Tisha b’Av 5773

Planning a family vacation that over Tisha b’Av is perhaps not the most felicitous planning. But various other commitments led to this being the only real option, and so it is for the first time since 2007 I find myself marking the most somber day on the Jewish calendar – the day when we commemorate the destruction of the Temple – and Jerusalem – not once, but twice, the day when we mark various other disasters to befall the Jewish people as well – not in Jerusalem, but in a foreign land. In this case, Portsmouth, England. I just got back from services at the Portsmouth and Southsea Synagogue, one of the oldest continuously functioning synagogues in the UK.

But maybe an occasional change of perspective is a good thing. I actually found it easier to mourn for Jerusalem being away from Jerusalem. Somehow when I’m in Jerusalem, the cognitive dissonance of reading Lamentations and bemoaning the “destroyed” city that “sits alone,” while looking at the view of the now in Jewish hands Old City of Jerusalem, with my home a few blocks away, and vibrant, alive, modern Jerusalem all around me, is simply too much.

Away from Jerusalem it’s easier to see Jerusalem as something abstract – an ancient place, a religious concept, not the city where I live, work, and play.

And even though I’m not “distracted” by the presence of the modern lively city of Jerusalem, I’m still very deeply aware of the flaws of that city I love. Or, more to the point, the flaws of the residents of the city that I love.

It is, unfortunately, pretty easy to feel pessimistic about the future on this sad day.

I love the teaching that says the Messiah will not come until we prepare the way – by doing so many mitzvot – especially acts of “gratuitous love” that counter acts of “gratuitous hatred” – that the actual Messiah is not needed for anything except an acknowledgment that we did our job. So as I look back over the last year and ask, “are we closer to bringing the Messiah? Or further away?” it’s hard to feel we are making progress. Here’s a list of the few of the things that leave me feeling pessimistic. That leave me feeling “sinat chinam,” gratuitous hatred – that ugly thing that caused the destruction of the Temple (according to the rabbis) – is still alive and well.

  • Peace with our neighbors. Not a good year. NOTHING has happened in terms of making peace with the Palestinians. We keep building settlements. The Palestinians continue to refuse to sit down and talk without preconditions (don’t you talk in order to get what you want, instead of getting what you want before you talk?). Our “neighborhood” is going to hell in a hand basket – tens of thousands of people murdered in Syria next door. Egypt oscillating between democracy and military coups. Hezbollah and Hamas still collecting weapons and Iran still marching toward building an atomic weapon. No, not a good year in the neighborhood.
  • Price tag attacks. In what is one of the most egregious forms of “sinat chinam,” gratuitous hatred, some extremist settler youth attack the property of innocent Muslims and Christians – including mosques and churches – to express their displeasure with the Israeli government. It’s so ugly. I feel like shaking these guys and saying “didn’t your mother teach you better???”
  • Dispossessing Bedouins of their land in the Negev. I really don’t understand why. There’s lots of land in the Negev. Leave them be.
  • Lack of religious freedom. There’s still no religious freedom for Jews in Israel. One of the reasons I’m in England right now is because I attended the civil wedding of Israeli friends in Scotland – because they didn’t want to deal with the Israeli Orthodox religious establishment that has a monopoly on state-recognized weddings in Israel. They’ll do a religious wedding next year, but without having to jump through the hoops of the Orthodox establishment and with whoever they want officiating – not whoever happens to be on the religious authority’s “approved” list, which does not include ANY Conservative or Reform rabbis. Women of the Wall made some progress during the year – a judge ruled that they CAN pray wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall – but the ultra-Orthodox response has been to raise the ante and bring in thousands of teenage girls to interfere. Talk about sinat chinam.

I’m normally an optimist. I’m sure after the fast is over my optimistic outlook will return and I’ll somehow be able to look around and find scraps of things in the news to hold on to that can fuel my optimism. But in the meanwhile, I’m feeling in a pessimistic mood that matches the glum mood for the day. Oh I still have faith it will eventually get better. As Rambam said, “Though he may tarry, I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah.” The question is when. Right now it doesn’t feel like those glorious days are coming any time soon.

But we’re still on vacation. In Portsmouth, England. They have museums and old ships here. I suppose learning about British naval disasters will be at least a little in keeping with the spirit of the day. There’s a monument here that commemorates the many thousands of British sailors who lost their lives in WWI and WWII.

I sure hope that my Tisha b’Av post for next year is all about how cool things are now that the Messiah has come. May it truly be speedily and in our days…



Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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