Each year I choose a central theme for my High Holy Day / Days of Awe messages.
The theme is woven into my sermons, remarks, Cantor Abbe's choice of songs, and even what I call our "holiday swag," of things you get to take home to remind you of the message.
Past themes have included:
This year, my holiday theme is "Lamed Vavniks: The Hidden Power of Righteouness." In case you haven't heard the term, don't worry; it's simple. Lamed and Vav are the two Hebrew letters whose numerical value is 36. There is an ancient legend of 36 hidden tzaddikim (saintly, righteous people) whose merits uphold the world. Sounds quaint and naive, but I think that this venerable tradition has a deep contemporary meaning for our globally interconnected world, a world where we too often assume that our small, private deeds have no impact. Over the next ten days, I plan to speak and teach and discuss with you how this tradition might inspire us to feel more empowered and humble at the same time.
Have you met some someone whose character and deeds were so exemplary that just being around them raised you to a higher level, made you want to do a little better? Hopefully we all know at least one or two people who seem to be living their entire lives on a different plane. Hopefully we can think, too, of someone whose words or actions, however small, made a great difference to our lives. These are our lamed-vavniks.
Our tradition is full of legends about "lamed-vavniks," the humble, hidden saints who secretly sustain the entire world. We first hear of it explicitly in the Talmud [Bavli Sanhedrin 97b and Sukkah 45b], where the sage Abbaye is quoted as saying, “The world must contain not less than 36 righteous individuals in each generation who greet the Shekhinah’s presence each day,” (the Shekhinah meaning God’s presence in the world). His proof text is from the biblical book of Isaiah 30:18, Ashrei kol hokei lo, “Happy are all those that wait for Him.” (The word “for Him” in Hebrew, Lo, spelled lamed-vav, equals 36 in gematria.) The number thirty six itself is symbolic, meaning twice the value of “Chai” or life (18 in Hebrew numerology).
How do the Lamed Vavniks keep the world going? Some say by the practice of compassion. As Dr. Naomi Remen's relates in her popular book, My Grandfather's Blessing, her grandfather told her as a child: “Anyone you meet might be one of the thirty-six for whom God preserves the world…It is important to treat everyone as if this might be so… [The Lamed-Vavniks] respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world.”
Traditionally, the lamed vavniks were seen as so humble that they didn't even know who they were! It used to be the pinnacle of chutzpah to consider oneself a lamed vavnik. But with the state of the world today, I think that we have to take another approach. We should look to the models of those we know who live those extra-righteous lives, and try to take one step in their direction, knowing that we will never know the ultimate repercussions of a single deed. In order to heal our planet, we need to do more than advance our technology. We need to develop our character, our compassion, our hearts and souls. We need to reach for “double high,” to live our lives at a higher level.
I look forward to learning, praying, and discussing with you over these holidays, and finding our "inner lamed vavnik!"
Wishing you L'shanah Tovah--may we all be blessed for a good and sweet year, inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.
Tonight begins Shabbat Hazon, the Sabbath of Vision: the vision of Isaiah, a prediction of the destruction of Judaea and the temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians as a consequence of the evils of society. Saturday night (8/10) through Sunday evening is the full day fast of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, marking the destruction of the ancient Holy Temple along with other catastrophes of Jewish history, such as the exile from Spain in 1492.
Tisha B'Av itself is a day replete with mourning: not only fasting but chanting the book of lamentations and other kinot (dirges), sitting on the floor like mourners, refraining from greetings. These concrete rituals create a sort of psychodrama or affective education in Jewish history. They evoke our difficult national memories of sieges, exiles and deportations. This summer observance has little appeal to non-Orthodox Jews and I have seldom been able to convene a service or program with more than a couple of people.
But the meaning of this day is more relevant than ever, and let me explain why.
This Shabbat is a Shabbat of preparation, and vision. It is striking to me that the book of Isaiah provides the most beautiful and uplifting visions of world peace and harmony in all of the Bible. And yet the Shabbat that we call the “Shabbat of Vision” has a negative vision of destruction: “Your land is waste, your cities burned down.” And the cause is clearly spelled out, an unjust and unfaithful society: “Ah, sinful nation! People laden with iniquity! Brood of evildoers! Depraved children! (You get the point).
G-d is apparently tired of empty “thoughts and prayers” and desiring of right action: “Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained…wash yourselves clean…cease to do evil; learn to do good! Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow... [then] be your sins like crimson, they can turn pure as snow.”
Some modern day prophets had a way of motivating with a positive vision, like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “I have a dream speech” of an equal and just society in America. Many more who predict our global and national future paint dire pictures of where we are headed, be that an unraveling of democracy or a growing environmental disaster.
