Listen, O Israel!

Protest in front of Prime Minister’s Residence, Jerusalem July 21, 2020

My daughter took this picture this week, a few blocks from her apartment in downtown Jerusalem. This man was participating in a “black flag” protest against Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. The protesters accuse him of corruption (they call him “Crime Minister”) and are demanding he step down. Netanyahu and his supporters argue that he’s innocent, and since his trial hasn’t even begun, that he can stay in office.

I’m not taking a position on that debate right now. What got me was the guy’s t-shirt.

I’ve been thinking about it for a few days, and I think that shirt can teach us two important lessons. For those who don’t recognize it, those words come from the book of Isaiah: “How can it be? The faithful city become like a harlot…. Your leaders are rebellious, a band of thieves; they all love bribes and pursue profit.” (1:21,23). Those verses – which resonate particularly loudly as they are part of this week’s Haftara, to be read in preparation for Tisha B’av – were first spoken about 2800 years ago in this very city, in a context not all that different from this week’s rally.

The piercing words of the ancient prophecy scream out on today’s street: Isaiah correctly predicted the city’s destruction, due to a lack of justice. Now that the city is finally rebuilt, the urgency of heeding the ancient words becomes even stronger, regardless of whether Bibi is innocent or guilty. We simply cannot continue to tolerate the many injustices perpetrated in our society: corrupt public officials putting their personal benefit over the nation they’re supposed to serve, powerful sex offenders protected by cover-ups, racism towards Arabs, foreign workers or even Ethiopian Jews, refugees denied basic human rights, agunot chained to marriages with abusive husbands…unfortunately the list goes on and on.

Again, without taking a position on the specific questions regarding Netanyahu, when looking at the big picture the protester is absolutely right! Eicha – how can it be? Year after year after year we read this Haftara, and then sit on the floor to mourn the destruction of the Temple. Much has been accomplished, but our exile and suffering are still far from over. What will it take until we hear the message???

~~~~~

There’s also a second lesson to be learned from the guy with the Isaiah shirt: something remarkable about this “only in Israel” scene. I don’t know the protester personally, but from his appearance, he doesn’t seem to identify as a halakhically observant person. And yet, here he is marching in the streets of Jerusalem, rebuking people (including many passersby whose clothing identifies them as very observant) for not living up to the ancient prophet’s words.

Many of those religious people probably don’t think they have anything to learn from a guy who looks like this – but for the majority of them who are not as bothered by corruption as he (and Isaiah) is, they’re wrong. They have a lot to learn, just from reading his shirt.

On the other hand, of course, those people probably feel they have a lot to teach a guy like him if only he would listen (and, as someone who shares their commitment to Torah Umitzvot, I agree with them too). So that’s the second lesson I learned from contemplating the t-shirt: how much better things would be if we would all just listen to each other. We don’t have to agree on everything – in fact we shouldn’t. Just listen.

Isaiah’s spoke during the time of the first Temple. The second one, our Sages tell us, was destroyed due to sinat chinam, baseless hatred. What they meant by that was the poisonous, destructive way they argued in their very heated political debates (if this assertion sounds strange to you, see Gittin 56, and compare to Josephus War IV, 3:2, 6:2-3). And yet, here we are – 2600 years after the first Temple was destroyed and 1900 years after the the second, and we are at risk of falling again to the same failures!

The message is also very relevant to what’s happening now in America, with all of the protests rocking the land and dividing the people. Both sides are screaming at each other. But is anyone listening? If they would take a moment to do just that, reasonable people would need to acknowledge that actually, both sides have a point.

Can any sane, moral person deny that racism is evil, and that black lives matter? And can any sane, moral person deny that hatred, violence, and wanton destruction of other people’s property is wrong, even in the name of a noble cause? There are legitimate disagreements, but both sides are saying important things. If only people would listen to each other.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his translation of the Siddur, renders the words Shema Yisrael (ordinarily translated “Hear O Israel”) as “Listen, O Israel”. Hearing is easy, but listening is much harder. That, however, is what we really need, and maybe that’s the biggest lesson we can take from these challenging times. This Tisha b’Av, let’s all commit to LISTEN, especially to those we disagree with the most.

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