Look inward to gain insight into deeds and misdeeds

This Shabbat is named “Shabbat Chazon,” or “Sabbath of Vision.” It’s named for the Haftorah we read from Isaiah, envisioning the hope of reconciliation amidst a lot of evildoing on the part of the Israelites. For me, the only thing I’m envisioning is the 25-hour fast in 125-degree heat that directly follows Shabbat Chazon, marking the start of Tisha B’Av.
According to our rabbinic texts, God marked Tisha B’Av, or the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, as a day of sorrow. According to the Talmud, on that very day, the spies who were sent to scout out the land of Canaan came back with a sobering report. They doubted their ability to conquer the supposedly giant people who lived there. God reacted by saying, “You shed tears for nothing (this night). Hence, I will designate this night as the time for weeping for generations to come.” (BT Taanit 29a)
God decreed that the current generation (except Caleb and Joshua), who were unready for the responsibilities that accompanied true freedom, would therefore be condemned to 40 more years of wandering in the wilderness before they died. Their children would be destined to conquer the land without them.
Megillat Eicha, or Lamentations, attributed to Jeremiah after the fall of the First Temple and read on Tisha B’Av, also makes the claim that the people’s suffering is punishment from God for sin, namely, idolatry, bloodshed and sexual misconduct.
(Lamentations 1:14-15): “The burden of my transgressions was accumulated in His hand; they were knit together and thrust upon my neck — He sapped my strength. The Lord has delivered me into the hands of those I cannot withstand. The Lord has trampled all my heroes in my midst; He proclaimed a set time against me to crush my young men… ”
And once again, according to the Talmud (Taanit 29a), this set time was none other than the ninth of Av. The Talmud further states that the Second Temple was destroyed because of “sinat chinam,” or “senseless hatred” among the different sects.
Other calamitous events have occurred on the ninth of Av, including the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the beginning of World War 1 and the roundup of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1942. Clearly, tragedy has followed our people on this fateful day.
I must admit, I am in great theological turmoil when it comes to accepting the traditional concept of a God who punishes us for our sins, not only in our time, but throughout the generations. Whatever the supposed cause — the spies’ report, immorality, idol worship, hatefulness — the punishment certainly affected those who were guilty and those who were not.
Perhaps, in a strange way, this cause-and-effect notion of “We sin, we pay, we deserve the consequences” is a comfort of sorts. But not for me. And, thankfully, I’ve discovered that I’m not alone.
In her book, “Jewish Pastoral Care,” Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman cites several rabbis who share a similar discomfort with these traditional approaches to sin and punishment. One of them is Rabbi Edward Feld, who, she writes, “Rejects the classical Jewish notions of a God who causes suffering, whether to punish people for their sins or lovingly to give them opportunities for growth, as unacceptable and insulting to the millions of innocent victims of the Holocaust.”
Rabbi Harold Kushner asserts that since God created a world run by the laws of nature, we cannot always avoid the consequences of those laws. Similarly, God also has also given us the gift of free will, and we must also live with the consequences that arise from the choices that we make when it comes to taking care of ourselves, or dealing with the planet and each other.
God can guide us toward the good, and give us the strength and comfort to deal with the bad that we must, in the course of our lifetime, inevitably face.
Rabbi Friedman concludes, “(These rabbis) share a common understanding of a God who is found neither in explanations for suffering nor in the ability omnipotently to stop the suffering. Rather, God is found in the human being’s ability to respond to suffering by seeking qualities that empower that person to grow: to give, to forgive, to learn and to transform. In this context, God is the power that offers redemptive resiliency in the face of pain.”
These rabbis give us another way to envision God’s role in our lives, not, perhaps, as protector or punisher, but as co-sufferer. I imagine that this concept of God can be a bit unsettling for those whose embedded theology has offered a more traditional view.
But this contemporary interpretation resonates with me. The idea that God is a partner with us in all things, in tikkun olam as well as in suffering, is profoundly comforting. I do think that so much of the suffering in this world is due to “sinat chinam,” causeless hatred of one another, but I don’t believe that God is the one handing down punishment for it. I think that we are doing a fairly good job of that ourselves.
I also believe that we make things worse when we choose to isolate ourselves from the suffering of others, refuse to accept some sense of responsibility in that suffering, or, simply, choose not to see it at all.
Shabbat Chazon compels us to open our eyes, look inward and reflect on how we might’ve played a part in our own, as well as each other’s, suffering, and to envision God’s place beside us as we strive to ease that suffering. Perhaps that is the ultimate message and lesson to be learned on Tisha B’Av.
Rabbi Marc Wolf states, “…at the same time, with all the grief and tears, with all the mourning and affliction, the month of Av is identified not solely by its formal title, but with the description menachem — consolation. So despite these calamities, we anticipate solace. Despite the destruction, we seek comfort.”
May the upcoming observance of Tisha B’Av help us to remember that although suffering is part of the human condition, the way we respond to that suffering can lead us on a journey with God as we seek the light of redemption, comfort and hope.
Sheri Allen is the part-time cantor of Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of her congregation.

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