Protesters take to the streets of Jerusalem on July 21, 2012, calling for social justice and in solidarity with Moshe Silman, who set himself on fire after a similar protest in Tel Aviv on July 14 and died of his wounds six days later. Before his act, he handed out a letter in which he accused the State of Israel of having abandoned him to poverty. Photo by: JC/Activestills.org
As a consequent of the suicide attempts that follow the death of Moshe Silman z”l, Rabbi Yehiel Greniman asks us not to be despaired. But he also does not take easy the Hasidic saying that we should always be happy.
Rebbe Nahman from Breslav once said: “One must not despair…”
In our work in the field of human rights and the pursuit of social justice and peace there is nothing more essential than such an approach. We will not succeed without determination and perseverance. That is basic and understood.
On the other hand the continuation of that well-known saying (a popular song in national religious circles today) that “one should only be happy always!” is in principle very problematic. It is used as a slogan by those who want to justify what is, or to ignore it, as if there is no military occupation of another people, no discrimination, no injustice or baseless hatred in our society.
It is important to be happy about our victories against evil (however small they seem to us) and for each of us to be happy with what we have (in the sense of the rabbinic dictum against greed), to be joyful in our doing good deeds and mitzvoth and in learning Torah for its own sake, and it is good and natural for us to be happy in the joy of festivals, and family events such as weddings and births, but “to be only happy all the time’!? Always? Do we not have to relate to, struggle with, death and suffering as well in our lives?
“When Av comes in one reduces happiness….”
We are in the Hebrew month of Av, about which the rabbinic sages say “When Av comes in one reduces happiness….” (the mishna, Tractate Taanit).
Because two temples were destroyed in ancient times, we lost control of our destiny as a people as false messianism and the illusion of power led us astray and more than all else because of the injustice and baseless hatred within, between different groups in society.
Sometimes there are circumstances in which it is impossible to be happy, if not also insensitive and irresponsible. At such times it is more appropriate to be restrained, to relate seriously to what is happening, even to be angry.
To quote one American leader whose teaching I find inspirational:
“To cooperate passively with an unjust system makes the oppressed as evil as the oppressor. Our most fruitful course is to stand firm with courageous determination, move forward nonviolently amid obstacles and setbacks, accept disappointments, and cling to hope” Martin Luther King Jr. – “Strength To Love”
That is the situation when we are confronted with “baseless hatred” – a phenomenon widespread in Israeli society today, unfortunately, despite our bitter experience with its results as a people in the past. There are those who hate “the foreigners”, “the infiltrators”, others who hate “the leftists”, hate “the Arabs”, hate “the Haredim”, hate “the settlers”, hate “the rich”, and none of these see the common humanity of these people as they make them objects of their hatred.
Those who read this week’s haftorah (the reading from the prophets which accompanies the weekly Torah reading) will hear the prophet Isaiah (chapter 1) expressing the Divine anger (Heshel’s “Pathos”), and his own, at the corruption and injustice of his own people. Should would also be “happy” when our national and religious leaders look like those described there as “the officers/ministers of Sodom” and our people as “the people of Amorrah”?
There are times when there is a need for some “Heshbon Nefesh” (searching of the souls). The 9th of Av is a most suitable and appropriate time to do just that.