30 July 2020
A reflection from Master Teacher Avi West
It looks like the year 2020 will be remembered as one of those pivotal points in history when the world changed. Almost every newscast, television report, or commercial advertisement begins by describing the times we’re living in as “unprecedented,” “unanticipated,” or “uncertain.” The global pandemic, economic downturn, and social upheaval is affecting the entire world, along with Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora.
With the world in flux, next week the Jewish people will commemorate Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, this year on July 30th), a day on which many critical and tragic events in Jewish history have taken place. We remember the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 586 BCE and in 70 CE; the destruction of the fortress of Betar, which ended the Jewish rebellion against Rome and initiated 2,000 years of Jewish Diaspora from the land of Israel; the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492; and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, which ultimately set the stage for the Holocaust two decades later. This day is marked by fasting, prayer, and the recitation of dirges, many with the refrain “Oy, meh haya lanu,” (“Woe is us; look what we have lost.”)
Tisha B’av teaches us to pause and mourn and appreciate what we no longer have—so long as we don’t stop at self-pity. While these episodes of Jewish history are indeed tragic, our collective Jewish memory must be more expansive. As the sages of the Talmud (a collection of rabbinic commentaries) stated, “On the day the Temple was destroyed, the Messiah was born.” That is: Out of the flames of tragedy and loss come the sparks of redemption and change.
On Tisha B’Av 2020 (5780 in the Hebrew calendar), I will reflect on how the Jewish people adapted in the face of historic losses in hopes that these lessons can inspire similar transformations for our world today.
The ancient Temple is an excellent case study, especially for life amidst a pandemic. When it existed, the Temple served as the central institution for Jewish communal life, a place both to give thanks to God and to care for individuals in need. Much of this work was done by the kohanim, those priestly communal workers of ancient Israel. The kohanim were responsible for keeping the Temple kadosh (holy or sacred). They would wash and immerse themselves in cleansing waters and keep a distance from impurity. They would minister for community health and reduce the impact of plagues. They would provide pastoral care and help families maintain shalom bayit (wholeness of the home).
The destruction of the Temple was, of course, a devastating loss. But I believe the Jewish ritual life that emerged in its wake and continued to modern day was even stronger and more diverse, creative, accessible, and vibrant. The ancient altars where meal offerings were brought have given way to kitchen tables hosting family meals and home learning. We have replaced the kohanim (a wonderful, but not very inclusive group of people) with a corps of social workers, health care professionals, innovative clergy and educators, and more.
Indeed, during the pandemic, every one of us has to step up to the responsibility of being mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, (a kingdom of priests and a holy nation), requiring us to separate from harmful substances in order to serve our community. In addition, we have all become deputized partners in facilitating educational and spiritual engagement for children and adults. We have stepped up our awareness for those more vulnerable to disease, hunger, and injustice. In today’s world, caring for others is not just the job of a select group of priests, but a responsibility we all share collectively.
The Shabbat immediately following Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu, named for the inspiring words we recite from the prophet Isaiah: “’Be consoled, be consoled my people,’ says your God.” But how do we achieve consolation? From where does comfort come to us? How do we overcome the pain of the moment to bring about positive change?
We find a hint from the act of nichum aveilim, the mitzvah of comforting a mourner. Even when words fail us in the face of pain and tragedy, we recite a formula: “May the Ever-present comfort you in the midst of all other mourners for Zion and Jerusalem.” Even when our individual pain needs comfort, that comfort comes from community. That comfort may come through words of support and acts of lovingkindness. But the Hebrew root for comfort (the letters nun, chet, mem) is also the word for “reconsideration.” In 5780, our nechama/comfort/consolation may also come from a communal reconsideration of how best we work as a Jewish caring community.
This Tisha B’Av, I encourage us to spend some time meditating on these hopeful sparks even while mourning our past loss. Think about how we can overcome the pain of the moment to bring about positive change. Yes, the pandemic was disruptive to our health, economy, and society. But we have been through such disruptions before and have emerged even stronger. There’s no reason to think our society won’t be even more vibrant after the pandemic is over. Perhaps we should conclude the day by singing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem of hope.
Federation is helping our community members serve as modern-day kohanim through 703-J-CARING: The Jewish Community Support Line and Jconnections, a platform created to connect those in our community who need help with those who want to help.
In August, 2021, our beloved friend, colleague, teacher, and community leader Avi West passed away. In partnership with the West Family, Federation has created the The Avi West Endowment to honor his memory and accomplishments. The Avi West Endowment will grant up to $5,000 to one exemplary local Jewish educator, as the recipient of the annual “Avi West Jewish Educator Award.” We hope you will honor Avi’s legacy and make a gift in his memory.