Tisha B’av and Compassion

 

No nation ever disappeared or seriously declined because of an overabundance of compassion toward the outsider or the stranger. The opposite is usually the case. Indifference or cruelty toward those we do not feel belong in our midst usually leads to exile or at least great loss for all.

If we are unable to see the humanity in others, and feel their pain and fear, we will lose the humanity within ourselves.

 

Societies can only function when there are strong laws in place and fairly enforced. Without law there is anarchy. However, when the law is used as a method to determine which kind of people are worthy of being treated as fully human, and who may be treated as less than fully human, then we are on the path to fascism. At the very least, a society that lacks compassion will eventually become so weak that it will have enormous difficulty in defending itself from attack. It will develop the weaknesses it thought it was preventing.

 

The Jewish community will soon begin its observance of Tisha B’Av, the day that commemorates the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem, the first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE.

We will fast for 25 hours and read the Book of Lamentations and other liturgical poems that describe the terrible traumas that we have experienced.

 

Even though the actual destruction was caused by the attacks of other nations, we have understood that our own actions contributed to our inability to defend ourselves. I want to focus on the destruction of the Second Temple, in particular.

 

According to tradition, the society of the time was completely law-abiding and orderly. They did not engage in crimes or sins. One would think that such a society would be invincible. The survivors of the destruction asked themselves what happened that allowed such a tragedy to occur. They said it was because they did not go beyond the letter of the law, that they did not show compassion to others unless they were legally obligated to do so. They treated the outsider with contempt, and not with the respect due to every person simply for having been created in God’s image.

 

It is not that God sends a punishment for a lack of kindness. Rather, it is that very lack of kindness that weakens a society and makes it vulnerable to attack from the outside. People who hold others in contempt soon find out that they have alienated those who could have made the community stronger.

 

As a country we are struggling over issues of immigration and other social problems. I do not want to minimize the seriousness of these issues, or suggest that there be no rules regarding them. It is critical in an age of terrorism and violent crime to have a clear sense of who is in the country and why. There also has to be a process for becoming a citizen that is fair to everyone.

 

I am suggesting though, that what is needed is a change of attitude and approach that go beyond a country’s borders. We have to remember the essential value of our country that all individuals matter and are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

 

On the Statue of Liberty, we proclaim “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 

Let us make sure those words are always true.

 

 

 

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