To Greet or Not to Greet

Filed under the “There are No Coincidences” category: in my summer review of Mishna Berachot, I read the last chapter today, Tisha b’Av 5780.

Tisha b’Av is a day dedicated to grief and lament, in commemoration of many calamities in Jewish history held to have occurred on this date in years past. The primary events it commemorates, our original grief, is the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Throughout our history, other events have been tied to the 9th of Av as well: the beginning of the First Crusade; the expulsions of Jews from France, Spain and England; the AMIA bombing in Argentina; the approval of Hitler’s Final Solution. All these events in some way reverberate with the shattering of Jewish structures and communities.

Although study is discouraged on Tisha b’Av, I told myself I could learn this chapter today, because its content — particularly its conclusion — is redolent of the sense of total, devastating annihilation that we sink into on Tisha b’Av. That conclusion quotes Psalm 119, verse 126:

עֵ֭ת לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת לַיהוָ֑ה הֵ֝פֵ֗רוּ תּוֹרָתֶֽךָ׃

“It is time to do for Gd; they have destroyed your Torah.” To which Rabbi Natan responds: “They have destroyed your Torah; it is time to do for Gd.”

One of the traditions of Tisha b’Av — in addition to mourning and fasting — is not to greet one another. I have written elsewhere about how futile this is, how much we long to connect when given the opportunity. Never could I have imagined how deep that longing for connection could become, deep enough to ravage the soul.

When I was studying Berachot this morning, a connection between the last mishna and Tisha b’Av came into focus for me. Midway through that last mishna we read decrees about greeting one another, and four examples are brought to demonstrate:

וְהִנֵּה־בֹ֗עַז בָּ֚א מִבֵּ֣ית לֶ֔חֶם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר לַקּוֹצְרִ֖ים יְהוָ֣ה עִמָּכֶ֑ם וַיֹּ֥אמְרוּ ל֖וֹ יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָֽה׃

“And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem and greeted the gleaners this way: May Gd be with you. And they said to him: May Gd bless you.” (Ruth 2:4)

יְהוָ֥ה עִמְּךָ֖ גִּבּ֥וֹר הֶחָֽיִל

“May Gd be with you, valiant hero.” (Judges 6:12)

וְאַל־תָּ֝ב֗וּז כִּֽי־זָקְנָ֥ה אִמֶּֽךָ

“And do not despise your aging mother.”

The first two examples demonstrate greetings of blessing and respect, greetings with Gd at the center. They say, it seems to me, that when you encounter another person, keep Gd with you as you do, and regard them as if they, too, were with Gd. Whether encountering someone working the fields or someone striving for heroism — a tender or a seeker, the decree is to see the image of Gd in them. In this way do blessings come.

The third example tells us to learn from previous generations, to be careful not to forsake their wisdom. This is not to say that everything about previous generations was drenched in virtue, but rather that those who made our very beings possible should not too easily be discarded. We have a culture to uphold and build upon, it was given to us as a gift; showing contempt to those who created it is tantamount to parricide.

And the fourth example?

“It is time to do for Gd; they have destroyed your Torah.”

When we cannot even greet one another with civility, when we “cancel” others rather than try to address their errors — even egregious ones — in kindness and common purpose, I worry that we create for ourselves a trap we cannot escape. Even as we navigate a world that is being pulled and pressed by forces darker than many of us can remember witnessing in our lifetimes, there is a common humanity among us, and that will ultimately be what saves us. How can I be so sure? Because that common humanity is created in Gd’s complicated image.

Tradition teaches us that the Second Temple was destroyed on account of סנאת חנם, baseless hatred. Not greeting on Tisha b’Av makes agonizingly physical one aspect of the destruction: the annihilation of courtesy, relationship, connection; the inability or unwillingness to meet one another on common ground, under the umbrella of Gd.

After the fast ends tonight, let us redouble our attention on keeping Gd with us as we cross paths with others. It is time to do for Gd.

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