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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold



“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on this side of the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite the Red Sea, between Paran, and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Dizahab.”

There is a story told of Napoleon who saw a group of Jews in synagogue, sitting on the floor and weeping on Tisha B’Av.  Napoleon asked what horrible thing happened to the Jews that would cause them to weep.  He was told that they are weeping over the destruction of their two Temples.  Napoleon said that this is terrible, when did it happen?   More than a thousand years ago.  Napoleon replied, if they are mourning their Temple for over a thousand years, they will be worthy of seeing it rebuilt.

On the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, known as Shabbat Hazon, Moses begins telling a new generation of Israelites their history.  What happened leading to the forty years of wandering in the desert?  Why did the older generation die off so that only a new generation could enter the land?  History is important.  The philosopher Schopenhauer famously said, “Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.”  We remember our history so we can learn from it and grow from it.

This is hitting home for me this week.  As I am writing this, I am with my son Ben in Yosemite National Park, one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Growing up in Los Angeles, I have memories of driving to the park with my parents, my brothers, my aunt and uncle and cousins.  The park is filled with childhood memories.  But I also have newer memories.  The year I began rabbinical school, I worked two summers at a camp outside Yosemite.  We would take children hiking in the park, and it was my favorite place to go on my day off.  That camp hired me to make their programming more Jewish, and I learned a great deal about becoming a rabbi.  Yosemite is part of my past.

We need our history, both our personal history and our people’s history.  Regarding my personal history, my roots are in California.  I have no plans to move back there, although my California family keeps asking me “why not?”  (For one, it is too expensive.)  But as I look to my own future in Florida, I want to build on my past.  I began to learn how to be a rabbi in California.

Our people have also learned from our past.  Instead of blaming the Babylonians and the Romans for the destruction of the two Temples, they blamed themselves.  “Because of our sins we were we exiled from our land.”  Tisha B’Av, our national day of mourning, became a day of soul searching.  We fast and consider how we can become better people.  Then on Tisha B’Av afternoon, there is a tradition that the Messiah will be born.  Tisha B’Av is not only about a tragic past but a beautiful future.  The prophet Zechariah speaks about how the fast day in the fifth month will become a day of rejoicing (see Zechariah 8:19).

We remember the past.  But we use it to build towards the future.  The ancient pagans wanted to return to the past, to the perfect mythical time.  Biblical religion sees a perfect time not in the past but in the future.  It is a time when the Messiah, perhaps born on Tisha B’Av, will be born.

I am in California to celebrate my past.  I am returning home in time for Tisha B’Av.  But my hope is to remember the past in order to build towards the future.  For those fasting Saturday night and Sunday, may you have an easy fast.  And my we continue to learn from our past in order to grow towards a glorious future.


“You murmured in your tents, and said, Because the Lord hated us, he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us.”  (Deuteronomy 1:27)

A generation has passed, and a new generation is about to enter the Promised Land.  In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses gives a series of speeches recalling the history and the laws given to the Israelites.  In this week’s portion Moses retells the story of the twelve spies, who had spied out the land a generation earlier.  Ten spies came back with an evil report, that giants lived there, and the land could not be conquered.  The people wept and sought to turn back to Egypt.  God punished the people by making them wander forty years, until the old generation had died off.

According to Rabbinic interpretation of the story, God saw the people weeping and said, “You want to weep.  I will give you a reason to weep on this day.”  The decree went out in heaven that this would become a day of mourning.  The date was the nineth of the month of Av, known in Jewish tradition as Tisha B’Av.  On that day in history a series of tragic events occurred, including the destruction of the First Temple and Second Temples in Jerusalem.  It was on this day that the Bar Kochba revolt was stopped by the Romans in 135 C.E., and centuries later it was on this day in 149. that the Jews were thrown out of Spain.  In 1914 Britain and Russia declared war on Germany on Tisha B’Av, leading to the chain of events that became the two world wars.  In 1942, the deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto began on Tisha B’Av.   It is a day with a black cloud hanging over it.

Jewish tradition calls Tisha B’Av the black fast because it is a national day of mourning.  On the other hand, Yom Kippur is called the white fast because our sins are being forgiven.  They are both twenty-four-hour plus fasts, from sundown until dark the next night.  Although there are other more minor fast days in the Jewish calendar, these are the two days I have always fasted.  As one Jewish thinker put it, on Tisha B’Av when we remember the suffering, who can eat?  On Yom Kippur when our sins are being forgiven, who needs to eat?

All is not hopeless.  The prophet Zechariah speaks of four fast days that will turn into days of rejoining.  “Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall become times of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts to the house of Judah; therefore love truth and peace.”  (Zechariah 8:19)   The fast of the fourth month is the seventeenth of Tammuz, the fifth month is Tisha B’Av, the seventh month is tzom Gedalia, and the tenth month is the tenth of Tevet.  These three minor fast days plus Tisha B’Av will become times of joy and gladness.

Judaism has another classical teaching I mention every year.  The Messiah, who will bring about an era of joy and peace will be born on Tisha B’Av.   If anyone has a baby next Wednesday night or Thursday, let me know.  Perhaps he or she will become the anointed one.  (That is what the word messiah means – anointed one.)   Seriously, the lesson is that even in sadness, there is hope.  Moments of sadness contain the seeds of redemption.  The future will be better.

This is a powerful lesson as we spend this Tisha B’Av coping with the horrible COVID-19 pandemic.  The disease did not begin on Tisha B’Av but some time last December, closer to Hanukkah.  It hit the United States right before Passover, so that Zoom seders became the norm.  But even as I stay home fasting, mourn those we lost, pray for those who are sick, worry about the economy, and conduct Tisha B’Av services on my computer, I have hope.  There will be a new beginning when we will find a vaccine and life will return to normal.

This week’s portion is always read on the Sabbath before Tisha B’Av.  It has a special name – Shabbat Hazon, “the Sabbath of Vision,” based on Isaiah’s vision of destruction.  The haftarah is chanted to the mournful tune of Lamentations rather than the usual melody.  Lecha Dodi is sung to the melody of eli tzion, the powerful song sung Tisha B’Av evening.  We mourn, but we know that eventually our mourning will turn to rejoicing.

