How shall we sing God’s song in a foreign land?
— Psalms 137:2
When I was growing up in the 1970s, the Judaism my classmates and I learned was very different from the Judaism many of our students learn today. The Judaism I learned back then was focused on three major themes: The Holocaust, the plight of Soviet Jewry, and Israel.
On Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, thousands of 8” x 10” placards lined the walls of my synagogue’s hallways, each bearing the name of a European town and the number of that town’s Jews who died in Holocaust. In the corner of the social hall sat a pile of 6 million grass seeds. The youth group kept a 24-hour vigil in the sanctuary, reading the names of Holocaust victims.
In religious school, I took a semester-long class about Soviet Jewry, culminating in a phone call to a refusenik family. I remember our teachers warning us that the lines were tapped, and that we had to speak in code, lest the KGB monitors understand us: “How’s the ‘weather’ there? How is ‘our family’ doing?”
And on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence day, we danced the hora, ate falafel, and heard stories of Israel’s brave soldiers until the wee hours of the night.
The Jewish people, we learned — our people — were victims of the most brutal and savage cruelty in history; we remain the victims of government sponsored anti-Semitic policy today; and in our ancestral homeland we’ve risen against all odds and, despite enemies that outnumber us, rebuilt our nation. Or to put it differently: they hated us then, they hate us now, and there’s hope in Israel, but our neighbors hate us there, too. There was little talk about ritual; there was little talk about classical Jewish texts; there was little talk about God.
Needless to say, most of my classmates from back then aren’t very involved in Jewish life these days. The Judaism that we learned gave us many good reasons not to be Jewish, but few compelling reasons to embrace it.
The study of Jewish history is a dangerous undertaking. On one hand, it is full of tragedy, suffering and pain. But however real that suffering was, Judaism calls us to be Jews not because of this oppression, but despite it. Being Jewish means not only bewailing Jewish tragedy — though that is certainly part of it — but more fundamentally, it means celebrating Shabbat, supporting our communities, and performing countless acts that invest the mundane moments of life with a sanctity beyond words. Yes, in the performance of these sacred tasks, we will set ourselves apart from our neighbors, and many will come to hate us. We must be Jewish anyway, our tradition teaches — not to vanquish our enemies, but to please God.
We are called to embrace our Judaism not to spite Hitler, Haman, Haq and the other members of the rogue gallery of our oppressors, but despite them.
How easy this is to forget! The danger in studying Jewish history is that our suffering is so real and so horrible that it can easily overwhelm everything else. In fact, the event that caused the most widespread Jewish suffering — the Holocaust — occurred so recently that there remain among us many people who endured it themselves. With the memory still so fresh, how could anything else ever matter? Yes, there have been good times in the history of our people. Yes, there have been times and places where we have thrived. But the reality and terror of our suffering has a way of making everything else seem trivial and insignificant.
Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?
Aside that, Jewish people, what can you tell us of your past?
The psalmist struggled with the same question. Having seen the ashes of Jerusalem as he and his people were carried away to Babylonia, having seen the world as he knew it destroyed, knowing that he was about to begin a life in exile, he wondered how he would ever sing God’s song again.
But sing he did. He and his fellow Jews rebuilt their lives in Babylonia, and in time their lives became very good. Had they become mired in their grief and in their horror, such rebuilding would have been impossible.
Sunday, August 10, is Tisha B’av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. Our tradition teaches that throughout history, this has been a day of tragedy for us Jews. On this day, we learn, the First and Second Temples were destroyed, the Jewish holdout at Betar fell to the Romans during the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132-125 CE, Ferdinand and Isabella signed the edict expelling Jews from Spain in 1492, World War I broke out, the Nazis quashed the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and the list goes on. Some of those events may not have occurred precisely on Tisha B’av, but nevertheless, this day reminds us of the many tragedies that our people have suffered.
It is important for us to remember our sufferings of yesteryear — that’s why we have Tisha B’av. But this solemn day of fasting and lament happens only one day a year. On all other days, we must build our communities, care for one another, love our families, celebrate Shabbat, and worship God with joy. On all other days, we must affirm life just as our tradition calls us to do.
Like the psalmist, we must learn to sing new songs despite our painful past. We Jews must grieve, and we also must live sacred lives, never allowing either to prevent us from doing the other. That’s how we Jews have sung our song for so many centuries, and that’s how the song of our people has become the magnificent one that it is today.