What does the Lord’s Prayer have to do with Tisha B’Av? Specifically: what was I thinking when I agreed to to figure it out? To speak at a church, on the Jewish observance of Tisha B’Av, about one phrase of the famous Christian prayer. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13).
I found my connection through the Warsaw Ghetto. So, here is the sermon I will offer.
Today is Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. A ritual commemoration of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE. And the devastation wrought by the invading Babylonian army. Today we fast. We study and chant the Book of Lamentations. And we recall how many national disasters took place on the 9th of Av. Some timed by coincidence and others through deliberate cruelty.
Today in 1942, the Nazis chose to begin what they called “a great campaign.” The deportation of 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka killing centre. Two years earlier the Nazis had created that 1.3 square mile ghetto to house more than 400,000 Jews. In those two years, 100,000 had died of disease and starvation.
And still, in those conditions, ghetto residents organized. Soup kitchens, schools, musical events, poetry readings, prayer services, political discussions. And, of course, resistance groups arguing about their very different ideas. But, after the great deportation, only 60,000 were left. And they stopped arguing. In April 1943, their coordinated resistance became a program of guerrilla warfare. For 28 days, a group of young adults held the ghetto against Nazi police and armies. The event is known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Let me tell you about the only woman on the command staff of the Uprising. Her name is Zivia Lubetkin. She was 28 years old, a socialist, and an experienced camp counsellor. When unaccompanied teens showed up in the ghetto, Zivia set up an orphanage for them. Soon, Zivia understood that the Nazis meant to dehumanize the Jews. So, she organized underground high school classes. She saw how scarce food was. So, she organized work permits for her youth. Then she realized that the Nazis meant to starve the Jews to death in the ghetto. So, she put her teens to work in soup kitchens. Finally, she learned that the Germans intended to deport the Jews to death camps. So, she armed her teens and fought alongside them.
After the war, Zivia wrote,
“It would be wrong, painfully wrong, to assume that the resistance displayed by the youth during the stormy days of destruction was the response of a few individuals…Each of us knew that he or she wasn’t alone…the feeling that there was a community people who cared about each other, who shared ideas and values in common, made it possible for each of us to do what he or she did. This was the source of our strength to live….The Jewish people stood the test.” (In the Days of Destruction and Revolt)
What does she mean by “the test”? Let’s look to the Lord’s Prayer to understand this.
Shift with me, for a moment, from your heart to your mind. Here’s a classic scholarly question about the Lord’s Prayer. In what language did Jesus originally speak it? Was it Aramaic, the everyday language most Judeans spoke? Or was it Hebrew, the language of Jewish prayer? There are good arguments for both. So, using my knowledge of the history of Jewish prayer, I will make a guess. The first two words may be Hebrew. Avinu she’bashamayim, Our Father in Heaven, is a common Hebrew name for God.
But the next four phrases may be Aramaic. The following Aramaic phrases are still part of every liturgical Jewish prayer service. Yitgadal v’yitkadash shemey rabbah, b’almah di’vra khi’re’u’tay v’yamlikh malkhutey. They mean: “May the great Name be hallowed, in the world you created, according to your will, and may your kingdom be established.”
Finally, the rest of the Lord’s Prayer may be in Hebrew. In the time of Jesus, several Jewish spiritual teachers wrote short summaries of the themes everyone should pray. Food, forgiveness, sin, morality, evil, and God’s sovereignty were typical. One famous Hebrew formula written in the first century lists eighteen items. This formula is also part of every Jewish liturgical prayer service today. We call it the Shemoneh Esrei, meaning eighteen. Or the Amidah, meaning the standing meditation. And sometimes just Tefillah, THE prayer.
The phrase, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” is in the Hebrew part. So let’s translate its key words from English to New Testament Greek to the likely original Hebrew words.
English: Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Greek: Lead us not into peirasmos but deliver us from porneia.
Hebrew: Lead us not into nisayon but deliver us from zenut.
Nisayon in Biblical Hebrew is an extreme test of faith. Most famously, God decided to nisah, test, Abraham by telling him to offer his son on the altar.
Znut in Biblical Hebrew literally means prostitution. But metaphorically it means idolatry. In the book of Numbers, God says, “Don’t fall off the spiritual path! Don’t follow the impulses of your eyes and heart. Don’t prostitute yourself.” Meaning, in plain modern English: Don’t choose a harmful path for the sake of short term gain.
