When my mother, of blessed memory, was in her mid-fifties, she attended a self-help psychology workshop. Afterwards, she said, “This isn’t for me, it’s for people with problems. I don’t have any problems. I mean, I have some problems that are so big they are the foundation of my entire life, but I don’t have any problems.”
Of course, I knew what she meant: twenty years earlier our brother had died. He was four years old. Medical malpractice, the botching of a simple surgery, was proved in court. Our mother was still haunted by grief. It came to her every day, in the guise of insomnia, and irregularly, in the form of rage.
Grief changed her for the worse — but also for the better. Because she learned: life is precious. ALL life is precious. She helped people with disabilities, immigrants, people of all ages and all races. And she helped animals. For years, she ran an informal animal shelter in our backyard. No neighbors ever complained, because she made friends with all of them. If you had any trouble, any problem, she was over at your place. Not with a casserole, because she didn’t have time to cook, but with a wacky gift from the dollar store that made you laugh – she kept bags of them at home — and with a sympathetic ear and an offer of whatever was in her power to do.
She took her terrible memories and tried to make something beautiful with them. Something helpful, something that could change the world for the better. She was religious and educated, but she didn’t know Psalm 82, a dramatic dialogue in which people beg God to get up and heal the world with justice. Had my mother known this Psalm, she would have disagreed with it. “Stop begging God!” she would have said. “Stand up for yourself in the assembly of life and start to bring justice!”
I’m speaking about my mother today, because she passed away exactly four years ago. It is a Jewish custom to honour our parents every year on the anniversary of their passing. We call it a “yahrzeit,” literally, a time of year. On the yahrzeit of a close family member, we remember their lives, we light a candle, we recite the traditional memorial prayer, we celebrate the positive principles they taught us, and we make charitable donations to organizations they would appreciate. (SPCA for my mom, usually.)
By the Jewish calendar, today is the 9th Day of the Hebrew month of Av. It’s an easy date for me to remember because it’s a religious holiday. Not the celebratory kind of holiday, but the commemorative kind. Perhaps you’ve heard the joke that most Jewish holidays follow a pattern: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!” It’s not really true; only three of our twelve major holidays follow that pattern. But we like to say it anyway, and laugh with our wry sense of Jewish humour.
The theme of the 9th of Av is a mirror image of the joke. “They tried to kill us, they succeeded, let’s fast!” On the 9th of Av we fast and lament to commemorate a series of tragedies that took place in the year 586 BCE: the invasion of the ancient Israelite kingdom of Judah by the Babylonian empire; the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple by the Babylonian army; the exile of the educated and wealthy Jews to Babylon; and the abandonment of farmers and laborers to chaos and starvation.
The Biblical Book of Lamentations, which we study on the 9th of Av, describes these events. Some say that the prophet Jeremiah wrote Lamentations. But others, including me, disagree. Lamentations is an anthology of five poems by different poets, poor poets, who stayed in Jerusalem, trying to rebuild a life in the rubble. These five witnesses have five different memories, five different interpretations of what went wrong. One blames the big regional empires for military expansion; another blames self-interested political leaders for not protecting the people; a third blames the general lack of spirituality and self-knowledge among the people; a fourth blames a corrupt priesthood; and one blames God for overdoing the punishment. Each poet has a theory of what the country must do better in the future.
Because of its powerful lessons, this annual day of fasting and lament endured even after the return from exile and rebuilding of the Temple. It was still practiced in the year 70, when the second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman army — just a few decades after the Romans executed Jesus, and just a few decades before the Emperor Hadrian killed a million Judean civilians. Instead of creating a new day of commemoration, Jewish religious leaders deepened the meaning of the 9th of Av, to include lament for the destruction of both temples. And they added a new twist to the memories, a new interpretation of what went wrong – and a new lesson about what we need to do differently.
The temple was destroyed, they said, because of our sin — a sin of the Jewish people in the year 70. Because of one specific sin. A sin they called, in Hebrew, sinat chinam – senseless hatred. Hatred without a reason. Hatred that goes against our best interests. Specifically, the animosity between the different Jewish sects and political parties in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. Between the zealots and the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the Essenes and the Zadokites and the Christ-followers. An animosity that made it impossible for them to cooperate on their defense until the Roman army had breached the city’s walls – and then it was too late.
You know how this animosity between religious sects works. It starts small. “You use instrumental music in your service – but we don’t. You initiate converts by sprinkling them with water, we ask them to immerse their whole bodies. You believe that God is three aspects in one, while we believe God is one with ten aspects. You wear a scarf tied at the back, but we wear it pinned around the front. We wouldn’t set foot in your gathering or allow our children – as far as we can control them – to marry yours.” Little disputes that become very big, grow into senseless hatred, and make it hard to cooperate, even when the wolf is at the door, so to speak.
That’s what destroyed Jerusalem, we learn, and that’s what we need to avoid. Because encouraging hate rips a society apart. We should not gloss over differences, but we should not exaggerate them, either. The 9th of Av reminds us to put the little disputes in a larger human perspective, and to set the disputes aside so we can work together for healing and justice.
My mother didn’t need this religious lesson. She experienced her own devastation, and she learned to put things in perspective. Little differences between people and species don’t matter as much as you might think. Every life is valuable, and it’s important to show it.
Many faith communities in Canada don’t need this lesson either. Many have reached across difference to cooperate with other communities to sponsor Syrian refugees. You did not care if these refugees were Muslim or Christian, only that they needed a safe place to live.
Let’s pray that the way you live, and the way my mother lived, become examples for everyone. That’s my hope for this 9th of Av and this day of my mother’s Yahrzeit.
A sermon prepared for Carman United Church, Chilliwack, Canada. Image: timberwolfhq.com