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The Ninth of Av – August 9, 2011

Today is the 9th of Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. On this day, we mourn the destruction of both the first and second temples, 2597 and 1941 years ago, respectively. However, this date on the Hebrew calendar has become associated with so many national tragedies throughout our history, beginning with the fateful return of the spies to the Children of Israel in the desert (according to Jewish tradition, “that night” referred to in Numbers 14:1 was the 9th of Av), to the fall of Betar during the Bar Kochba Rebellion, to some of the worst atrocities of the Crusades, to the Spanish Inquisition, to the deportations to Auschwitz. The worst of the worst have always fallen on this day.

Our sages devoted a great deal of discussion to the meaning of this date and its associated mourning, analyzing the sins that lead up to the destruction of each of the temples. The Bible is full of the words of the prophets living during the First Temple Period, and we are well aware of the sins that were rampant at that time – pagan worship, hypocrisy in worship, immoral behavior, persecution of the needy and those deserving of mercy. During the Second Temple period, however, the people did not worship idols and their level of religious worship and observance of the commandments was fine. There were many rabbis and Biblical scholars at the time and it would have been unheard of to destroy the Bible during the Second Temple Period, the way the Kings of Judea and Israel sometimes behaved during the First Temple period.

It is commonly understood that the predominant sin during the Second Temple period was “free hatred.” In other words, social solidarity was unheard of, various sects and factions competed for predominance, often using terrible means to gain public support. It was the destruction of the Second Temple that ushered in the longest exile in Jewish history, an exile that we are only now bringing to a close with the establishment of the State of Israel and the ingathering of the exiles. Therefore, it is the lessons of this last destruction that have resonated most firmly within us and which have formed the basis for so many of our Jewish values ever since.

The idea of Jew against Jew has become anathema to Jewish society ever since the first century, precisely because of this trauma. While Jews are well known for vociferous debate, and it is a common quip that two Jews will produce three opinions, we have ingrained within our collective psyche that we stop short of violence. It is for that reason that the murder of Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish fanatic almost 16 years ago was such a terrible blow – it was not just a horrendous political murder but it was a blow to this axiom of Jewish solidarity that has kept us together for so many centuries.

During the past three weeks in Israel, there have been ongoing demonstrations initiated by primarily young middle class citizens who are protesting against a steadily growing cost of living which makes it more and more difficult for young people to support themselves. Housing costs have mushroomed in the past few years, as has the cost of such ordinary items as dairy products, diapers and gasoline. Although fuel prices have increased all over the world, Israelis still pay four times more at the pump than residents of Europe or the US.

And yet, our economy has been growing steadily, one of the few western countries to have weathered the recent global recession with relative ease. Unemployment is at an all-time low and international trade and investment is growing. But, at the end of the month, it is becoming more difficult for more people to cover basic expenses.

Economists who have analyzed the problem point to one basic problem – an ever-widening gap between the few families at the top of the economic pyramid and most of the rest of the country. The gap between the highest-paid and lowest-paid salaries in a given company are among the highest in the world. And what seems to be causing this is the fact that too much of our national wealth is in the hands of too few. Israel is a small economy and it is far too easy for a few “tycoons” to gain control of too much of the productive sectors of the economy, constricting healthy competition which, in turn, ensures lower prices.

During the past few weeks, as the protests continued and at the same time, as we drew closer to the 9th of Av, more and more TV and radio commentators devoted their attention to the social gaps and the need for greater solidarity between the various sectors of the country. The need for the rich to look out for those less fortunate than themselves. Israel grew out of a socialist background and upon the overall failure of socialist systems everywhere, embraced a capitalist model. But the call has gone out from all over the country to find a way to combine a more humane, sensitive and socially responsible ethos with a capitalistic economic model.

Last night, in Tel-Aviv, at the center of the demonstrations, the Book of Lamentations was read and discussions were held throughout the country regarding the message we can take from the prophets to bettering our society. Last week, I heard a wonderful lecture on the Book of Amos, focusing on chapter 2, where Amos criticizes the wealthy of the nation for persecuting the poor and for not being sensitive enough to their needs. The lecturer analyzed the political situation in the land at the time, and noted that it was a time of great prosperity and security, creating a strong wealthy class not sufficiently caring of those less fortunate. He compared the situation of Amos’ day to the situation in Israel today. It was a fascinating comparison.

With one difference. While Amos preached to the crowds and was barely heard, the demonstrations on the streets of Israel are falling on very attentive ears. Israelis want a more compassionate society. I am optimistic that changes will be made to ensure a better distribution of opportunity in this country.

These are the issues which are filling our television screens, radio discussions and newspaper articles. And while not everyone is looking back to Amos and reflecting on the meaning of the 9th of Av in reference to today’s issues, so many are. There is a thirst among the people of Israel to create a just society. While we have a democracy that most nations can envy, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things that need to be corrected. But we are a dynamic society and we are truly in a process of redemption.

For unlike the centuries before us which mourned the destruction of the Temple and the loss of independence, we are now on the way back up. We have an independent state, we have returned to our land and we are seeking ways to return to the morals and visions of the great prophets who walked these streets and these hills so many centuries ago. I thank G-d every day and particularly today, on this day of mourning that we are truly on the way back.

 

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