“You returned and wept before the Lord, but the Lord would not listen to your voice nor give ear to you.” (Deuteronomy 1:45)
El Paso, Dayton. Add them to the long litany of horrors – Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Pulse Nightclub, Las Vegas, for those of us in South Florida, Fort Lauderdale Airport, Parkland. And for those of us who are Jewish, Pittsburgh, Poway. How many more? The list goes on. Other countries have had mass shootings, but no one matches the frequency and horror of the United States. This week, sadly, we had two in one day. And so, when I entered the theater this week in beautiful Laguna Beach, CA to see the marvelous Pageant of the Masters, my first thought was, where is the exit? What if there is a shooting?
We will continue to argue about gun control. Personally, I think the most persistent advocates of gun rights would not want to see military style weapons in the hands of mentally unstable people. I cannot understand the opposition to background checks. But too often the perpetrators of these horrors are people who hate, and have found fellow haters on the internet. Whether it is hatred of Jews, blacks, immigrants, gays, or any other group, these people are finding webpages to support their radical hatred. For the haters, it becomes easy to purchase a mass casualty weapon and bring havoc to a school, a concert, a shopping mall, or anywhere people gather. Hatred is a universal human disease that is growing. It is rampant all over the world, but it is particularly virulent in our United States.
Jewish tradition long ago spoke about senseless hatred. This week’s portion repeats the story of how the Israelites sent spies into the land, ten of whom came back with an evil report. The people began to weep and according to the Midrash, God said, “You want to weep. I will give you’re a reason to weep today.” So that day became the saddest day of the year, known as Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av (this year the ninth of Av is a Shabbat, so we will commemorate it on the tenth of Av.) It is the day that both Temples were destroyed in Jerusalem and multiple other tragedies occurred to the Jewish people.
The Rabbis asked, why was the second Temple destroyed on Tisha B’Av 70 C.E. by the Romans? The answer they gave was sinat hinam, unjustified hatred. Different groups within ancient Jerusalem so hated and undermined each other that it weakened the Jewish community, making it easy for the Romans to overpower the city. Usually when something tragic happens, we blame others. But the Jewish tradition is to look inwards. Why was there such hatred within our own community that it caused the Temple to be destroyed?
We need to ask the same question today. Where is the hatred coming from that is eroding the soul of our country? Gun control is only one step, and a difficult one to pull off for many political reasons. Not just gun control but hate control needs to be our goal. Hatred is rampant. It is rampant among white supremacist groups on the internet who have a long list of enemies from Jews to immigrants. It is rampant among those who see themselves as bullied like the Parkland shooter. But it is also rampant on college campuses among those who start out hating Israel and end up hating Jews. It is no wonder that when some person who perceives himself (it is usually a young man) as a victim grabs some military style weapon and creates chaos and tragedy.
How do we stop the hatred? We can close the white supremacist and neo-Nazi websites and do better background checks for those who would buy guns. That is a start. But first we must fight the hatred in our own hearts. How many of us hate others within our own community? We love to tell the old joke about the Jew stranded on a desert island who builds two synagogues, one where he worships and one where he refuses to set foot. That joke would not have been around for so long if it did not ring true. We have plenty of hate in our own hearts.
It was a tragic week in El Paso and Dayton, a tragic week in our country. We can pray for comfort and healing. But as we enter the sad fast of Tisha B’Av, let us try to fight hatred wherever it may dwell, particularly in our own hearts.

“How can I myself alone bear your weight, and your burden, and your strife?” (Deuteronomy 1:12)
Rodney King, famous for the Los Angeles riots that began in his name, is also known for those immortal words, “Why can’t we just get along?” Often I want to ask the same question. Rarely have I seen such a high level of nastiness in our public discourse. Rather than argue about public policy, we call each other names. “Racist. Sexist. Nazi. Radical. Progressive. Homophobic. Communist.” The right calls the left names and the left calls the right names. And meanwhile our government is at a standstill where nothing gets done.
I am aware that such nasty public discourse in not new. It goes back to our founding fathers. I have not yet seen Hamilton (going this December) but I have listened to the lyrics. People were often brutal with each other. On the Fourth of July I watched another classical musical on TV, 1776. The continental congress was vicious to John Adams. Nonetheless, I remember a time when Democrats and Republicans, in spite of huge policy differences, put them aside and came up with compromises in order to run our country. Today our public discourse has become nasty. When a restaurant refuses to serve Sarah Huckabee Sanders because she works for the Trump administration, something is wrong. But on the other side, when a tow truck driver in North Carolina refuses service to a Bernie Sanders supporter, something is also wrong.
Of course, people have always fought with one another. Moses, in the first chapter of this week’s reading, speaks about how he cannot bear the weight, the burden, and the strife of the Israelite people. Traditionally this verse is not read to the usual Torah trope, but to the mournful Aicha (Lamentations) melody of Tisha B’Av. The melody itself reflects the sadness of people who cannot get along. Is it possible for people to disagree, even to argue, about issues without becoming nasty?
College students who study critical thinking learn about the ad hominem argument. Ad hominem is Latin for “against the man.” In the midst of an argument, someone attacks the other person rather than his or her ideas. If two people are arguing, and one says to the other, “a racist like you would say that,” the argument is stopped dead in its tracks. When we attack the person rather than the idea, we have committed a fundamental fallacy. There is no room in an argument to attack the person.
Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year, begins Saturday night. It commemorates the tragedies of Jewish history, including the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, the first by the Babylonians, the second by the Romans. The Rabbis asked why the Romans destroyed the Temple, and the gave an answer – sinat hinam (unnecessary hatred). The Rabbis tell the classic story of Kamza and Bar Kamza. A man threw a party and invited his friend Kamza. But the invitation accidently went to his bitter enemy Bar Kamza. When Bar Kamza showed up at the party, the man grew furious and told him to leave. Bar Kamza asked that he not be embarrassed, he will even pay for the party. But the man tossed him out.
Bar Kamza then sought revenge. He told the Roman Emperor that the Jewish Temple would not accept a gift offering from him. The Emperor sent an offering and Bar Kamza deliberately put a blemish on the animal. It was now forbidden to offer it in the Temple. When the Emperor heard that the Jews had refused his offering, he and his troops destroyed the Temple. The story is certainly apocryphal, but it teaches a lesson. We lost our great Temple because we were unworthy. Jews hated other Jews.
There is nothing wrong with arguments, even passionate arguments, about policy issues. But when arguing degenerates into name-calling, we are talking about ad hominem attacks. People are attacking people. This was the kind of hatred that took place in ancient Judah before the destruction of the Temple. And this is the kind of hatred which has become far too prevalent in our own public discourse.

“Where shall we go? our brothers have discouraged our heart, saying, The people are greater and taller than we; the cities are great and fortified up to heaven; and moreover we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.” (Deuteronomy 1:28)
I was privileged this week to visit New York City and see the Tony winning musical Dear Evan Hansen. It is one of the best musicals I have seen in a long time; I say that as someone who loves Broadway musicals. It also made a star of the young actor Ben Platt, who won his own Tony for his starring role. Incidentally, Ben began his acting career singing in Hebrew shows at Camp Ramah.
The show covers difficult issues of loneliness, suicide, and social media in high school. Without giving away too much of the show, it tells the story of Evan Hansen, a lonely, socially awkward high school senior. When another boy who Evan hardly knows commits suicide, Evan invents an entire history of friendship with the boy. The false story gets caught up in social media at the school, with images of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram appearing in the background. Evan’s invented story gives the bereaved family great comfort and brings Evan into a deepening relationship with the boy’s sister. Will the truth come out? And will it change everything? I do not want to spoil it totally; you must see the show.
A central point of the show is Evan’s total lack of self-confidence and his loneliness. He has no friends. One sees the pathos in the words he sings, “When you’re falling in a forest and there’s nobody around, do you ever really crash or even make a sound.” Sadly, self-abnegation is not unusual in today’s high school world of social media, where popularity is judged by the number of likes one receives. It is small wonder that Evan gets caught up in his own lies. It is a disturbing story.
This show about seeing one’s self as unworthy was perfect as we prepare to read the fifth book of the Torah – Deuteronomy. The book also begins with a retelling of the story of the spies. In the original story God tells Moses to send spies into the Holy Land, but in this retelling the people ask to spy out the land. Twelve spies travel through the land, bringing back a large cluster of grapes. But ten bring back a negative report. “We are not worthy. There are giants in the land and we appear as nothing.” In the first telling of the story in the book of Numbers, the ten spies said that they look like grasshoppers in the eyes of the people of the land, and so they look in their own eyes.
The results of these events are tragic. The people cry out, and God punishes them by causing them to march through the desert for forty years, until the entire generation dies off. According to Jewish tradition, God says to the Israelites, since you are crying on this day – I will give you a reason to make this a day of tears. That day is Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year, the day when the first and second Temples in Jerusalem were both destroyed. It is a day of mourning and fasting. Tisha B’Av falls each year during the week following this portion. (This year it is on Monday night and Tuesday.)
We see where low self-esteem leads to sadness and sometimes to tragedy. There is a Hassidic teaching from Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pershyscha that every Jew should carry two slips of paper in her pocket at all times. If she is becoming too cocky and arrogant, she should pull up the paper that says, “I am just dust and ashes.” And if she becomes too lowly and depressed, she should pull out the paper that says, “the world was created for me.” Perhaps of the spies had the self-esteem to say, the world was created for me, they would have the courage to enter the land. And perhaps Tisha B’Av would have never happened.
So too, in the musical Dear Evan Hansen, Evan needed to know that the world was created for him. He needed friends. And he needed to accept his true self. The first act ends with a beautiful upbeat anthem that gives an urgent message, not just to high school students but to all of us. “Even when the dark comes crashing through, and you need a friend to carry you. When you’re broken on the ground, you will be found.”

