Devarim/Chazon 5772: Olympic Vision

on Friday, 27 July 2012. Posted in Sermons

July 27, 2012

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ

This is the Shabbat immediately before Tisha B'Av, called Shabbat Hazon, meaning the Sabbath of vision, and it is named for the Haftarah that is chanted tomorrow. That prophecy is the first from the greatest of the literary prophets, Isaiah, and it begins its somber words of warning of imminent destruction with the phrase Chazon Yishayahu ben Amotz, this is the vision of Isaiah... It is always chanted on the Shabbat of Devarim, the beginning of Deuteronomy, and it always precedes Tisha B'Av, the 9th of the Hebrew calendar month of Av, perhaps the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.

Actually, tonight, technically begins the actual 9th day of the month of Av. But when a fast day that is not Yom Kippur falls on the Sabbath we move it a day, so that our Shabbat joy is not diminished. After all, the Oneg Shabbat on a fast day would be quite limited...

Tisha B'Av commemorates the destruction of both the first and second Temples, which ironically took place the same date 655 years apart. On Tisha B'Av traditionally we fast and chant the powerful book of Eycha, Lamentations, from the Bible, and remember not only these destructions but other terrible events that occurred around this day: the terrible battle of Beitar in which the Romans defeated and annihilated the army of Shimon Bar Cochba in the year 135, the start of the Crusades in 1096, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and other such tragedies. Even World War I, not a particularly Jewish catastrophe but a huge human disaster nonetheless, World War I began on Tisha B'Av in the year 1914. It is not a date of joy or celebration—but in light of the fact that these cataclysms of the past have been submerged somewhat behind the dynamic success of the modern State of Israel, now in its 65th year of a pretty healthy existence, Tisha B'Av remains important but not focal, especially for Reform Jews. In America the Reform movement largely ignored Tisha B'Av for many years, an approach that was aided by the fact that it falls mid-summer, when so many people are away and kids are often off at camp.

On a personal level I can tell you that fasting on Tisha B'Av is just about the most difficult of the official fasts on the Jewish calendar, because in the summer days are long and hot—you may have noticed this week—and going without food and water until 7:30 or 8 at night seems worse than starting the fast earlier and ending it earlier, as we do on Yom Kippur.

As far as the historical events that pounded us on Tisha B'Av, Jews today, both in the Diaspora and within Israel, may know that the great Temple of our people in Jerusalem was destroyed twice, once by the Babylonians in the year 586 BCE and once by the Romans in the year 70. They may even have an inkling that the Expulsion from Spain took place on Tisha B'Av in 1492—Columbus remarks on it in his first journal entry on his voyage of discovery to the New World. But not too many Jews know much about Bar Kochba, or the fall of the fortress of Beitar, 65 years after the supposed end of Jewish sovereignty with the fall of the Jerusalem to the Romans. In fact, on a historic level, I can tell you that today in Israel the name Beitar signifies one of two things for contemporary Israelis: soccer, and a city near Bethlehem. If they are scholars of modern Zionism, they recall that Beitar was the political party founded by Zev Jabotinsky, the father of right-wing politics in Israel. Here in America I doubt that one in 100 of us could identify what Beitar was and signified.

Without falling too deeply into my historian mode, I can tell you that even after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in the year 70, and finally when Masada fell in the year 72, most Jews did not really believe that was the end of the country of Israel. We have always been a stiff-necked bunch, from Moses time until now, and in spite of a cataclysmic, disastrous defeat the Jews continued to chafe under Roman rule. In 135 a charismatic leader named Shimon, Simon, emerged. He galvanized the downtrodden and unhappy Jews behind him, and won the support of many of the most prominent religious leaders, including the great Rabbi Akiba, who believed that Shimon, usually called Bar Cochba, the son of a star, was actually the Messiah. Bar Cochba was an excellent military commander, a man of passion and vision, and he started an initially successful guerilla revolt that destroyed an entire Roman legion—equivalent to wiping out a whole independent army of more than 5,000 men; Rome had about 25 of these at any one time. From a small guerilla force Bar Cochba's army grew to encompass many of the Jews still in Israel, all fighting the hated Romans.

