Tisha B’Av: Transforming Victimhood, Accessing Our Most Powerful Selves

The great challenge is learning how to honor the past while being able to create a future based on fresh vision of the present. This Saturday night and Sunday we will commemorate Tisha B’Av, the destruction of the Holy Temples. The rabbis in Tractate Yoma 9b attribute the destruction of both Holy Temples to the behaviour of the Jews themselves as opposed to external factors. The First Temple’s destruction is attributed to idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed, and the Second Temple’s destruction is attributed to the senseless hatred that prevailed between people even though they were following the Torah and giving charity. There is something inherently powerful in this framing, where the rabbis take responsibility for the fate of the people, instead of blaming others and seeing the rest of the world as inherently hostile to Jewish flourishment.

One of the problems with victimhood is the evasion of responsibility. The rabbis, in attributing the destruction of both temples to our own behaviour, refused to evade their culpability. Maybe they even took on too much responsibility. This attitude reflects a desire to step out of a cycle of predefined roles where one must be a victim, a persecutor, or a hero, and instead enter a sacred agreement to become one’s most powerful self. Doing so also prevents us from reinforcing anyone else’s place in the cycle. One party, assuming their most powerful self, necessarily opens up every dynamic relationship.

What might this most powerful self look like? It does not in any way mean denying structural oppressions or “blaming the victim.” It may mean discarding identities that are no longer serving us; it may mean releasing fears that are no longer rational; and it may mean daring to put our attention on our strengths, instead of falling into the feeling traps of discouragement and hopelessness. In a time of heightened anxiety discourse, chiselling a voice of compassion, listening, and refusing to take sides are all radical acts of power, will allow each of us to unfold the precious pieces that express our most powerful selves.

In his teaching “Love of Humanity and Love of the Nation,” Rav Kook says that the love of the nation, of the Jewish People is actually predicated on the love of all of humanity. It’s a radical invitation to allow our particularistic love to pass through the purifying fire of our universal love. This is an important contrast against the model that assumes that Jews have to hunker down and protect ourselves from the threat of others. Such love can translate into many ways of trying to see others with compassion and empathy, instead of with suspicion and judgment. According to Rav Kook, there is no love of the Jewish people without universal love.

It does not sit well to preach to someone else about letting go of their victimhood. One can’t force anyone to actualise their most powerful position in any given situation. It is something that needs to come from within. The prophet Job had to find a new way of understanding the divine in order to refocus himself from the epicenter of victimhood, to beholding his smallness within the mystery of the universe.

May we take strength and inspiration from those who found new ways when there was seemingly nowhere to go and all paths were blocked. May the strength and power of our deepest humanity flow like a river around the obstacles we find in our way towards the redemption of which the darkness of Tisha B’Av also reminds us.

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