Witness and Lament: Remarks at Solidarity Tisha B’Av

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Temple Beth-El, Richmond, Virginia, July 22, 2018

כָּל֨וּ בַדְּמָע֤וֹת עֵינַי֙ חֳמַרְמְר֣וּ מֵעַ֔י

“My eyes are spent with tears, my heart is in tumult.”

These are the words of the biblical book of Lamentations, traditionally believed to have been authored by the prophet Jeremiah, describing the Jewish people’s anguish when, in ancient times, conquering tyrants destroyed our Temple, laid Jerusalem in ruins, and forced our people into exile.

For over two-thousand years, Jewish people have recalled those laments on this day, Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. On Tisha B’Av, we gather as mourners —fasting, chanting lamentations, singing dirges and elegies — not so much in grief for what has been lost, but rather in anguish over what has not yet been rebuilt. The destroyed city of Jerusalem is the Jewish tradition’s symbol for a world yet unredeemed. We observe Tisha B’Av because millions upon millions of people in our world — our brothers and sisters in our great human family — continue to suffer exile, torment and oppression.

“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither. Let my tongue cleave to my palate if I don’t remember you, if I don’t place Jerusalem above my highest joy.” (Psalm 137:5-6)

We hold the recognition of our world’s brokenness before us, and we are urged to keep it there, obscuring, even if only a little bit, our privilege, our comfort, and our joy, because none of us can be truly free until all are free, because my liberation is bound up in yours, because, as Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” So we grieve today, because our grief reminds us that our work is not yet completed, that our broken world is not yet repaired, and that we are called upon to pursue justice for all, to champion the stranger, to protect the vulnerable, to free the bound from their chains, and to frustrate the designs of all would-be oppressors.

That is why we are here today. This year, Tisha B’Av, a day that reminds Jewish people that we descend from immigrants and refugees, a day that reminds us that we inhabit a broken world, falls against the backdrop of a profound moral crisis in our country, as migrant children are separated from parents, asylum seekers are denied refuge, Muslims are refused entry, and immigrant communities are gripped with fear. These injustices, unprecedented in their scope and cruelty, are being perpetuated in broad daylight, as a matter of policy, in our name, enacted by cruel officials, endorsed by hard-hearted leaders, and enabled by widespread silence.

But we refuse to be silent. As the Book of Lamentations says:

ק֣וּמִי ׀ רֹ֣נִּי בליל [בַלַּ֗יְלָה] לְרֹאשׁ֙ אַשְׁמֻר֔וֹת שִׁפְכִ֤י כַמַּ֙יִם֙ לִבֵּ֔ךְ נֹ֖כַח פְּנֵ֣י אֲדֹנָ֑י שְׂאִ֧י אֵלָ֣יו כַּפַּ֗יִךְ עַל־נֶ֙פֶשׁ֙ עֽוֹלָלַ֔יִךְ הָעֲטוּפִ֥ים בְּרָעָ֖ב בְּרֹ֥אשׁ כָּל־חוּצֽוֹת׃ (ס)
Arise, cry out in the night  At the beginning of the watches,  Pour out your heart like water In the presence of the Lord!  Lift up your hands to Him For the life of your infants, who faint for hunger at every street corner.

We are here to cry out together. We are here to pour out our hearts like water together. We are here to lift up our hands to testify about the desperate parents who have been torn from their babies, and about the uninhabitable detention centers crammed with children. We are here to bear witness that the wealthiest country on earth callously shuts its doors to people fleeing disaster, poverty, violence, and persecution. We are here to bear witness to a government that criminalizes the most vulnerable and tries to dehumanize migrants and asylum seekers through criminalizing them. We are here to insist that immoral practices cannot be justified simply because they are legal, and indeed that unjust laws must be altogether uprooted and replaced with a more moral code.

We are here, ultimately, in the spirit of this day, to lament:

We lament inhumane immigration policy,

We lament family separations,

We lament family detention,

We lament denying asylum,

We lament ending of temporary protected status,

We lament Muslim bans,

We lament refugee bans,

We lament for-profit detention,

We lament inhumane conditions and widespread abuse in detention centers,

We lament vilifying immigrants, criminalizing immigration, and targeting immigrant communities,

We lament cruelty masquerading as law,

We lament injustice!

The Book of Lamentations ends with a prayer, “Hashivenu Adonai elekha v’nashuva, Hadesh yameinu k’kedem / Bring us back to you, God, and we will come back. Renew our days as of old.”

This prayer, I think, is meant to call out to us from the darkness of this day: Shuv, says Lamentations. Turn around. Go back.

In the face of policies that criminalize the most vulnerable, we say, in the spirit of Tisha B’Av: Shuv! Turn around.

In the face of officials who lie and obfuscate to justify grossly immoral practices under the banner of “the law,” we say: Shuv!

In the face of politicians who interpret scripture as a cover for cruelty, we say: Shuv!

Shuv. Turn around. Go back. Repent of these inhumane policies. Make right what is unjust. Repair what is broken. Heal what is sick. Work with us to build a world of love, the world we grieve for on Tisha B’Av, the world that we, working together, can once more bring into being.

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