While I was in seminary—about 10 years ago, I had a professor who alienated all the women in my rabbinic class. In the very first class with him, Introduction to Mysticism, he told us that first year students in mysticism were supposed to listen and not speak. (He meant students studying to become mystics, rather than students studying the history of mysticism, but still…) Jewish mysticism is very male. Very male. The metaphors don’t work for me. And so I didn’t get it at all. I’m not used to “not getting it.” And I was not alone in being challenged in that class and by that professor. Even he, three years later, acknowledged to a group of us that he “had not done a good job in that class.”
But the problem was I had to take five more required classes from him to finish. And I had no idea how to do it, how I would sit in the same room. I talked to the dean, I spoke to other students, my therapist. Some students told me that he had important lessons for me to learn, that I had to get a grip and deal with it. I concluded that—while I was justified in my concerns, I was repeating my old pattern of demonizing people, and thereby assigning to them most the responsibility for the problems in the relationship. I have a long list of people whom I have demonized, going back to my childhood. Many of them are people who did indeed behave badly, and so I felt justified in demonizing them.
But I knew that I was not going to make it through seminary if I didn’t finally, finally deal with this repeating pattern, finally confront MY part of it, what it meant to me to create a demon to blame. And with lots of support, I wrestled my own demon to the ground, subdued it, and have learned to understand that we are all human, with our own issues, our own challenges, and most of what I took personally was not directed at me intentionally.
As a result, I could see the professor as one of my most profound teachers, who has shaped a lot of my perspective on Jewish practice and study.
I’m telling you this story for a couple of reasons—and I hope it wasn’t too much information.
This week we read a second version of the story of the spies or scouts (Deuteronomy 1:19-33). These princes of the Israelite tribes went up to the Promised Land 38 years before to assess what the land was like, and returned so terrified that, even with God’s support, they believed we wouldn’t be able to enter or keep the land God had promised. The people went into an uproar and God told them that since they were still stuck in their slave minds, until the slave generation died we would not enter the land.
The third person narrator in the Book of Numbers tells the first version of story. There, most of the blame goes to the scouts themselves. If they had come back and just reported what they saw, it would have all been fine. It was their lack of faith that sparked everyone else’s.
However, now, Moses is beginning his final lessons to the people, before he dies and Joshua takes over. In his version, he squarely puts the blame on the people’s shoulders. If only they had overcome their fears and trusted in God, we’d be in the land already.
Now they are literally back at the same place, back at the border to the promised land. How are they going to respond this time? Are they going to have learned from mistakes, or are they going to repeat the pattern of fear, panic and distrust?
One theory—the one I ascribe to—about the importance or relevance of the Torah—the first five books of the bible—is that it teaches us two major lessons: 1) how to live together in peace, with the laws governing behavior, and 2) it helps to elevate each individual soul of the people who hold it close.
So, while we listen to these stories, we are looking for how to be with each other and how to be within ourselves. In this story, Moses reminds us of our past behavior, how frightened we were by the scouts’ stories of the giants. We acted out often on this journey from slavery: we built the Golden Calf because we were worried that Moses, who was late coming down the mountain, might never return and we would be alone. We complained often. I mean often. A lot.
But now Moses is preparing us for the moment when he really won’t be there, when we will have to face our fears and our behaviors. So he reminds us about what happened last time. Look at the patterns, he tells us, and see if we can resolve them.
That’s the story for the Israelites. But what does it mean for us? For you? For me? Well, it meant for me that I had to confront my pattern of demonizing people. And I did. And I have to be willing to look at my behavior: every time an interaction goes wrong, I have to look to see what MY part in it was, I have to be willing to search my own soul. Break my own heart by acknowledging my fallibility. It’s not easy, and it’s not often pretty. But if I want to be the person I want to be—what Jews call a mensch, a person of integrity, I can’t skip the work… That’s what this torah portion is teaching us, I think.
There’s an added component for Jews each year when we read this text. It always falls around the holy day of Tisha B’Av: the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av. It is the day the ancient rabbis said the scouts returned from the Promised Land and initiated the tizzy that left us in the wilderness for the next 38 years. It is the day we believe the temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE. It’s the day we believe the temple was destroyed in 70 CE. And it is the day Romans razed Jerusalem. And the day the Bar Kochba revolt was crushed in 165 CE.
