Tisha b'Av

Tisha b’Av 5778 – Fasting and Brokenness

As I write this, Tisha b’Av has just started here in Denver, Colorado where I’m hanging out at the moment.

I thought about going to the synagogue for the traditional recitation of Eicha, Lamentations, but even from a distance I just can’t connect with the words of Eicha, and the imagery of Jerusalem destroyed, desolate, and lonely. The cognitive dissonance between that and the Jerusalem I know and love is simply too great.

But I am fasting. Traditionally we fast as a sign of mourning over the destruction of the Temple and various other calamities to befall the Jewish people on this day on the Jewish calendar. I’ve never really fasted for that reason though; for me the fast has always been about reminding myself that the Messiah hasn’t yet come, the world is a broken place, and we have a great deal of work we need to do in order bring about the beautiful messianic age we all long for.

This year it feels like instead of getting closer to the days of the messiah it feels like we are moving further away.

In the envisioned perfect future, there would be great harmony and plenty for everyone. Instead income inequality is on the rise, tribalism and nationalism are on the rise, gratuitous hatred seems to be on the rise. It feels like we are in a dark time and getting darker.

I’m very tired of the news, and I’m tired of my Facebook feed. There’s so much bad stuff going on. But as something for me to look back at in future years, I’m going to make a list here of some of the things bothering me this year, some of the things fueling my fast, some of the things we need to work to correct.

  1. Instead of moving toward greater acceptance of each other, forces are pushing us apart. Trump was elected on a nationalistic “America First” slogan, and it was really an America of white men of the 1950s and 1960s. He regularly has denigrated Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, handicapped people, women, and his praise of Jews is based on anti-Semitic tropes.
  2. Trump is cozying up to dictators and insulting our allies; is this really the America we want? Half of Trump supporters would still support Trump even if he admitted to colluding with the Russians to get elected. WTF???
  3. Trump’s appointees are undoing much of the progress that was made in the last decade. He’s favoring industries that are dying (coal and steel) while penalizing industries of the future, such as solar. Protection of the environment has been handed over to people who have no interest in protecting the environment. Trump hasn’t drained the swamp, he’s filled it with his buddies and cronies…it’s swampier than ever.
  4. The same trends are happening elsewhere. Turkey used to be a model of a democratic secular Muslim state. Erdogan is transforming it into another authoritarian religious Muslim state. Hungary’s leader is blatantly anti-Semitic. European countries are closing their borders to those fleeing violence and anarchy in Syria and elsewhere under pressure from nationalistic parties. Democracy seems to be on the decline.
  5. Israel is also in the “trending anti-democratic camp.” They recently passed a “Jewish Nation State” law that was totally unnecessary, downgrading Arabic from its status as an official language, and making discrimination the law of the land.
  6. Religious pluralism in Israel has made no progress. My colleague Rabbi Dubi Haiyon was recently detained for questioning for officiating at a wedding in Israel. I could be in trouble for that one too. The ultra-Orthodox government-sanctioned rabanut has a monopoly on weddings in Israel. Never mind the idea of “freedom of religion.”
  7. Israel is no closer to peace with the Palestinians. The status quo is untenable, and yet there seems to be no near-term alternative to the status quo. The status quo is bad for the Jews and bad for the Palestinians, and no one is doing anything to fix it.

I could go on. There’s a lot broken in the world. It’s a depressing list.

I try to be optimistic. Long term, the trends are positive. In his new book, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” Professor Steven Pinker argues that overall things are getting better. People are living longer, healthier lives. The blurb for his book states:

Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West, but worldwide. This progress is not the result of some cosmic force. It is a gift of the Enlightenment: the conviction that reason and science can enhance human flourishing.

So, on the one hand, things are getting better. But voters no longer seem to be responding to reason and science. They’ve been convinced everything is “fake news” and they are believing actual fake news instead of scientific facts.

We’re in a struggle for the future of mankind.

I feel I’ve never had more reasons to fast than I have this year.

May we turn things around and get back on a track of making things better by the time Tisha b’Av comes around next year. We’ll no doubt still be fasting – but hopefully we’ll at least be able to feel a little more optimistic.

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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