Exactly one year ago, a particularly awful scene descended on Jerusalem. It was the evening of Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning for all of the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history, especially the destruction of the First and Second Temples
Men and women gathered together at the Egalitarian Section of the Kotel, the Western wall, to observe the holiday by chanting Eichah, the Book of Lamentations. This is the site designated as Ezrat Yisrael, the courtyard of Israel, by the Israeli government, where men and women can gather together in worship. It is located underneath Robinson’s Arch, just South of the main plaza in front of the Kotel. The service was organized and hosted by the Conservative movement.
Suddenly, hundreds of young yeshiva students, breached the area. They forcibly took over, cursing and screaming at the worshippers. They put up a mechitza, a barrier to separate men and women, and began singing songs of devotion to Jerusalem.
Just a month and a half ago, as several families celebrated Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at the Egalitarian Kotel, a similar scene recurred. Again, services were interrupted by a group of hardline Orthodox extremists. The students overran the worshippers, took over the site, tore up siddurim, and shouted insults at the worshippers, calling them “Nazis” and “Christians.” One hooligan was even caught on camera blowing his nose into a page from the siddur with God’s name written on it.
During both episodes, the police charged with security at the Kotel area stood by and watched.
The latter incident drew particularly fierce criticism from many circles, including Prime Minister Lapid, who personally called one of the young people who was celebrating his Bar Mitzvah.
As this year’s observance of Tisha B’Av nears, these two Chilul Hashem’s, desecrations of God’s name, haunt us. As we celebrate Shabbat this morning here in San Jose, in Israel, the fast has already begun.
The Rabbis explain that the second Temple was destroyed on account of sin’at chinam, the senseless hatred of Jew against Jew. Indeed, the historical record indicates that there were numerous factions of Jews living within the walls of the besieged city of Jerusalem. Josephus reports that they fought against each other even more fiercely than against the Romans.
It is certainly true that we can be our own worst enemies.
The Jewish Torah reading cycle is constructed so that this morning’s parashah, Devarim, always occurs right before Tisha B’Av. The Torah portion begins with the words:
אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־כׇּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּעֵ֖בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן
These are the words which Moses spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the JordanDeuteronomy 1:1
The introduction seems innocuous enough, but most of the commentaries explains that Moses is issuing words of tokhekha, rebuke. He has gathered the Israelites together just before they are to enter the Promised Land. Knowing he will not be going with them, he delivers a series of warnings, essentially pleading with them to stay the course and not screw up when he is gone.
Maybe it’s the era in which we are living, but I tend to favor the carrot over the stick as a way to influence behavior. On the surface, though, Moses, and God, offer far more criticism of the Israelites than praise.
Throughout Deuteronomy, Moses tries to influence the Israelites’ behavior by pointing out all of their past mistakes, telling them how they are going to continuing screwing up, and threatening them with punishment if they do not do better.
Doesn’t he know that members of the most effective teams, not to mention successful marriages, give each other at least five positive comments for every negative one?
According to a number of commentators, however, Moses hides more positive messages within his words of admonishment.
The Vilna Gaon, the great eighteenth century Rabbi, claims that the expression el-kol-Yisrael contains Moses’ essential message. All we have to do is add an extra letter lamed. Kol – kaf, lamed – meaning “all,” should actually be read as k’lal – kaf, lamed, lamed – meaning “entirety,” as in k’lal Yisrael. Moses is appealing to the Jewish people in its absolute entirety, assembled before him in body and in spirit. He tells us that unity should reside amongst us, that we should be umah achat, k’lal Yisrael — one nation, the Jewish people in its entirety.
Of course, whenever someone appeals for unity, they usually have in mind that it is their opponents who are to blame for causing division; that their opponents are the ones who ought to change, to conform to our own vision of what things should look like. If we look at those who were overrunning the Kotel, that is exactly the kind of language that they are using under the mantle of K’lal Yisrael. But when I look at that scene, I see one group of people minding their own business and another group of people trying to forcibly change the other. So we seem to have a disagreement on what it means to be a unified Jewish people everywhere around the world.
Again focusing on the expression el-kol-Yisrael, the Hassidic Rebbe, Simchah Bunim, declares that “the words which Moses spoke” were fitting “to all of Israel,” that is to say, to each individual person according to their own qualities and level, understanding and comprehension, everyone according to their own measure.
Simchah Bunim, like the Vilna Gaon, also sees this as an inclusive statement. But rather than focus on the totality of the nation, in which the individual is subsumed within the collective, he highlights the uniqueness of each person. Moses, as the greatest of our teachers, reaches every single person in a way that is uniquely suited to their own personality and capability. The message of Torah is too important to risk leaving anyone behind.
This is a view which recognizes and accepts difference. Unity does not mean that everyone must conform to the same ideal. Unity means that everyone has access to the Torah, according to their own capabilities.
A later Chassidic teacher, Reb Yehudah Leib Eiger, brings the universal and the individual together. Yehudah Leib, also sees Moses’ rebuke being directed to K’lal Yisrael, the collective totality of the Jewish people.
But then he explains that the k’lal is holy and exalted. Creation itself depends on the unity of the Jewish people. If k’lal Yisrael were to become detached from holiness for even one moment, the world would return to tohu vavohu – primordial chaos.
So there is much at stake in Jewish unity.
Then he offers an incredibly uplifting message. He suggests that being part of the k’lal should be a great consolation to every sinner amongst the Jewish people. For even though I may be filled with sins, full of imperfections, I am never disconnected from the source, as long as I am part of k’lal Yisrael.
Of course, he describes all of us. To be human is to be full of sins. But we really on each other, k’lal Yisrael, to hold each other up, give each other hope, and sustain the world.
Today is actually the ninth of Av. Since we do not fast on Shabbat (except for Yom Kippur), we delay our observance.
Even though we are pushing off the fast until tonight and tomorrow, perhaps we should be toning things down a bit from our regular Shabbos joy. The Talmud considers this question and offers a definitive answer. If the ninth of Av occurs on Shabbat, a person may eat and drink as much as one needs, even putting on a meal as lavish as that of King Solomon in his day. (Taanit 29b)
Reb Yehudah Leib Eiger explains that the Talmud’s reference to King Solomon’s table contains a hidden message. In building the First Temple, King Solomon introduced an element of redemption to the world. The Temple was the conduit, the pipe, through which salvation flowed into the world. Modeled on King Solomon’s table, our feasting on Tisha B’av, when it falls on Shabbat, also can serve as an awakening of redemption for the world.
Our traditions considers a Shabbat on which Tisha B’av falls to be the absolute holiest Shabbat of the year, for it offers a flame in the darkness. It reveals the good that is usually hidden within the sorrow.
But we should not think about this as some magical quality that is the result of the vagaries of the calendar. It is a message for us to be that light, to find that spark amidst the darkness in our world.
In the end, we each have to choose to be part of k’lal Yisrael.
On a day when there is so much disunity not just in the world, but even among the Jewish people; on a day when we know that there is so much antisemitism in the world, and when Israel at this moment is fighting Islamic Jihad in Gaza; our prayer is that we should be able to heed Moses’ message: first of all to be a k’lal Yisrael, a united people; but also to recognize that a k’lal is comprised of lots and lots of individuals. Our primary focus should not be on judging our neighbors, but should be on working on ourselves, and taking strength from our neighbors.
If we do that, maybe we can serve as that conduit to bring redemption to the world. I pray that we merit, that we become deserving of being k’lal Yisrael, of being a united people of Israel.