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Are Jews the Eternal Victim? #684

07/16/2021 04:50:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Tisha B'Av, 2021
Are Jews the Eternal Victim?

I have a choice when I wake up each morning.

I can greet the day with hope and optimism, or I can convince myself — as I sip my first cup of coffee — that, “everyone will be out to get me today.”

It happens. We are a little late for work or an appointment, and we try to race a green light, which, to our frustration, turns red.

Then, we manage to hit every succeeding red light and curse the traffic gods as we churn with: “Why is the world out to get me?”

Yet, isn’t it true that often, whether we have a good day or a bad one, depends to a great extent on ourselves and how we interpret and react to our situation?

As the great Orthodox teacher, Rabbi Shais Taub, likes to say, “You are the only problem you will face today.”

Which brings us to this Saturday evening: Tisha B’Av. On this night, Jews around the world will gather solemnly to read the Book of Lamentations and pose the eternal question that has plagued the Jewish people for 3,000 years.


Why, despite our dedication to high morals and values, have the Jewish people, for millennia, been occupied, victimized, and persecuted?

A historical search underscores why Tisha B’Av  the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av is regarded as the saddest of the Jewish year. 

Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians on Tisha B’Av in 586 BCE, while the Romans brought down the second temple on that day in 70 CE.

Jews were expelled from England on Tisha B’Av, 1290, and from France on that same day in 1396. Have you ever wondered why Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” on ships dotted with Jews? His journey was launched two days after Tisha B’Av, 1492, the date of Jewish expulsion from Italy.

And the list goes on.

In many ways, I both love and dislike this holiday. It is marked by fasting and mourning rituals. At synagogue or these days at home we sit low to the floor as we read, by candlelight, the Book of Lamentations.

In Hebrew, the Book of Lamentations is titled “Eicha.” The word has been interpreted as “Alas,” or “How could this have happened?”

One of the most powerful "Jewish” moments in my life occurred in Jerusalem on Tisha B’Av, 2008, as I watched a grey bearded elder with his arm around his grandson, sitting by candlelight, on the cold ground in front of the Western Wall, gesturing and pointing as he read the Book of Lamentations.

As I reflect upon the text each year, I am reminded of how barbaric life was 2,500 years ago, when Jews wandering aimlessly and broken asked the central question that has plagued us through wars and Holocausts: “Why?”

It is a valid question, but I am equally concerned that, too often, we as a Jewish people allow this idea of victimization to define us.

In doing so, is it possible that, in part, we condemn our own future?

Do you prescribe today to the philosophy that anti-Semitism will forever be part of the Jewish experience? Are we as a people forever condemned to stereotypes and persecution?

I often ask myself, is this an issue of historical inevitability, or is it a matter of communication? Can we do better as a people to communicate our sacred values and mission? Can Israel convey its story to the world in a more compelling manner?

I believe so.

Yes, it is important to understand our history to appreciate the indescribable pain we have endured from the time of the Babylonians and the Romans through the pogroms and World War II to today.

Should we cringe on Saturday night when we read accounts in the Book of Lamentations alluding to starving Jews resorting to cannibalism? OMG, yes.

But, while understanding our past is central to our identity, we should take great care to ensure that, as individuals and collectively, we don’t define ourselves eternally by this ancient narrative.

My mentor, Rabbi Joe Ehrenkranz, of blessed memory, noted, “Much of our literature is the literature of a victim. No longer are we victims.”

He noted that the streets of Jerusalem are today bustling with activity. Jerusalem has been rebuilt into one of the world’s most modern cities.

He observed with great pride Israeli entrepreneurs launching startups in the fields of medicine, the environment and communication, thus “improving and healing the entire world.” 

Rabbi Joe concluded that Judaism needs to consider a rebalancing to focus on our increased national joy and the revival of Jerusalem.

“We’re going to have to eliminate some things from our liturgy and put in new things,” he said. “I like celebrations better than tears.”

This dichotomy, perhaps, makes the holy day of Tisha B’Av one of the most interesting of the year.

Yes, we need to fully comprehend in graphic detail our tortured past. For the Book of Lamentations, “Eicha,” does not permit us to cover our eyes.

But since few believe that we will ever return to a national system of animal sacrifice, rather than mourn, let us redefine, moving forward, what “rebuilding” Jerusalem really means.

Indeed, I believe we can best honor the tragedies of Tisha B’Av by considering how far we have come, and how exciting our collective future is and will continue to be.

As we approach this important day on the Jewish calendar, let us each take time to learn more about the many medical, environmental and technological innovations launched by Israeli entrepreneurs.

Let us take pride that about 20 per cent of all Nobel Prizes have been awarded to Jews despite our people comprising only 0.2 per cent of the world’s population.

And then, let us ask ourselves, “Are we a people of light or darkness? Have we survived as victims or as eternal optimists?”

As we gather tomorrow night on Zoom, I expect to be moved by the heart-wrenching observations of the biblical author. But more importantly I will incline myself toward the light, reminding myself I will not be defined as a victim. 

During the saddest day of the Jewish year, let us not allow ourselves to be restricted by lamentations, as we cry out to God, “Why?”

Rather, let us be inspired by the success of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, as we utter the two most inspiring Jewish words of all.

“Why not?”

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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