In early Jewish history, it was a bad day, a truly terrible day. But it’s gotten worse.
- The First Crusade officially commenced on August 15, 1096 (Av 9, 4856), killing 10,000 Jews in its first month and destroying Jewish communities in France and the Rhineland. A total of 1.2 million Jews were killed by this crusade that started on the 9th of Av.
- The Jews were expelled from England on Tisha B’Av, 1290.
- The Jews were expelled from France on Tisha B’Av, 1306.
- The Jews were expelled from Spain on Tisha B’Av, 1492.
- World War I began on Tisha B’Av, 1914.
- On Tisha B’Av, 1941, Heinrich Himmler received approval for “The Final Solution”.
- On the Tisha B’Av, 1942, the mass deportation began of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto,en route to Treblinka.
I mean seriously. How bad can one day be? What kind of spiritual energy must be in those 24 hours?
It is also the beginning of the season of preparation for the Jewish High Holy Days that culminate in Yom Kippur, our day of atonement or at-one-ment.
Why would we start on such a day?
It is the day when we are the most broken hearted. As the biblical book, Lamentations, describes, the destruction of the temple in 70 CE was a day of horror for the Jewish people. Jews believed that the Temple is our connection between heaven above and earth below. When the temple was destroyed, that close contact with God was lost. Gone forever. It was a calamity of epic proportions for us. And indeed, in Hebrew, the book of Lamentations is called Eicha, a deep cry of “HOW?” could this have happened to us?
Jewish teachings have always asked us to look at our responsibility in any tragedy or misfortune or, really, any situation. When it came to the destruction of the temple, our sages told a long, fascinating story of a dinner party that went very wrong, and the senseless hatred—sinat chinam—that caused the wrong turns was, to them, what brought down the temple. Others believe it was the lack of unity among the people that brought down the temple. On the other hand, historians tell us that in 70 CE, the Roman army was too powerful for a small band of Jews. And in 165 CE, the revolt led by Bar Kochba was doomed to fail as well, given the strength of the Romans.
And yet we continue to look for what was our part, what could we have done differently—at least so that we can live with ourselves?
Judaism went through a major reformation because of the Romans’ destruction of first the temple and then the city of Jerusalem. What Jews now practice is not biblical Judaism, but rabbinic Judaism. The ancient rabbis and sages created the framework of making Jewish practice livable in each time, allowed for us to survive and, in some places and times, thrive. Sometimes destruction can bring a regeneration that is better than what was lost.
We can look at this period as a cursed time, or we can view it as a time of recognition “that catastrophes will keep recurring in our lives until we get things right, until we learn what we need to learn from them.”
Maybe you’ve seen the movie, Groundhog Day, when Bill Murray’s character, initially a really repugnant fellow, is forced to relive the same day over and over again until he “gets it right.” My demonizing tendency is certainly an example of having to deal over and over again with a behavior that was not working for me. And now when it pokes its ugly head, I recognize it for what it is quickly, acknowledge it and move on.
As Rabbi Alan Lew wrote in his brilliant book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, “Tisha B’Av is the moment of turning, the moment when we turn away from denial and begin to face exile and alienation as they manifest themselves in our own lives— in our alienation and estrangement from God, in our alienation from ourselves and from others.”
Jewish practice offers the opportunity to stare into the gaping wound of pain and suffering to find our own renewal. In Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Option B, she makes a strong case for rebounding from loss with resilience, with the belief that we can not only return to baseline, but use the loss as a means for growth. Think about the archetype of the wounded healer. Or all the people you know who have managed to find new ways of being after loss, have straightened up, made changes, made new friends. I remember speaking to one resident here after the death of her husband, the love of her life. She said that she had many acquaintances, but no true friends here (but then she had lifelong friends she was comparing to). Within a few months, she had dear friends here, friends she might not have opened herself to otherwise. When she died, many of us mourned her death.
So I ask you all—and indeed at our next welcoming Shabbat on August 4, we will be pondering the question: what is an unresolved behavior that is no longer serving you? What do you persistently refuse to look at, fail to see?
If you can answer this, then you are on your way to turning, to coming closer to being the person you are
 Lew, Alan (2003-08-01). This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (p. 41). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., pp. 41-2.