Virtual Talmud

These past few weeks have been so full of pain and strife. Each new headline brings fresh waves of sorrow at the human and political toll that the current conflict in Lebanon is taking. With Israeli ground troops now entering southern Lebanon to create a buffer zone, the casualties only promise to increase. Our hearts break over and over again as each new tragedy comes to light – a Lebanese family killed by a missile as they flee the war-ravaged South, ever-greater numbers of Israeli soldiers killed going house to house in an attempt to uncover Hezbollah strongholds.

This is the season of Tisha b’Av, the day of fasting and mourning that marks the destruction of the two Temples that stood in Jerusalem. At root level, Tisha b’Av is an attempt to make meaning in the face of destruction. The Temple was the heart of Judaism’s religious, spiritual, judicial, and political life. It was a tangible reminder of God’s presence in the people’s midst. The destruction of the Temple led to intense soul-searching. What could have caused such a devastating blow? The destruction of God’s house.

The answers led back to ourselves. “Because of our sins we were banished from our land,” reads the traditional liturgy, and the Talmud blames the destruction of the Second Temple on baseless hatred – on acts of thoughtlessness between neighbors. The smoldering ruins of the Temple stood as a reproach – not to our enemies, but to ourselves. The rabbis tell us it was our faithlessness that caused God to withdraw. In the wake of the destruction of all we held most precious, we were called to examine, to question, and to build anew.

Would that the destruction of Tyre in Southern Lebanon and the missile craters throughout Northern Israel could call forth this same degree of reflection and self-scrutiny. What if instead of blaming others, we could look at this situation with the clarity and courage of the ancient rabbis and attempt to understand our own role in the destruction? What if Israel could understand the genuine anger that Arab countries feel at the plight of the Palestinians? What if Lebanon could understand its complicity in hosting a violent terrorist organization? What if people on both sides of the border could look at the destruction around them, decide that they didn’t want to live that way anymore, and ask what they could do differently?

These aren’t questions that can be reasonably put in the heat of battle when passions are enflamed. But perhaps when the flames die down, when we’re faced with embers, smoldering ruins, and the grim prospect of rebuilding, we can pause first to ask questions. The prophet Isaiah famously exhorts, “Because you fast in strife in contention and you strike with wicked fist, your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high…. No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free.” (58:4-6) As we afflict our souls this Tisha b’Av, may the fresh destruction strengthen our prayers that people on both sides of the border can take Isaiah’s message of the true fast to heart.

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