“You returned and wept before the Lord; but the Lord would not listen to your voice, nor give ear to you.” (Deuteronomy 1:45)
Celine Dion sang in her hit song from the movie Titanic how “her heart will go on and on.” Part of the power of both the song and the movie is the belief that through adversity, love will go on and on. I also believe in this. But unfortunately, we live in a world where too often “the hate will go on and on.”
This ongoing hate came true this week in the event that is supposed to show the best of the human spirit. Opening night of the Olympics the Israeli team lined up to board the bus to the opening ceremony. The Lebanese team blocked the way and refused to travel on a bus with Israeli athletes. Another bus had to be brought over. I must say to their credit, the International Olympic Committee disciplined the Lebanese team. At least we have moved forward from the tragic days of the 1972 Munich Olympics when the Committee finally agreed under pressure to cancel the games for one day in memory of eleven Israeli athletes murdered. Sadly the hatred goes on and on.
It is not simply Arabs who hate Israel. The Black Lives Matter movement was formed in response to a number of killings of unarmed black men by police officers. It is a movement many Jews might be tempted to support. Then the organization issued a public statement about Israel. It called Israel an apartheid state, supported the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement, and called for the United States to cut off all aid to Israel. What does the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict have to do with the issue of black lives in America? But it is part of the hatred that goes on and on.
Today the world continues to reel from terrorist attacks in airports, train stations, nightclubs, and wherever people gather. How quickly we forget that the first victims of these terrorists were Israelis. The Jews are like the canary in the mine, the first to feel the poison gas. Terror began against Jews and soon spread to the entire Western world. Will it ever end? To begin to understand, let us turn to the story of the spies, told again in this week’s portion.
At the beginning of Deuteronomy, Moses repeats the tale of the twelve spies sent to explore the land of Israel. Ten of the spies bring an evil report, and the people begin to weep. According to a famous Midrash, God said, “You stand here and weep before me. I will give you a reason to weep on this day.” That day was Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, a day when a whole series of tragedies hit the Jewish people. It became the national day of mourning, a day of fasting and reading the book of Lamentations. This portion is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, and parts of the Shabbat service are chanted to more mournful melodies. (This year Tisha B’Av falls on Saturday night and Sunday.)
One might think that the sadness of Tisha B’Av reflects events in the distant past. But history shows that the hatred and the tragedy seems to go on and on. In the Passover Haggadah we read, “In every generation they rise up to try to destroy us.” Certainly we must be vigilant in fighting the hate. We must tell those who try to destroy Israel that they will not succeed. But fighting hate must be more than self-defense.
As I have often taught, Judaism teaches that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av. The day contains the roots of our redemption. Out of hatred and sadness will grow love and joy. “Those who sow seeds with tears will reap them with joy.” (Psalms 126:5) Perhaps we need to find more stories like the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, where the South Korean gymnastics team allowed the Israeli gymnast Revital Sharon to compete with them so she would not be forced to compete on Yom Kippur. The rabbis said that on Tisha B’Av the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of unjustified hatred. Perhaps we can build a better world with unbounded love.

“When God heard what you said, He angrily swore, no man of this evil generation will see the good land that I swore to give to your father.” (Deuteronomy 1:34-35)
I saw the movie Inside Out for the second time this week, this time with my wife. Although I am not usually a fan of animated movies, this one drew me in. Perhaps it was an interview I heard on National Public Radio with the producer. He spoke about how he and his creative team came up with an ending for the movie. I realized how very Jewish some of his ideas are.
(I want to thank Rabbi Dov Heller from the Aish website who gave me the idea for this message.) Let me quickly summarize the Disney-Pixar movie. Inside Out is the story of a little girl, Rylie, forced to move with her parents from her beloved Minnesota to San Francisco. But the real story is what is happening in Riley’s head. Various emotions shown as little humanoids run a control room where they vie to be in charge of Riley. Anger, fear, disgust, sadness, and particularly joy (the voice of Amy Poehler) take turns at the controls. Through most of her life joy has been dominant. Riley is, or at least was, a very happy little girl. But now, with the move to San Francisco, joy is losing control.
[Warning – there are spoilers in this paragraph.] Joy wants to keep Riley happy and works hard to keep sadness in her place. But in the end, it does not work. Joy seems to be losing Riley. But then joy has a deep insight. She needs to step aside and let sadness take over the controls. Riley needs to feel and express the deep sadness she feels upon leaving her previous home. Only after shedding tears will she be ready to once again feel joy. The message of the movie is that it is permissible, in fact often necessary to mourn. We need to express our sadness. Only then can we once again feel joy. Or as the Psalmist said, “Those who plant with tears will one day reap with joy.” (Psalms 126:5)
That brings me to Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year. It is a full fast, similar to Yom Kippur in terms of avoiding food, drink, comfortable shoes, bathing, conjugal relations, and anointing with oils. But it is not a holy day; one is permitted to work on Tisha B’Av (which makes the fasting even harder.) Jewish tradition calls Yom Kippur the white fast and Tisha B’Av the black fast. On the white fast when our sins are being forgiven, who needs to eat? On the black fast when we remember the tragedies of our people, who can eat?
According to Jewish tradition, Tisha B’Av was proclaimed by God when the people began weeping after the spies came back from spying out the land. The story is repeated in this week’s portion. God gets angry and tells the people, you weep today! I will give you a reason to weep. Multiple national tragedies including the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem happened on Tisha B’Av.
Many people have asked, do we still need a day of sadness today? After all, we have a state of Israel. The book of Zechariah does teach that the fast days will become days of rejoicing. (See Zechariah 8:19) Later Rabbinic Judaism looked at Zechariah prophecy and taught that it will only come true when the world is truly at peace. The world in general and Israel in particular are far from peace today. The Rabbis, including the Conservative Movement, have taught that we still need to recognize the sadness through the fast of Tisha B’Av.
Both the movie Inside Out and the commemoration of Tisha B’Av share a message. We need to recognize the sadness in our lives. We need to walk through that valley of sadness in order to once again experience joy. There is an apocryphal story told about Napoleon, who once looked into a synagogue on Tisha B’Av and saw Jews sitting on the floor weeping. “Why are they weeping?” Napoleon asked. “They are weeping for the destruction of their Temple.” “When was it destroyed?” “A few thousand years ago.” Napoleon finally said, “If they are still weeping for something destroyed a few thousand years ago, they will be privileged to see it rebuilt.”
I am not looking for the Temple to be rebuilt. But I do believe in experiencing the sadness of Tisha B’Av. Only then can we learn to experience the joy.

