Ninth of Av

Last week was the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, or the Ninth of Av.  This fast day is arguably a minor religious holiday (compared to the High Holy Days, Passover or Sukkot, for example) and often passes unnoticed by all but the Orthodox.

We have quite a few fast days on the Jewish calendar throughout the year.  Like many Jews, however, the only one that I observe is the granddaddy of them all, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).  Growing up, however, I attended a very religious Jewish school and was quite observant.  My memories of Tisha B’Av are not the best, which I suppose is fitting, considering the nature of the holiday.  The fast day always fell during summer vacation, so I had to watch for it on the calendar in order to avoid missing the date.  I was aware that it was a day of obligation and that I was expected to fast.  My parents and sisters, however, were nonobservant and had no interest in fasting.  I recall stopping at Dairy Queen with them on a sweltering summer afternoon and then remembering that it was Tisha B’Av and that I was not supposed to indulge.  As I was always obese, my parents didn’t mind a bit that I chose to abstain.  I would stew quietly as I watched them munch their Dilly Bars and ice cream sundaes.

Tragedies, mourning and hope

Tisha B’Av commemorates the date on which both the First and Second Holy Temples, in which we offered daily sacrifices to God as required by the Torah, were each destroyed.  The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians (under King Nebuchadezzar) in 586 B.C. and the Second Temple by the Romans (under the Emperor Titus) on this date in the year 70 A.D.  Other tragedies befell the Jewish people on the same date in later years, including the expulsion of the Jews from England (by King Edward I in 1290) and from Spain in 1492.  The latter event is known as the Alhambra Decree, signed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the very year that their speculative investment bore them vast riches when Columbus discovered the New World.  Interestingly, the Alhambra Decree was not formally revoked until 1968.

As you may imagine, Tisha B’Av is traditionally a day of intense mourning.  The destruction of the Second Temple and the razing of Jerusalem irrevocably changed the face of Jewish life, ushering in the exile (known in Hebrew as the galut) to the Diaspora that continues to this day.  Where we once were unified in the Holy Land given to us by God, our misdeeds resulted in nothing but sorrow and tragedy as we were scattered al arbah kanfot ha’aretz, to the four corners of the earth.  According to Jewish tradition, Moshiakh (the Messiah, Elijah the Prophet) will one day gather the dispersed from even the world’s most remote outposts and return us to Jerusalem where we will rebuild the Holy Temple and once again offer the sacrifices as prescribed by the law.  The Shemonah Esrai (18 prayers) that the observant recite three times daily reiterate our fervent wish for the return of Elijah, as we believe that constant prayers of yearning will hasten the Redemption “speedily in our days.”

Thus, while the theme of Tisha B’Av is certainly one of expressing grief over our losses, it is also tinged with hope for Redemption that we believe may be at hand.  The Torah closet is draped in black and we read verses prophesying doom (from Jeremiah), verses describing catastrophe (from Job) and the entire mournful book of Lamentations.  Yet we balance this with verses from Exodus describing repentance of sin and God’s grant of our request for absolutions.  Finally, we recite 16 verses from Isaiah, beginning with “Seek the Lord when He is found, call Him when He is near.  The wicked shall give up his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts, and he shall return to the Lord.  Who shall have mercy upon him, and to our God, for He will freely pardon.”  Is. 55:6-7  We know that the pain of what has been taken away from us will not last forever and will, in fact, be replaced by the joy of restoration in due time.

Rituals and culture

On Tisha B’Av, many engage in symbolic gestures that, in the Jewish faith, are associated with mourning the death of a loved one:  Ashes, sitting on low benches and refraining from all signs of joy or luxury (even extending to not wearing leather or jewelry).  Weddings, parties and even haircuts are not scheduled on Tisha B’Av or the weeks leading up to it.  From the days of my youth, I recall much cultural ribbing associated with these proscriptions.  For example, I remember my mother singing a Yiddish folk song that began with the verse “The wedding was held on Tisha B’Av and no one came.”  And then there was the Allan Sherman comedy album song (played on my father’s stereo turntable) about lost love that contained the clever rhyme “Oh why did she have to fall in love/I haven’t seen her since Tisha B’Av.”  Before I was old enough to appreciate the solemnity of the day, I remember thinking that both of these were hysterically funny.  At the risk of being sacrilegious, I now realize that injecting a bit of humor into a black situation is a psychological coping mechanism that helps us get past the gloom that is the order of the day.

