At this time, 2606 years ago, the inhabitants of Jerusalem were experiencing the full force of the Babylonian conquest. The city had been under siege since the winter, and just over two weeks earlier the city walls had been breached. Exhausted and dying of famine, they didn’t know what lay ahead, but they knew they were in the midst of a catastrophe. And then five days later, on the 9th day of the month of Av, King Solomon’s Temple, built over 400 years earlier, was destroyed and the city was finally laid waste.
The tale of that destruction is told in searing detail in the biblical book of Lamentations, known by its first word, Eichah:
Eichah! yash’va vadad ha-ir rabati am.
Alas! How solitary does the city sit that was so full of people.
Jewish memory begins with destruction – churban; a word that also means devastation. On Tishah B’Av, we remember back to that time of catastrophe. Jewish memory also has other beginnings. The journey of Abraham and Sarah and their household from Charan in Mesopotamia, towards the land beyond the Jordan. The journey of the descendants of our ancestors out of slavery in Egypt and through the wilderness – again towards the land beyond the Jordan.
We are the Hebrews – Ivrim – from the Hebrew root, Ayin Beit Reish, to pass over or to cross over. From our very beginnings, we have taken journeys and have been forever crossing borders – sometimes of our own volition, sometimes because we were forced out, sometimes because we had simply no other choice but to flee. This Shabbat, we begin reading the fifth and last book of the Torah, D’varim – Deuteronomy – which opens with Moses reminding the people of the journey through the wilderness, as they encamp on the edge of the Jordan, waiting to cross over.
The destruction of King Solomon’s Temple and Jerusalem precipitated another journey – an exile to Babylon (known today as Iraq). But, as it happens, the traumatic exile of 586 BCE, when ‘by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion’, was short lived. In 539 BCE, King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians and permitted the exiles to return to the land and rebuild the Temple.
But that change in fortunes did not mean that everyone returned. Some of the exiles chose to remain in Babylon. Exiles no longer, they put down roots. By the time the last Temple was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans – the last in a series of conquerors – the Jewish community in Babylon was thriving. And in the course of the next few hundred years, its scholarly academies at Sura and Pumbedita became the major centres of Jewish Learning, eclipsing those in the land. The Mishnah, the first rabbinic code of law, edited around the year 200, reflected the work of the academies established in the land following the destruction of the Temple. When we turn to the G’mara, the commentary on the Mishnah by subsequent generations of scholars, the sharp difference between the circumstances of the Jewish communities living in Babylon and in the land is very evident. The Y’rushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud, chiefly the work of the academies of Tiberius and Caesarea and edited under the difficult conditions of Roman domination around the year 400, is a terse and incomplete 4-volume document, compared to the 63 tractates of the Bavli, edited in Babylon a century later. Study of the Talumd since then has been predominantly study of the Bavli, rather than of the Y’rushalmi, which is usually referred to only for comparative purposes. Indeed, in the centuries that followed the production of the Bavli, the Babylonian academies continued to be the centres of Jewish learning, producing in time, codes of Halachah, Jewish law.
Why am I telling you all this? Because as we remember our painful history of persecution, segregation, destruction, massacre and expulsion, culminating in the Sho’ah, it’s also important that we remember the flourishing of Jewish life and learning that in some cases, as with the exile to Babylon, followed periods of utter devastation.
And it’s not just a matter of putting the record straight and ensuring that we have a complete picture. The Jewish experience of how we have not only survived but in some important cases managed to flourish after destruction, is also a lesson for humanity. Our experience of journeying, of wandering and flight, which has defined us as a people, has also given us a unique perspective on life and the experience of being alive.
For the past few months, the world has been living in a time of extreme crisis, the coronavirus pandemic; a crisis that has brought society as we know it to a standstill. There’s been no destruction as such – no cities in ruins – but the pandemic has not only resulted in a high death toll – as of yesterday morning, 45,554 people in the UK and 633,122 people altogether around the globe – it has confined us to our homes, cut us off from our friends and families, closed schools and amenities, including, restaurants and cafés, theatres and cinemas, and all but essential shops, grounded planes and severely limited other forms of public transport. And, as restrictions are eased, with new cases of infection recorded every day and effective track and trace systems not yet in place, we know it’s not over yet. In fact, we have no idea when it will be over – and whether or not it will ever be over. As we have been adjusting to what has been called ‘the new normal’, we are aware that we may find ourselves living with COVID-19 for a long, long time.