“You sulked in your tents and said, it is because the Lord hates us that He brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to wipe us out.” (Deuteronomy 1:27)
This week we begin reading the fifth book of the Torah. Deuteronomy is often called Mishna Torah, the second teaching of the Torah. Moses delivers a series of speeches before the people prepare to enter the Promised Land. Most of Deuteronomy repeats the history and the laws given during the forty years of wandering. Moses, who will die outside the land, adds new insights during these long speeches.
In this week’s portion we hear a repetition of the incident of the spies – twelve men sent to the Promised Land to spy out the land. The story was originally told in Numbers, when God commands Moses to send the spies. In this week’s portion the story is told from a different perspective; it is the people who beg Moses to spy out the land. But when the spies return the people begin to weep, saying that God brought them out of Egypt to be killed in the land. They long to return to Egypt.
Here a famous Midrash (Rabbinic tale) fills in the story. The people are weeping and God tells them, “Why are you weeping? I will give you good reason to make this day a day of weeping?” The day will become Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year. On this day both the First Temple and the Second Temple were destroyed by the Babylonians and the Romans respectively. Many other tragedies occurred on this day including the exile of the Jewish community from Spain, the end of one of the most creative Jewish communities in history. It is a day of fasting and mourning, commemorating for one day a long history of Jewish suffering.
This week’s portion is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av. In fact, the haftarah we read this week is called Hazon, chanted to a special melody. It is Isaiah’s vision of destruction because of the sins of the people. This year Tisha B’Av falls on Monday night and Tuesday of this coming week. I will fast as I do every year, my way of remembering a long sad history of our people. Tisha B’Av is about sadness. But even within sadness there is the birth of hope.
Many Conservative Jews have chosen to fast only half a day, until Mincha (the afternoon service) on Tisha B’Av afternoon. At this service the mood is already changing. We did not wear a tallit nor tefillin in the morning, because these ritual items are considered ornaments. By the afternoon we put them on, and we begin to sing rather than simply speak the service. Redemption has begun. The Jews who break the fast off here consider the founding of the state of Israel as reishit tz’michat geulateinu – “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.” As we see from current events in Israel, the Jewish people are no longer helpless victims of those who would cause them suffering. They are able to fight back against those lobbing missiles or digging tunnels into Israeli territory.
But Tisha B’Av afternoon symbolizes an idea which is deeper. We suffer, but out of that suffering goodness can grow. There is a very old tradition that teaches that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av. (If you have a baby on Tuesday afternoon, particularly if you are descendents of King David, you may have given birth to someone special.) What does this tradition mean? Redemption grows out of pain. Goodness grows out of evil. The book of Psalms teaches a verse that Jews chant on Shabbat and festivals before the Grace after Meals, “They who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” (Psalms 126:5)
In this week’s portion, God saw the tears of a people who were too frightened to conquer the land. And God said that this shall be a day of tears, a tie marked by a long history of tragedies. But our tradition also taught that in the midst of these tears there are signs of hope. As the poet Alexander Pope wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” On the saddest day of the year, the Messiah will be born. On this day redemption will begin.

“You sulked in your tents and said, it is because the Lord hates us that He brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to wipe us out.” (Deuteronomy 1:27)
This week we begin reading the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. Moses recounts the history and the laws to the new generation about to enter the land. This week in particular Moses recalls the story of the spies who had travelled through the Promised Land some forty years early. Ten of the spies brought back an evil report about the land, setting the people weeping and longing to return to Egypt. The Midrash takes off on this idea. God says to the people, “You weep on this day for no reason. I will give you a reason to weep. In the future this will become a day of sadness.” (Taanit 29a)
This day of weeping was the ninth of Av, Tisha B’Av, which falls this coming week. This portion is read every year on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av is a full fast day, commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem and numerous other tragic events in Jewish history. It has become the Jewish national day of mourning. And yet, despite the sadness, Tisha B’Av points forward with signs of hope.
On Tisha B’Av in the evening, we sit on the floor and in a mournful tune, chant the book of Lamentations. Traditionally ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah, it is a description of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its inhabitants. Nonetheless, at the very end of the chanting, a verse from earlier in the book is repeated. “Turn us unto You O Lord, and we will turn; Renew our days as of old.” (Lamentations 5:21) This verse is also chanted in synagogue every time we return the Torah to the ark. We chant it at the end in order to finish the reading on an upbeat note.
This practice is not unusual in Jewish tradition. It is forbidden to end the reading of a portion of Torah, a haftarah (a portion of the Prophets), or one of the megillot such as Lamentations on a negative note. No matter how sad or depressing the reading may be, it must end with optimism. If the world appears sad for the moment, the future will be brighter. Sadness always contains the seeds of future happiness. Or to quote the book of Psalms, “They who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” (Psalms 126:5)
As a rabbi, I am frequently asked why awful things happen to people. Sometimes the best response is not to answer but just give them a hug. But when I do try to answer, I often share the thoughts of Christian theologian and philosopher John Harwood Hick. He claimed that evil serves a divine purpose. It forces us to work to make ourselves better, and in so doing, make the world better. In other words, out of sadness we can create goodness. This is very similar to the kabbalistic idea that we can reach into the heart of darkness to uncover holy sparks of light. Sadness has the potential to become joy.
On Tisha B’Av this idea is symbolized by an old but beautiful Rabbinic teaching. The Rabbis taught that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av. The saddest day of the Jewish calendar will mark the birthday of the one who will bring deliverance and joy to the world. Obviously this teaching is not to be taken literally. But it is a profound insight. Suffering contains within itself the seeds of joy. Tisha B’Av, our most tragic day, can become an opportunity to find ways to heal the world. It is the beginning of a bright future. This glorious future is reflected in Jewish liturgy, where following Tisha B’Av we read prophecies of comfort for seven weeks.
Sometimes when we are living in the heart of despair, it is hard to believe that there is any hope for a bright future. Darkness envelops us. That is the reason we learn at this season that even in the blackness of despair can contain seeds of hope and joy for the future.


“How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!”
(Deuteronomy 1:12)
This week’s reading is built on the Hebrew word eicha. The word comes from a root meaning “how.” But it is more an exclamation, a cry to the universe. “How can you do this!” “How can this be!” Some translate it “Alas.” Perhaps the best tactic is to avoid translating it altogether, to see it as being a sigh of pain – oy.
The word eicha appears in the Torah reading in the verse quoted above. Perhaps a better translation is “Oy, to have to bear unaided the trouble of you …” When we come to this verse we switch the trope (melody) of our Torah reading to the sad, plaintive call of the book of Lamentations. The word eicha also appears in the haftarah, the reading from the Prophets. “Alas, she has become a harlot, the faithful city that was filled with justice, where righteousness dwelt.” (Isaiah 1:21). Almost the entire haftarah is chanted to the melody of Lamentations.
This Torah reading always falls on the Sabbath before the saddest day of the Jewish year – Tisha B’Av (this year it begins Monday night.) On Tisha B’Av we read the book of Lamentations, called in Hebrew by the first word of the text eicha. “How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people. How is she become as a widow.” (Lamentations 1:1) Perhaps we can translate it “Oy, the city sits solitary, that was full of people…” So we have three oy’s – in the Torah reading, the haftarah, and the book of Lamentations. Three times we cry out to the heavens with a sigh.
Part of the theme of this Shabbat is a cry to the universe. The universe can be a cruel and evil place. Tragedy seems to strike without concern for whether the victims deserve it or not. Young people receive bad news and come to me for counseling. “Rabbi, it is not fair.” My answer is that they are right. We live in a universe that is not fair. Bad things do happen to good people. Often we feel powerless. All we can do is cry out to the universe with the word eicha. Perhaps even the cry is an act of faith, a hope that somehow the universe can be made better. But the cry is real.
The Enlightenment, the great movement in the eighteenth century to overturn tradition in the name of reason, came up with a new way of understanding the universe. Human reason and science would make the universe a better place. Progress was at hand. Nature could be brought under the control of humanity and we had the power to make this a better world. But in the midst of this upbeat vision of a better world, tragedy struck. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, followed by fires and a tsunami, destroyed one of the great cities of Europe. The earthquake struck the morning of All Saints Day, when many Portuguese were in church, churches that collapsed.
Historians say that the earthquake was as traumatic for eighteenth century as Auschwitz was for the twentieth century. The belief in the human control of nature and of progress was put to the test and found wanting. People could simply look out into the universe and give a cry of woe. We live in an unfair universe. Perhaps that is part of the theme of Tisha B’Av.
But all is not hopeless. There is a Jewish tradition that teaches that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av. One does not need to take such myths literally to accept that they contain a profound truth. Even in the midst of sadness there exists the beginning of hope. Like the buds of flowers that begin to bloom after a fire has destroyed a wood, the sadness of the universe contains the seeds of hope. Out of destruction comes creation.
We can cry out to the universe with cries of woe. But we must also believe that in the midst of that woe, there is the seed of a better future. Out of sadness will grow hope. This hope allows us to keep living during our saddest times.


