Month: July 2018

Superman and Tisha b’Av

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Superman - Man of Steel - Image from: https://movieweb.com
Cover image from: https://movieweb.com

It was last Shabbat in the Golan Heights when I had a profound and timely experience: Being in the land that was bequeathed to Reuven, Gad and Manasseh, while we read the Torah portion that discusses it (Num. 32:33), right before Tisha b’Av, the day in which we deal with the destruction of that area.

I was asked to address the youth in an agricultural community on Shabbat afternoon, and was honestly a bit hesitant. It is one thing to share my story with American educators and students: I grew up in Jerusalem’s Old City, and that comes with a unique perspective that is very valuable in the diaspora. But it is quite another to speak to kids who grew up in the land, and perhaps even take it for granted?

That is when I thought about Superman and Tisha b’Av, a concept which I have used in summer camp, and which has worked with kids and teenagers on several occasions, with surprising effects. So what is this idea?

Tisha b’Av brings out the worst in religion: Suffering, mourning, synagogue and fasting, and the best part is, it is in the midst of the summer vacation. No swimming for over a week!

It is a challenge to engage youth who are already jaded or perhaps overstimulated from attempts to make Judaism alive, relevant and meaningful to them. And yet, I find Tisha b’Av to be a special opportunity to do exactly that – if I prompt the question of relevance from the start.

The talk with the youth revolved around two main ideas.

  1. Tisha b’Av has the status of Mo’ed – generally understood as a ‘holiday’, but clearly not a happy one. Mo’ed actually means “an appointment in time” (e.g. Gen. 18:14), and just as Passover is a time for Freedom, and Sukkot is a time for Joy, Tisha b’Av is an annual meeting in time. But a time for what? For loss, mourning and destruction (Lam. 1:15)
  2. Tisha b’Av didn’t happen because we cried. We cried because it was Tisha b’Av. Just as we say that we left Egypt on Nissan because it is a time of redemption, so too all of the ‘bad stuff’ is associated with Tisha b’Av, because it is a designated time for destruction. Why? Why do we need such a time?

 

Superman and Smallville

smallville
Photo from: https://www.hulu.com/smallville

Background: The origin story of Superman relates that he was born Kal-El on the planet Krypton, before being rocketed to Earth as an infant by his scientist father Jor-El and his mother Lara, moments before Krypton’s destruction…. Discovered and adopted by a farm couple from Kansas, the child is raised as Clark Kent and imbued with a strong moral compass. Early in his childhood, he displays various superhuman abilities, which, upon reaching maturity, he resolves to use for the benefit of humanity through a “Superman” identity (from Wikipedia: Superman).

The 2001 series Smallville follows Clark Kent in the fictional town of Smallville, Kansas, before he becomes known as Superman (from Wikipedia: Smallville).

The main idea: Upon discovering his true identity, Kal-El / Clark Kent’s ambitions and life goals change. He is imbued with deep purpose, and knows that life as he knew it was no longer the same.

The idea of Tisha b’Av is an awakening, a profound realization that all of the symbols that we hold dear, from the Promised Land to the Two Temples in Jerusalem – could be lost. As long as we have not fulfilled our full potential, there is no compromise. We cannot settle for mediocrity.

It is painful. It is cruel. It is uncompromising. And precisely because of that, it is the most meaningful holiday, and the most hopeful. Jewish tradition says that the Messiah is born on Tisha b’Av. It tells us that we have a superpower, that we are meant for greatness, and that we should never compromise.

May this be the last Tisha b’Av in mourning. May we merit to bask in the Light of Truth, and rejoice in the true beauty of a united and rebuilt Jerusalem.

Some of the youths’ responses (translation, and Hebrew below):

My takeaway is that I will never give up until I find myself in a place where I am making a difference, and fully utilizing my capabilities

…that I am really part of something big, whether it is the Jewish People or Humanity as a whole

Truth be told, it was one of the more interesting discussions, it…gave me a different perspective on Tisha b’Av and also on our lives as a whole in Eretz Yisrael, and that we need to appreciate our lives here…

 

 

Never Again?

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A Rova boy spotted on the ruins of a crusader structure.. picture by my neighbour Y. Bencamoun, who captured me in contemplation
A Rova boy spotted on the ruins of a crusader structure.. picture by my neighbour Y. Bencamoun, who captured me in contemplation

You can take kid out of the Rova, but you can’t take the Rova out of the kid.

Growing up in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter in the Old City (“Rova” – רובע means quarter in Hebrew), I did not see closed fences or ‘do not enter’ signs as an obstacles. From age 8, I would hop from roof to roof and climb walls and pipes to explore the web of connected rooftops and buildings. I thought I was Spiderman (my parents thought something different entirely).

Revisiting my old stomping grounds, during one of the busiest times of the year (the annual Jerusalem Lights Festival has thankfully brought lots of traffic into the Old City), it is hard to get a clear and quiet view of the Kotel – the Western Wall – the remains of what was once a glorious Temple. But the Rova boy in me saw the ruins of an ancient building, and I instinctively knew what to do. Climbing to the top of the structure, I was able to sit alone and contemplate, and I would like to share with you my thoughts from the ruins of Jerusalem.

