By: Rabbi Dr. Deborah Kahn-Harris, Principal,
Leo Baeck College
, London, UK
“Every Head is Ailing and Every Heart is Sick” [Is 1: 5]:
A Reflection for Shabbat Chazon/Erev Tisha b’Av
Writing from London in mid-July (the WUPJ’s deadline for the d’var Torah is a month before publication), the weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av have hardly ever felt more prescient. As an ardent Europhile with generally left-of-centre politics, I am currently staring at the passports of my dual nationality – British and American – with a degree of consternation I cannot remember ever having before. I have lived through the first Gulf War, the Iraq War, the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks, and the outbreak of the 2nd intifada (while residing in Jerusalem). I remember the disbelief and horror at the breakdown of the old Yugoslavia, with the ensuing atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo, unable to process that the slaughter of innocents was happening on European soil again in the 20th century. I remember Rwanda and East Timor and the killing fields of Cambodia and dozens of other acts of barbarism in my lifetime. And yet, never can I recollect a time in my adult life when I have felt more pessimistic about politics — the failure of leadership, the lowest common denominator fear mongering, the lack of vision that seems to pervade the political landscape on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps then the moment is ripe for Shabbat
, the Shabbat of Vision.
Vision is described here by the
[Is 1: 1-21] in Isaiah’s unabashed criticism of the people’s behaviour. Isaiah pulls no punches in his razor-sharp analysis of Jerusalem’s iniquity. Jerusalem, according to Isaiah, ‘has become a harlot’ [Is 1:21], her inhabitants no better than those of Sodom and Gomorrah’. Isaiah declares that their ‘hands are stained with crime’ [Is 1: 15] and so he appeals again and again for Jerusalem and her inhabitants to turn away from their vile behaviour, to cease to behave sinfully, lest they all ‘be devoured by the sword’ [Is 1: 20]. The people are sinners through and through and God’s only option is complete destruction. The vision is one of transgression and punishment. Vision means clearly identifying the problem and responding with maximum possible Divine force.
is the Shabbat that precedes Tisha B’Av, where we find a response to Isaiah’s vision in
, the Book of Lamentations.
literally means the sorrowful sigh, ‘alas’. And this cry of ‘alas’ is where I wish for us to root ourselves. For the ‘alas’, the mournfulness of it, the near breathlessness of it, the desperation of it, this ‘alas’ is the beginning and the summation of the response to the exquisite destruction rained down upon Jerusalem. In the wretched remains of Jerusalem, in the harrowing narrative of those few survivors, ‘alas’ feels like the only possible response. Words become inadequate to describe the experience, and even prayer and repentance, at least in the first two chapters of Eicha, become impossible. The experience itself overwhelms and only the witnessing epitomized by ‘alas’ is left. ‘Alas, the Eternal One in his wrath has shamed’ [Lm 2: 1] us, has destroyed us, has left us desolate and dying and nothing else can we speak. We are utterly consumed by the fury of a zealous God and even our suffering does not reach the Divine.
And then, when there is nothing left in our mouths but the slow death of hunger, thirst, and disease, at the end we reach out to God crying out:
כא: הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְהֹוָה | אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָ [וְנָשׁוּבָה] חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם: כב כִּי אִם-מָאֹס מְאַסְתָּנוּ קָצַפְתָּ עָלֵינוּ עַד-מְאֹד
Return us, O Eternal One, to you and we shall return; renew our days as in ancient times. But you have utterly despised us, have been exceedingly angry with us [Lm 5:21-22]*
This non-ending, this hanging anxiety of the final verses of
is the moment in which so often we find ourselves. We know we have erred, we know that the world which we help to shape is more than just imperfect, more than merely flawed but broken in ways that we struggle to articulate and struggle even more to repair. And so on Tisha B’Av as we read the words of those ancient Jerusalemites whose world has been upended, we consider alongside them the terrible prospect that our desire for security and stability will be lost forever in the morass of political incompetence and moral decrepitude that typified late monarchical Judah before the Babylonian conquest of the land.
Sitting in London wondering who the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will be, wondering who the next President of the United States will be, I have never felt the need for Tisha B’Av more. Will our next leaders be as blind as Zedekiah or as zealous as Ishmael ben Nethaniah (who murdered Gedaliah)? At the moment we commemorate the destruction, too, of the 2nd Temple for the sin of what the rabbis in
9b describe as
, baseless hatred, I wonder how we, too, confront the
of our own times – the baseless hatred of each other based on race, ethnicity, social class, religion, gender, sexuality, nationality; in other words, little more than the accidents of our birth and chosen paths to God. Can these tense and unpredictable times throw up a leader with the capacity to heal wounds, to direct a disconsolate and distressed electorate towards a better vision of what we can be? We stand at the proverbial edge of a precipice. Who will pull us back?
Next Shabbat we will have Shabbat
, a Shabbat of Comfort. For now, as we have been for so many weeks, we continue to live with Isaiah’s harsh vision and the destruction that is wrought in its wake.
*Translation here is my own.