The punchline from the Tom Lehrer song “National Brotherhood Week” gets a roaring laugh in the recording on “That Was the Year That Was.” When the song was sung on the way to debate and forensic competitions during my high school years, that’s the line that was sung with the most gusto. I pause to point out that, like Tom Lehrer, most of the people on the bus with me were Jews.
There is some peculiar delight we seem to take in being hated. We do not seem to have the capacity to enjoy our accomplishments, our achievements and our relative security. We hold onto others’ hatred with a passion. For far too many of us, outrage has replaced joy as the primary Jewish emotion.
Maybe I am focused on this topic because of the just-concluded observance of Tisha B’Av, the national day of mourning on our calendar. If we officially believed in luck, this ninth day of the summer month of Av would be our bad luck day. Both Temples were destroyed on this date, hundreds of years apart, and historical record and legend put a variety of catastrophes on this date over the centuries as well. Tradition makes this a fast day and summer always seems to conspire to add to the misery with heat and humidity.
For a very long time, I have advocated for the diminishment of Tisha B’Av. I do not observe it. By our own standards, we have come as far as we can to create the circumstances for God to reconstruct the Temple with the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty over the Holy Land. And all but the most piously crazy among our people understand that the first stone laid by human hands for the third Temple will be the first rock thrown for the third world war. I have to wonder how many Jews really, really want a return to animal sacrifice and patriarchal nepotism at the expense of prayer. At least that’s how I see it.
But Tisha B’Av comes every year. I am provoked on this subject because of the Olympics, which are occurring simultaneously with our season of dismay. Jewish athletes are doing very well in a variety of sports. Members of the Israeli team, whose outfits were among the snappiest in the parade of nations, have landed two bronze medals as of this writing, both in judo. There was even an acknowledgment of the murders of 11 Israeli athletes during the ’72 Olympics in Munich under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee.
But what was the headline of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency story that landed in my inbox this weekend? “3 Ways Israel Has Been Snubbed in Rio.” To almost universal disapproval, athletes from three Arab states have refused to engage in various ways with Israeli Olympians. In fact, the story of judoka Or Sasson defeating his Egyptian opponent was eclipsed by the sore loser’s refusal to bow or shake hands after the match. My email, Facebook feed and Twitter feed have been filled with angry posts, reposts and re-reposts that boil down to the single expletive: “Y’see!?!?!” These are the folks who put the “huff” in Huffington Post.
There is a reason that we Jews have been blessed with a specific name for hating us. You can practice racism against any race, sexism against either sex, xenophobia against any xeno. But when you are anti-semitic, you hate Jews. (Not “Semites,” by the way. The term was invented in the late 19th century as a polite way to say “anti-Jewish.”) There is a lot of Jew hatred going around.
But it should not define us. It should not delight us so much to find new examples that it obscures the genuine privilege it is to be a Jew in today’s world – free people in our own land, elected to high office, eligible to learn at any institution of higher learning, welcomed into every profession, admired above any minority group. The best indicator that things are good for us, especially in the United States, is that exponentially more non-Jews want their children to marry ours than wish us harm – including the next President of the United States.
This problem is perpetual for us, but there has always been a counterbalance. Look, for example, to chapter 4 of Deuteronomy. Moses does not spare his reproofs of the people, but every negative ends with “count your blessings.” Rather than dwelling on the dark nature of a rebellious people (and there’s plenty of evidence), Moses reinforces time and again the value of faith, covenant and (dare I use this word) optimism. Not once does he proclaim, “And the Lord our God defeated the Egyptians, leading us out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm – but Pharaoh refused to shake my hand.”
Come back to joy, my friends. Return to delight. Luxuriate in gladness. Lift up the pride in our accomplishments. And not, by the way, just to show how much better we are than other people. We are not that much better, we have just used our finely-tuned ability to be outraged into heat-seeking attention to the failings of other people, especially when they fail in our direction.
If you show up in synagogue this week, listen to the words of Isaiah: Comfort, comfort. And if you don’t show up in shul, listen to the words of Bob Marley: Every little thing is gonna be all right. Try to be a light for the nations of the world. They don’t need us to point out the darkness that surrounds them.