Rejecting The Blame Game
At the “Covenant Between the Pieces” God told Abram that his descendants would be as many as the stars of the sky. God also revealed then that Abram’s descendants would be strangers in a land not their own. (Genesis 15:1-15). That is to say, the concept of galut (exile from the Land of Israel) was established even before The People of Israel was established. Abram could have called it all off. He could have said to God, “Thanks, but no thanks. If my descendants will have to suffer so, let’s forget about it.” But he doesn’t. Abram, not yet a Patriarch, understood that even with centuries of homelessness and wandering, the chance to be a People bound to God by a covenant of Torah and Mitzvot would be a chance at a life of meaning and sacred purpose.
This coming Thursday we commemorate Tisha B’Av, the Ninth Day of the month of Av, when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed not once, but twice and our People was exiled from Israel not once, but twice.
Our Sages give many reasons for this loss, this suffering. All point to some moral failure of our own: the neglect of mitzvot, idolatry, senseless hatred (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b), the failure to educate our children, the late of social critique (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119b), obsession with money (Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 28c), bad leadership (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 88a), to name just a few possibilities. The Rabbis do not absolve the Babylonians or Romans of responsibility for the destruction and exile, but rather, they choose to turn these moments of crisis into opportunities for introspection.
This is the classic Rabbinic approach to suffering. I find it remarkable. It is not intended to “blame the victim,” God forbid, or to deny the very real suffering, but rather, to elevate the victims above and beyond their suffering.
When we are in pain, when we feel threatened — physically, economically, emotionally, socially, even existentially — the typical response is to find someone to blame. The Rabbis, instead, instruct us to examine our own role in our suffering, to ask what we might have done that has enabled this situation to arise. Again, our Sages do not deny the brutality of the Babylonians or the Romans, but there is nothing new to learn there and changing “them” was beyond their circle of influence. However, asking “What was my part?” and “What is in my control to change?” and “How will I respond to this pain?” was within their grasp. These questions move us powerfully from a stance of passivity to action, from helplessness to agency.
In How We Choose to Be Happy, Rick Foster and Greg Hicks identify accountability and the absence of blame as one of the essential nine choices that genuinely happy people make. They explain: “Of the many behaviors that characterize happy people, one stands out resoundingly. Happy people avoid blaming in all its incarnations. They don’t blame other people, they don’t blame circumstances, and they don’t blame themselves. To happy people, blame serves no purpose. It doesn’t ever get us what we truly desire…. The choice to be accountable is the choice to be masters of our own fates. As such, we choose to respond to our real emotions — love, anger, sadness, joy. How do we find these authentic feelings? By looking at ‘my part.’” (How We Choose to Be Happy, p. 51).
Just one Aleph
When we add the letter Aleph to the Hebrew word golah (exile), we find the word geulah (redemption). The Aleph has the numerical value of one. The Aleph can stand for the one small person who can perform the one small deed powerful enough to transform the place of exile and suffering into a moment of redemption. The Aleph can also stand for the One God of the Universe who is revealed in that small deed, in that small moment of redemption.
On this Shabbat Chazon, this Shabbat of Vision, it is my prayer that sees our way to moments of, to glimmers of redemption. As we prepare for Tisha B’Av and remember the historic sufferings of our People, let us be strong enough to take up the wisdom of our ancient Rabbis and ask reflexive questions. As we reflect on the real suffering of our lives today, let us be willing to wonder “What is my part in this?” “What does this moment demand of me?” and “What sparks of redemption can be revealed amidst the shards?”