As Shabbat ends this coming Saturday evening, we will transition into the commemorative fast day of the 9th of Av. This date, in our tradition, has been associated with the destruction of both the First and Second Temples (in 586 BCE by the Babylonians and 70 AD by the Romans respectively).
Rabbinic sources place some responsibility for the destruction of the Temple on the shoulders of the Israelites themselves: In the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 9b) we learn that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred among the different Jewish communities living in the Land of Israel at the time.
Suddenly a fast that sounds archaic and anachronistic (why should we still mourn the loss of a building in which animal sacrifice was practiced?) becomes urgently contemporary: sadly, it is a phenomenon we experience all over the Jewish world, not just in Israel. One group, or denomination of Judaism condemns, rejects, belittles others because their practice or their theology, or their norms of dress and behavior, or their choice of rabbis, does not meet that groups standards. We Jews are not terribly successful at loving one another . . . and sometimes it's not even a matter of cross-denominational disdain . . . sometimes it's just about "the shul I wouldn't set foot in."
So should we mourn on the 9th of Av?
I'd say: a little bit. In a teshuvah written almost 30 years ago, Rabbi Tuvia Friedman, z"l* writing for the Israeli Masorti /Conservative Law Committee (Va'ad Halakahah): There is a clear historical precedent of canceling a fast on days in which the Jewish people was saved from a disaster. We have been so fortunate as to witness the founding of the State of Israel, where Jews are sitting on their land as a sovereign people. In light of this decisive change in the history of the Jewish people, I propose marking this change by not completing the fast of Tish'a b'Av, and concluding the fast with a Minhah Gedola service.
But I would also say that our observance of the fast of the 9th of Av should not end with the shortened fast, but should serve as a day to commit to pursuing the value of "k'vod hadadi", of mutual respect among the various denominations that comprise the Jewish world.
There may be room, therefore, for some mourning on this historic day of remembrance, but let us use the message of this day to develop what unites us as Jews and to approach each other with mutual respect and a sense of being one very extended family.
On this eve of Shabbat, having shopped at my favorite neighborhood stores and anticipating a lovely Shabbat with my family here in Jerusalem, I just want to wish you all a Shabbat Shalom.
The mood here in Israel is a bit subdued because of the heat and because of the bus bombing of Israeli tourists in Burgas yesterday. We tend to take these things personally here.
Wishing you all a peaceful Shabbat spent with the people you love.
But Herb's brand of "religiousness" was rooted in deep faith and broad knowledge and intellectual integrity, not narrowmindedness or blind faith. Herb was a brilliant man, grounded in the world of science (he was an MIT graduate) for whom a life of faith, Jewish learning and practice was the only conceivable way to live.
I've learned many life lessons and insights into Jewish practice and texts from Herb over the years, but today, during his funeral, he taught me one more . . .
Years ago, when Herb and Gloria and I first began to know each other and share conversations, Herb told me that he and Gloria started their married life with little more than their combined intelligence, faith and love. They worked hard. They began life with the meagerest of means. . . . and they were passionately committed to providing their two children, Robert and Elaine, with the kind of thorough, meaningful Jewish education that can only be acquired in a day school setting. The Providence Hebrew Day School made it possible for the Spivack children to receive the education that was beyond the financial means of their parents.
Decades later, Herb would tell me that he was deeply grateful to the Hebrew Day School for their compassion and generosity and commitment to educating any Jewish child who walked through their doors. Herb also told me that he was grateful to God that all these years later he has been able to reciprocate with generosity to the Day School. And he would always tell me about the Day School's wonderful head of school, Rabbi Peretz Scheinerman. And he would tell me, "You should get to know him. He's a wonderful man. and a wonderful rabbi."
I'd always express appreciation for the qualities Herb described to me, and for the esteem in which he held Rabbi Scheinerman . . . but I am a female Conservative rabbi and Rabbi Scheinerman is part of a Jewish community in which . . . well, let's just say I didn't think it was likely that Rabbi Scheinerman and I were going to meet, and if we did meet, it didn't seem likely that we were going to have the opportunity to get to know each other.
