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Hazzan Steve's Message

Tisha B’Av, The Musical

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,

You’ve got to be taught from year to year,

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear—

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a different shade—

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate—

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Those are the opening verses of a song from South Pacific, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical from 1949. As I pondered Tisha B’Av, one of the more obscure holidays on our calendar round (obscure at least for Jews outside the more traditional movements of Judaism), I thought of You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught. Why? What is the connection between Tisha B’Av and this musical theater song that in the context of the show (as you can see in the second verse) is about racial prejudice?

Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, is said to be the date of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. And the date of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. And the date of a number of other expulsions and horrors visited upon us as a people. That others hated us is a recurring theme in our story. Hate and fear, hand in hand.

The rabbis turned this story on its head (so what else is new?), and explained the starvation, carnage, despoliation and exile during the Roman destruction of Jerusalem as the inevitable result of our behavior. The term the rabbis used is “sinat chinam”, baseless hatred. They did not mean the baseless hatred of us by Babylonians, Romans, the English, the Kings of Spain and Portugal, Cossacks, Nazis. They meant Jews senselessly hating each other.

The rabbis’ insistence that sinat chinam was the cause of our calamities has been criticized as historically inaccurate (the Romans could do whatever they wanted in the Middle East of the first century CE, and so they did), theologically suspect, and blaming the victims. But before we dismiss this notion of sinat chinam entirely, perhaps we need to turn the inquiry on its head again.

Conservative Republican political and social commentator Peter Wehner begins his August 1, 2022, piece in The Atlantic by stating that “[f]ear, hate and grievances animate the new Republican Party”. This assessment of things makes sense to me. We are living in a perilous time for our country, our democracy, our way of life as Americans and as Jews, and the highly emotional, angry and sometimes violent ways in which some segments of the populous express themselves is hard to explain as a rational response to how things actually are. Those who are politically and culturally different from me are hated-filled fear mongers intent on destruction. Gotcha!

So now who is fearful? Hatred is often a response to the more primary emotion of fear, so who is fearful? Fear often moves from the unconscious into our shared reality as anger, so who is angry? I think it might be me.

Fear is about the future, that something awful that has not happened yet will happen, or that something awful that has happened before will happen again. Seen in that light, fear is not bad in and of itself; it all is in what I do with my fear. I can recognize that I am afraid and attempt to learn the real risks of whatever is frightening about the future. My fear may express itself as anger, and anger also is not bad in and of itself; it all is in what I do with my anger. Anger can empower me to act, and well-reasoned, morally defensible action in response to my fears could be important and useful.

But fear, as the song says, can be taught to others and morphed into hate. Sinat chinam - senseless or useless or groundless hate. This year, perhaps more than at any prior point in my life, I need to use the weeks we are in now leading us to Rosh HaShanah to examine my fears, assess my anger, and honestly root out any bits of hatred that I have been taught or, worse, that I may be teaching others.

With blessings for a week of gratitude for the miracles piled in drifts around us,

Hazzan Steve

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