The prayers and scriptural readings of Tisha B’Av are actually the culmination of a three-week period of solemnity beginning with another fast day, the 17th of Tammuz.  A number of disastrous events befell the Jewish people on that date as well, including Moses’ breaking of the first set of tablets of the law (upon witnessing the worship of the Golden Calf), the end of the offering of sacrifices in the First Holy Temple (due to running out of sheep during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem) and the Roman breach of Jerusalem’s protective walls that led up to the burning of the Second Temple.

The three weeks

The 21-day period between the two fast days is supposed to be a deeply introspective time, during which we reflect upon ways in which we can improve the state of the world through deeds of kindness and charity, and through forgiveness.  We all get caught up in our regular routines, spending our time in fulfilling professional and family responsibilities, and it becomes all too easy to overlook the needs of our community that stare us in the face daily.  Turning a blind eye to our homeless, our poor, our children, our elderly and our lonely is part of the reason that we suffered all the losses that we mourn at this season.  Our only hope of hastening the Redemption is to take assertive action to take care of those who most need us.

This three-week period of mourning that just concluded presages another time of introspection coming up at the end of next month.  The asarah y’mai teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, begin with Rosh Hashannah (Jewish New Year) and end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Informally, we refer to this period as the High Holy Days or, in Hebrew, as yomim noro’im (the Days of Awe).  Tradition holds that this is the time of the year that God judges us on our deeds of the past year and decrees our fate for the coming twelve months.  It is a time of prayer and repentance, of recognizing and confessing to our misdeeds and the needs of others that we ignored.  As many of us do on January 1, on the Jewish New Year we make resolutions for self-improvement.  Rather than focusing on personal goals such as weight loss, smoking cessation or increased fiscal prudence, however, our resolutions are other-directed.  We say in the liturgy that we “afflict our souls,” meaning that we search inside ourselves for the strength and motivation to bring our agendas closer to God’s agenda.  We seek to “avert the severe decree” by changing our ways, by being less selfish, by opening our hearts, our homes and our wallets.

Honoring our Father

While the month of Elul (an Aramaic word meaning “search,” as in “to search our hearts”), the final month of the Jewish calendar, is the direct lead-in to the High Holy Days, one could say that the current month, the month of Av, is the true start of our holiday season.  As we do at Halloween, we realize that the holidays are upon us even though we still have a couple of months to go.

The very name of the month of Av is fraught with meaning.  At its most basic level, av simply means “father.”  Many Christians are more familiar with another Hebrew word for “father,” abba, as the phrase “abba father” is found in many modern Christian hymns and sermons.  However, av is the word for “father” most commonly used in the Torah, perhaps most famously in the Fifth Commandment (kibbud av va’em or “honor thy father and thy mother”).

In our secular tradition, we honor dear old Dad on Father’s Day in June.  In the Jewish tradition, however, we have not just one day, but an entire month to express our appreciation to our av!  While, on one level, this underscores the deep reverence and respect for our parents that is an integral part of Jewish culture, the month of Av is equally dedicated to our Heavenly Father.   Av is a great time of year to increase the attention and affection we bestow upon our parents, or to fondly remember them and ponder the many things we learned from them and the many kindnesses they bestowed upon us.  But Jews the world over also find it an appropriate time to improve our relationship with God, to spend more time studying scripture, to spend more of our discretionary income on charity and less on Starbucks, and to spend more of our energy attending to the needs of our children, our elders and our community.

For the fasts of the 17th of Tammuz, Tisha B’Av, and the big one, Yom Kippur, are rendered meaningless unless our ritual practice spurs us on to action that makes our world a better place in which to live.

Commanded to Be Kind

kindness

(Note:  The above saying has been posted on the wall of my office for the past three years.  Some days I need a reminder.)

