Friday, August 4, 2017

Parashat Va'etchanan and Tisha B'Av

Shabbat Shalom. As you may know, this past Tuesday was Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month Av, a fast day to commemorate the destructions of the First and Second Temple, among other things. I didn’t fast. I rarely do. I wasn’t raised with any observance or even knowledge, really, of the day, and even as I became more observant as an adult and rabbi, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temples just wasn’t really something that connected with me. Each year, I’d consider the tragedies that have befallen our people and think about ways to incorporate this observance into my spiritual practice. Many other horrors have occurred on this date: medieval expulsions, the beginning of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, and more, but ultimately, I find the liturgy and the writings around it to be very Temple-centric, and that’s hard for me to reconcile spiritually with the beauty of post-Temple Judaism. I would never want to rebuild a Temple in Jerusalem for a host of reasons, political and spiritual, so fasting to mourn its loss has always felt inauthentic.
But, on the 9th of Av, 5772, I attended the wake of a close friend who died suddenly at the age of 24. It was the first time I ever fasted on Tisha B’Av, and now that’s the first thing I think of every year as the date approaches. This wake gave me reason to mourn and feel deep loss on Tisha B’Av. I found that I simply didn’t have any appetite, and out of authentic grief, I ended up completely refraining from any food or water.
Our Sages teach that the destructions of the First and Second Temples, said to have both occurred on the 9th day of Av, befell our ancestors because of the senseless hatred the Israelites showed toward one another. In the absence of dutiful worship, care for one another, and observance of the many commandments to care for the poor, the stranger, and the widow, they were doomed to Divine punishment, carried out by the Babylonians and the Romans.
Our people today suffer from another form of senseless hatred, against people suffering from addiction. Proposals to enact harsh measures against people suffering from addiction and withhold life-saving measures during an overdose mean society is turning its back on those who need our support. Someone suffering with addiction needs attention as much as the Torah’s poor, stranger, and widow. Perhaps if addicts were treated less like criminals and more like people suffering a mental health condition, if there was less senseless hatred and more compassion, if there was better public healthcare generally speaking, my friend would still be alive today, and Tisha B’Av wouldn’t always just feel like his yahrtzeit.
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat VaEt'chanan, is always read on the Shabbat following Tisha B’Av, and it begins with Moses telling a story that modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg finds very confusing. She discusses it in at least two of her books, pointing out how odd it is that Moses begins this parashah by telling the Congregation of Israel, as well as his readers, this tale of pleading with God to revoke the decree banning him from the Holy Land, and how God shuts down the conversation and upholds the ban. It’s a moment of extreme vulnerability for Moses before the people, offered seemingly of his own volition--considering this conversation between himself and God isn’t directly recorded elsewhere in the Torah. Perhaps it is this unusual vulnerability, this admission of the uselessness of prayers to undo consequences of tangible actions, that links it to Tisha B’Av.
Prayers are well and good, and important for the upkeep of our souls and spiritual connections, but actions are what matter. No amount of begging could undo Moses’s violent actions that led to his banishment from the Holy Land. Empty prayers and meaningless sacrifices could not protect the fractured Israelite community from the destruction of the Babylonians or the Romans. Prayers and intentions alone cannot help an addict quit their substance of choice. Whereas Moses had no other option but to concede defeat, the communities of exile made a point to try to learn from the Divine punishments of the Babylonian and Roman oppressions. They honored Tisha B’Av and fasted to commemorate this tragedy, they taught justice and sought to overcome the senseless hatred that led to their predecessors’ demise, they prayed fervently for redemption and created new homelands for themselves. In doing so, they created beautiful, loving Jewish communities all over the world.
We too can take meaningful action to undermine the needless destruction of drug addiction and the mistreatment of addicts. Join the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in advocating for improved and universal access to treatment, especially naloxone, which blocks or reverses the effects of opioids, as well as safe injection equipment to reduce transmission of HIV and hepatitis C. Continue to protect the ACA for its insistence that all plans cover mental health and substance abuse disorders. Support Jewish initiatives to help care for those in our own communities suffering from the disease of addiction. And may we someday find a future where the pains caused by addictions are recognized and reduced.

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