks Him” Lam 3:25

There is even a warning for Olympic athletes.

“Alas, the Gold is dulled, debased the finest gold!” Lam 4:1

I have a problem with the theology of Lamentations that suggests that Jerusalem was punished by God for the iniquity of its people. Throughout the ages society has blamed the victim and often blamed the Jews.  Countless times it has been said about anti-Semitism that the Jews “bring it upon themselves” whether it is killing Christ, or being too rich, or being mean. The excuses are many but none are true or acceptable.

Sadly, we live in an imperfect world with much pain and suffering both today and in our long history.  Jews are not the only people to suffer but we have had a good share.

“But there is hope. There is hope because even in times of deepest darkness, there was courage, compassion and decency; the human spirit was not entirely defeated, and a remnant of our people has survived…The moral law, which rules history, assures that ultimately the world will be changed into the better world that God’s rule requires.” Siddur Lev Chadash p380-1

Despite the adversity, Jews and Judaism have remained, they have not been lost but have responded by adapting.  The Talmud is a response to the needs of the people after the destruction of the Temple, the diaspora has taken place because the Romans forced it, as did other countries later.  Progressive Judaism has flourished, perhaps less from adversity, and surely the State of Israel arose from the ashes of the Holocaust.

So this weekend, I will enjoy the Olympics but I will find time to remember the murdered athletes.  I will also take time to read the moving service for Tisha B’Av in Siddur Lev Chadash and I plan to listen to Leonard Bernstein’s First Symphony that finishes with a mezzo-soprano singing excerpts from Lamentations.  I will also celebrate the fact that the Jewish people still exists and within it Progressive Judaism is thriving and growing.

To end the Megilah of Lamentations on a high note, it is traditional to repeat the penultimate verse.  This verse, Hashivanu, we also sing as we close the ark at the end of the Torah service.

“Take us back, Adonai, to Yourself, and let us come back; renew our days as of old!” Lam 5:21

I would add – Take us back Adonai, to yourself, and help us to a better future.

Shabbat shalom

Alasdair Nisbet
Chairman of Leo Baeck College
July 2012

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.