Confronting terror on Tu B’Av

(This will be my sermon tonight)

The day that has passed was supposed to be a special day in the Jewish calendar.

We’re in the seven weeks of consolation after the commemoration of Tisha B’Av.  On Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, the rabbis assert that various events all happened – including the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem and Betar was conquered.

The truth is that the correspondence of dates is actually more a rabbinic matter of convenience, rather than an accurate record. The dates approximately coalesce around the ninth of Av, but this is religious symbolism not historical fact – none of our sacred literature is interested in history after all.

Since we have entered the seven weeks of consolation – which lead us all the way to Rosh Hashanah – it would not come as a surprise if there were historical events which offer hope to the people and indeed, today (Thursday night-Friday) was the fifteenth of Av or Tu B’Av.

We’re told on Tu B’Av and on Yom Kippur the daughters of Israel would go out and find a husband by dancing in the fields in white as described in the Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8. In the Talmud (Taanit 30a-31b) the list of what occurred on this date continues includes the permission to bury the dead who fell at Betar in the Bar Kokhba revolt.

The Bar Kokhba revolt (132–136 CE), was the third major rebellion by the Jews of Judaea Province against the Roman Empire and the last of the Jewish-Roman Wars. Simon bar Kokhba, the commander of the revolt, was acclaimed as a Messiah, a heroic figure who could restore Israel. The revolt established an independent state of Israel over parts of Judea for over two years, but a Roman army made up of six full legions with auxiliaries and elements from up to six additional legions finally crushed it. The Romans then barred Jews from Jerusalem, except to attend Tisha B’Av.

Simon Bar Kokhba took the title Nasi Israel (prince [lord, president] of Israel) and headed a functional public administration over a mini-state that was virtually independent for two and a half years. The “Era of the redemption of Israel” was announced, contracts were signed and coins were minted in large quantity in silver and copper with corresponding inscriptions (all were struck over foreign coins). In fact, Yigael Yadin the archaeologist, in excavating caves in which were found coins and other artefacts from the revolt, records presenting his findings to Chaim Weizmann, the first president of the modern State of Israel, and beginning his presentation with the words, “Mr President…the last president of Israel”.

The incident of burying the dead at Betar – the last stronghold of the rebellion (something that legendarily was prohibited by the Romans for 17 years), is described in more detail in the gemara and is the source of the fourth blessing in Grace After Meals.  As it says:

…R. Mattenah said: Tu B’Av is the day when permission was granted for those killed at Betar to be buried. R. Mattenah further said: On the day when permission was granted for those killed at Betar to be buried [the Rabbis] at Yavneh instituted [the recitation of] the benediction, ‘Who is kind and deals kindly etc.’

Even in the face of the exile and the failed last stand of the rebellion by Bar Kokhba, the failed redemption, the rabbis instituted, according to legend at least, this blessing.  A blessing of hope, as if to say, all may not be well at the moment and we may sometimes feel despair, but there is hope for the future.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel notes:

After the collapse of the Bar Kochba rebellion, when Jews were no longer permitted to be at home in their own land, Zion – Jerusalem – did not simply linger on as a vague memory of distant past. Zion, Jerusalem, continued to be a presence in our lives. Wherever we lived, the sky was above us, and the thought of Jerusalem in front of us. (Abraham Joshua Heschel – “Israel: an echo of eternity” p.58-59)

The message of this day of Tu B’Av, the hope of ‘Jerusalem in front of us’, has been sullied and trampled enough. Not least with the acts of terror on this Tu B’Av just passed – the stabbing of 6 people in the Gay Pride march yesterday evening and the arson attack on a Palestinian home leading to the death of a baby last night.

The acute pain of this devastation feels beyond repair. Friends described being unable to breathe this morning on hearing the news of the attack in the West Bank carried out in the name of their, of our, religion. Rabbi Benny Lau publicly condemned and asked forgiveness for the attack on Gay Pride.

We know too well that religion can be used to serve vicious and horrendous acts. It is a gross act of denial to think that our own religious texts and beliefs, yes even our own (not just ‘their’s), cannot be interpreted as a cover for hate and violence. They can. We have to confront this scourge. No wonder that people think religion is such a negative force in the world. They’re right. Were I not aware of the deep pain, solidarity with the grieving, anger at the perpetrators and compassion for fellow human beings, I too would give up now.

Forget it all because whilst human knowledge seems to progress, religion too frequently is sending us back in to past times of bigotry, ignorance and destruction.

But I can’t give it up. My friends of all faiths who are compassionate, who stand up for goodness and justice and peace are proof of the goodness that we can bring to the world. The voices and acts of love must be triumphant and Judaism, my religion gives me, should give all of us, the strength to persevere and build a better world.

And so it felt fitting that I should conclude my sermon today with the words of the blessing traditionally attributed as a response to the burial of those killed in Betar who had lain on the ground or a year. In long form it is the fourth blessing of Birkat Hamazon. A blessing which we must remember is intended to give hope, even when it seems hope is gone and God’s care is absent from our lives.

The shortened version is recited on hearing good news:

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם הטוב והמטיב.

We praise you, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe for You are good and beneficent.

In times of despair, recovery after loss, rebuilding post-devastation, may we be blessed with strength to see goodness and the power to bring that goodness to all. God, we need that strength now more than ever. May that be God’s will and let us say: Amen.

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