Rabbi Scheinerman and I met today. As our communities came together in the same place at the same time to mourn and to laud the life of the same man. I learned from the family that Rabbi Scheinerman was coming to the funeral and would be prepared to speak. I responded that it would be a privilege to call him to the bimah and inwardly hoped that Rabbi Scheinerman would not find the phenomenon of being called to a bimah in a Reform temple (the funeral was held in the Temple Sinai sanctuary since we are rather "between sanctuaries" right now at Torat Yisrael. . . ) by a female Conservative rabbi to be too uncomfortable.
What Herb Spivack taught me today is that there are people within the Providence ultra-orthodox Jewish community who share Herb's own commitment to derech eretz / treating everyone with respect and compassion and to klal yisrael / to considering all of the Jewish community precious in God's eyes and therefore worthy of our own respect and regard.
Today Rabbi Peretz Scheinerman and Rabbi Amy Levin both taught Torah at the funeral of a man we knew to be a deeply knowledgeable, committed and principled Jew. Today Rabbi Amy Levin and Rabbi Peretz Scheinerman each chanted "Eil Malei Rachamim" / "God, Full of Mercy", the memorial prayer, for the elevation of the soul of Herb Spivack. Today Rabbi Peretz Scheinerman and Rabbi Amy Levin stood side by side shovelling earth into the same grave, shaping the final layer of earth into the tradition "areimah" (mound).
It would probably be going a bit too far to say that Rabbi Scheinerman and I are going to be friends, or even colleagues within the same community. But I, at least, had my eyes opened by my friend and teacher Herb Spivack, to the character of a very fine man and a very fine rabbi and a very fine community. I hope that we might continue to build a bridge or two between our communities in memory of Herb Spivack.
In this week's parashah / Torah portion, the book of Bamidbar/Numbers takes an uncharacteristic diversion into the whimsical: we meet Mr. Ed's precursor, Bala'am's female donkey. Like Mr. Ed, Bala'am's verbose steed was able to see and understand her surroundings more perceptively than her human "master." Unlike Mr. Ed, Bala'am's donkey was beaten for her efforts:
The Moabite king, Balak, seeking an advantage as his people pursue a military conflict with the Israelites, instructs the seer Bala'am to "curse Israel." The seer replies that he can only bless what God blesses and only curse what God curses. Balak persists, and after consulting with God, Bala'am mounts his donkey and sets off. Three times, God places and angel in their path. Three times the donkey stops and Bala'am beats her. Until finally, God grants the beast the gift of speech: “What have I done to you that you hit me three times?” Balaam answers, “Because you act against me. If I had a sword in my hand I would kill you.” The donkey then says, “Am I not your faithful donkey whom you always ride? Have I ever done this to you before?” At which point God causes Bala'am to see the angel in the path.
The narrative continues: "Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, 'I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back'" (Numbers 22:34)."
My colleague, Rabbi Neal Loevinger, cites a Hasidic teaching which asks a potent question: "A Hasidic commentator points out that if Balaam really didn't know about the angel, how could he have "sinned" in trying to move along?"
We often joke about the selective hearing of spouses, or teenage children, or elderly parents, or even our dogs . . . but there is a parallel phenomenon of selecting seeing which is just as widespread. The image that is screened onto the retina and is decoded by the brain is literally inside our head. Seeing is not something we do from a distance, what we see is not external to us . . . so sometimes we physically shield our eyes and sometimes we figuratively shield our eyes from that which we do not want to let in to our heads.
So many people and organizations and co-workers and media sources and loved ones and advertisers and acquaintances and complete strangers are trying to get us to see stuff. It's overwhelming and it is no wonder that out of self-defense we decide to selectively see.
Sometimes are selective seeing is an exercise in good judgment: there are images "out there" that can be soul-destroying. But once in a while, we need to review the barriers to seeing that we have put in place and examine our motives for setting them up:
Am I not "seeing" my mother's loneliness because it is easier than addressing it?
Am I not "seeing" the extent of the hunger in my community because it is easier than accepting responsibility for it?
Am I not "seeing" the invitations from my rabbi to learn, to pray, to engage in my congregation because it is easier than changing my priorities?
Once Bala'am owned up to his selective seeing the path before him was clear once more. He could go forward to bless and thereby be blessed himself.
It's ironic that the things we selectively do not see are often the things that are blocking the way to clarity and inner peace in our lives. Bala'am's sin was not against God as much as it was sabatoge against his own soul . . .
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.