We find ourselves in a time of mourning. This Saturday evening begins Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av), culminating a three-week period of grieving. Traditionally, this period is dedicated to recollection of the destruction of the First and Second Temples and many other tragedies in our people’s history.
Just weeks ago, as our nation erupted in protests against inhumane treatment of immigrant children and families on the U.S.-Mexico border, a colleague wrote poignantly, “The Three Weeks came early this year.”
There is much to mourn in our own country these days. The administration tried to separate small immigrant children from their families until national protests made the policy politically (as well as morally) untenable. But rampant separation of families and criminalization of immigrants continues, both on the border and everywhere that immigrants live in the U.S. The Supreme Court, long a bulwark of civil rights and the rule of law in our nation, inexplicably upheld the Muslim ban, obviously a product of this administration’s animus toward Islam and Muslims. Each day, it seems, brings another horror to progressive Americans. Even for conservatives, the tenor of public discourse seems to get worse by the day, with more name-calling and vilification and less dialogue, thoughtful reflection and problem-solving. Many of us fear for the state of our democracy.
The Haftarah for this very special Shabbat is referred to as Hazon Yeshayahu (Isaiah’s vision), from its opening words. In this powerful passage, the prophet Isaiah excoriates the people of Israel for their religious hypocrisy (“Your new moons and fixed seasons fill Me with loathing; they have become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them” 1:13), and their failure to “uphold the rights of the orphan” and “defend the cause of the widow” (1:17). Then Isaiah’s tone shifts from outrage and exhortation to grief: “Alas [the city of Jerusalem] has become a harlot, the faithful city that was filled with justice, where righteousness dwelt; but now — murderers” (1:21). Here we have an elegy for the holy city’s past, so sad that it is read in synagogue in the mournful melody used for the book of Eicha/Lamentations on Tisha B’Av.
Sinful nation! Political leaders laden with iniquity! Brood of evildoers!
We could write our own lamentation and exhortation to justice in these dark days in the history of America, based on Isaiah’s powerful words.
Sinful nation! Political leaders laden with iniquity! Brood of evildoers! You have forsaken the high ideals of the founders, betrayed the sacrifices of those who have fought for our freedom, and made a mockery of those around the world who have seen the United States as a symbol of liberty and justice for all people (adapted from Isaiah 1:4).
Every head is ailing and every heart is sick. Those who have loved this country ache with pain and disbelief. How could this be happening to our nation? Everywhere we turn we see the disintegration of democratic ideals, civil discourse and commitment to human decency in the public square (adapted from Isaiah 1:5).
The U.S. is taunted by world leaders. Once the acknowledged leader of the Western world, we are a laughingstock. Once the beacon of democracy to peoples around the world, we now deride and alienate our friends and find common cause with dictators and autocrats (adapted from 1:21).
But it is not too late. The good people of this land can rise up: Republicans and Democrats as one, conservatives and progressives together, people of different governing philosophies that have coexisted since the birth of the republic. We can continue to discuss core issues of governance, but reject the disintegration of the basic ideals that have characterized this great nation. We can say no to hatred of the racial and religious other. We can think deeply and generously about the complex issue of immigration. We can reject an aberrant form of discourse that mirrors the language of schoolyard bullies. We can make America moral and humane again.
The prophet beseeches: “Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice. Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan. Defend the cause of the widow” (1:17).
With justice, he promises, “the city” can be restored. Those who choose a better way can be revived by righteousness (adapted from 1:27).
May we as a nation soon find a better way.