My wife is one of the kindest people I know.  Kindness is certainly one of the many sterling attributes that attracted me to her in the first place.

Take today, for instance.  On the way to doing one kindness (running to the store to buy snacks for my employees because I texted her that they were out of candy bars), my wife noticed a woman trudging down the sidewalk carrying a bag full of groceries in one hand and a gallon of juice in the other.  The temperature?  113 degrees Fahrenheit.

No, we don’t live in the Sahara or on the planet Mercury, but here in the American desert southwest, it’s just your typical August day.

A few minutes later, on her way back from dropping off the goodies, my wife saw the woman still struggling along.  She stopped and asked if she needed a ride.

“Which way are you going?” the woman asked.

“I’ll take you wherever you need to go,” replied my wife.

The grateful woman hopped in our air conditioned SUV, dragging her groceries with her and explaining that she lived clear at the other end of town.  My wife was incredulous that this poor soul would even attempt to trek that far in the extreme heat, weighed down as she was.

They reached the top of the woman’s street, and she told my wife she could let her off there.  “No,” my wife said, “It’s too hot.  Let me take you all the way to your house.”  Over her objections about what the trip up the road and back would do to our vehicle’s suspension and tires, my wife jounced along the rutted, unpaved path to the woman’s humble abode.

This type of behavior is not at all unusual for my fair bride.  Not too long ago, she learned that a homeless dude who was hanging around by the supermarket needed towels and soap.  You can guess what she did.  That’s just the way she is.  Isn’t she wonderful?

Back in college, I remember reading about different levels of altruism, with the highest being the situation in which neither the donor nor the recipient knows the identity of the other.  Anonymous charity.  Something about that seems cold and sterile.  The subtext seems to be that there is something wrong with taking pleasure from seeing the needs of another satisfied with your own eyes.  Oh, but the recipient of your kindness might be embarrassed.  Um, would it be better for the guy not to be embarrassed and go without towels and soap or the woman not to be embarrassed and lug her food miles in the searing heat?

I like to think of three types of kindness:  Kindness to loved ones, kindness to fill the need of a stranger, and my favorite of all, random acts of kindness.  A few years ago, I read that the phrase “random acts of kindness and senseless beauty” was coined as a foil to the ultimate in ugly, random acts of violence.

Allow me to make a suggestion.  If you are feeling down one day, try committing a random act of kindness to pick up your spirits.  If you are filling your car with gas, also pay for the gas of the stranger who pulls up at the next pump.  If you are getting lunch at a fast food drive-through, pay for the person behind you and then quickly drive off.  It really is quite a kick, I must tell you.  And if you happen to catch the beneficiary’s look of shock and amazement in your rear view mirror, so much the better.

By the way, if you should happen to be tagged as the recipient of a random act of kindness yourself, don’t forget to pay it forward.  If you don’t know what that means, go now, immediately, and download the Kevin Spacey/Helen Hunt (and Haley Joel Osment) movie of that title.

One of my favorite blogs in our WordPress world is The Gratitudenist, on which Julie Richie (wonderful writer that she is) recently waxed poetic about the importance of kindness in a post titled “How to Make the World Better.”   As she points out, it’s not about money.  It’s about making connections, about really listening and paying attention to people, about making others feel that they are not alone in the world, about being a friend.

Julie’s post led me to the commencement speech that George Saunders recently gave at the Syracuse University commencement, soon to be published as a book.  He argues that we tend to be strivers, go-getters and accumulators when we are young, and that we mellow out and become less selfish and more other-centric as we grow older.  Saunders suggests that we simply ratchet the timeline backward a bit, beginning our career of kindness earlier in life since we are just going to graduate to it eventually anyway.  As Julie points out in her blog, kindness is indeed the way to make the world a better place.

The many varieties of kindness available to us struck me hard when I was reading this week’s Torah portion, Parshah Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10 through 25:19.  This lengthy section is packed so full of kindness, it could easily be the subject of an entire book.  I was amazed to discover that seventy-four of the Torah’s 613 commandments are contained in this one section that is read on the Sabbath this week.

