Elections and Selections by Rabbi Zell

Voting patterns aside – for decades, close to 80% of Jews in this country have typically voted for one political party over the other – election day ought to have a greater significance among our people than just about any other group in this nation. For those of us with a modicum of knowledge of the Tana’ch (all 24 books of the Bible), it ought to be quite clear, that originally elections played no role whatsoever among our people. Rather than election, Judaism, biblically speaking, is rooted in selection.
How ironic, that a mere three days prior to going to the polls, we read in the Torah about the very first “selection” results known to our biblical ancestors. There is absolutely a record in the Torah of Abraham mounting an election campaign or garnering votes to become the first Jew. Instead, the Torah tells us, that it was HaShem who selected Abraham as the perfect candidate to introduce to the world an entirely new way of relating to a Supreme Being. Unlike a presidential hopeful, who asks for a mandate to be sent to the nation’s capital, Abraham ended up being uprooted and directed to G-d’s country, a destination totally unknown to him. Granted, HaShem promised Abraham that he (Abraham) would be made into a great nation and that he (Abraham) would be blessed, but these assurances could hardly be connected to any election, in that Abraham was not in any way campaigning. Moreover, there was no constituency to which Abraham was responsible. Abraham was solely responsible to HaShem. Ultimately, it was Abraham who confronted HaShem. “Now that You have selected me, how do You intend to make good on Your word?’’ asks Abraham, who was unanimously chosen for the position.
In its early days, El Al, Israel’s national airline was the butt of a number of jokes. Among those jokes, was one where a passenger asks the flight attendant, who had arrived with the food cart at dinner time, “what are the choices?” The surly stewardess, snapped back: “Choices? Eat or go hungry!” According to our rabbinic sages, a similar dialogue ensued at Mount Sinai between HaShem and our ancestors, seven weeks after having been liberated from Egyptian bondage. The giving – and by extension, the receiving – of the Torah was not up for a vote. “If you are prepared to receive the Torah, wonderful! If, on the other hand, you are planning to reject the Torah, this will be your grave” (Talmud: Avodah Zara 2b) What took place at Sinai was “selection” on the part of HaShem and not “election” on the part of the Children of Israel. As much as the Torah conveys a blueprint for democratic principles, its very existence is not, nor was it was ever based on any democratic accord with HaShem. What makes the Torah so unique, is that it serves as a contract between the human and the divine, replete with mutual obligations and responsibilities.
Our rabbinic sages relate that just prior to creating man, HaShem took counsel with the heavenly angels. In a short period of time, a passionate debate broke out in heaven, with the angels arguing both for and against the creation of the human species. HaShem reacted in a most whimsical fashion. “You go ahead and argue. I am going to go ahead and create. Creation of humans is not up for a vote”. Neither was the unique relationship that HaShem cultivated with our people up for a vote. “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that HaShem set His eyes on you and chose you, but because you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7). In the best of governments, leaders are ephemeral. So much so, that the average American would be hard-pressed to list the last five presidents of this country. After all, presidents are voted in and at times, voted out. That is what a democracy is all about. Not so, Judaism. Despite perceptions to the contrary, HaShem selects for keeps. In return, HaShem expects never-ending loyalty.
In a healthy society, elections are a sure guarantee of satisfaction and glee to some, as well as dissatisfaction and sorrow to others. In the words of Sir Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. Concentration Camp Selektions aside, selections are a reminder that the choice that we make, is rarely, if ever, at the expense of another person’s sense of well-being. Imagine if you will, a day and age when our society, culture, and government will foster Selection Day to replace Election Day. Should that ever occur, the only losers would be acrimony, divisiveness, and rancor.

A LEG UP

Although it has been 20 years since the younger of my two children entered college as a freshman, it was more than with a modicum of interest, that I read about Lori Loughlin (an actress that I had never heard of) being sentenced to two months in prison for her recent role in a College Admission Scandal. Ms. Loughlin, at the recommendation of William Singer, a college admissions consultant, knowingly falsified applications of her daughter, to give her a “leg up” in being accepted as a student, at the University of Southern California.
With the High Holy Days less than a month away, hopefully, many of us, if not all of us, ought to realize, that concepts such as “admissions” and “leg up” are very much in play, when it comes to being “admitted” into the Book of Life. Unlike students of today applying the colleges of their choice, all who seek entry into the age-old Book of Life are openly provided with a “leg up” in being accepted. This “leg up” is known as Teshuvah. Contrary to what we have been taught, Teshuvah has more than one meaning.