 

The Shattering of Icons

Rova Boy sitting atop an old ruin

Sitting atop what was undoubtedly a shelter and secure place at one time, overlooking a place that combines shattered hopes and despair and a source of prayers and millennia-old commitment, I was struck by the lack of imagination that besets us – as humanity, and as the People of Israel.

The fast of the 17th of Tammuz is the 2nd in a series of Four Fast Days (depending on how you count them), relating specifically to the destruction of the Temples. Several things happened on that day, and they all have a common denominator: Shattering of icons –

  • The Tablets were Shattered by Moshe, in response to the dancing around the Golden Calf (Exodus 32)
  • The Walls of Jerusalem were breached by Nebuchadnezzar (ca. 586 BCE)

Several other severe deeds were done, but these two captures the spirit of the day: We had something which we thought was eternal, untouchable, incorruptible, and it was shattered.

Time and again, our sacred icons have been shattered: The Holocaust shattered century old establishments; 1492 ended the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry; Two Temples were destroyed, the Mishkan in Shiloh was destroyed (Jeremiah 7:12-14), entry into the Promised Land was snatched out of our hands, and the list goes on.

What about our lives? How many times have we been so sure of something, just to have our faith in it shattered? Job security, health, relationships, cherished family and friends.. and what about humanity? How many scientific truths have been shattered, how many social ideologies have delivered false messiahs?

And so, sitting on the top of a ruin, I wonder: Can we truly stand and say “never again?”about anything?

Lack of imagination is perhaps our worst sin. We cannot imagine losing a whole lot of things, and this may skew our judgement. Like Rabbi Zekharia ben Avkulas, who jeopardised the survival of Jerusalem because he could not factor the possibility of losing Jerusalem and the Temple into his calculations (B. Gittin 55a), we proudly look at our current State of Israel and say “never again!”

I am not suggesting that, G-d forbid, another holocaust is possible, or that our State will be destroyed. I surely hope not. What I am saying is that we need to be wary of the possibility of tremendous consequence, if we cannot fathom our icons being shattered. To just stand by and do nothing at the rise of radicalism and hate, divisiveness and disasters around the world, and so on.

On the flip side, it is perhaps just as terrible a sin to lack the imagination of what is possible.

How many times have we despaired and given up? How many times have we had the temerity to say that things will never get better? Both in our personal lives, and in the world as a whole?

Be it the generation of the desert who insisted “For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death” (Exodus 16:3), or the skeptical dignitary (Shalish) who said “Even if G-d were to make windows in the sky, could this [surplus and abundance after a hunger and draught] come to pass?” (II Kings 7) – we fail to imagine just how good things could get. And we give up, or give in.

Our daily life is surely beyond the wildest imagination of any of the prophets, and we have the chutzpah to give up? To think it is hopeless, because of a passing political / social / economic or even personal issue?

Looking at the Temple Mount, all of this came together for me with one story. The famous story of Rabbi Akiva (B. Makkot 24b), who looked at the same place – witnessing the utter destruction of the Second Temple, and started laughing. Laughing, as his comrades were weeping.

On another occasion they were ascending to Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. When they arrived at Mount Scopus and saw the site of the Temple, they rent their garments…When they arrived at the Temple Mount, they saw a fox that emerged from the site of the Holy of Holies. They began weeping, and Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They said to him: For what reason are you laughing? 

Rabbi Akiva said to them: For what reason are you weeping?

They said to him: This is the place concerning which it is written: “And the non-priest who approaches shall die” (Numbers 1:51), and now foxes walk in it; and shall we not weep?

Rabbi Akiva said to them: That is why I am laughing, as it is written, when God revealed the future to the prophet Isaiah: “And I will take to Me faithful witnesses to attest: Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah”(Isaiah 8:2). Now what is the connection between Uriah and Zechariah? He clarifies the difficulty: Uriah prophesied during the First Temple period, and Zechariah prophesied during the Second Temple period, as he was among those who returned to Zion from Babylonia. 

Rather, the verse established that fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah is dependent on fulfillment of the prophecy of Uriah.

In the prophecy of Uriah it is written: “Therefore, for your sake Zion shall be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become rubble, and the Temple Mount as the high places of a forest” (Micah 3:12)…In the prophecy of Zechariah it is written: “There shall yet be elderly men and elderly women sitting in the streets of Jerusalem” (Zechariah 8:4). 

Until the prophecy of Uriah with regard to the destruction of the city was fulfilled I was afraid that the prophecy of Zechariah would not be fulfilled, as the two prophecies are linked. Now that the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, it is evident that the prophecy of Zechariah remains valid. The Gemara adds: The Sages said to him, employing this formulation: Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us.

I guess that above all, the thought that comforted me on this day is that just as our tragedies were a shock and an awakening, so-too are our blessings. The best times are yet to come!

The verse “There shall yet be elderly men and elderly women sitting in the streets of Jerusalem” (Zechariah 8:4) – carved into the wall a few minutes away from my house. This place is shared by three different schools at recess.. who would have imagined?