“Surely there shall not one of these men of this evil generation see that good land, which I swore to give to your fathers.” (Deuteronomy 1:35)
This portion is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, which is the saddest day of the Jewish year. Tisha B’Av commemorates not only the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, but all the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people from Biblical times to the present. It is a day of mourning and fasting. According to Rabbinic tradition, this was the day that the spies brought back an evil report about the land, and the people started crying that they could not go forward into the land. God said, “You cry on this day. I will give you a reason to cry.”
This raises a difficult issue, why do bad things happen? Is it God’s punishment for sins? In the Biblical book of Job, Job goes through horrendous suffering. His friends try to convince him that his own sins brought on these punishments. Job proclaims his innocence and calls God for an accounting. Perhaps the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av is the perfect time to discuss the haunting question of evil. (The term theologians use for this is the question of theodicy, the justification of God in the face of evil.)
When someone is actually facing tragedy, it goes without saying that it is not the time to discuss theodicy. I do not visit the bed of a cancer victim and say, “Let me explain why God is doing this.” When Job’s friends came to comfort him, they sat silent at his side waiting for him to speak. From this we get the tradition that visitors to a house of mourning always let the mourners speak first.
However, there are times when we have to discuss the problem of evil in the world. It is only a problem if three assumptions are true:
1. There really is evil in the world.
2. God is beneficent and wants goodness.
3. God is omnipotent and has the power to stop evil.
Take away any of these three assumptions and the problem of evil disappears.
Many religious people take away assumption #1. There really is no evil in the world. What we see as evil is because our perspective is limited. Everything that happens is part of God’s divine plan. The Talmud tells stories of Nahum Ish Gamzu who used to say no matter what happened, gam zu letovah “this is for the good.” (Taanit 21a) It is worldview that is deeply comforting. Unfortunately, it is a very difficult worldview to hold after the horrors of the holocaust. How can anybody who lived through the twentieth century as well as the last ten years say there is no evil in the world?
Many modern thinkers do away with assumption #2. In a modern scientific age, we cannot speak of God being good. The philosopher Spinoza identified God with nature and nature’s laws. Einstein said that his God was Spinoza’s God. If God equals nature, then nature is neither good nor bad. Nature simply happens according to its own laws. We live in a world where earthquakes and tsunamis, cancer cells and birth defects strike according to the laws of nature. Nature is neither good nor bad, but goes about its business indifferent to humanity. This position is popular among modern thinkers, but a universe indifferent to human suffering is far from the religious ideal.
Many mystics including some teachers of kabbalah teach that the third assumption is false. God limited God’s own power in an act of tzimtzum self-contraction. God suffers along with us but has limited power to act. This was the view of Harold Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. This is also the view of many modern philosophers, particularly those influenced by the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.
The reason I find this view so compelling is that, if God’s power is limited, then it is up to us to bring about an end of suffering in the world. This is the main lesson of Tisha B’Av, not simply to commemorate the suffering but to ask the question – how will we overcome suffering? Tradition says that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av therefore becomes not simply a day of sadness but a day of hope.


“The Lord our God spoke to us in Horeb, saying, you have lived long enough in this mount.” (Deuteronomy 1:6)

I have been following the celebration of the 40th anniversary of humanity’s first walk on the moon. What an exciting moment! I was actually in the former country of Yugoslavia when it occurred, and bought a newspaper with headlines in Serbo-Croatian – “Man Walks on the Moon.” Unfortunately I gave the paper away; it would be a wonderful souvenir today.
Even as we celebrate that moment, the question keeps coming up – why has the space program not achieved an equivalent achievement in the past forty years? I know all the reasons – budget, the focus on the space station and the space shuttles, the tragic losses of Challenger and Columbia, etc. But behind all of this, there is a sense of being frozen. Programs of great excitement – another moon landing or even a journey to Mars – seem dreams of a distant future. One senses that it is time for NASA to pick up and start moving again.
So it is for each of us. Life is a journey. But sometimes on that journey we reach a place where we are comfortable. We want to rest on our laurels and our achievements and not start moving again. This is precisely what happened to the Israelites after they received the Ten Commandments. They were perfectly content to continue to camp out at Horeb (another name for Mount Sinai). God finally had to remind Moses, it is time for the people to get moving again.
So it is with many of the people I counsel. They reach a point in their lives where they are stuck, unable or unwilling to move forward. They know that if they want to succeed in life, they need to go back to school. But they cannot seem to make the move to apply for classes. They know that they are in a dead end job and it is time to look for something better. But they cannot bring themselves to make the move. They know that they need to make a change in their relationships or their love life, but they feel stuck. They cannot bring themselves to take the next step.
Isaac Newton’s fundamental law of motion speaks of inertia. A body in motion tends to remain in motion at the same velocity, while a body at rest tends to remain at rest. Only when acted on by a force will a body in motion make a change. What is true for physics is true for human life. People only change when acted upon by a force. Only here it is often an inner force, an act of will that gets them to make a move. Sometimes people finally act because circumstances force the issue. They lose a job, or someone breaks off a relationship. But most of the time the only way to move on is through a pure act of will. At the mountain Moses told the people, it is time to pick up and move. So each of us finds that we have reached a point in our lives where it is time to pick up and move.
Change is difficult. It is far easier to stay in the same place. Going back to school, looking for a new job, trying to transform a relationship, having a child, taking on a new project, learning a new language, learning to follow or even lead synagogue services, sitting down to write a book, all are difficult. Each of these takes a major act of will. But life is about moving on, continuing on the journey. Life is about not staying at the same place forever.
When I was young the space program fired the imagination of most Americans. Today, although a space shuttle lift-off lights up the sky where I live, most people I know greet it with a yawn. The space program needs a project to capture our imagination once again. In each of our lives, we need a project to capture our imaginations once again. We need to find the will and the courage to move on.