Outside the realm of religion, Teshuvah means an answer or a response. Just as first-graders in our culture are conditioned to hear: “who knows the answer to…”, so too first-graders in Israel are conditioned to hear the word Teshuvah. Yet, Teshuvah is anything but kid’s stuff. Teshuvah is part and parcel of being an adult in the eyes of our tradition. Children are exempt from answering for their behavior. Adults (provided they are of sound body and mind) are required to. Yet, how many of us live our lives, aware of the fact, that our religion holds us responsible for what we do, just as our religion holds us responsible for what we do not do? In either case, we will be required to provide a Teshuvah; in either case, we required to provide an answer. Unlike other religions, our day of reckoning is not an end of life experience, where we hope to gain entry into heaven at the conclusion of our lives; our day of reckoning is an annual phenomenon, where we hope to gain entry into the Book of Life.

Among the many songs that bring me to tears is The Circle Game. Composed and sung by Joni Mitchell, the artist concludes each of its four stanzas, by hauntingly reminding us: “We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came”. Nonsense! argues our tradition. The entire time period beginning with Rosh Hashana and culminating in Yom Kippur, is predicated upon our returning, retracing our steps, examining our missteps and trying to figure out how to properly step up to the plate, the next time. What disappoints HaShem, is not our mistakes; what disappoints HaShem is a failure – or even worse, our refusal to return and revisit where we went wrong so that we can learn from our mistakes and to profit from that experience. Throughout the year, three times each and every weekday, towards the beginning of what is known as the Shemoneh Esreh, we request of HaShem, to bring us back and to His Torah and His service. We conclude that request, with the words: Blessed are You HaShem who desires Teshuvah. Without exception, Teshuvah is translated in the siddur, as “repentance”. Yet, no mention whatsoever is made of our having sinned or transgressed (that’s the subject of the following prayer). Having begun with a request to bring us back, would it not seem more logical to conclude that request with words translated to mean: Blessed are You HaShem who desires that we return or come back?

When all is said and done, Teshuvah is most often translated to mean “repentance.” Although typically seen as a synonym for “contrition”, “repentance” is anything but.” Contrition indicates that the sinner’s soul is a collection of shattered pieces because of the misdeed. “Repentance”  indicates that the sinner has thought over the misdeed that he committed. But thinking over a misdeed does not in any way indicate remorse. What “repentance” ought to suggest at the very least, is that the sinner realized that he has fallen out of HaShem’s favor and hopefully is prepared to do whatever necessary to regain that favor.

Knowing that Judaism is based on personal responsibility and that we will have to have to answer for what we did (wrong) or neglected to do (right), realizing that Judaism insists that we can return and redo, and understanding the importance in rethinking how to gain HaShem’s favor are much more than three different examples of Teshuvah… Each one provides us with a “leg up” in preparing ourselves for the High Holy Days, so that hopefully we are a “shoo in” when it comes to being admitted in the Book of Life.

LIP SERVICE

As the horn of a ram or similar animal is taken to human lips this Friday, it would do us well to momentarily mute the Tekiah, Shevarim and Teruah that will be sounded throughout the month of Elul, and to focus on how a defense mechanism of a four legged creature ( horn) abuts a defense mechanism of a two legged human (mouth) and realize, that with but three exceptions (eating, voiding, and propagating) as  pointed out by the Talmud, the similarity ends there.

Unlike an animal, a human being is born with a conscience. Human beings are capable of being able to distinguish right from wrong. It may have taken eating from the Tree of Knowledge for Adam and Eve to develop a conscience, but that conscience was quite evident soon after their regrettable repast. As soon as the first couple heard the sound of HaShem manifesting itself in the garden, Adam and Eve went and hid among the trees. Adam and Eve were aware that they had done something wrong and they attempted (in vain) to evade the consequences. Their son Cain had a conscience as well. In response to HaShem’s question, “Where is Abel your brother”? Cain, out of a sense of guilt, went on the defensive and retorted “am I my brother’s keeper”? Animals, in contradistinction to humans, were not designed to have consciences. If they did, then canines would be nowhere as loyal to humans, even when those humans are undeserving, and humans would not make a “tsimmes”  when an animal shows care, concern and consideration for a human. How else would we explain humans resorting to the aphorism “bull in a china shop” in that the bovine creature is in no way aware of the havoc it creates. The very fact that we humans out of desperation (wrongly) refer to other humans lacking a conscience as “animals”, illustrates that we are very much aware that four legged creatures are devoid of a conscience.

