Complicity and Responsibility: Tisha B’Av 5782

Remarks delivered at Cambridge Minyan on August 6, 2022.


Tomorrow, everything is going to be destroyed.

Well, Tisha B’Av is actually today, but we don’t destroy on Shabbos…so we’ve postponed it for a few more hours.

That makes today a weird day. Look at it one way, by calender alone, and everything is already falling apart. Look at it another way, through rabbinic tradition, and we still have time before it’s all going to end.

Today we read parashat D’varim, which always immediately preceeds Tisha B’Av. There is a poignant lesson in this parashah, one that offers us a kavanah to carry into the solemn observance beginning tonight.

One of the first passages Moses recounts, as he opens his retelling of the Israelites’ journey, is the episode with the scouts from parashat Sh’lach L’cha. But he changes it in the retelling.

The episode in question is the one in which scouts are sent into the promised land to see if it is safe and hospitable for the Israelites. When they return, they report that the land is full of dangerous giants, and they frighten the rest of the poeple into wanting to go back to Egypt. God becomes angry at this lack of faith, and God decrees that all of that generation, except Caleb and Joshua, will die in the wilderness and never reach the promised land.

In D’varim, in this week’s retelling, Moses says that it was the people who gathered together and demanded that he send the scouts. But that’s not what happened in the book of Numbers. In the first telling, God instructs Moses to send the scouts. Moses changes the story, blaming the people as a whole.

Rabbi Alan Lew z”l comments on this in This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, his book on the Days of Awe. It’s not that every single person was actually responsible for scaring themselves into distrust of God; that responsibility still lies with the scouts who let their fear get the better of them. But now the people stand on the banks of the Jordan, overlooking the promised land, and the new generation is once again on the brink of disaster. Moses, their teacher, does not want them to make the same mistake.

Lew says this is the same lesson the rabbis meant to teach when they blamed Jewish infighting, sinat hinam (unfettered hatred), for the destruction of Jerusalem, rather than the actual conquerers: Rome.

In both cases, Lew notes that the leaders “blame the people for what had happened, when the objective evidence of history clearly seems to exonorate them… [But t]hey weren’t historians,” Lew says; “they were spritual leaders, and spiritually, the only question worth asking about any conflict, any recurring catastrophe, is this: What is my responsibility for it? How am I complicit in it? How can I prevent it from happening again?” (pp. 44-45).

By inverting these moments, our tradition insists that even against the greatest of odds, even when things are breaking down around us, we are not powerless. We may not be able to fix everything or avert disaster as individuals, but that does not absolve us of the responsibility to consider our complicity and what we could do, however small, to make things right.

In the mussar text Orchot Tzaddikim, the author teaches that a person wishing to make teshuvah must perform vidui (confession) not only for their own transgressions, but for the transgressions of their ancestors as well (p. 495). This is not because we today are guilty of others’ past misdeeds; it is because we today exist in a world created by those past misdeeds. Complicity is easy. But by verbally confessing our predecessors’ sins, we are mindful of the status quo, that it was built by choices—and we acknowledge our power to do things differently.

We inherit a lot of problems in our world, a lot of unjust systems in need of tikkun. It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of circumstances that seem to be barreling toward disaster. Nor are we ourselves are guilty of establishing the injustices of our time in the first place. That’s why we have Tisha B’Av: a day on our calendar to sit in the brokenness of the world, and allow ourselves to feel the despair.

But by positioning parashat D’varim right before we mark that occasion, our tradition calls us to consider our role in the brokenness: how will we acknowledge the transgressions we inherit, and how will we resist repeating the mistakes of the past.

As we move through Tisha B’Av and begin the season of teshuvah, may we take to heart the teachings of Moses and the Sages: the future does not have to be like the past, so long as all of us—all of us—choose to do something about it.

Shabbat shalom.

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