“It was in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, that Moses addressed the Israelites in accordance with the instructions that the Lord had given him for them.”
(Deuteronomy 1:3)
This week we begin Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah. This portion also falls every year on the Sabbath before Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year. (Tisha B’Av begins this year Saturday night at sundown.) Deuteronomy starts with Moses retelling the history of the people Israel during their wanderings. And Tisha B’Av, which commemorates a series of Jewish tragedies, points to how sad and hopeless history can appear.
Let me return briefly to a theme I have discussed in the past. There are two views of history – the pagan view and the Biblical view. The pagans, whether the ancient Greeks and Romans or the great religions of the East, viewed history as a great cycle. Everything returns once again. In the long run, nothing ever changes. Professor of religion Mircea Eliade wrote the classical book on this subject, The Myth of the Eternal Return. Eliade writes regarding humanity in primitive societies, “for him things repeat themselves for ever and nothing new happens under the sun.” (p. 90)
The influential philosopher Frederick Nietzsche in his attack on Jewish and Christian morality also spoke about eternal return. Nietzsche longed to recreate the heroic mindset of the ancient Greeks. He attacked what he called the slave mentality of the Bible. The world, like nature, must always come back to where it started. Once a slave always a slave; nothing can ever truly change.
The Bible presents a radically different view of history. History has a direction. The world will not to return to what it was. Slaves can go free. (That is the entire essence of the Passover festival.) The world can be made into a better place. Suffering in the past does not automatically point to suffering in the future. We humans can transform the world. This view of history grew out of the Bible and became central to both Jewish and Christian thinking. Thomas Cahill called it The Gift of the Jews in a popular book by the same name. If history is not a cycle but a line, it creates a totally different outlook.
The clash between these two world views – history as a cycle versus history as a line – has effected how humans see themselves in Western civilization. It has even affected scientists. Einstein, when he worked out his superb theory of general relativity, realized that the equations point to an expanding universe – in other words, a universe that is constantly changing. Einstein preferred to see the universe as static and unchanging – more of a cycle than a line. So he added a constant to his equations, the cosmological constant, to avoid an expanding universe. Later Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding. In 1931 Einstein met with Hubble who took him up Mount Wilson to see for himself the evidence that the universe is expanding. Einstein then famously remarked that his cosmological constant was the biggest blunder of his life.
Even the universe has a direction; it does not simple recycle itself. How much more so human history! Because Jewish history has been filled with pain and suffering, does that mean pain and suffering are inevitable in the future? Are Jews simple born to suffer for eternity? If so, that would give Tisha B’Av, our most tragic day, a deep sense of sadness.
There is a legend that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av. (If anyone has a baby on Saturday night or Sunday, let me know.) Perhaps the legend means that even the sadness contains the roots of hope. A much brighter future will grow out of a dismal present. History has a direction and the future will be better than the past. The Biblical book of Zechariah already makes a remarkable prediction. “Thus says the Lord of host, the fast of the fourth month, and the fifth, and the fast of the seventh and the tenth shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness and cheerful seasons; therefore love truth and peace.” (Zechariah 8:19) These are four of the traditional fasts Jews keep to remember tragedies; the fast of the fifth month is Tisha B’Av. In the future even our saddest day will become a day of rejoicing.

“How can I myself alone bear your weight, and your burden, and your strife?”
(Deuteronomy 1:12)

This portion is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. I have written elsewhere that I believe we need one day to remember the sadness of our history. Hopefully the other 364 days we can remember the joy. And so it is in our personal life.
We all have pain and adversity in our lives. And we all have joy and comfort in our lives. Do we focus on the pain or do we focus on the joy? Let me share a small piece from my book The Ten Journeys of Life,which will be reissued at the end of the summer.
A woman in great pain goes to her rabbi for solace. The rabbi tells her, “I want you to bake a loaf of bread. But I want you to bake it from flour that you borrow from others. One more rule: You can only borrow the flour from households that have never known pain and unhappiness.”
The woman heeds the rabbi’s advice and searches from household to household for a cup of flour. There is no one who has not known pain and suffering. Finally, the woman returns to the rabbi. “I realize I am not alone in my suffering.”
There is no life that does not contain some pain. Nobody totally escapes loss. As the Bible puts it, “There was no house where there was not someone dead” (Exodus 12:34). Death may take many forms. It may be an actual death of a loved one, or it may be the death of a dream, the death of hope.
The Talmud teaches that to be unable to conceive a child is a kind of a death (Nedarim 64b), and Abraham and Sarah coped with infertility. Illness also can be a kind of death—the death of the illusion that we are invulnerable.
My own rabbinic experience has taught me that many losses are a kind of death. I have counseled people coping with grievous losses—divorce, illness, bankruptcy, family estrangement, the loss of dreams. The mourning symptoms for all of these losses can be the same as when a loved one dies: shock, anger, guilt, depression, loss of faith, loneliness. Unlike an actual death, no traditional rituals are unavailable to help people cope with such losses. Often they feel alone, abandoned by God in an indifferent universe. Sometimes they feel cursed by God or believe that they have sinned and received God’s punishment.
This chapter explores the journey toward healing and wholeness. The losses are real, but humans have a God-given ability to cope with their losses, to continue to function, to move beyond the loss. The pain may not go away totally. But our losses become part of our being, they make us the people we are. The scars hurt, sometimes deeply, but they also help form us. As the philosopher Nietzsche taught, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
A path to healing is available even when we are in pain. A vital point about this healing journey is that there is a difference between healing and a cure. A cure makes a loss go away completely. Some diseases can be cured, but many cannot. Some losses disappear, while others stay with us throughout our earthly existence. Healing is the ability to live with our losses, to find wholeness, faith and a sense of purpose in spite of our losses. Healing can occur even when there is no cure. We can be at one with the universe, with God and with ourselves even after coping with death. I have watched many people again experience joy, even after grievous losses.



“How can I myself alone bear your weight, and your burden, and your strife?”
(Deuteronomy 1:12)

Imagine the following story. A young baby, threatened with death, is sent away from his homeland in order to save his life. He is rescued and adopted by a family, but never forgets the people of his birth. He grows up and becomes the savior of a people. But the calling to be a savior is a difficult and painful one. To some extent, he is wounded by the task at hand. He is a reluctant savior.
What is this story? It is a classical story of western civilization. First, it is the story that is popular in the movies today. I have always enjoyed the Superman story ever since I started reading comic books as a young child. I was a fan of Christopher Reeve, may his memory be a blessing. So when the new movie Superman Returns opened, I actually saw it twice. First, I went to see it in a regular movie theater. Then, while visiting my brother on the Jersey shore, I had a chance to go to Imax in Atlantic City and see it on the big screen, with several scenes in 3-D. It is quite an experience.
The movie was nicely done, and I recommend it for those who enjoy superhero action films. But it was billed not just as an adventure but as a love story. Much of it focused on the relationship between Superman and Lois Lane. I never thought about the religious implications of the Superman saga. But it also touched on a religious theme. Do we humans need a savior? And what kind of sacrifices must that savior make? (The Christian implications are clear. But of course, Judaism also speaks about the Messiah, the savior who will come rescue us. The original writers of Superman were two Jewish boys.)
In one scene, Superman takes Lois Lane high over the city and asks her what she hears. She tells him that she hears nothing. He answers that he hears everything, particularly the cries of people. Superman is called to be the rescuer, but he loses the woman he loves in the effort.
This story ought to be familiar. It is also the story of Moses. Moses was also sent away as an infant; Moses also grows up in a family of strangers but cannot forget the family of his birth. He grows up to be the reluctant savior, heeding the cry of the people. But there is personal sacrifice in his mission to save his people. Being a savior is a painful and difficult calling.
This week’s portion begins a series of speeches Moses delivers in the last weeks of his life. He admits the burden and difficulty of his role as savior of his people.
“How can I myself alone bear your weight, and your burden, and your strife?” (Deuteronomy 1:12) Moses was always the reluctant prophet. When God appeared to him at the burning bush and told him to become the savior of the people, he looked for any excuse not to go. Moses sacrificed his own family life for his leadership role. According to the Midrash, he separated from his wife and the Torah says virtually nothing about his children. His role as rescuer of the Jewish people was all consuming.
As I watched the movie Superman, the ancient exodus story echoed in my mind. The movie told the same story of the reluctant savior. When an ancient religious text and a contemporary movie both tell the same story, they obviously echo a deep human need. We humans tell stories to ourselves. The story of the baby sent from his home who grows up to save his people, making personal sacrifices along the way, is a story as old as time. It reflects something deep about human nature. We long for a savior. But what does the savior give up as he, or perhaps she, fulfills his or her mission.