When you really think about it, why shouldn’t God require us to be kind when you consider how kind He is to us every minute of every day?  Note that we aren’t asked to be kind.  Kindness is not a preference or an option.  God commands us to be kind.  The following is just a partial list of the kindnesses that God requires of us in this week’s Torah portion.  The general theme is kindness to those less fortunate than us:  The poor, the employee, even animals.

While some of these “kindness rules” may not seem to be particularly applicable to our busy, modern lives (who keeps slaves or takes prisoners of war anymore?), peeling away the layers of meaning reveals a kernel of pure kindness that is both universal and timeless.

  • Kindness to prisoners of war.  For millennia, savage tribes would treat women as spoils of war, summarily committing rape and other violent atrocities against them.  God recognizes the frailty of human nature and says:  Don’t act like this!  Instead, be kind.  If you really must take a captured woman for your wife, at least give her the decency of 30 days to grieve over the family she has lost, provide her with new clothes, and take her in as a full member of your family, entitled to all the benefits thereof.
  • Kindness to the slave.  If you come across a slave who has run away from his master, do not return him to the cruelty from which he has escaped.  “He shall dwell with thee, in the midst of thee, in the place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best; thou shalt not wrong him.”  Deut. 23:17  If you really must have a slave, be kind!  Provide him or her with all the benefits and comforts that you yourself enjoy.
  • Kindness to the employee.  When you hire employees to harvest your field or your vineyard or orchard, do not refuse them the right to pick a vegetable or fruit and eat it while they are working.  This applies even if your “employee” is a draft animal; do not muzzle the ox to prevent it from grazing while it is doing your work in the field.  Pay your day laborer at the end of the day.  He expects his wages and you have no right to delay them.  Oh, and by the way, treat your employees with the same kindness that you would expect.  “Thou shalt not oppress a hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates.”  Deut. 24:14
  • Kindness to the buyer.  When you are the seller, you have superior power in that you know how much items really weigh.  Do not cheat the buyer who does not know any better by using false weights and measures to unjustly enrich yourself.
  • Kindness to the poor.  When you reap a field or harvest the fruit of your trees, do not go over the field or the trees twice.  Any leftovers are for the poor to come and help themselves.  And if you accidentally leave a sheaf in the field, do not go back and retrieve it.  It, too, is for the needy.  Share the wealth!
  • Kindness to the debtor.  If you lend money to one in need, do not extract interest.  It is bad enough that he in financial straits; do not make it worst by making it difficult or impossible for him to pay back his debt.  (This is the sin of usury, without which much of modern business would not be possible.  But then again, kindness never does have much of a place in the world of finance, now does it?)  If you take a poor man’s coat or blanket as collateral, you must return it to him by sundown so he does not fall ill or freeze to death for lack of a proper covering.  If a debtor does not repay his loan and you go to his house to reclaim his security, do not shame him by going into his house and seizing it; instead, wait for him to bring the item out to you.
  • Kindness to (the belongings of) others.  I love this “lost and found” provision!  If you find your neighbor’s garment or any lost thing of his, you must return it if the owner is known or take care of it until the unknown owner comes looking for it.
  • Kindness to animals.  Do not ignore an animal who has wandered off or who is found sick by the side of the road.  “Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ass or his ox fallen down by the way, and hide thyself from them; thou shalt surely help him to lift them up again.”  Deut. 22:4  If an animal has wandered off, you shall return it to its owner.  If you do not know who the owner is, you shall take it home and care for it until the owner comes to claim it.  Respect parenthood, even among animals.  If you must take eggs or baby birds from a nest, chase away the mother bird first.

Although the theme of kindness appears throughout the Old Testament and is continued into the New Testament, I have long been disappointed by Christians (and, alas, many of my fellow Jews) who dismiss the kindness rules of Deuteronomy as no longer being applicable in modern times or as not applying to those who are “under grace” rather than “under the law.”  In my humble opinion, they are missing the boat.

Wishing a good and sweet Sabbath to all!

For more information on this week’s Torah portion, click here.