The following is the third in a series of excerpts from Uri L'Tzedek's "Rising in the Night: Compassion and Justice in a Time of Despair," a collection of reflections, poems and calls to action intended to bring mindfulness and social justice to the experience of Tisha B'Av.
Why are we fasting? Why was the Temple destroyed? The Talmud (BT Yoma 9a) wonders about this very issue. The Gemara suggests that the destruction of the first Beit Ha-Mikdash resulted from the violation of a familiar threesome of sins: worship of deities other than G-d, sexual immorality and murder. Elsewhere in the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 74a), these same three acts are listed as the only sins for which a Jew must forfeit his or her life rather than violate them. It is not surprising, therefore, that consistent infringement of these prohibitions by the Jewish people warranted a punishment, even one as severe as exile.
The second Beit Ha-Mikdash was destroyed as a result of the wanton hatred and insensitivity of each individual Jewish person toward his or her fellow Jew (also in BT Yoma 9a). The Talmud (BT Gittin 55b), in fact, elaborates on one case of insensitive behavior during the first century, that of "Kamtza U'Bar Kamtza," which appeared to be insignificant to those involved at the time. This single event turned out to be the fateful moment that ultimately triggered the second destruction and the current exile and dispersal of the Jewish people.
In addition to the "famous" reasons cited above, the rabbis give a number of other explanations for the two destructions. During the end of the Second Temple era, Torah scholars refused to say the blessing on Torah study (BT Nedarim 81a). Year after year, Jews ate chametz on Passover (Eichah Rabbah 1:3) and regularly failed to recite the K'riat Shema. They did not observe Shabbat properly, did not send their children to school to learn Torah, acted without shame, did not rebuke one another for their immoral acts and disrespected their Torah scholars (BT Shabbat 119b).
Each of the above reasons teaches an important value, and much work needs to be done within the Jewish community to improve religious devotion, marital commitment and interpersonal relations, all of which we failed to maintain during the era of the Beit Ha-Mikdash. However, there is yet another explanation given for the Churban (destruction), one which is hardly ever mentioned among the values that we failed to maintain during the Temple era. In chapter 7 of the book of Zechariah, the Jews who had returned to biblical Israel from Babylon sent a messenger to the prophet Zechariah to ask him if it was still necessary to fast during the fifth month (Av) now that they had returned. They assumed that fasting was simply a way of mourning for the destruction. Quoting the word of G-d, Zechariah responds that rather than complaining about the fast, they should be listening to the incessant warnings that the prophets during the first Temple period had provided. "Execute true judgment, and show mercy and compassion to every man to his brother; and do not oppress the widow, nor the orphan, the stranger, nor the poor; and let none of you plan evil against his brother in your heart" (Zechariah 7:9-10).
Zechariah notes that precisely because they did not listen to these commandments during the first Temple era, they were exiled, and the land was left desolate for the previous 70 years until their recent return. In other words, it is because they did not heed G-d's call to fight for the oppressed, to stand up against injustice, to exhibit sensitivity and a sense of religious commitment to the underprivileged individuals in their society that the first Temple was razed. As Rabbi Moshe Alsheich, a 16th century kabbalist and biblical commentator, points out, Zechariah is saying that the fast of Tisha B'Av is not simply meant to serve as a day of mourning for the Temple and for the lives that were lost during the destruction. We fast on Tisha B'Av because we still have not improved; we still have not strived to our fullest capacity to achieve real equity and justice.
There is so much that needs to be done for the poor in our own neighborhoods, both within the Jewish community and without. The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty estimates that there are nearly 250,000 Jews in the New York area alone living below the poverty line. In New York City, there are 1.7 million people that live below the Nation Poverty Guideline. According to the NYC Department of Homeless Services, 7,907 families with children, 1,281 adult families, 8,211 single adults and 36,270 total individuals are homeless in New York City. More than 3 billion people worldwide live on less than $2.50 a day. Half of the world's children, 1 billion of the planet's 2.2 billion children, live below the international poverty line; 1.4 million children die every year from lack of safe water and poor sanitation.
There are many ways in which we can make a difference for these people, and we have already begun to do so. The total number of soup kitchens in the U.S. has increased dramatically in the last 30 years (from 60 to 1,000 in NYC alone). In particular, Masbia, an ultra-Orthodox run food kitchen, has made it their mission "to feed hot, nourishing kosher meals in an organized fashion to anyone in need -- hungry, poor, young and old." Every year, Midnight Run sends out 1,000 relief missions, consisting of vans packed with food, clothing, blankets and personal care items to distribute to homeless individuals on the streets of New York City. Corbin Hill Farm specializes in the needs of low-income communities living in "food deserts," providing inexpensive, fresh produce to hundreds of New Yorkers each season. There are hundreds of other organizations that help the many who need a helping hand and the numbers are growing. It is incumbent upon us all, says Zechariah, to discover how each of us is able to participate.
We, as Jews and as Americans, have done much and, yet, have so much work left to do. As Rabbi Tarfon says, "While it is not on you to complete the task, you are not free to pause from it" (M Avot 2:21). If we take this message of Tisha B'Av with us and translate our mourning into a meaningful call to change ourselves for the better and to make change for the many who need our help, hopefully, the day we experience as a fast this year will next year be "to the house of Judah, joy and gladness, and happy festivals -- [on the condition that] you must love and follow truth and peace" (Zechariah 8:19).
This column is an excerpt from "Rising in the Night: Compassion and Justice in a Time of Despair," a social justice Tisha B'Av Supplement published by Uri L'Tzedek. The title "Rising in the Night" alludes to one of the Book of Lamentations' most striking lines, imploring the reader to, "Rise and cry out in the night ... pour out our heart like water before the presence of the L-rd; lift up your hands to Him for the life of your children, those who are faint with hunger, at the opening of the streets" (Lamentations 2:19). The pain experienced during the most heightened moment of national despair becomes a compulsion to care for the vulnerable in one's community.
This is the nexus promoted by "Rising in the Night." Uri L'Tzedek seeks to connect the Jewish people's communal narrative of destruction and promised redemption to issues of social justice, which resound in us today. The exile central to Tisha B'Av can make us more aware of today's plague of human trafficking. The narrative of that most high city being brought low can make us more sensitive to more personal forms of despair, such as increasing incidents of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. All of these convergences and more are brought together in "Rising in the Night," which will soon be available for download here.