Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Fear of Collapse - Some Thoughts on Tisha Be'Av

In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond describes different processes that lead to the destruction of civilizations. Giving examples stretching hundreds of years from Easter Islanders to Rwandans, Diamond shows how different factors – environmental and climactic changes, the loss of supporting allies and the presence of hostile neighbours – often coalesce together to bring ruin to societies.

The 5th reason the author brings – how each society responded to the changes it faced - is particularly apropos to discuss on Tisha Be’Av, the fast day that commemorates many tragedies that befell the Jewish people, not least, the destruction of our temples and loss of sovereignty only recently regained.

While Diamond concludes that it’s a society’s inability to adapt itself and its values to new situations, (sometimes, it’s those same values that had strengthened a society in the past that ultimately led to their disappearance) Jewish tradition has its own explanations for collapse. Our Rabbis teach that the destruction of the temple and subsequent exiles were caused by our sins – idolatry, murder, incest and baseless hatred. More
secular commentators meanwhile, emphasize the people’s political mistakes and their inability to accept the limits of Jewish power and embrace compromise.

Whether social anthropologists, secular Israelis or Talmudic Rabbis, the underlying message seems to be that the future of any society (including our modern day Israeli one) is not guaranteed. Instead, it depends on the political choices we make, the type of society we create and perhaps most importantly, on the ability of our leaders to help us adapt to our changing environment and decide which of our values to maintain and which to forego.

I spent the night of Tisha Be’Av by Rabin Square in Tel Aviv at a ceremony entitled ‘Tonight we don’t learn Torah’ which brought Israeli religious and secular MKs, journalists and jurists together to discuss the contemporary meaning of the day. The theme of the evening was leadership and for good reason – most people in the country have given up on finding a leader they respect or admire, a personality not compromised by sexual indiscretion, financial corruption, or political incompetence.

The speakers discussed their own personal Jewish heroes; Moshe for his strong identification with his enslaved brothers,
Yochanan Ben Zakai for his subtle understanding of Israel’s geo strategic position and ability to adapt Judaism to a changing (post Temple) reality, Ben Gurion for his political courage and foresight. The implied message by all speakers was the absence of similar personalities nowadays to steer us through these difficult times.

Tisha Be'av teaches us that our future hangs in the balance. And if indeed bloodshed, sexual indiscretion and hatred is rife in our country, if we lack inspiring respected leaders who can help us adapt to the painful changes we will need to make if we want to live in peace and security here, then our future here really is not guaranteed. As Yossi Sarid writes; “ TheThird Temple is in imminent danger, if we judge by the precedents.”

No Israeli needs to be reminded of the presence of hostile neighbours, nor our fear that our allies might one day abandon us. And deep down, there is a primordial fear that our experiment of reviving a nation in its ancient land will collapse due to internal fissures and external threats.

Yet I also feel that among the prophets of doom, sometimes we need to focus on the perspective of a Jewish leader who wasn’t mentioned that night at the square, a Rabbi who can see a fox walking in the Holy of Holies yet laugh, who can experience disaster but imagine a better future;

Perhaps sometimes we should act like
Rabbi Akiva and try and see past our petty and self interested leadership to the bigger picture, the return of our sovereignty after 2000 years, the good things that occur on a daily basis…the fact that regardless of what may happen to us now, at least our fate is in our own hands.

And imagine a time when Tisha Be’Av will no longer be a time for self-introspection, but a time for joy and celebration instead.


John said...

Very nice post. I also really enjoyed Collapse and found very relevant Chapter 14 where he talks about how societies can avoid predictable surprises by learning how to adapt to their changing environments. I think this post is also very connected to the ideas of Ron Heifetz's Leadership Without Easy Answers, in which he talks about mobilizing adaptive change in a community... I also especially found your optimistic perspective in light of the difficulties Israeli society faces very uplifting! Keep up the great writing!

if you will it... (new location!) said...

Another book for my Amazon wish list!