“Only King Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim. His bedstead, an iron bedstead, is now in Rabbah of the Ammonites; it is nine cubits long and four cubits wide, by the standard cubit!” (Deuteronomy 3:11)

“You are too tall to be a rabbi!”
I hear these words all the time. Standing a few inches over six feet, I am taller than most rabbis I know (but a few tower over me.) I am also shorter than most professional basketball players (and no, I never played in college. I was not that talented.)
Height has its advantages and its disadvantages. One advantage is that when you speak publicly, height gives you a very strong presence. For better or worse, height creates authority, even if it is false authority. The disadvantage is you tend to bump into many chandeliers. (I once walked into a shiva home – “a house of mourning”, walked into the front chandelier, and knocked out all the lights in the house.) Height also makes it very difficult to fly coach in most airplane seats. I fight to get a roomier exit row, or occasionally if I am lucky, a first class upgrade. (I once flew to Europe in the front row of coach, with my legs sticking under the curtain into Business Class. I told everyone, “I flew coach but my feet flew Business.”)
I mention these musings about height because we read this week about the last of the great giants, who was killed by Israel in an unexpected victory. His name was Og, king of Bashan, and the Israelites were very frightened to face him. In the end they were victorious, and even captured his bedstead. It was nine cubits by four cubits – approximately 13 ½ by 6 feet. I would love to sleep in such a large bed.
The theme of the giant killer is one of the great myths of Western tradition. By myth, I do not mean a falsehood. Rather it is a story that even if not literally true, is certainly spiritually true. Whether or not David really slew Goliath, his story has become a fundamental part of our Western culture. How often do we cheer on the little guy taking on the large enemy? How often do we root for the underdog as he overcomes an adversary far larger and more powerful?
I believe that this myth accounts for the popularity of the wonderful Lord of the Rings trilogy. While in college I read the story of Frodo the Hobbit from the Shire, who overcame great forces of evil to destroy the ring with its evil powers. I could not put it down, and about a year later I read it all again. Something in the series touched me. Perhaps that is why I sat through all three movies, well over ten hours of movie watching. The story of the little guy overcoming something much greater had a powerful meaning for me. The giant does not always win.
Often in life we face adversaries far larger than ourselves. It may be the evil corporation who pollutes the environment or establishes unfair labor practices. It may be cancer or some other dreadful disease that seems to overwhelm us at first. Or it may be as simple as trying to establish an idea in a world not yet ready to hear what we have to say.
The story of the victory over Og in this portion, the story of David and Goliath, the story of the Lord of the Rings, and countless other great myths, are the story of giant slayers. They are not literally true; I doubt if a giant named Og really lived outside of Canaan. And yet they are true, because we all face moments in our lives when we must become giant slayers. We all face adversaries whom at first seem to tower over us, seem overwhelming. Nonetheless, with faith, persistence, and a commitment to the righteousness of our cause, we can be triumphant. We can relive that glorious Biblical moment when the little guy slew the giant. That is why this is a story we will never stop telling.



“Then you retreated and wept before the Lord, but the Lord did not listen to your voice and He did not hearken to you.”
(Deuteronomy 1:45)

I am reading a beautiful book by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry entitled The Universe Story. The book attempts to find the spiritual meaning in the unfolding of the cosmos and the evolution of humanity.
Among the many insights of Swimme and Berry is that destruction is built into the universe. “Violence and destruction are dimensions of the universe. They are present at every level of existence: the elemental, the geological, the organic, the human. Chaos and disruption characterize every era of the universe, whether we speak of the fireball, the galactic emergence, the later generations of stars, or the planet earth.” (P.51 – 52)
However, out of destruction comes creativity. The explosion of a supernova leads to the manufacture of matter necessary for life. The destruction of hydrogen at the heart of the sun causes the creation of energy to sustain that life. The volcanic and geological activity releases the chemicals necessary for life. New higher forms of life emerge from the death of lower forms. From destruction comes creativity.
What is true on the cosmic level is true on the human level as well. Some of the most creative periods of human history grew out of some the most destructive. Throughout history, war and tragedy leads to creativity and growth.
This week’s portion is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year. According to Jewish tradition, the Israelites sent spies into the land, and keep back fearful and weeping. God said to them, “You want to weep on this day. I will give you reason to weep.” The day was the ninth of Av, and God declared that it would be a day of tragedy. Both the first and the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem were destroyed on the ninth of Av. It was a day of destruction like the Jewish people had never known.
Yet, out of destruction grew creativity. A wise rabbi, Yochanan ben Zakkai, was able to escape Jerusalem by hiding in a casket. He approached the Roman general leading the siege and asked for permission to set up a center of learning in Yavneh. The general gave permission, and out of this center grew Talmudic Judaism, one of the most creative periods of Jewish history. Through the Talmud, Judaism survived.
This same theme plays out throughout Jewish history. From the terrible Khmelnytsky massacres in seventeenth century Ukraine arose the development of Hasidism and new creativity in Jewish life. In a similar way, the terrible events of our own day, the holocaust, led to the founding of the state of Israel and a rebirth for the Jewish people. Certainly this does not detract from the tragedy of these events. But it is a cause of hope for redemption, rebirth, a new creativity when something terrible happens.
This week Jews commemorate the tragedies of our history, from the destruction of the temples through the many massacres to the holocaust and the ongoing murder of our people. Tisha B’Av is our saddest day. Yet it is also a day of hope, there is a vision that out of destruction will grow a new creativity. Rabbinic legend teaches that the messiah, the redeemer of humanity will be born on Tisha B=Av.
Out of destruction will grow new creativity. This is the way of the universe. This is the way of our history. And this can give us hope when sadness and destruction become part of our own lives.



“You sulked in your tents and said, It is because the Lord hates us that He brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to wipe us out.”
(Deuteronomy 1:27)

We all experience sadness at some time in our lives. We all know pain. How do we react to the inevitable crises that occur as we go through life?
Often our first inclination is to lash out at others. If sadness has happened, someone must be to blame. Sometimes when illness or the death of a loved one occurs, we run to hire a lawyer and sue someone. If we have any kind of religious inclination, we lash out at God. How often have I seen someone boycott the synagogue after sadness happens in his or her life, as if to say “God, you abandoned me, now I will abandon you!” How I want to tell them that when sadness happens they need the solace of synagogue and religion all the more.
In this week’s portion, the story of the twelve spies is retold. Ten of the spies brought back a negative report about the holy land, saying that it was filled with giants and unconquerable. God told the people that they must now wander the desert for forty years, until that generation died off. The people cried out, blamed God, and said that they would be better off in Egypt. They reacted to their pain by lashing out at God.
The Midrash or Rabbinic interpretation fills in the story. God looked at the people and said, “You want to cry on this day. I will give you a reason to cry. This will be a day of tragedy for you throughout the generations.” The day was Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av. On this day both the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem were destroyed, Jerusalem was plowed under, the Jews were thrown out of Spain in 1492, and numerous other tragedies occurred. This week’s portion is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av. On the day itself we fast, read the book of Lamentations and other sad poems in a mournful tone, avoid joyous activities. (In our summer camp we will not be taking our young people on their usual daily field trip, but instead will have a movie and discussion about the meaning of the day.)
There is another powerful lesson of Tisha B’Av that can be helpful to people of all faiths today. Although the day commemorates tragedies and sadness, it is also a day of soul searching and self examination. “Because of our sins were we exiled from our land,” the prayerbook says. According to tradition, the First Temple was destroyed because of widespread bloodshed, sexual immorality, and idolatry. The Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, unjustified hatred of people towards one another. Tisha B’Av becomes a time to remove hatred from our hearts.
When sadness strikes, it is a time for careful self-examination. Did our own behavior contribute to this catastrophe? Did poor eating habits or smoking cause the heart disease or cancer, and if so, can we change the way we eat? Did a lack of sexual self-control contribute to the breakdown of our family, and if so, can we gain sexual self discipline? Did greed contribute to our business problems, and if so, can we change our attitudes towards money?
Sometimes sadness strikes and it has nothing to do with our behavior. Even so, rather than lash out at God or at other people, this is a worthy time for careful self-examination. How can we use this sadness to become a better person? What can we learn from this event? Can we create a better world where no one else suffers the way we have suffered?
The lesson of Tisha B’Av is that when sadness strikes, the best response is self-examination. I mention this not to add guilt to the pain we are suffering. Rather it is wisdom to go through our sadness and find a new positive direction in life.