I have always been opposed to scaring people into doing the right thing. Our Sages preferred to emphasize the positive. Indeed after Tisha B’Av, we will turn to seven weeks of beautiful and uplifting prophetic visions in our haftaroth leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
But once a year, we have to confront the darkest visions, the most destructive destinations of our current trajectory. We are indeed headed toward environmental meltdown at a growing pace, and yet our government is removing environmental regulations and withdrawing from international treaties. We turn on the news to fatal mass shootings on a regular basis. Children cry because they are separated from their parents due to immigration violations or for seeking asylum at our borders. Our national conversation has turned to anger and mocking, and we fail to find common ground to address some of our biggest problems. Like the Judeans at the time of the Roman destruction, as Americans (and also as Jews on many matters) we are bitterly divided among ourselves.
Contemporary Jewish thinkers like Rabbi Arthur Waskow have universalized the meaning of Tishva B’Av, by tying it to the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which also occurred at these seasons, or by singing a modern lament for the destruction of species and natural habitats on the planet.
Like all our rabbis of old, I encourage us enter that heart of darkness. . .but then to turn around, as we embark on our annual season of teshuvah, sacred return. We have looked unblinkingly at the worst of history and envisioned a future of destruction. But we cannot despair and stop there. We must pull back from that brink, turning toward a positive vision and making the necessary changes to realize it. My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi often said that the 20th century offered us two competing visions: the mushroom cloud (today I would say the melting polar icecaps and burning cities of climate change) on the one hand, and on the other the shining universal vision of our blue earth as seen from outer space.
To choose life is to confront the reality of the first, and then consciously pivot to the second.
As a rabbi, I believe in motivating with positive visions, with love of our fellow beings and love of our natural world. I think those are the only long-term ways to make deep and enduring change. But to do so while ignoring the dreadful potential of our current trajectory would be fantasy, not faith. My personal definition of emunah, faith, is “affirmation in the face of uncertainty.” I am not certain, but I affirm.
So whether or not you fast on Tisha B’Av, I encourage you to open to the vision today, and to lament that vision tomorrow. And then get up from the floor, dust ourselves off, and get back to the work of Tikkun Olam.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day:
What I'm lamenting this Tisha B'Av is the gun violence in our country. I just got back from my summer break, sadly sitting down to post about Tisha B'Av (Saturday night-Sunday's fast for the destruction of the ancient Temples and a variety of other sad events). On this full fast day we read from the book of Lamentations in the Bible. The scroll's resonance with current events is pronounced: violence, mistreatment of refugees, hatred and division in society.
Looking at my blog, I was shocked to notice that my last post this spring was about synagogue shootings and the insecurity that we are feeling as Jews with the rise of antisemitism. This week brought two more terrible mass shootings just a day apart in El Paso and Dayton, one directed against Mexican Americans by a white supremacist, and another at random strangers (and his own sister) by a hateful misogynist with a history of violent threats. But the one thing they had in common was the easy means to carry out their evil plans: "The gunman, who was wearing body armor and a mask, opened fire with an assault-style rifle fitted with a high-capacity ammunition drum that could hold 100 rounds, police said," enabling him to kill 9 people in 30 seconds (NY Times, on the Dayton killer).
People used to ask whether it was safe to visit Israel due to terrorism. Now mothers are dying protecting their babies in American cities. We are suffering from a plague of domestic terror in the form of mass shootings that have set the country on edge. It doesn't matter if those mass shootings are (as one misguided scientist tweeted), not the most statistically likely way to die. It matters that they have created completely unnecessary tragedies for scores of citizens, and left everyone else feeling vulnerable for themselves and their loved ones in public gathering spaces, schools, and houses of worship.
As a rabbi I know that all problems are complex. I know that we also have to confront the deadly ideologies and address the mental health issues and the websites that glorify violence. But we can't ignore that our great nation is exceptional in our tolerance of gun violence. We have 5% of the world population, and arguably about 42% of the world's guns. As a result, we suffer from far greater deadly gun violence than other wealthy and developed nations.
Every time I voice my concern about the proliferation of weapons in our country, I get emails from people who chide me about the right to bear arms. So let me address that up front. Leaving aside what our founders meant when they spoke of a "well-regulated militia" back in the age of muskets, I know that guns have long been part of American culture, particularly in the West. We kept guns at our Texas ranch growing up and I learned to fire one. My youngest sister even won a shooting prize at summer camp. I know that they are part of a way of life, and a necessity for many in rural areas. I know there are arguments pro and con about the scope of gun control, and I'm not trying to take away yours. But who could dream of a day when citizens would be allowed to own military-style weapons with high-capacity magazines that allow them to slaughter their fellow citizens within seconds, whether from racism or antisemitism or simply from being deranged and hateful? When children and teenagers would be murdered in schools and our elected leaders offer nothing much more than sympathy?
