Thursday, 11 Jul 2013

Written by Rabbi Haim Shalom

This week in synagogue we will commemorate Shabbat Hazon – so called after the first word of the famous haftarah from the beginning of the book of Isaiah, the third haftarah of rebuke leading up to Tisha B’Av – the date which marks the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and later in 70 CE.

This week in the protocols of the elders of the MRJ, the Rabbis were discussing the issue of presumed consent to donate organs, an issue which is currently being debated hotly in political circles, and because of the political debate, we wanted to be able to provide a nuanced and well thought out response ourselves. No conclusion was reached in the on-line discussion – I am sure more debate was had when my colleagues met in London, but the debate itself was an educational experience. Within our one small movement, there were vastly different opinions, and vastly different approaches to the topic. The debate was reasoned and reasonable, sensible and sensitive. Great minds shared wisdom and knowledge and experience and it was a privilege to take part in such a discussion. One thing was clear – though we might fundamentally disagree on the question of presumed consent, we were all motivated by our own understanding of the sanctity of life and the centrality of informed decision. The question we were essentially debating was: “how best to honour the sanctity of life, when death comes?”

A similar question was laid before the feet of Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai in 70 CE, as Jerusalem burned round about him, or so our Talmud tells us1 .  Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai was the leader of the rabbinic faction within Jerusalem as the Romans laid siege to it. The situation was hopeless, and because of the warring factions within the Jewish camp, Jerusalem was deadlocked and unable to mount a united response. Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai had himself smuggled out – by faking his own death, and met the Roman general, Vespasian. He managed to impress him to the point that Vespasian granted him one wish. He could have wished that the Romans spare Jerusalem and stop the war upon the rebellious Jews, but instead he wished to have a Yeshiva set up in the town of Yavneh. The Jewish tradition immortalised his words in the Talmud – “Give me Yavneh and its wise men”. By some, Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai is credited with saving Judaism, allowing for the birth of Talmudic Judaism, and enabling the Jewish people to continue. By others he is considered a turn-coat, who sold out his people for political gain. In his own eyes, according to the Talmud, he was rescuing what could be rescued – continuing to ensure life after death. The Jewish Nation disappeared from the map for nearly 2000 years, but something remained – something was kept alive.

Jerusalem fell because the Jews were unable to get along with each other. Our hatred for each other made it impossible for us to keep our nation together, and so it fell. Traditionally, Jews fast on the 9th of Av as a sign of mourning for the loss of Jerusalem. But we are not truly mourning the loss of Jerusalem – a city of stones and mortar. Stones are not to be worshipped in the Jewish tradition, no matter what certain devotees of the Western Wall would have us believe. Jews mourned the loss of place in the world – the fact that we no longer had a country – a voice with which to be in dialogue with other nations. We no longer had a framework in which we could try and set up a society based on our values – a true testing ground of Torah, where we could try and make a country in which we enshrined the ideal of Torah that all humans are created in the image of G-d, and in which we lived out the founding ethos of the Jewish people that we must never oppress the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We lost this opportunity because of baseless hatred of one another. Our mourning was a grief for the loss of an ideal, a loss of unity, a shattered world which we had shattered.

For this reason it is clear therefore that it is correct that the fast should continue, even though we now have a rebuilt physical Jerusalem. For, although we are once again sovereign, although we now once again have the opportunity to build a state which “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; … will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; … will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture” 2 The state we have is not what we wished for – our continued fast is a mourning for the opportunity missed.

But nevertheless, as we approach Tisha B’Av this year – I ask that we not fast, that we not mourn. Mourning is what one does to grieve. But the situation we have before us is not one of grief – but rather it is an opportunity. Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai saved Jewish life from the ashes nearly 2000 years ago. He hoped for the day when Jerusalem could be rebuilt – physically, but most importantly spiritually. Whether he did the right thing or not is open to debate – whether he could have kept Jerusalem alive, we will never know. What we do know is that today, Jewishness is alive and well, and the future of the Jewish people is once again being decided on the streets of Jerusalem. Not only does Judaism live but so do the Jewish people – am Yisrael chai. Tisha B’Av is a reminder that to be Jewish is to be active. We must not stand idly by.

When the prophet Zechariah was asked during the time of the second commonwealth, whether the people should still observe Tisha B’Av, he replied that the fast that G?d desired was a fast of Justice. He enjoined the Judeans to devote themselves to Judaism’s holy trinity – the orphan, the stranger and the widow – the symbols of those in society who need its protection. So this Tisha B’Av, I will be thinking about the ability to continue life after death, but most of all I hope to stir myself to fight for a society where we can join together to build communities of love and hope and drive out baseless hatred. Hope, not Hate, must be the legacy of our tragedy.

Rabbi Haim Shalom
Ordained Hebrew Union College Jerusalem 2010


1 Gittin, 56a-b

2 From the Israeli declaration of Independence


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