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When – and How – Jews Fail

The Ninth of Av is this coming Sunday, and it is a day of mourning for the Jewish people the world over. The day is connected to the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, as well as a string of catastrophes for our people throughout history, from the First Crusade (1095), expulsion from England (1290), France (1306), and Spain (1492), multiple events connected to the Holocaust and even the disengagement from Gaza.

The temptation is to commemorate this day with a renewed sense of victimization, wallowing in the helplessness of the Jewish people against superior forces throughout history. Not surprisingly, I think this is precisely the worst lesson we can draw from calamities, not only because wallowing is never what G-d wants from us, but because it serves no constructive purpose except to make us even more pathetic than we were before. In other words: How can re-enacting the risk-aversion and passivity that got us into trouble in the first place somehow be the way to grow and move forward? After all, it was our lack of courage and misplaced priorities that allowed the tragedies in our history to happen in the first place.

The very first event on the Ninth of Av was the episode in the wilderness, when the Jewish spies returned from scoping out the Promised Land – and the people decided that they could not possibly succeed. They melted down, losing their courage, and they refused to believe that they, with G-d’s help, could achieve what looked to be impossible.

This was the event that sets the tone for this date going forward. The Jews did not want to engage with the world, taking responsibility for themselves and the world around them, secure in the knowledge that with G-d’s help, we can achieve the things we are here to achieve.

There are three separate ways in which we failed then and now: Loss of courage, Disconnection from the non-Jewish world, and Erroneous goals.

Courage: We lack courage when we are unwilling to do what G-d wants – commands – us to do, because we fear we will not succeed. That was a key failure of the generation of the spies. When we refuse to do what needs to be done, we are denying that G-d is in the world.

Disengagement: We disconnect from the non-Jewish world, assuming that if we leave it alone, it will leave us alone. Similarly, Jews could have been engaging with our host nations before the numerous expulsions, instead of passively sitting tight. We could have even proactively chosen to flee. What did not work was keeping our heads down and trying to wait it out. Most of the six million who died in the Holocaust were not agents of change; they were victims. But this was not mere accident: at some level, and at some point, becoming a victim was the result of not choosing to engage.

Often, of course, these future victims lacked the strength of character to make their own decisions. Instead, they delegated their decisions, relying on community leaders to tell them what to do. The advice received was usually to passively wait, instead of taking direct action. It would have sounded entirely reasonable to the people who lost their nerve in the wilderness.

In the wilderness we needed to be willing to leave the cocoon of the wilderness and return to the world; the generation of the spies were afraid to do so. Today, isolation is the best protection against assimilation, so interacting with the outside world, even in normal conditions, introduces risk. Nevertheless, nothing ventured, nothing gained:

When we think we can keep to ourselves and just mind our own business, G-d reminds us that there are consequences for not doing our part. It is the obligation of the Jew to do more than just take care of our own: we are here to elevate the entire world.

Erroneous Goals: G-d is not shy; he tells us what he wants from us. Justice. Loving-kindness. Constructive relationships between man and G-d and within society.

Nowhere in this list is national aggrandizement, or the same goals that motivate other nations. I think it is no coincidence that Jews lost the genetic lottery: we are not faster, stronger, or in any other way even the equal of other peoples when it comes to our bodies. We are not meant to strive to win the wrong contests. So when the Jewish people decided to assert their national power and went toe-to-toe with Rome in the era of the Second Temple, it was a colossal error, born of misplaced priorities. Our power is not meant to be in arms or political power, but in influence. And we can meet our obligations to G-d perfectly well if we are a tributary nation.

Today these lessons continue to need to be emphasized, so that we do not repeat the errors of the past.

We must be courageous, knowing that G-d is with us, and together we can achieve things that often seem to be impossible.

We must never turn inward, but continue to interact with the world and always seek to improve it in any way we can. We must always seek to engage with the societies in which we live, with the leadership of those nations.

And we must always try to calibrate our goals with those of G-d. The Ninth of Av is not tragic because a building was destroyed. The Temple was only important inasmuch as it represented the way we could fulfill the commandments and grow our relationship with G-d. It is not buildings or possessions or even our bodies that ultimately matter, because none of those things survive in the long run. It is our relationships, and the good that can come from them that enrich the whole world, are a credit to G-d, and elevate our souls. We are commanded to be holy, and in this time and all others, striving for holiness requires courage.

Comments are welcome!