Tomorrow night is the 9th day of the month of Av, the date on which both Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, over six hundred years apart. The saddest day of the Jewish year, the observance is called Tisha B’Av.
We will dim the lights, sit on the floor, and read the book of Lamentations, also called Eicha. In our sacred literature, it sits with the other books of the Prophets, and was probably written by the prophet Jeremiah.
But the Jewish prophets were not fortune tellers or psychics, looking into the future to tell their listeners what would come. They spoke of the future, but only as words of caution, only in order to persuade people to change their ways. They served as a kind of early warning system, doing their utmost to keep the people on track, lest things go awry.
And things did indeed go awry, both then and now. As I wrote recently, the rabbis of the Talmud blamed the demise of the Temples (both the first and second) and other Jewish tragedies on sinat chinam, baseless, or gratuitous, hatred.
Today too we are surrounded by people who choose to hate, because of someone else’s skin color, or their religion, or their sexual orientation, or how they live their lives.
My teacher Rabbi Harry Zeitlin wrote this week, “It seems to me that the most important thing about [how we observe Tisha B’Av] this year… is that we do it in a spirit of Ahavat Chinam, unprovoked love for each other, for our Creator, for fellow Jews and for all mankind, in such a way that next year it will indeed appear that this year, with all its progress and achievements, was still desolate compared to our ultimate potential.”
In other words, Reb Harry is hoping that next year is better than this. It reminds me of my Uncle George’s annual new year’s message – “May this year be better than last year, and not as good as next year.”
I also love Reb Harry’s translation of the word chinam. I translated it as baseless or gratuitous. He translated is as unprovoked. Unprovoked love of the Other isn’t easy. It takes effort to love someone. I often point out that immediately after the Shema the Torah commands us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might. We aren’t asked to love God, we are commanded.
This is a tall order. And it’s one thing to love God, quite another to love another human whose actions, words, or thoughts you despise.
But our tradition doesn’t require us to like that person, or to approve of his or her actions. It does not ask us to stand idly by while people behave in unacceptable ways.
It only asks us to realize that when we recite every morning Elohai neshama sh’natata bi ti’horah he, “My God, the soul that you gave to me is pure,” we’re not just talking about our own souls. Every human’s soul is pure. Some may be so covered with schmutz that it is barely discernable, but it’s there.
If we wish to partner with God in the task of repairing the world, we have to learn a difficult lesson: That we must cultivate unprovoked, and perhaps undeserved, love for the Other, for people we don’t understand and don’t like.
When we have achieved this seemingly impossible goal we are not finished. We must begin the important work of repairing the world. We must speak out, march, demonstrate, and vote against the injustices that sinat chinam, unprovoked hatred, have created. May we be blessed to have the strength and courage to do so.
This is a slightly edited version of the sermon I gave this Shabbat at Congregation Kol HaNeshama.