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living history and today

Shabbat Mattot-Masei 5778 | July 14, 2018
On Tuesday, after 18 days of drama that gripped Thailand and the world, the last people exited the flooded cave complex in which 12 young soccer players and their coach had been trapped. Yet, while we were focused on that scene, 124 people died in torrential floods in Japan.
Each and every day as so much happens in our lives and in the world around us, we can’t manage all of the information we receive. We have to make choices. Pay attention to this. Respond to that. Remember this. Do something about that. Our attention spans seem to contract just as our need to process events and emotions expands.
True for each of us personally, it’s also true for us collectively. True in our personal experiences, it’s also true in our memories as members of a family, a nation, and a people. Ten days ago, on July 4th we celebrated 242 years of American independence.
Here’s a piece of historical trivia. July 4, 1776, the day our founding fathers made their declaration of independence, was on the Hebrew calendar the 17th of Tammuz, a Jewish fast day declared by our ancient sages to commemorate the breach of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70.
Though most years the dates do not coincide, this year the 17th of Tammuz was observed July 1st, it’s their theoretical overlap that intrigues me this morning.
On the Jewish calendar, we are in the midst of a three-week period of sadness leading up to Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month Av, a day of fasting and mourning to commemorate the tragedies of Jewish history, in particular the destructions of the First and Second Temples that stood in Jerusalem.
What are those ancient events to me, to us? July 4th moves me as an American citizen every year. I celebrate and cherish this nation and the ethos of its founding. Tisha B’Av also moves me every year. I commemorate my people’s history and our moral memory. But…
To what degree is my Jewish identity and the Jewish meaning I seek for my life rooted in historic, ancient events I did not witness? To what degree is my Jewish identity and the Jewish meaning I seek for my life rooted in current experience, in the things I see and experience now?
Is it more important to remember the fall and the breach of Jerusalem’s walls and to know about the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem? Or is there a statute of limitations on memory? Ought we celebrate today instead the reunification and the rebuilding of Jerusalem?
Is it more important to mourn the Babylonian and Roman destructions of the ancient Temples or to think about Israeli society today and the transformation of Jewish life in Israel? In the modern State of Israel, what does it mean to be a majority with responsibilities for the minorities in our midst?
It’s not a new question. Even the Talmudic sages, with real memories of the Second Temple amidst its ruins, wondered. “Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi did several unusual things. He planted a sapling on Purim. He bathed in Tzippori in public on the Seventh of Tammuz. He sought to abolish the fast of the Ninth of Av. And with respect to the Ninth of Av, the Sages did not agree with him.”
The Talmud also reports that Rabbi Akiba laughed while walking amidst Temple ruins. He laughed, explaining now, in the aftermath, God’s promise of a redeemed and rejuvenated Holy City can be achieved. For many years I have learned and taught to observe the fast of Tisha B’Av in the spirit of Rabbi Akiba’s vision. For half a day my spirit grieves and my body fasts. And then, for half a day my spirit revives and my body renews.
Over time our memories, personal and shared, blur. What events of long ago or recent days ought to continue their hold on us? How long shall we mark them? I fundamentally believe history is the foundation and backdrop giving our Jewish identities context and purpose today. I equally believe our Jewish identities have to be lived out as real reflection of the world in which we live today. I remember Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s famous insight. “The past has a vote, not a veto.”
For each of us and all of us, these questions challenge and motivate our Jewish sensibilities. How do any of us transmit all we have lived and witnessed to those after us for whom our experiences are not personal memories? How do our children and grandchildren, who don’t feel what we once felt, who didn’t see what we once saw, remember what we do?
By reclaiming our memories for themselves. By making new memories of their own. This is the way we Jews retell, recount, and recast our story in every generation. We encourage those who come after us to find themselves in what we pass along. Simultaneously, we empower them to find meaning in what they encounter each and every day.
Or as the contemporary philosopher Jacob Needleman wrote, “Life itself is the mysterious, incomprehensible blending of the new and the old, of what already is and what is coming into being.”
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Fri, August 17 2018 6 Elul 5778