ALL WASHED UP
With the Hebrew month of Av being inaugurated this Thursday, there are several practices, particularly among Ashkenazi Jews, that must not escape our attention. Among them, are the prohibition on the consumption of meat, other than on Shabbat or a Mitzvah meal such as a Bris, swimming and bathing for pleasure, and the laundering of and wearing of freshly laundered clothes. Admittedly, our revered rabbis had excellent reasons for instituting these practices. Without a scintilla of second-guessing on my part, I should like to inject new symbolism into the prohibition of laundering clothes, as well as wearing freshly laundered clothes, during these nine days.
It has been a half century, since the recording artist Linda Ronstadt, in her hit song “Long, Long Time” reminded us that “time washes clean.” In Judaism, nothing could be further from the truth. If time washes clean, then graggers, along with all other noisemaking, would become passé with the reading of the Megillah. Better yet, why read the Megillah at all? Shouldn’t forgive and forget serve as the natural follow up to “time washes clean?” Judaism, however, operates on an entirely different wavelength. Each Friday evening, for example, while reciting kiddus we are reminded – albeit employing different phraseology – of both the creation of this world, as well as the creation of our nation. In reflecting upon the latter, the only washing that took place at the creation of our nation was the washing ashore of lifeless bodies of those who gave chase to our ancestors leaving Egypt. As Jews, we eschew sanitized or laundered versions of our past.
It would be wonderful if the history of our people, was one of fairness and equity. Yet, to speak of justice and Jews in the same breath, is an absurdity (a quote from the movie Exodus, that left a profound impression on me). If there were justice towards Jews in this world, then human rights abuses by any number of countries would be highlighted and addressed by the United Nations instead of focusing on Israel. But the United Nations along with many of our own Jews, are far too busy scrutinizing how Israel is treating (many would insist that “mistreating” would be a much more appropriate word) the Arabs living within its borders. It has been said, that “one hand washes the other.” Implied is that reciprocity and fairness are the rule of thumb. Yet, reciprocity and fairness do not seem to apply to Israel and its relationship with other nations. Because of this sad reality, there have been numerous occasions where Israel has extended its hand to other nations, only to receive underhandedness in return. There have been numerous occasions where Israel has extended its hand to other nations, only to be shown the back of the hand in return. It seems that no matter how much Israel works toward the biblical ideal of a clean hand and a pure heart, it is well advised to count its fingers when offering its hand to other nations. The aphorism “one hand washes the other” has yet to apply to Israel when it attempts to reach out to other countries.
Many Jews ought to be surprised to learn that there are sayings we commonly use that are Christian in origin. Among them is the expression “to wash your hands of the matter.” It is found in the Christian Bible (Matthew 27:24) and it is attributed to the Roman governor over Judea, Pontius Pilate. “Washing one’s hands of the matter” is the same as absolving oneself from responsibility. Tisha B’av is the antithesis of washing one’s hands of the matter. Tisha B’av is assuming responsibility. That is why the Babylonians are not blamed for the destruction of the first Holy Temple; that is why the Romans are nor blamed for the destruction of the second Holy Temple. In both cases, we Jews have looked inward and have “refused to wash our hands of the matter.” In both cases, we, as a people, have come up with reason how our behavior led to the destruction of the Holy Temple.
Perhaps, the rabbinic prohibition against laundering and wearing freshly laundered clothing during the nine days prior to Tisha B’Av ought to serve as a reminder that our existence as a people is not, nor has it ever been, predicated on the notion that “time washes clean.” Perhaps, beginning this Thursday, we neither launder nor wear freshly laundered clothing is to recall that “one hand washes the other” does not apply to the State of Israel. Perhaps, our refraining from laundering and wearing freshly laundered clothing is a badge of pride that rather wash our hands of the matter, we willingly assume responsibility. Hopefully, pondering these three explanations will lead to an even more meaningful Tisha B’Av.