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.

“Pomegranate Wine” A Personal Reflection on Israel (Liberal Judaism Thought for the Week)

This week is my Thought for the Week at Liberal Judaism. The link will change so I’ve posted it below.

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I recently returned from spending a year in Israel, living in Haifa, where I began the research for my PhD. My wife and I were reminiscing today about the street party that took place at this time last year for Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day). Music blaring out, we worried that our daughter’s hearing would be affected, but could not resist the wonderful atmosphere with families of all ages celebrating after the sombre mood of Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day).

I share, like all of you, a grave concern about the prospects for the future; whether peace will one day be realised between the Israelis and Palestinians. And, at the same time, the lack of peace is only one part of how I relate to Israel. Israel for me is an expression of the Jewish people’s yearning for sovereignty – to shape their destiny in cultural, spiritual and religious terms. Israel is a land in which the sacred texts of our tradition were brought to life from the imaginations and intellectual endeavours of our ancestors. Israel is a place where the potential for democracy and Jewish values can become embedded within the fabric of society. Israel is a place of huge complexity and challenge, a land in which many communities and peoples live, work, love and pray.

Allow me to take you back to the first time I lived in Israel, in Jerusalem; a time when I was studying for the rabbinate. After that year I promised myself I would speak regularly not just of the politics of Israel but of the human experience of living in such a complex part of the world…

Within the first day of arriving in Jerusalem I had to find a flat.  So I set off with my intrepid future housemate (a friend from England) to search through lists of flats for rent. We paid a small fee to an agent for their accommodation lists and within minutes we identified a suitable flat in the right location and promptly telephone the landlord.

Shalom
Shalom
Errr efshar l’daber im Avraham Chovav b’vakesha
Ken, m’daber Chovav
Err, yesh lekha dera l’haskir?

The stilted Hebrew must have been painful even for a kindergarten child, but as we were to discover our landlord did not speak a word of English (at least that’s what he made out to us). Having seen the flat and decided it was suitable we telephoned Avraham again to arrange contract signing.

Avraham, we were soon to learn, was a sweet septuagenarian who I think really loved the fact that we had come to Israel to study.   He duly invited us to his apartment to sign contracts and meet his wife Margelit.  He picked us up in his old red car and after a few moments panic, that he could be taking us anywhere, we settled in for the journey – full of painful conversations and rapid attempts to decipher the magical language he spoke.

With the contract out of the way he offered us drinks and food in the true style of the hospitality you might expect in the Mediterranean.  “Sit, eat, my wife made the cakes.”  She spoke much better English – apparently she once taught English in a primary school.  It was then that he brought out the wine.

Just as Moses in the book of Deuteronomy describes the land as bountiful with the seven species (wheat, barley, vines, fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey) so were we entering the land and sitting down with our landlord to…homemade pomegranate wine.

Now this was a little more than we expected and though reluctant to drink alcohol in the middle of the day we felt obliged.  Only it wasn’t just wine it was fortified wine and very sweet – like a sherry. If you can imagine kiddush wine – stronger and sweeter – that is how it tasted.  My housemate wanted to describe it as having a certain sharpness – but we couldn’t find the right word in the dictionary.

His wife then brought us some delightful herbs from the garden.  One of them smelt slightly lemony and she insisted we take it back with us to our flat. It was called Melisa and retained its scent all the way through to Pesach.

Just before we left his home, Avraham showed us his photos of army service.  It transpired that he believed that as long as any Israeli was capable he should fulfil his duty to protect the land.  Imagine the seventy-year-old sitting in an armoured vehicle surrounded by 19-20 year olds.  Avraham and his wife were born in Israel before the state was founded and the family had been there at least for two generations prior to them.

It was whilst applying for a reduction in the council tax (we were students) in the city municipality that Avraham revealed to us a treasure of a story.  He was trying to ask us if we had been scared that morning – a suicide bombing on a bus had occurred metres from our flat as we waited for him to turn up.  The windows had shaken with the blast and seconds later the sirens began wailing.  Scared – how could I not be?

He then, spontaneously, began to recount a scary moment in his life.  He told us that he was a member of ETzeL – one of the radical groups campaigning for the foundation of the State of Israel in opposition to the British mandate.  He wasn’t really a radical – he was around 10 or 11 years old and used to fly post around Jerusalem; putting up propaganda posters.  But on this occasion he and his friend (also fly posting) were unlucky – a British officer caught them.  They were taken back to the police station and interrogated.

Of course his parents were not called he told us, incredulous that we would ask such a foolish question.  It was then Avraham pointed behind us through the windows of the municipal offices to a low building across the road.  “That was the prison where we thought we were going to be taken (it’s now a museum),” he commented. Avraham said he was so petrified he started crying.  He thought the British were going to hang him.  Actually he was given a serious warning and sent home.  They didn’t fly post again – at least they didn’t get caught anyway.

As we left Jerusalem, on my last day in Israel, Avraham, our landlord, drove us to the airport.  He had offered to give us a lift – as if we were his extended family.  His last words before we took our bags to the departure lounge were:

D’ash lahorim shelachem. – Send good wishes to your parents and if you ever come back and visit give me a call.

I never did give him a call when I was living in Israel last year, I don’t even think I have his number any more, but I’ll never forget his pomegranate wine, made from fresh pomegranates grown in his front garden. As we yearn for a time in which we only need think of such things as friendship, eating and sharing the stories of our past and the aspirations of our future, I am reminded of the words of Psalm 122, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may those who love you prosper. Let there be peace within your walls, safety within your borders. For the sake of my people, my friends, I say: let there be peace within you.”