I once drove through a concentration camp, and I, I did not know it. Two years ago, I was going to a business conference in Tucson, and flew in to Phoenix where I rented a car. Driving Interstate 10 was a Interesting trek in the desert, a terrain so different than the Midwest. Around Exit 170 something, I do remember passing a sign that I was entering the Gila River Indian reservation. I didn’t know what else was there. It wasn’t even visible anymore.
Last winter, I was to plan a big social event for the summer. One date in particular one person I’m close to liked, but I was doubtful. On the Jewish calendar, it came out to the sixth of Av and the evening would be the seventh. I had problems with this date, three days before the Ninth of Av. While I don’t observe much of the traditions and halakah concerning the 9th, it for some reason just seemed very creepy. The Ninth of Av is the day when the both the first and second Temple were destroyed, among many other calamities. As I found out, the first Temple happened over a period of several days:
On the Seventh the heathens entered the Temple and ate therein and desecrated it throughout the seventh and eighth [of Ab] and towards dusk of the ninth they set fire to it and it continued to burn the whole of that day, as it is said, Woe unto us! for the day declines, for the shadows of the evening are stretched out.[Taanit 29a]
I was vaguely aware of this, but I wanted to do a little more research on the days leading up to the destruction of the temple. The party would have come out at the same date as the temple was desecrated. We changed the date to a week later, but I did a little more digging. What I found surprised me. I knew about some of the other events in Jewish history that occurred on or near the Ninth of Av. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and the opening of Treblinka. I didn’t know about the first orders to empty the Polish ghettos and deport everyone to death camps, and the beginning of this process in the Warsaw Ghetto. Yet there was one date I had no idea about. On the 6th of Av , July 20 1942 Gila River War relocation center officially opened. The interment of over 13,000 Japanese Americans from California and Hawaii at the fifth relocation center had begun on essentially stolen sacred Native American land. The name Gila River stuck in my head, and with a little work from National park service documents, and google maps, I found it and was in for a surprise. Today, interstate 10 runs right through the former camp. I drove through the ruins of that internment camp, and I, I did not know.
Then came the next surprise. I wonder if they felt it at Gila River, 300 miles away. Was there a odd warmth in the air, or a sound? Windows had been reported to rattle 200 miles away, but what was true in this valley, I do not know. What it was would thunder in their return to their home in a few months, but at a horrible cost. That morning the America made Zyklon-B used in Auschwitz and Treblinka a into mere plaything in comparison. On the morning of July 16,1945, the 6th of AV 5705, the Manhattan project successfully tested an atomic bomb near Alamogordo New Mexico.
I’ve thought about it a lot since I’ve done that research, how many events happened in that short nine-day stretch. I’m aware I could have picked any stretch of nine days and found a lot of bad things in history. But this period of time intrigues me for several reasons, one of them is why we read this weeks Torah portion without fail within the first nine days of the month of Av. Indeed the double portion of Matot-Masei is there in the calendar to make sure we do. This weeks portion is Moses telling the people almost every failure on their part throughout the entire journey. It is a non-stop rebuke. Moses starts at the episode that made them take so long to get to the land in the first place, the episode of the spies, who gave such an ill report, the entire community was about ready to rebel:
26. However you would not go up, but rebelled against the commandment of the Lord your God;
27. And you murmured in your tents, and said, Because the Lord hated us, he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us.[Deuteronomy 1]
The rabbinic texts make a rather startling statement about this
Rabbah said in the name of R. Johanan: That night was the night of the ninth of Ab. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: You have wept without cause, therefore I will set [this day] aside for a weeping throughout the generations to come.[Sota 35a]
There is date a few weeks earlier, the 17th of Tammuz, where tragedy began, and the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Bablyonians leading to the first destruction. Another date the 1st of Av, is when Aaron died, as we know from Numbers 33:38. This period among many in orthodoxy is a period of ramping up sadness culminating with the 9th of Av. First there is a level of sadness from the 17th on, then there is the 1st through the 9th where more prohibitions that are often associated with mourning are observed. Yet, most outside of that type of observance barely notice it.
The non-stop rebuke of the beginning of Deuteronomy, the telling to the people of every failure on their part for forty years seems to fit so well in this context it cannot be accidental. I’ve often thought the midrash about the establishment of Tisha B’Av of the was a lot like a father telling a kid, “what are you crying about? I’ll give you something to cry about!!!!” It is a bit abusive and cruel. With what I did to get this portion out, I’m not sure that is the intent. A short cursory look into 9 days on the calendar in World War II history was enough to have me in tears every time I sat down to write. Thinking more broadly, it was not just Jews who suffered horrible things. We can all be guilty, either through complicity or actively in despicable acts to others of causing such acts. In the 1940’s what did the American Jewish community think of the war relocation camps holding Japanese-Americans? What did they think of the Atomic bomb? I would wager most American Jews were as racist against Japanese-Americans as the local chapter of the KKK. They never cried. Without crying for the plight of others, there can be no change.
It would be easy to object that in any 9-day period in history one could find horrible events. Yet in thinking about all this, and thinking about speeding through Gila River as though it wasn’t there, I wondered how many times we do that. I’ve come to another conclusion about that crying in the the month of Av. The high holiday season starts on the 1st of Av. Our repentance might culminate in what we do on Yom Kippur, but how we get there starts in Av. If we do not cry, we cannot change, because we have not felt for those harmed, Jewish and non Jewish. the nine day are days of crying, of dealing with the shock of how horrible the world is right now. Until we do that we cannot change either the world or ourselves. We cannot begin the self examinations necessary to get to the point where we can repent.
We need to cry, to weep for all big things we have had a hand doing in this world. We cannot change if we do not feel. While I had heard of Japanese relocation, I did not know Gila River was there on Interstate 10. There was only desert, the owners of the property prohibiting others from visiting as a way to prevent their sacred land being stolen once again. We need to cry to change. When we see the changes we can make in our world, and then in our selves, we can then to make this a better world. Besides the latest all-too-similar reasons for me not visiting Arizona, I could never drive I-10 in Arizona the same way again. I could never ignore the empty stretch of road between the exit to AZ 587 to mile marker 180 again.
How could we change if only we spent a few days crying?