It was the award winning Hebrew and Yiddish poet of Israel, Abba Kovner, who encouraged a new generation of Israelis to “remember the past, live the present and trust the future”.  Humans become aware of the future at a tender age. That’s why it is not uncommon for a three-year old in our culture to  express the following sentiment: “when I grow up…” Humans have the ability and are given the incentive to plan for the future. That’s why there are any number of investment firms touting their expertise in making your money grow, as they vie for your business; that’s why many jobs come with retirement plans where the employer matches the contribution or withholding on the part of the employee.  Preparing for the future among animals is purely instinct. Squirrels forage for nuts to sustain them through the winter, independent of reading the Farmer’s Almanac. While I know nothing about how squirrels communicate with one another, I find it totally incredulous that squirrels would discuss the challenge of collecting nuts in any given year and then compare what it was like to collect nuts the previous year.

Our Talmudic sages were quick to point out (that unlike an animal) that ignorance of the law is no excuse. Stated differently, they maintained that humans should always consider themselves forewarned or responsible when it comes to injuries of others, as well as to damages to their property and estate. How much more so then is an individual’s responsibility to oneself! To be sure, our culture has a track record of destroying animals that have incurred harm. But such animals were destroyed because they were deemed dangerous. The only time responsibility serves as a factor is when that animal is owned by a human, or when that animal has a master. In either case, responsibility falls squarely upon the human, but never upon the animal.

Let the Tekiahs ring along with the Shevarim and Teruah. As they pierce the highest heavens, so too let them pierce the innermost depths of out heart and souls. Let us marvel at tough animal cartilage pressing up against the sensitive human lip. Let us appreciate the contrast between four- legged animal and the two-legged human. With the human, HaShem has every right to expect a conscience that distinguish between right and wrong, an ability to anticipate  planning for the future and a keen sense of responsibility toward HaShem, one’s fellow man and oneself. Failure to do so will result in mere lip service.

NO AX TO GRIND

The Jewish National Fund should have gone out on a limb. Last week would have afforded the JNF yet another excellent opportunity to promote trees. For it was last Tuesday, the Talmud tells us, that a special name was conferred upon the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av. Although still very much in the midst of summer, our rabbinic sages calculated that the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av was the specific date when the heat from the unforgiving sun over Israel, finally begins to dissipate. On that date, our sages declared that no ax may be swung at a tree for the purpose of providing kindling wood for the sacrifices of the holy Temple in Jerusalem.  Our sages referred to that day as Yom Tavar Magal or the day of the breaking of the scythe or ax.

Although two thousand years have passed since any trees have been felled for the purpose of providing wood for the altar, Yom Tavar Magal ought to live on.

A much overlooked sight for tourists visiting Israel is a monument located in the city of Ramat Gan commemorating ten young Jewish soldiers (the original list, other names were added later) who met their deaths at the end of a British noose. While the English language settles on the word “hanged”, the Hebrew language depicts those who lost their lives as Olei HaGardom or those who went up against the ax. The purpose of employing such phraseology, is that in the eyes of Zionism, the mode of execution employed by the British mattered little, if any. From the Zionist point of view, there was but one difference between the “civilized” British executioners of the twentieth century and the savage Roman executioners who murdered Jews in ancient times. We have no record as to the ages of the Jewish victims murdered by the ancient Romans. We do know however that without exception, that those who went up against the ax of the British were all in their prime of life. Put differently, the ax of the British denied its Jewish victims to benefit from the Tree of Life.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was not the first to caution Jews against despair when he reminded us that the entire world is a narrow bridge and that we must never give in to fear. Two Talmudic sages, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan expressed a similar sentiment when they handed down the following adage for posterity: Even if a sharpened sword is resting on the neck of person’s neck, it should never prevent the victim from asking for mercy. The two rabbis then cite the following verse from Job 13:15: “Behold, he is about to kill me, shall I not turn to Him in hope”?

As creative as the Roman were when it came to introducing ancient Israel to architecture and engineering, there was a destructive side to the Romans as well. The ancient Romans had no regard whatsoever for forestation or for human life. Accordingly, they did a hatchet job on both. With no regard for either the flora or the fauna, the ancient Romans indiscriminately set about  clearing swaths of land, so that the enemy could no longer seek safety and find refuge deep in the forests; the Ancient Romans used the lumber for military purposes such as onagers (prototype of a wrecking ball used to knock down walls of fortified cities)  and battering rams,  allowing them to break through doors and gates. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan undoubtedly heard and perhaps even witnessed Romans – with no qualms whatsoever – swinging their axes into the necks of Jews. And yet, they adjured our people not to give up hope. Neither Rabbi would ever have claimed to speak words of prophecy. Yet, during any given year, the number of Israelis visiting Italy is amazing; the number of Italians visiting Israel and planting trees is awesome.

