Sunday, August 14, 2016

Tisha B'av - An Uncomfortable Fast for Comfortable Jews

At its most basic level, Tisha B'av is meant to make us uncomfortable.

We are forced to sit on the floor, to hear a recitation of atrocities, to fast, to be plunged into depths of sorrow and to be served from normal social intercourse.

Is the purpose of this merely mourning?

Let's consider for a moment the sequel to Tisha B'av. It's Purim. Some 70 years after all the atrocities that we read, the Jews are living comfortably, they're feasting and partying with Ahasverosh. Only a tiny minority have come back from exile to rebuild Israel.

When the next crisis arrives, it catches them by surprise. Within 70 years they've gone from the horrors of Eicha to the comforts that we read at the beginning of Megilat Esther. And this phenomenon did not happen overnight. The horrors of Eicha gave way to a comfortable status quo. Most Jews forgot about Israel. They moved on with their new lives in a new empire.

We read the Eicha accounts at a distance. The Jews in Sushan would have known people who actually endured it. They would have had stories from parents and grandparents who experienced it.

How could they become so apathetic? Easy. It's been around the same amount of time since the Holocaust. Like us, they grew up hearing stories about it, but it became distant to them.

Their new way of life seemed like it would never change. Just as the way of life of the Jews in Jerusalem, the ones who did not heed Yirmiyahu's warnings, had seemed before the churban.

Tisha B'av makes us uncomfortable to challenge us, to take us out of our safe space and ask us to question the way that we live our lives. The most pernicious problems are those which become an accepted status quo. Rather than being a thing that we bemoan, we no longer even see them.

That was the state of affairs in Bayit Rishon. It had become the state of affairs once again in Sushan. It's what happens to Jews time after time as they settle down and bad habits become the way things are. And no one thinks twice about them.

In the past, prophets made us uncomfortable. Today we have to settle for their words. And we have to make ourselves uncomfortable. That is what Tisha B'av does. In the absence of Yirmiyahu to warn us and to make us uncomfortable, we have to read his words and step out of our comfort zone. We have to question our status quo. We have to wonder what we aren't seeing and aren't paying attention to.

That process doesn't stop on Tisha B'av. We must always be willing to do so even when we aren't sitting on the floor or going without food. We must always question the status quo we live in.

Comfort is the essence of the status quo. When we are comfortable then we assume that everything is good. When we are comfortable, we are asleep. We fall into a false innocence in which we are no longer aware that we are doing anything wrong because everything is pleasant and comfortable. We listen to those false neviim who reassure us that everything is good and everything is okay.

Everyone sins. Everyone makes mistakes. But when we are uncomfortable with our sins, then we can repent. When we are comfortable, then we no longer think of them as sins. When we become comfortable with sins and with wrongness, then we can no longer repent. And when we can't repent, then we can't change. We doom ourselves to destruction when we become comfortable. When Jeshurun grows fat, when we have lingered too long in the land, then the status quo takes over.

The temples were not destroyed until some form of bad behavior had become a status quo, not a sin that people felt uncomfortable with, and could be persuaded to repent from, but a way of life that was no longer questioned. And so Hashem made us uncomfortable. Eicha is the story of that discomfort.

The discomfort is horrifying. But it was also an intervention. Hashem's anger was motivated ultimately by love. If you do not love someone, then you might feel bad when you see them engaging in self-destructive behavior, but you don't feel anger. It's when there is a relationship there that the anger comes. Even the destruction of the temples and the exiles of the Jews were acts of love.

They were a last ditch effort to make us uncomfortable enough to break a corrosive status quo that was destroying us.

Tisha B'av is a much smaller commemoration of that discomfort. It asks us to be uncomfortable in order that we might change. It is a reminder that Hashem loves us and wants us to change. That the discomforts, large and small, that we experience as individuals and as a people, are Hashem's attempts to change us into the people we ought to be, our best selves.

Change requires discomfort. To accept the status quo is to lose the ability to become our best selves. The discomfort of Tisha B'av is a goad for change. It is a challenge to become the Jews we ought to be. And when that happens, the redemption of Israel can finally come. That redemption requires that we become uncomfortable. That we challenge our own personal status quo. That we change.