Seventy Faces of Torah Rabbi Elisha Herb

Tisha b’Av: Shabbat’s Unwanted Guest (Parshat Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)

Rabbi Elisha HerbOne of the most beloved and influential teachers and mentors in my life was Dr. Vincent Harding, of blessed memory. A black Mennonite and champion of nonviolent resistance, he once chastised those Jews who enjoy the privileges of passing as white Americans. For Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement, which included the martyrdom of Jewish activists, he thanked and praised us. And, yet, he pointed out, we often “hide in our whiteness,” thereby removing ourselves from what he viewed as our rightful place: standing in solidarity beside other minority groups and vulnerable populations.

 These words deeply influenced me. And yet many American Jews are not white and daily experience racism. While those of us who are indeed white benefit from being able to camouflage ourselves in America’s predominantly white society, many can not. Jews of color feel and are far more affected by the racial violence and upheaval that our country is experiencing than those of us who are white—and too often, Jews of color feel betrayed by white Jews. As one black Jew once told me while we were in Israel together, “At the end of the day, I am black because I know that black’s got my back.” Blending in allows white Jews to remove ourselves, at a comfortable distance, from the discontent and tribulations of others. 

Rambam, the great 12th-century scholar, writes that on fast days when we commemorate Jewish national tragedies, we must cry out from internalizing the historical suffering of the Jewish people. The suffering of others (in this case, Jews in the past), must become our own. To remove ourselves from the suffering of others, to deny the cosmic import of suffering, is–the Rambam says–the way of cruelty.

This week, Shabbat does not offer us sanctuary from suffering: Tisha B’Av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, falls on Shabbat this year. When this occurs, certain aspects of mourning are observed even on Shabbat. For example, in the afternoon, we are permitted to contemplate only those sections of the Bible that dwell upon suffering and injustice – the book of Job, certain sections of the book of Jeremiah, and the like. But in honor of Shabbat, the fast itself is put off until sunset.

On one hand, we take other measures to ensure that the joyousness and holiness of Shabbat afternoon takes precedence and is not eclipsed by Tisha B’Av. The third meal of this particular Shabbat, which takes place before sunset, we are enjoined to make particularly delicious and sweet. And, unlike other observances of Tisha B’Av, there is no mournful meal of hard-boiled eggs dipped in ash, which would customarily serve as the last food taken before the fast begins. But on the other hand, marital relations are prohibited and, notably, we postpone making havdalah, the ceremony that marks the division between Shabbat and the rest of the week, until Sunday night. 

The effect is a blurring of the lines between the joy and peace of Shabbat and the somber reckoning of Tisha B’Av. On Shabbat, we enact our hope for a future that will be “entirely Shabbat rest forever,” and we have a taste of the world that is possible; on Tisha B’Av, we taste the world that is deeply broken and traumatized. This year, that distinction is of necessity obscured. 

This week’s Torah reading, Devarim, is full of this same tension between transient experiences of harmony and the reality of suffering brought about by Israel’s all-too-human shortcomings. On the border of the Promised Land, which he will never enter, Moses begins his account of the nomadic wanderings of Israel with tragic descriptions of infighting, disloyalty, faithlessness, revolution, inequality, and ethnic tensions.

At the same time, he recalls times of a particular closeness with God and harmony among the people: “…in the wilderness, where thou hast seen how the LORD thy God bore thee, as a man doth bear his son, in all the way that ye went, until ye came unto this place, who went before you in the way, to seek you out a place to pitch your tents; in fire by night, to show you by what way ye should go” (Deuteronomy 1: 33, Jewish Publication Society 1917 translation). He also brings to mind the promises of wholeness, abundance and peace represented by the Promised Land: “The LORD your God hath multiplied you, and, behold, ye are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude. The LORD, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times so many more as ye are, and bless you, as He hath promised you!” (Deuteronomy 1:10-11).

The need to take in both joy and brokenness, sometimes simultaneously, is also at the core of a story told about Eliezer and Sarah, the parents of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. An argument takes place in the divine realm (mimicking aspects of the book of Job): Eliezer and Sarah were known for their hospitality to strangers, but just how sincere was it? It was agreed that their selflessness ought to be tested. The prophet Elijah came to them disguised as a traveler on Shabbat, a beggar with no regard for the sanctity of the day. Rather than turn their backs on him, they opened their home, inviting him in. Waiting on him hand and foot, serving his every need, meeting every gruff and disrespectful demand, Eliezer and Sarah showed the most profound hospitality. As Elijah took leave without even thanking them, Eliezer ran after him in order to give him a bit of money with which to travel. It was only then that Elijah—the prophet will announce the coming of the messianic age and its realm of perfection–revealed his true identity.

On this Shabbat, we may experience Tisha B’Av, which is the bitterness of the world – our suffering and the suffering of others – as an unwanted guest, invading our precious Shabbat home with no thought to decorum. The hints of the harshness of the coming fast creep into the hallowed space of Shabbat. Dressed as a poor itinerant, Tisha B’Av stands outside demanding to be served, waiting to be invited in. In marking this sorrowful observance of trauma and tragedy even on Shabbat, we take in suffering alongside our joy, and thus welcome in the possibility of redemption and the perfection of the world.

Rabbi Elisha Herb serves the community of Temple Beth Sholom in Salem, Oregon. A 2016 graduate of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, he is also a wilderness river guide for the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education in Monticello, Utah.

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