This sermon was given by Rabbi Dr Jackie Tabick on Shabbat 26th July.
And then of course my thoughts turned to Gaza. What to say? How to say it? Like I expect many of you, as I write this sermon, I keep turning over to the BBC, hoping to hear of a cease fire. But not yet.
The haftarah this morning is the second in the three special passages chosen by our ancestors around 1500 years ago to help us get into the right frame of mind for Tisha B’Av; It’s a difficult text, telling us of the punishment that is to be meted out to the people that forget what God requires of us. It’s traditional purpose is to alert us to the fact that Tisha B’Av is now just over a week away, the 9th of the month of Av, when the first and second Temples were razed to the ground, and also many other national disasters occurred. Which is why when I mentioned the new month I called it Menachem Av meaning, May God bring us comfort in this month. You may ask, why the rush of misfortune and war at this time of the year? A practical reason, because it was the summer, the roads were dry and the ancient armies found it easy to go on campaigns, easier than ploughing through the winter mud. Mind you, those negotiating airports and summer crowds may feel that some of the old summer fighting madness is still there in the crowds!
So are these warnings, these words still relevant for us now?
Well, the emphasis throughout this haftarah, as well as the ones that precede and follow it, are not on mourning the destruction of the Temple, or of complaining how awful God is to allow these things to happen, but on the need for all of us for self-reflection and self-evaluation, and an acceptance of responsibility for what has gone wrong in our lives, in our societies, in our world.
So back to Gaza.
We look in horror. The extremists in Hamas deliberately try to kill Israeli citizens, to hit the nuclear facilities in Demona, to bring down planes. And according to Ma’ariv, evidence was found of a plot to use the tunnels for a major offensive against towns and kibbutzim in the south on Rosh Hashanah. Thankfully, they don’t succeed in their goals as Israel has invested in good rocket defence systems and built readily available bomb shelters for its citizens. But still Hamas fire rockets, knowing what horrors will then be unleashed on their fellow Muslims, for they live in such crowded areas, and Hamas have placed guns and bomb factories amongst the population, and they persuade some not to heed Israeli warnings of attacks and so become martyrs, and as in any conflicts, rockets go astray, people make mistakes and others pay with their lives, while the leaders shelter deep underground or live in safety abroad. They could have used the concrete they were allowed to import to build schools or even bomb shelters…instead they have built those state of the art attack tunnels. They could use those very tunnels as bomb shelters for their people, as the underground was used in WW2, but pictures of wounded and dying children and grieving parents are more useful to Hamas as a propaganda weapon against Israel. Besides, according to their theology, those killed will be rewarded in heaven, so it is of little importance.
But of course we have to look to where our responsibilities lie too. We have to live with the horror of the realisation that Jewish extremists have streamed through Israeli cities shouting ‘Death to Arabs’, and that the incursion into Gaza has left very few safe places for people to flee to when informed of Israeli attacks, and that despite all preventative measures, so many have died, so many grieve, so many are wounded. This war is brutal, and so pointless. The chances are that it will solve nothing. Israel has to defend itself, but the cost is just so enormous. The human suffering, more physical on one side of the border than the other, but psychological trauma damages both peoples. Young, old, all peoples who just really want peace and security and a chance to get on with their lives. .
It may be that the traditional view of Jeremiah’s teaching was exaggerated just a bit for good teaching purposes. To remind us that we do have to live our lives with the basic assumption that we are responsible for what we do or fail to do and that inevitably our actions or inaction will have consequences that we will then have to deal with. We can’t keep putting the blame elsewhere. The Torah reading, describing the role of the cities of refuge for those who kill inadvertently, very clearly teaches us that even if one kills by mistake, the killer has to take responsibility for his actions. There was an acceptance that even accidental killings bring bloodguilt. And it is a guilt that so many in the Jewish community feel at this time.
It seems to me that what Jeremiah was actually issuing was a warning, in classic prophetic fashion. He was saying, ‘ if you don’t amend your ways, then this is what will happen’. Yes God will punish us if we abandon His teachings, but God cannot be held responsible for the horrors of that punishment, for once our actions or inaction lead to war, then there is no control over what happens next. The wild dogs of war always bring famine, disease and death and we must therefore do everything in our power to avoid them.
Our work is to never, ever, lose sight of the fact that we have to take responsibility for not only our immediate circle, but also for doing whatever we can, however little that may be, for helping to make this a better world. To remember always that everything that we talk about or read about or watch on the news is really happening to real people and that those people are created by the same God who created us, and that they suffering.
Tisha b’Av however also brings with it a promise of hope…tradition tells us that the birth of the Messiah will occur on that date, ushering in a time of peace. It cannot come soon enough for us and for all those who are suffering through war. And when it is all over this time, and may that be soon. Then we have to find a way to give money to a responsible charity that will help the people of Gaza, and will not let the money or the goods fall into the hands of Hamas.