“Again you wept before the Lord, but the Lord would not heed your cry or give ear to you.” (Deuteronomy 1:45)

Parshat Devarim always falls on the Shabbat before the fast day of Tisha B’Av. It speaks of the way the people wept after God punished them with forty years of wandering. According to the midrash, God said,”You want to weep, I will give you a reason to weep. On this day the future temples will be destroyed.” On this Shabbat it is worthy to share with you a piece I wrote a few years ago for Jewish Family and Life.
I am not a very good faster. In fact, I confess that I allow most of the minor fast days of the Jewish calendar to pass without notice. If I did fast, I would spend most of the day thinking not only about food, but about missing my morning cup of coffee.
However, twice each year I gear up for a full twenty five hour fast. One of course is Yom Kippur, where I am conducting services for several thousand people. The other comes in the midst of the summer, when life is quiet around the synagogue. The second is Tisha B’Av and is by far the more difficult for me.
Why do I fast on these days? As a wise rabbi once taught, on Yom Kippur, when our sins are being forgiven, who needs to eat. And on Tisha B’Av, when we recall the horrors of Jewish history, who can eat.
I fast on Tisha B’Av because we Jews need one day to commemorate sadness. Certainly we ought to emphasize the joys of living Jewish, particularly for our children. I know too many Jews who show up on yizkor and yahrzeits, who speak of the shoah and suffering, but who never dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah or wear a mask on Purim. I know too many Jews who only emphasize Jewish suffering and sadness. That is not a healthy approach, nor is it Jewish. Most of the Jewish calendar is filled with joyous moments.
Once a year it is necessary to stop and remember that Jewish history is filled with sadness. We need to mourn, and then say never again. Tisha B’Av is that day.
For me, Tisha B’Av has a personal as well as a national sadness. I had flown out to California with my soon to be bride Evelyn to introduce her to my family. On Tisha B’Av morning, as we were fasting, we found my mom unable to talk. She had a stroke. Fortunately she was able to attend our wedding, but the stroke was the beginning of a series of health problems that led to her premature death a few months before our oldest son’s Bar Mitzvah.
Thinking about my mother, and about Tisha B’Av, I think about how do we mourn. And how do we teach our children to mourn. The first lesson is that we need rituals to mourn. On Tisha B’Av we not only fast, but we sit on the ground and chant the book of Lamentations to a mournful melody. In Jewish camps they often conduct the rituals outdoors by candlelight. Children remember it.
For many of us, our natural inclination is to protect our children from the rituals of mourning. I have met families that will not allow even their teens to attend a funeral because it is too sad. I always teach that as soon as a child is old enough to sit respectfully, usually around six, they ought to be allowed to attend funerals.
The other major lesson is that sadness and mourning are also a time for soul searching. We Jews did not despair through the destruction of the two temples. Instead, we said “because of our sins were we exiled from our land.” We saw the tragedy as a time for careful self scrutiny and repentance.
Personal mourning can also be a time for self improvement. The Talmud teaches that when disease strikes, people should always search their own soul. This does not mean that our behavior caused the disease (although that is sometimes true.) Rather, it means that moments of sadness are a time for self reflection and self improvement. Many people walk away from a disease, a funeral, or other losses with the resolve to do better in life.
Our children need to hear this lesson. We cannot protect them from the vagaries of life. We can teach them to use difficult moments to think about their lives, and how they can do better. Times of national loss such as Tisha B’Av, and times of personal loss such as a funeral, are perfect times to teach children the importance of tzedakah and good deeds.
Tisha B’Av is a difficult fast. Some Jews fast only part of the day, maintaining that with the rebirth of Israel the sadness is mitigated. I still fast a full day. We Jews need one day of mourning. My hope is that the day becomes an opportunity to create rituals and memories, and also a day of soul searching and resolve. On Tisha B’Av we can learn to improve ourselves, and improve the world.



“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on this side of the Jordan in the wilderness.”
(Deuteronomy 1:1)

As I write these words, I am sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. In honor of my fiftieth birthday, I am recreating a trip I took with my father and brother when I was fifteen years old. It is strange and wonderful reliving your own history.
Looking at history is the major theme of this portion. Moses, facing the end of his life, reviewed the history of the Israelites’ forty years of wandering. He shared memories of the spies who spoke out against the land, and of the punishment of forty years of wandering until the old generation had died off. He recounted the sins of the people, and the hope that they would now be worthy to enter the land.
We always read this portion on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year. On this day we recall the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, and the other tragic events of our history. We Jews belief that “because of our sins were we driven from our land.” The Rabbis believed that our history was not a series of random events, but the results of our behavior. (Admittedly, this idea is difficult to maintain after the Holocaust.)
As I reflect on history, my own personal history and the history of the people Israel, one thought comes to mind. There are two ways to understand history. We can see history as a series of disconnected events, leading nowhere and meaning nothing. Or we can see history as heading in a particular direction, leading somewhere. The former we can call random history. The latter we ought to call redemptive history.
King Solomon, in his old age, saw life as futile and history as meaningless. His powerful words are recorded in the Bible for posterity. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What real value is there for man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun? One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same forever… All streams flow into the sea, Yet the sea is never full; To the place from which they flow the streams flow back again…Only that shall happen which has happened, Only that occur which has occurred; There is nothing new beneath the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-9) It is a vision of history as a series of random and meaningless events. What a depressing vision!
There is another way to look at history. History has a direction and purpose. The future builds on the past. This view of history is best represented by a chain, with each generation a new link. That is why the Bible is so concerned with who begat whom. Each generation builds and adds to the previous link. Previous generations contain a repository of wisdom and knowledge on which a new generation can build. Each new generation stands on the shoulders of their parents and grandparents. Each new generation sees itself as closer to the perfect Messianic age still to come. Humans experience a link between generations, an appreciation of the past and a vision of the future, which animals can never know.
This is the meaning of being human. To be part of a chain, part of some greater purpose, gives human life its spiritual quality. Now we can finally understand the beautiful thought articulated by the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved fully in our lifetime; therefore we are saved by hope.”
The Biblical view is to see ourselves as something great, one link in a chain that will lead to human redemption. Perhaps the Grand Canyon is the perfect place to reflect on the role of God in human life. We see God’s hand in the marvels of nature. And we see God’s hand in the acting out of human history.