Nachamu, nachamu ami!
“Comfort, comfort My people” God said to Isaiah. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”
This Shabbat, the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, we read those verses from the Book of Isaiah to console our sense of loss from remembering the destruction of the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem thousands of years ago.
As I look forward to Shabbat this week, I am leaning heavily on those words, as the events in Jerusalem this week leave me and many of us swirling with emotions of sadness, fear, concern, and dismay. Whether you support, abhor, or are ambivalent towards the change to the judiciary that the Knesset passed this week, there is no question that Israeli society is wounded. Images of protestors and counter-protestors, police in riot gear, bonfires and water cannons are filling the Israeli and Jewish press, demonstrating the depth and breadth of the communal crisis. Israelis and lovers of Israel need comfort in this moment. Jerusalem needs tender care.
Along with the words from Isaiah, I have had two other passages from our tradition running through my head this week. On Wednesday night, Erev Tisha B’Av, some of us sat on the Bima in our Sanctuary and studied Psalm 137, which begins “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and we wept as we remembered Zion…If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.” The psalm reflects the swirling emotions of the newly exiled Israelites, filled with grief and vengeance, longing and powerlessness. Stripped of their political autonomy, spiritual path to God, and mocked into humiliation, they sought to reorient themselves by recommitting themselves to the Holy One and the Holy Land, promising themselves a future that was triumphant instead of tragic. It is when Israel is in crisis that I, a diaspora Zionist Jew, feel the most distant, most impotent in defending and celebrating her. It is easier to wave the Israeli flag when she faces threats from the outside, but this internal strife is something different. I am inspired by the protestors who have taken up the Israeli flag as their symbol of protest, underscoring their commitment to the Jewish state and its Zionist ideals. If I had wonderings about outward symbols of my own Zionism, they have been put to bed by the example they have set.
The third idea in my mind comes to us from the Talmud, the famous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. It is a parable that explains, in part, the destruction of the Second Temple. In the story, a wealthy man throws a party, and sends his servant to invite his good friend Kamtza. The servant misunderstands and instead brings the invitation to the host’s enemy, Bar Kamtza, who accepts the invitation and comes to the party. When the host sees Bar Kamtza, he orders him to leave, a humiliation in front of all the guests. Bar Kamtza first offers to pay for his own meal, then half of the party, then the entire party if the host could find the graciousness to allow him to stay. Instead, the host has him forcibly removed in front of the rabbis and communal leaders of the time; none of whom protested or even objected to the treatment of Bar Kamtza. Bar Kamtza, angered by the humiliation, vowed revenge against the leaders, and told Caesar that they were conspiring to revolt against Rome. Caesar, to test the rabbis’ true intentions, sent a peace offering to the Temple, which Bar Kamtza intentionally blemished, so that the priests could not offer it as an offering. Many of the rabbis agreed that the offering should be made anyway, but one rabbi objects, in fear that this would invite future blemished sacrifices. It was his imperviousness, the Talmud teaches, along with the actions of all involved that led Bar Kamtza to do what he did that brought about the destruction of the Temple.
Reflecting on the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza is an important lesson during the week of Tisha B’Av. The story comes to a climax with the rabbi forbidding the sacrifice, but I believe we are meant to look at each of the players- the party host, the servant, Bar Kamtza, the community leaders, the rabbis- and wonder what they might have done differently, and then look at our own actions and decisions and ask “Am I repeating their mistakes?” The Talmud concludes by saying it was because of the senseless hatred, sinat chinam, that the Temple was destroyed; but since then we have also told ourselves to worry about well-based hatred too. If we act out of hatred, as opposed to disagreement or opposition, the rabbis suggest, we should expect calamity.
It’s always hard to know other’s intentions and motivations. We may see someone doing something we abhor and think they are doing it out of hatred. Or we may understand that they simply have different values. Our tradition would challenge us to the latter, and wonder aloud, and perhaps even with that other person, what those values might be and why they cherish them. But that is incredibly hard to do from across a protest line, or a social media post, or an ocean. But there is no chasm between my own actions and my own motivations; those we should keep from hatred as best as possible.
In our tradition, we often look for a nechemta, a closing word or thought that is hopeful or conciliatory. The word nechemta is related to the word nachamu, comfort, that we reflect upon on this Shabbat. All throughout this week, I have been looking for a nechemta to the goings on in Israel, and to my sense of distance and distress. But then I was reminded how the protests last Shabbat ended: with the singing of Hatikvah. We are a people committed to hope. We were hopeful for a better future when we witnessed the fall of the Temple. We were hopeful for a better future living in the precariousness of exile. We were hopeful during the dawn of Zionism that a modern, Jewish, democratic project could be planted and endure. While the strife affecting the State and Jews around the world brought about by this new legislation is pulling at the threads of our people, I am hopeful that our historic vision of a Jewish democratic state will continue to shine through. I can’t fathom the alternative.
Rabbi Greg Weisman