February 23, 2020

Commemorating Sorrows

“Every head is ailing, and every heart is sad” (Isaiah 1.5).
We read these words in this week’s haftarah for Shabbat Khazon (Sabbath of Vision),
the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av. The words seem especially poignant and true these past few weeks, as we watch in angst as events unfold in Israel, Lebanon and Gaza.

A friend recently sent me an e-mail that she and her family will return, weeks early from their summer sojourn in Jerusalem. Not a good sign for those of us waiting to see if we’ll be able to depart for Jerusalem as scheduled on July 30.
A group of my congregants and I have been planning for a year to join thousands of others in Jerusalem for WorldPride, an interfaith gathering of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people and our allies from all over the world for a week of learning, celebrating and seeking unity and peace in the City of Peace. The WorldPride planners had been expecting more than 10,000 people to join them in Jerusalem — that is, until fliers inciting violence against gays and lesbians appeared earlier this month in Jerusalem and until the outbreak of violence between Israel and Hezbollah.

No doubt by Aug. 6, even if the weeklong event is not canceled, the actual numbers will be much smaller (as will the numbers of other visitors), and the first verse of the Book of Lamentations (Eicha), the reading for Tisha B’Av, will ring true once again: “Eicha — How does the city sit solitary, that once was filled with people” (Eicah 1:1).

Eicha is an elegy, a lamentation, for the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. The word “eicha” means “how,” and it works similarly as a lament in English, as in, “How could Israel be in such straits? How could this be happening?”

In this week’s Torah portion, Devarim, Moses speaks to the next generation, the ones about to cross the border without him into the Promised Land. He reminds them of what their parents did at this same border 38 years before, how their parents let their fear overtake their faith; how the reports of 10 of the 12 scouts discouraged them and angered God enough to condemn all but two of that whole generation to die in the wilderness, rather than enter the land.

God’s punishment for their faintheartedness is the first communal sadness of many that Jews commemorate on the fast day of Tisha B’Av. Surely it is not coincidence that on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av we are reminded of our reluctant ancestors, the ones Moses quotes here 38 years after the fact:
“Whither are we going up? Our kinsmen have made our hearts melt [with fear], saying: ‘The people [there] are greater and taller than we are; the cities are huge, fortified as high as heaven, and also sons of Anakim [giants] we saw there” (Devarim 1:28).

Other sorrows we commemorate on Tisha B’Av include the destructions of the Temples in Jerusalem. The Talmud tells us the destruction of the Second Temple occurred “because therein prevailed hatred without cause” (Yoma 9b). How ironic, how painful to hear threats of physical violence against attendees of WorldPride, who come to Jerusalem in friendship, with respect for all its inhabitants and appreciation for all the religions that call Jerusalem home.

The medieval commentator Rashi notes that the word chazon (“vision”), which gives name to this Shabbat before Tisha B’av, is also used by the prophet Habakkuk when he comforts the Children of Israel with the words ki od khazon la-mo’ed (“There is yet a vision of a joyous occasion”), Habakkuk 2:3. Thus, says our sage, even as Jews begin this period of grief, we also envision the sadness turning to happiness, for we know that is the course life tends to take (see Rashi on Habakkuk 2:3).

As I write, we are still waiting for final words of warning or of welcome from Jerusalem. “Whither are we going up?” If we go up to Jerusalem, we go in hope that we will be seen for who we are — not scary “others,” not enemies, but peace-seeking people created, like all people, in the image of God.
We go to join our voices together, to learn together, to be together. We go in hope that Jerusalem might no longer be torn apart by “causeless hatred,” but will instead become a City of Peace.

Our ancestors — those who came out of Egypt — lacked the ability to envision shalom v’simcha in the land, but year after year as we read Devarim, Moses stands with the next generation inviting them — inviting us — to make a different choice from our frightened ancestors, reminding us that even in the midst of worry and sadness, anger and fear, we might yet be able to stand at the border, look toward the Promised Land and see before us “a vision of a joyous occasion.”

Let us all keep that vision before us as we go toward Jerusalem, toward one another, toward peace.

Lisa A. Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles.