By the Rivers of Babylon

This week our latest study tour – for Boston area Christian leaders – returned from Israel. I’ve heard about some of the experiences they had over the course of eight days, including spending last weekend in Jerusalem; sharing Shabbat dinner in a family home and learning later about the brutal murder of the Salomon family at a similar table only miles away. I write this fourteen days after terrorists emerged from the Muslim community’s sacred Noble Sanctuary – the place we treasure as the Temple Mount – to kill two Israeli Druze policemen, and then they fled back to that holy place. I write this unsure of what today, tomorrow, and the next day will bring.

What I do know is that come next Tuesday - the ninth day of the month of Av on the Jewish calendar – thousands of Jews will converge at the Western Wall as many Jews around the world, including myself, observe the solemn fast of Tisha B’Av. We will commemorate the destruction of the Jewish Temple twice over. Many wise words will be shared in the days ahead about the contemporary relevance of this fast. Some will emphasize the significance of remembering the burning of ancient Jerusalem while violence roils in the streets of the modern city; and others will focus on the ways in which Jews continue to turn on each other and the deep divisions that often separate us.

When civic leaders study Israel with us, they inevitably ask questions about the nature of the Jewish connection to this land. They seek to understand our Jewish sense of belonging here, and how that sits alongside a Palestinian narrative of identity and their place in that same land. As I think about those conversations, my thoughts turn to the words of Psalm 137, written in the wake of the destruction of the first Temple, following the conquest of ancient Judea in 587 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar.

“By the rivers of Babylon,” the writer tells us, “there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

The destruction of that first Temple was a formative moment in Jewish history. The Israelite people were being forced to establish a diasporic national identity. Psalm 137 describes the existential grief of a people entering exile. Under the watchful eye of the invader’s army, the Israelites were marched into modern day Iraq. As they reached the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, they asked themselves: “How shall we sing God’s song in a foreign land?”

In that moment, an important aspect of our national identity took form. Wherever we might go we would never abandon our connection to our homeland. They said: “If I forget you, Oh Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth.”

It was in the Babylonian and Persian exiles so long ago that key aspects of Jewish identity took form, including the first recording, in the book of Esther, of a member of an Israelite tribe other than Judah - Mordechai from Benjamin - being called a Jew. When the Persians allowed our ancestors to return to Jerusalem to build a second Temple, not all of them returned – thus beginning 2,500 years of diaspora-homeland relations.

I linger today on the Psalmist’s words. They record a historical moment when national identity and place were articulated as inextricably linked. For two-and-a-half millennia, our ancestors would nurture that identity: we were indigenous to Judea, wandering in the world. Some would always remain living in the homeland throughout those long centuries. But all would keep the vow made by the rivers of Babylon; to never forget where it was that we belonged.

Today our hearts and minds turn again to Jerusalem, many of us with deep sorrow for the events unfolding. For many of us, as well, there is the pain and the knowledge that there is work to do in learning to share that homeland with another people who also have a national narrative in the same place. As we commemorate Tisha B’Av this coming week let our songs and our stories – even those filled with sorrow - strengthen our understanding of our connection to this place, and what it means to the Jewish people to belong there.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy