Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month Av, is a Jewish day of mourning associated with the Babylonian Destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple in the year 586 BCE. It is also the day when the Second Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. And, it is said, the Jewish expulsion from Spain took place on the 9th of Av, 1492.
I do not observe Tisha B’Av; I do not fast or mourn on that day. Events associated with Tisha B’Av may be considered disasters for some, but, to me, those events all demonstrate the remarkable resiliency of the Jewish people and the historic opportunities that might never have been realized without exile.
This year, I happened to be in Berlin the week of Tisha B’Av, and I found myself visiting the Pergamon Museum — specifically the Gates of Ishtar, the monumental gates to the ancient city of Babylon.
I stood at the Ishtar Gates in the Pergamon Museum. I imagined my ancestors in 586 BCE led into captivity from the modest backwater of Jerusalem, marching their way in the barren desert from the Jordan River to the Euphrates. Suddenly in the distance they saw in the intense sunlight, a brilliant blue, massive structure shimmering and rising out of the sands. They were led along that triumphal processional boulevard lined with walls decorated in brilliantly colored bas relief of mythical wild animals.
These gates were the first things the exiles of Jerusalem 586 BCE must have seen as they entered the great Capitol city of Babylon. Surely they were mourning their fate and doubting their future and the future of their people and faith. They had worshipped the Hebrew God in the Temple of Jerusalem. God “resided,” if you will, in the Holy of Holies built upon the Temple Mount. But all that was destroyed. To the conquered defeated captives it must have seemed that Judaism had come to an end at the hands of the mighty Babylonian army. But Judaism didn’t die. Instead, it was re-born.
Though they were in Exile from Jerusalem, it would be in Babylon that Judaism would undergo one of its earliest creative transformations. They discovered that the personal, tribal God of Judea could be encountered anywhere. God was universal, not limited to one earthly location.
Babylon was where they also developed major concepts of Jewish religion. There, Judaism began the slow transformation from Temple sacrifice to Torah, study, and synagogue. Rabbis and teachers would eventually replace a dynastic system of priests.
I was struck by the idea that here I was, 2,700 years later, standing at the reconstructed ruins of a mighty civilization, the Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar. In 586 BCE, one could stand at the mighty Gates of Ishtar and imagine Babylon lasting forever. A Judean exile from destroyed Jerusalem would have been justified to put on sack cloth and ashes and assume that Judaism had come to a dead end. Yet here I was, a rabbi of Judaism, 2,700 years later, representing a vibrant culture and civilization. History allows for irony.
Many destructions and exiles would follow. Tisha B’Av marked the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the exile from Spain in 1492, but in every case, Judaism adapted and responded with creativity and innovation. Eventually the experience of exile brought much of the Jewish world to the shores of America.
The story of American Jewish life is truly remarkable. There has never been in all history a more vibrant, dynamic, creative Jewish community than this one. This is not just the most prosperous and successful Jewish community, but America itself has achieved much of its own success due to our contributions—and the contributions of all its immigrants over these 600 some years. We have fully adopted the words of Jeremiah: “Seek the well-being of the city of exile. If it prospers, so too will you prosper.”
Exile has brought us to America. With its many flaws, this country has truly been a place of blessing, and, like Abraham, the Jewish people have blessed America with talent, energy, loyalty, and creativity. That is why I do not mourn on Tisha B’Av.
Let me now return to Berlin and the second week in August. I had a specific purpose for being in Germany this summer. A group of fifteen Reform rabbis went on a very short study mission organized by IsraAID, a remarkable organization focusing on disaster relief throughout the world. In Berlin, they are engaged in continuing aid and support for the refugee community and for those who serve them. This is perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation.
It was a privilege to get to know the people from IsraAID. They were uniformly young, most under 30. They were Israeli Jews, Palestinian Citizens of Israel, Druze Israelis, Christians, Jews, and Muslims. We met American college kids spending their gap year as volunteers working with IsraAID on programs for the refugees as well as for German children learning about the stories of the exiles. There were some Jews of Berlin and Israelis living in Germany. There was one 85 year old Jewish Holocaust survivor who spends one day a week at a community center teaching German to Syrian children.
IsraAID workers are training others, teaching German, computer skills, helping with job searches, and childcare, offering much needed psychological support for those who have experienced the trauma of war and terrifying escape. We visited a community support center for LGBTQ refugees.
Who were these Syrian refugees? Our assumptions, prejudices, stereotypes were often wrong. Many of them are middle class and educated. Many spoke English or German. Nearly all of them hoped to stay in Germany or Europe. While the Germans hoped the war would end and the Syrians could eventually return back home to the Middle East, most of these exiles wanted to begin a new life. Their greatest desire was to escape the terror and war.
Why do we care? Why would a bunch of young Israelis – Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze – care about Syrian refugees? Why did a group of American Reform rabbis, from throughout the US, care about the refugees? It is our narrative, our story, our memory, our teaching. How do we remember our own past? Why do we remember our past? We were exiles. We were strangers in a strange land. We were outcasts in the Land of Egypt, and in countless lands since then. We remember the plight of exiles, dispossessed, and refugees. We are commanded to fight for the rights of the stranger, to protect the outcast, to provide for the homeless, the landless. We knew Egypt and Babylon, Rome and Spain.
And we must also remember our own experience in America. We know the results of fear and xenophobia which shut the gates to America after WW I and in the early 1920’s, and we are profoundly aware of the tragic consequence when America was not a shelter for the Jews of Europe about to be sent to their death. The arguments that were made then might seem familiar to us today. The echoes resonate in today’s headlines. There were those then who claimed that there might be dangerous spies or terrorists among the refugees from Europe. In the early years they pointed to Emma Goldman among the Jews, or Sacco and Vanzetti for Italians. The anti-immigration forces raised fears of organized crime or Irish terrorists. They said: Lock the gates. Turn inward. America First. In the late 1930’s, Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, and Father Charles Coughlin claimed that German spies might be hidden among the Jewish refugees attempting to escape Hitler and the Nazi death machine. They claimed that Jewish refugees were a danger to American security.
We are the children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. We trace our roots back to Babylon and Ur and Nahor, Aram Naharaim –the birthplace of Abraham and Sarah. Nahor is today a place where South Eastern Turkey meets Northern Syria. It is the region that today is Aleppo. It is now a place facing destruction, genocide, and death.
We too were wandering Arameans, outcasts and strangers. Let us never forget who we were and what we have been called to do and become…in order to remain partners with God in repairing the brokenness of this world, freeing the captive, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger. Abraham was commanded: “Lech lecha.” Leave Nahor, your land, your birthplace, the land of your fathers, and go to a new land. There I will bless you, and you shall, in turn, be a blessing. Today’s refugees from Nahor, Aleppo, and elsewhere must be rescued, welcomed, and resettled. May they too become a blessing.
Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon serves Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, IL.