Our rabbinic sages were quick to notice the similarity between  shalosh (three) and shalish (military commander). Because of this, they ascribed great strength to trees, a product of the third day of creation. Yet, when iron was created, these great towers of strength began to tremble. They foresaw impending doom, should it ever happen that iron be sharpened into an ax. “Let not your heart be troubled”, said iron to the trees reassuringly. “As long as none of your wood provides us with a handle, no harm will come your way.”

Yom Tavar Magal continues to convey important teachings. It serves to remind us of young Jews who were denied eating from the Tree of Life as they went up against the British sword.  It recalls the optimism of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan who were able to see not only the forest and the trees, but the continuation of vibrant Jewish living as well. It cautions us against placing ourselves in harm’s way. Most of all, it reminds us that there are specific times for an ax to meet a tree. May those times contribute to a better world.

THE KEYS WE HOLD

Although there are better known stories depicting last week’s stain on Jewish history, there is one that holds greater meaning for me than all the rest. It depicts young Kohanim or priests in training, ascending the roof of the Beit HaMikdash with keys to various chambers of the holy edifice in their hands. Turning their faces heavenward, these young Kohanim admitted that they failed in their responsibilities of keepers of the keys. It was therefore only proper and befitting, that they return the keys that they had been entrusted  with by HaShem. No sooner did these young Kohanim toss these keys up in the air, when a heavenly hand emerged, removing the keys from human possession.

While admittedly resorting to idiomatic expressions in the English language, there were three keys that were never offered to be returned by the young Kohanim and could therefore never be accepted by HaShem. Perhaps of even greater importance, these three keys that the young Kohanim refused to surrender served as the very antithesis to those keys returned to HaShem. Whereas those keys returned to HaShem by the young Kohanim symbolized keys of destruction and ruin, the three keys that the young Kohanim adamantly refused to surrender represented keys of perseverance and perpetuity.

The first key that the young Kohanim refused to surrender to HaShem, was the “key of recrimination.” Even if they wanted to, the young Kohanim could not have surrendered the “key of recrimination” because they could not claim exclusive ownership. The “key of recrimination” was a key that was first used by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It was then passed on from  generation to generation. It was Abraham however, who refused to have any part of the “key of recrimination” just as Abraham refused to have any part in the worship of idols. Abraham understood that recrimination and idolatry absolve the individual of responsibility. Idolatry placed everything that went on in this world in the hands of deities: the “key of recrimination” placed everything that went on in one’s own world in the hands of others. In both situations, the individual remained devoid of responsibility. If the “key of recrimination” was in the sole possession of the young Kohanim, and if the young Kohanim had chosen to surrender it to HaShem, then the message of Tisha B’Av would have been: “Just as it was beyond our scope to have played any role whatsoever in the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, so too is it beyond our scope to play any role whatsoever in the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash.”

Although never intended as such, it was HaShem who defined our very essence as a people. In a state of anger and exasperation, it was HaShem who told Moshe that our ancestors were a group of “stiff-necked” people. The personality trait of being “stiff-necked” was one that would remain with us as a people from that moment on; that personality trait would prove define our very essence and explain our being able to defy overwhelming odds time and time again. As a people, we are determined and resolute. As a nation, we are contrarians. While I am neither a sociologist nor a historian, it nevertheless appears, that as a people, we Jews seem to thrive in the face of adversity. Stated differently, time and time again, it has been shown that our shining moment as a people often occurs when the chips are down. Despite quotas in Law Schools and Medical Schools in this country a century ago, Jews gained admission as well a grudging acceptance into fields reserved for Christian America. Yet, once admitted and accepted, Jews continued to aspire to the top tier, so that instead of being looked down upon, Jews were suddenly being looked up to. The characterization of being “stiff-necked” turned out to be one of our greatest strengths and attributes as a people. The key of being “stiff-necked” was the second key that the young Kohanim refused to surrender to HaShem.

The human head is more than just home to four of the five senses. The human head possesses  the ability to refine and distinguish those senses. Not only can the human ear hear words, but it can also discern how those words are spoken. Not only can the human nose inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, but it can also distinguish between pleasant scents and unpleasant odors. So too the human eye. Depth perception aside, our tradition maintains that we were gifted by HaShem with two eyes, so that we could use one eye to see how others affect our lives and the other eye to see how we affect our lives. If Jewish sources – religious as well as secular – have taught us anything, it is that we Jews have a tendency to favor the eye that allows us to see how we affect our lives. Whether tragedy or triumph, our focus as a people has primarily been on ourselves, rather than the enemy. Regardless of the hand dealt us, we focus on introspection.  As a result, little, if any energy is expended on grudges or revenge or seeking justice. Instead, most, if not all energy, is directed to picking up shattered pieces, left in the aftermath and building a brighter future. The key to introspection was the third key that the young Kohanim refused to surrender to HaShem.

