TISHA B'AV 5776

I have spent today studying haggadahs, because that's what I do. We get to do what we want on Shabbat.

And the fascinating thing about illuminated haggadahs, is that scholars are now discovering, for the last 2 decades, unlike the assumptions of earlier scholarship, that the icons/illuminations in the 13th and 14th century Catalonian haggadahs are a subversive rebellion against Catalonian authority and the anti-semitism of the Catholic Church. Reading a page of haggadah text, therefore, you'd have presented before you the story of fleeing Egypt, the standard text; alongside a visual contemporary interpretation that God will save God’s people, while re-enforcing that the iconography of the Church that subjugated the Jewish people was untrue.

The haggadah page therefore functioned historically, creating a consciousness of God's covenantal connection to the Jewish people and God's one time salvation; and simultaneously, through the art, an immediate existential awareness that despite the oppression God's covenant would ultimately save the Jewish people. This ideal of living in the present while reciting the past and remembering God's blessings both sustained our people during difficult times for centuries.

Let us remember that the expulsion from Spain, commemorated in Tisha B'Av, concluded 500 years of creativity in the Golden Age of Spain. Thinkers like Abraham Ibn Ezra and Maimonides, theosophists like Moses De Leon, the composer of The Zohar, non-rational philosophers and commentators like Nahmanides, poets like Judah Ha-Levi and Solomon ibn Gabirol, and literally scores of other artists of all stripes thrived in Spain for centuries. And how do we know? Because we are like our ancestors: we read the script of yesterday while recognizing and recounting the signs of today. We read Lamentations on Tisha B’Av, and recall modern Israel and contemporary anti-Semitism.

But let us not lose sight, simultaneously, that we live within the most creative Jewish communities in centuries. We are privileged to live in the American Jewish community and Israel's community, Diaspora and Israel, creating unique and Jewish expressions that bless the world and our people simultaneously. We dare not succumb to impressions of constant persecution, often the narrative we tell ourselves, because it's not true, and it is counter productive. Like the Spanish community that ended with expulsion, we are creating Jewish culture on an unprecedented scale. Let us thank God, even as we remember the disasters of Jewish history, for the simultaneous creativity of the divine spirit within us, and the joy in living that it has given us for thousands of years.

Am Yisrael Chai.

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© 2016 by Rabbi Mark H. Levin.