Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Entering the Three Weeks

Once, I went to large suburban Conservative shul for Tisha B'Av. It was the least sad Tisha B'Av service I've ever attended, mostly because no one seemed to know exactly why they were there. This included the rabbi, who delivered a (mercifully short) sermon addressing the age-old question: Why should we mourn the destruction of the Temple?

Every year, I'm sure, many rabbis in many synagogues deliver sermons on this subject. The question is particularly troubling to leaders of progressive congregations who tend to think that the termination of animal sacrifice was a good thing. So they think about it, like good intellectuals, and they come up with answers like the one that this rabbi came up with: it's not the building itself that we're mourning, but the unity that it symbolized.

Now, I'm all for unity, and some of my closest friends are vegetarians. But I'll be frank: if that's the best answer you can come up with, you've either never read Eicha (Lamentations), or you've forgotten it.

Eicha is about the destruction of the Temple, yes. And it's about the loss of unity and national pride that the Jewish people suffered as a consequence. All this is very important, and we should think about it on Tisha B'Av. Most of all, though, Eicha is about the unspeakable suffering that human beings inflict on one another. That is why, no matter what you think of Jewish nationalism or animal sacrifice, you can't read Eicha without grieving.

I mention this now because we've just entered the Three Weeks, a period of mourning that begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz (this past Tuesday), and culminates in Tisha B'Av. It is during these weeks, in the year 586 B.C.E., that the transition from a long and painful siege to full-scale slaughter took place. These weeks are related to the destruction of the Temple, but they're not quite about it, so if we are going to focus on the human side of this historic tragedy, now is the time.

There is a lot to think about. Every day, war and terrorism claim more victims. There is a slow-motion genocide going on in Sudan. When we read Eicha this year, the words will resonate.

Isaiah (58:5-7) tells us that when we focus exclusively on fasting and mourning, we're missing the point. We're supposed to be feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and freeing the oppressed. I'm not very good at remembering to do these things, but maybe if you all plug your pet tikkun olam projects in the comments, you'll embarrass me into taking action. God knows, the world is desperately in need of repair.

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