The time period between last week’s commemoration of Tisha B’Av and next month’s celebration of Rosh Hashanah is designated as seven weeks of consolation. True and meaningful consolation comes about when we realize that that the key to recrimination, the key to being stiff-necked and the key to introspection were never surrendered to HaShem but remain in the firm grip of our people. May we find meaningful consolation knowing that we possess all three keys.

JERUSALEM RECONSIDERED

A certain irony exists when we pray for the rebuilding Jerusalem. As part of our established daily  prayers, we ask HaShem to rebuild Jerusalem without qualification. During Birkat HaMazon or Grace After Meals, we ask HaShem to rebuild Jerusalem in His mercy. Come Tisha B’Av during the Mincha service, we ask  HaShem to rebuild Jerusalem out of reconsideration.  Why the shift in our requests? Why do we qualify our request with either  mercy or reconsideration?

Mercy or rachamim as it is known in Hebrew, is visceral. Mercy is a feeling. Mercy emanates from the heart. Mercy is an attempt to soothe the hurt and pain that one is experiencing. Oddly enough, the first usage of rachamim in the Torah, deals with a wishful or hopeful expression of concern. “And may Almighty G-d grant you mercy before the man… (Genesis 43:14)” says Jacob to his sons, after they returned from Egypt, only to discover that the money they had paid for the provisions they had purchased, turned up in their sacks of grain. Reconsidering, often  used interchangeably with consoling or tanchumim as it is known in Hebrew, is cerebral. Reconsidering is a thought process. Reconsidering emanates from the mind. Reconsidering is an attempt to assure the one who is hurting and in pain, that all is not lost. Oddly enough, the first usage of tanchumim in the Torah, deals with HaShem. Seeing the evil and wickedness of mankind, “HaShem reconsidered having made man on earth (Genesis 6:6). Rather than throw in the towel and give up, HaShem reconsidered whether He did the right thing when He created mankind.

Mercy implies victimhood. Mercy conveys that you feel for the individual who is hurting. Mercy is an attempt  to bandage the emotional wound visited upon the one who is grieving. Whether it is through sympathy, where one feels for the victim or through empathy, where one feels with the victim, the one experiencing hurt and pain is told that he or she does not have to weather the crises alone. The one experiencing hurt and pain is assured there are others who will be at his or her side, either in the literal sense or in the figurative sense. Reconsidering implies being in control. Reconsidering conveys a silver lining for the individual who is hurting. Reconsidering is an attempt to redirect the focus from the emotional wound and to redirect it to the many healthy areas outside that wound. Rather than assure the victim that you are very much aware that he or she is grieving, reconsidering reassures the individual, how important it is to realize that grief is a passing experience and that you are there to assist in planning for once the pain has passed. An example of this is seen each morning toward the beginning of the Shacharit service, where we are asked to reconsider  that even though “In the evening, one lies down weeping, in the morning there are shouts of joy (Psalms 30:6)”.

Mercy implies a past. Mercy assures  the one suffering, that you are not oblivious to the upheaval that has occurred in his or her life. Mercy is a reminder that while you cannot change what has happened, the crises need not be confronted alone. Among the many misnomers in our society, is the term self-help groups. Self-help groups are organized by individuals who have gone through similar experiences to meet with those who are hurting to help them deal with their  past. Reconsidering on the other hand, implies a future. Reconsidering focuses on what will take place. Reconsidering assures the one suffering, that there is a promising future. Perhaps the greatest healing available  to individuals at a time when they are all too quick to dismiss their future, is that you have confidence in them. Reconsidering assures those grieving, that their future must neither be disregarded nor overlooked. We live in a society where there is no shortage of investment clubs. The objective of such clubs is to secure a safe and strong financial future for its members. Reconsidering does much the same in helping to secure a safe and strong emotional future for those who are hurting.

And so it is with Tisha B’Av. Three times a day, we pray for the unqualified rebuilding of Jerusalem. Finding ourselves satiated at the conclusion of a meal, we find it difficult to identify with a city that continues to hunger for spiritual and religious completion. We therefore pray for the rebuilding of Jerusalem in mercy. Finding ourselves toward the close of Tisha B’Av, we can empathize with a city that has been deprived of (spiritual) nourishment. We therefore pray for HaShem to reconsider and to bring an end to the two-thousand-year-old plight of the holy city . Whether out of mercy or out of reconsideration or neither, we beseech HaShem to rebuild a city that means so much to so many.  

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.