Of course, experiences of this ‘new normal’ vary depending on people’s individual economic circumstances. For example, for those with spacious homes and gardens, being in lockdown has been very different than for those confined to flats that don’t even have a balcony. There are so many other variants, including whether or not one is shielding, living at home or in care, living alone, or with one other person, or with several people in crowded conditions. But for all of us, the continuing coronavirus pandemic means uncertainty. We have always taken for granted that we can make plans for the months or year ahead, but now we find ourselves stymied. Within our own congregation, two b’nei mitzvah dates have already been postponed. Just two weeks ago, a couple I was due to marry on August 30th reluctantly decided to rearrange their plans – hopefully, for April next year.
So, it’s hard to look forward. And yet, we must look forward. The Jewish people has always looked forward to the future. And now, as individuals, families, communities, as a society, we must look forward to the time beyond the coronavirus crisis. And we must think about, not how we will return to life as it was, but as a new social movement puts it, how we can ‘build back better’. On the Build Back Better Campaign website, we read:
The coronavirus pandemic has turned the world upside down, exposing major weaknesses in our economy and the deep-seated inequalities of our society that mean the most vulnerable people have been hit the hardest.
But what we do next could change everything. As the world recovers, we have a chance to reset the clock and build back better than before.
We need something new.
We need a new deal that prioritises people, invests in our NHS and creates a robust, shockproof economy that is capable of tackling the climate crisis.
Any coronavirus recovery plan must be built on the following principles:
1. Secure the health and needs of everyone in the UK now and into the future
2. Protect and invest in our public services
3. Rebuild society with a transformative green new deal
4. Invest in people
5. Build solidarity and community across borders
The Build Back Better campaign was initiated, and is currently co-ordinated, by Green New Deal UK, drawing on existing funding from the European Climate Foundation and Oak Foundation. The campaign is run by a steering group that includes, in addition to Green New Deal UK, Medact, Greenpeace, the Greener Jobs Alliance, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), the UK School Climate Network (UKSCN), the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Workforce, New Economics Foundation, Friends of the Earth and 350.org 
It is heartening to think that these sterling organisations are bringing their experience, skills and vision together. We are invited to join them. You can register to be involved in the campaign by going to the Build Back Better home page. The point is, as Jewish experience has demonstrated, a crisis, even a catastrophe, can contain the seeds of opportunity. We human beings are essentially creative and adaptable. We have always adapted to changing external circumstances. By drawing on our resources, not least, of optimism, resilience and life-embracing determination, we can build back better.
I am continually inspired by the words of Marge Piercy in her poem, ‘The task never completed’, which is included in the draft Shabbat morning service booklet. Let me quote a few lines from it:
Incomplete, becoming, the world / was given us to fix, to complete / and we’ve almost worn it out. / … / Every dawn I stumble from the roaring / vat of dreams and make myself up / remembering and forgetting by halves. / Every dawn, I choose to take a knife / to the world’s flank or a sewing kit, / rough improvisation, but a start.
We must make a start, even if we do not know where we are going at the moment. The returning exiles from Babylon made a new start. Those who stayed in Babylon made a new start. Generation after generation, wherever we found ourselves, our people have started over again, and survived and flourished. Even after the utter desolation of the Sho’ah, we have renewed Jewish life – in Israel, and also around the world – not least, in Europe, the epicentre of the attempt to eradicate Jewish life. In 1933, 525,000 Jews lived in Germany. In 1950, there were just 37,000 Jews left. By 2019, the Jewish population of Germany had increased with immigration from the East to 118,00. In recent decades, Jewish communities in Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, have also come to life again. May we, today, even as the coronavirus crisis continues, find the courage and the spirit to connect with others and to make a start on building back better and repairing the world.
And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
25th July 2020 / 4th Av 5780
Lech-L’cha, Genesis 12:1 ff. ↑
Bo, Exodus 12: 37-42, B’shallach, Exodus 13: 17 ff. ↑
Psalm 137:1 ↑
https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/geographical-distribution-2019-ncov-cases Deaths by continent as of 24.07.20: Africa: 16,705, Asia: 84,884, America (North and South): 329,918, Europe: 201,444, Oceania: 164 deaths – plus 7 deaths have been reported from an international conveyance in Japan. ↑
See the same web-site for recorded cases of Covid-19 by country updated each day. ↑
‘The task never completed’ is included in Marge Piercy’s collection, The Art of Blessing the Day. Five Leaves Publications, 1998 pp. 82-83). ↑