At the height of the Bar Cochba revolt he recaptured Jerusalem, over-stamped Roman coins featuring the Emperor with Jewish ritual designs, and started to clear the Temple Mount to rebuild the Temple. But Rome was not easily defeated; they sometimes lost battles but almost never entire wars. They were very, very persistent and stubborn. The Romans recovered and struck back, eventually turning the tide of the war, and finally channeling all the rebel soldiers to their greatest fortress base at Beitar. Finally, in one last decisive battle in the year 135, on Tisha B'Av—likely they chose that date on purpose; the Romans had a flair for such things—they destroyed the Jewish army and killed Bar Cochba. This time they left no doubt about their intentions for Judea: Jerusalem was rebuilt as a Roman city, Aelia Capitolina, with Roman Temples and institutions, and Jews were expelled from its precincts. The center of Jewish life moved finally to the Galilee, and later much farther afield, to Babylon and Egypt and Spain and the rest of the Diaspora.

I wear two coins from the Bar Cochba revolt around my neck, overstrikes in silver and bronze of the Roman denarius. They are two the last Jewish coins minted by a sovereign state until Israel was founded in 1948, a gap of slightly over 1800 years.

That's the Bar Cochba story, and the failed Messianic quality of it marked it for the rabbis as further proof that there had been failed, fake Messiahs before and there would be more to come. We, as thoughtful Jews, should not be seduced by such false Messiahs. We should think and reason for ourselves, and avoid the trap of bold statements and loose promises. Look where they lead...

And while the famous statement of philosopher George Santayana says that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, I actually think it's a positive note that today modern Israelis remember their contemporary losses far more proactively than these ancient ones. It's not that they simply don't care about the past, or simply avoid thinking about their national tragedies; it's just that they care more about the recent past than the ancient one. If Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Yom HaZikaron, the Israeli Memorial Day when they, and we, remember those who fell in Israel's wars defending the modern country, are more important to today's Jews, well and good. That likely as it should be. It's not that we should forget our tragic, martyred, ancient and medieval past; but it is far more important to remember our vital present, and our recent, heroic past, which is far more likely to inspire us today. For suitably grounded, and so inspired, we can continue to prepare for a vibrant future.

But there still are elements of false Messianism in this world, and they often bring destruction. We are too familiar with the radical Islam that has claimed a kind of dark Messianic vision for itself, and certainly there is that strain within the tradition of our Christian brothers and sisters as well. The First Crusade, which brought glory to Christendom but destruction and torture to Jews and many others, officially began on Tisha b'Av in the year 1096, and led the near annihilation of the Jews of France and the Rhineland. So we need to be careful about that Messianic desire that lurks in the hearts of so many ultra-religious people even today, including some Jews.

There have been other terrible events that were coordinated by our enemies to coincide with Tisha B'Av, or just happened to fall on this pretty dismal day: the expulsion from Spain that ended nearly a thousand years of a golden Jewish civilization, and exactly 70 years ago the deportation of the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto was timed by the Nazis to begin on Tisha B'Av; it led by Pesach to the great Warsaw Ghetto rebellion, but it was on Tisha B'Av that the annihilation really began.

I would guess that the least well-remembered tragedy that took place on Tisha B'Av is probably the expulsion of the Jews from England, an event that took place formally on Tisha B'Av in the year 1290. It was, in the grand scheme of Jewish tragedies, a smaller if no less cataclysmic event for the English Jews than these over expulsions and Holocausts. It was in England that the blood libel was invented, in York, and it was from England that 2000 members of our people were tossed out on Tisha B'Av, never to be formally welcomed again into the British Isles until Olver Cromwell more than 350 years later.