So, we can understand the Lord’s Prayer to say, “Please God. Don’t give us extreme tests of faith. But if you do, help us make the right choice.”
That’s what Zivia Lubetkin meant when she said, “The Jewish people stood the test.” They were tossed into an extreme test of faith. Most did not put themselves first. Instead, they chose to support one another. Not just the young orphans who fought with Zivia. But also the many adults who held their children and elders close, wherever fate took them.
But how do we know that family and community are the right choices? We can look at Abraham’s nisayon, his test of faith. God says, “Take your son…and offer him as a burnt offering.” And, Abraham does it. He doesn’t resist or protest. But just as he raises the knife to kill his son, an angel of God says, “No! Don’t do it.”
Did Abraham pass his test of faith or did he fail it? Many Jewish readers believe he failed. Because Abraham has a history of doing family badly. Perhaps he had an abusive father. After all, God tells him to leave his father’s house in order to find himself. And when he does, God promises, he’ll have a big family. But Abraham doesn’t know how to have a family. For financial gain, he lets Pharaoh take his Sarah into his harem. To placate Sarah, he tosses Hagar and Ishmael into the desert with a water bottle and a pita. Because he wants to please God, he ties Isaac up on the altar.
When does he learn? Only after Isaac and Ishmael cut off contact with him. And after Sarah dies of grief. Finally, Abraham remarries Keturah. They have ten sons. And Abraham gives them all gifts, beyond what law and custom require.
But, the truth is, we are all a little like Abraham. None of us knows how we will respond in a time of trial. We might fail. Because we don’t understand ourselves. News reports don’t convey the reality of suffering. Our spiritual vocabulary is too weak. We cannot really imagine what trials will be like.
I learned these harsh things from another Warsaw Ghetto teacher, Rabbi Kalman Shapiro. Reb Kalman was a distinguished educator, spiritual director, and community leader when he was incarcerated in the ghetto. There he helped people practice religious rituals in secret. He reached across denominational lines to build community. And every week he wrote a sermon about current events.
When Warsaw was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1931, Reb Kalman encouraged everyone to join in civil defence. He said, “Anyone martyred for the sanctification of God’s name feels no pain at all.”
During the blitzkrieg bombing his son was killed. His daughter-in-law was visiting the injured when bombs hit the hospital. She died, too. Then, his mother took to bed with a broken heart and died a few days later. He said, “We may remain physically alive and yet feel as though our soul has fled.” And, “God does not want us to suffer unlimited anguish.”
When the ghetto was sealed he talked about slavery in Egypt. The Israelites suffering under Pharaoh’s decrees could not see that redemption was coming. We can’t see it either. But we know from their experience that God has a plan.
Sixteen months later Reb Kalman could only encourage broken people to support one another. Just weeping together, he said, is a holy activity. And God is weeping with us.
Four months later, was the Saturday before Tisha B’Av, and four days before the great deportation. Reb Kalman spoke about his own failure of imagination. Only a few years ago, he said, we would read in Lamentations about the destruction of Jerusalem. We were moved to tears, so we felt we knew our ancestors’ sufferings. But now we understand how little we knew. Now we are actually seeing the terrors that our prophets described. And we don’t want to witness “the birth pangs of the Messiah.” The pain that our tradition says precedes redemption. But here we are. We need imagination. And we need hope.
Four months later Reb Kalman died in the Trawniki slave labor camp. Nazi administrators suspected the prisoners of organizing for resistance. So, they murdered them all.
Reb Kalman’s last sermon honours an ancient Jewish homiletic tradition. End every sermon on a note of hope. Remind the community of the coming redemption. And I believe the Lord’s Prayer follows that tradition, too. Here’s a paraphrase based on today’s thoughts.
God, we believe you love us. As an ideal parent would. We don’t know why you willed the world to be as it is. Maybe you thought to share free will with us. You probably hoped it would work out better. So we pray for the ideal kingdom you imagined. When all creatures use free will for peace and justice. But in the meantime, help us eat and drink and love one another. Don’t toss us into extreme tests of faith. But if you do, guide us to make the right choices. Help us act. Give us insight into whatever blocks us from choosing community, family, and mutual support. Gift us with your power of imagination. So that we can continue to hope in you — and in each other. Amen.
Image: Warsaw Ghetto burning. Public domain.