So a sad and painful day, if one largely confined to ancient memories. We Jews have a very long memory, and that has served us well in many ways. We have retained our faith in God, even when we forget for a short period of time, and we have learned that the synagogue remains the sole enduring institution of Jewish life in the Diaspora. If the Temple is now permanently gone, it's But while we are on the subject of England, I have one more contemporary memory that has great relevance today.

The London Olympics have begun, and without a moment of silence or a formal official remembrance of the events 40 years ago in Munich, in which eleven Israeli athletes and officials were murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Each Olympic year the Israelis and many others request such a moment, and each time the International Olympic Committee ignores it. This time President Obama added his voice to the request, and the IOC again chose not to honor that request.

In doing this, it holds to the now time-honored arrogance of Avery Brundage, the hypocritical head of the Olympic movement in 1972, who did virtually nothing to acknowledge the murder of Olympic athletes kidnapped from the Olympic Village during the competition.

After the terrible events unfolded, which concluded with the helicopter shoot-out which the world, including many of us watched, a memorial service attended by 80,000 spectators and 3,000 athletes was held in the Olympic Stadium. IOC President Brundage made little reference to the murdered athletes during his speech praising the strength of the Olympic movement and equating the attack on the Israeli sportsmen with the arguments about encroaching professionalism and disallowing Rhodesia's participation in the Games, which outraged many listeners. To add to the tragedy, during the memorial service, a relative of one of the slain Israelis collapsed and died of a heart attack.

The Olympic Flag was flown at half-staff, along with the flags of most of the other competing nations at the request of Willy Brandt. But ten Arab nations objected to their flags being lowered to honor murdered Israelis; their flags were restored to the tops of their flagpoles almost immediately.

The day of the memorial ceremony the president of the Munich organizing committee initially sought to cancel the remainder of the Games, but that afternoon Brundage and others prevailed, saying that they could not let the incident halt the Games. Brundage said, "The games must go on, and we must... continue our efforts to keep them clean, pure and honest."

After the memorial service the remaining members of the Israeli team withdrew from the Games and left Munich. All Jewish Olympians were placed under guard. Mark Spitz, the American swimming star who had already completed his competitions and won a then-record 7 gold medals, left Munich during the hostage crisis (it was feared that as a prominent Jew, Spitz might now be a kidnapping target).

American marathon runner Kenny Moore, who wrote about the incident for Sports Illustrated, quoted Dutch distance runner Jos Hermens as saying, "You give a party, and someone is killed at the party, you don't continue the party. I'm going home."

The families of some victims have repeatedly asked the International Olympic Committee to establish a permanent memorial to the athletes. They declined, saying that to introduce a specific reference to the victims could "alienate other members of the Olympic community." And so, at least at the Olympics, yet again this year in London the terrorists win.

You know, as a kid growing up I loved everything about sports, and the Olympics were the biggest sports event in the entire world. But after the Munich massacre I have never had anything like the same feeling for the Games, not even when America saved the Olympic movement from its own incompetence and corruption at the LA Olympics of 1984 in my hometown, not when I attended the opening ceremonies at the "Mitt Romney" Winter Salt Lake City Games in 2002. And the continued absence of any acknowledgment or memorial at these historic commemorations—like the 40th Anniversary of the Munich attack—makes it pretty easy to continue to not care. If they don't care about their own ideals, why the heck should anyone else?

In a way, the Olympic movement was supposed to be about idealism over nationalism, a kind of messianic vision of the world gathered without politics as one to celebrate the glory of human physical ability. It is a fine ideal... a bit glossy eyed, perhaps, but a fine ideal.

And yet, such idealism without the memory of tragedy runs the risk of becoming puerile and vapid. Remembering loss and failure must not be the focus of our lives, and certainly not of our religion. But failing to remember, to treat our past seriously, likely guarantees that we will not really matter in the long run, that our most trivial concerns of the moment will dwarf our true purpose and meaning.

Chazon means vision. On this Shabbat of vision, may we remember our past, look to our future, and treasure our present. And may we learn that sacred lesson of our people; the memory of the righteous is a blessing, when we choose to make it so.

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