As a rabbi, I do believe in "thoughts and prayers," as long as they actually make you think and get motivated to make the world better.
The tide should have turned on this issue long ago. Judaism is a religion of idealism and also of persistent, cumulative action to help repair the world. We have to keep going with organizations and protests and citizen actions. But we are also allowed times to grieve and to almost indulge in despair ... before we pick up and start working again on the never-ending quest of Tikkun Olam, repairing our world. That's what Tisha B'Av was meant to do. To wallow in the sadness once a year, and then pull up our bootstraps (or tefillin straps!) and keep going. We have seen worse in our long history, and we know that change and progress can happen.
This Tisha B'Av, I lament the destruction of two temples in Jerusalem ... and I lament two precious human temples in the form of young parents Jordan and Andre Anchondo of El Paso, who died shielding their baby and one another, leaving behind two other children. I lament the exile of the Jewish people from our land by the Romans ... and I lament the children and teens, the Jews and Christians and Muslims, the people of all races who have been targeted and killed in mass shootings. I lament our powerlessness over the centuries ... and I lament our current lack of courageous leadership and communal resolve to address the issues of gun violence and hatred in our society.
For now, I mourn. I lament.
And then, as a Jew, I will get back to work.
"It is not up to you to finish the work. But neither are you free to desist from it."
The featured image on this post shows a wooded area in Lasdon Park, a Westchester County Park near Katonah. The forest here was severely damaged a few years ago by Hurricane Sandy, but it is being repaired through a combination of human care and nature's force of life. Likewise, our social ecosystem has been damaged by violence and hatred, and it needs intensive tending and healing.
The pain of the second deadly antisemitic attack on American soil in six months weighs heavily on my heart. So too does all hatred or violence against those considered different: in recent days in our own country that included a Sikh family murdered in their homes, African American churches set on fire, and a man ramming a car into people because they "looked Muslim," sending a young girl to intensive care.
As Jews, our historic trauma of the Holocaust makes many of us see in recent attacks the signs of another era of antisemitism. And indeed, antisemitic actions have increased domestically and around the world. But the difference today is that the antisemitism is not coming from our own government, as during the Shoah, and also that it is not shared by most of American society. In fact, various studies have shown that Jews are the most liked and admired religious group in the country. We have so many allies, and much common cause with other groups, because (as I heard in a talk by Civil Rights activist Eric Ward) the white nationalist/supremacist hatred now directed so openly at Jews is the same one that threatens African Americans, immigrants, and other minorities. We should turn toward one another and support one another in our common goals of tolerance and diversity.
Our American gun culture is part of the danger. The inaction of leaders to curb weapons of war in our midst has led to a situation where mass shootings, whatever the motives, have become a terrible commonplace of American society. Americans are less than five percent of the world population but own over 40% percent of the civilian owned weapons. Although I grew up with a ranch in Texas where we kept guns, and understood that some neighbors hunted to put food on the table, I never expected a day where people would be allowed and even encouraged to keep military assault weapons in their homes. The terrorizing effect of these shootings has created an age of anxiety for schoolchildren, teens and adults. It has turned our houses of worship (especially for Jews, Muslims, and other minorities) into fortresses rather than open tents. Although solutions elude us, we can't give up.
But while common sense gun laws are important, they are only a start to repairing our social ecosystem. Every one of us has a part in healing the fabric of our society with kindness, love, and the building of community. While tens of people are killed in mass shootings each year (though each one of them an entire world!), about 20,000 use their guns to take their own lives. Depression, anxiety, and suicide have risen dramatically among young people in the last decade, and this shows a very damaged social system.
As a rabbi, I don't pretend to know all the reasons for this trend, but I believe that secularization and the weakening of community commitments contribute to the current fraying social ecosystem that isolates our young people. This applies to any religious group, although I can only speak for the Jewish community. A warm, values-based synagogue community for adults and families, and an active youth group to support our teens...these are not just extra-curricular activities to fit into our busy schedules; they are the very fabric of life and social support.
But today, many people look at the synagogue as a provider of service, seeing it with a consumer mentality rather than as a spiritual home. I believe that the ethos of Pleasantville Community Synagogue is to be a real community. And yet we are struggling against a tide of secularization and of busy lives that leave little time to come together in prayer and celebration. It is truly a sacred task to rebuild and reweave the strong fabric of our community together.
As we mark Yom Hashoah, Holocaust remembrance day, many of us feel shaken by antisemitism. But while recent events evoke our collective trauma, they should really awaken our collective resolve. To paraphrase the great sage Hillel:
If we are not for ourselves as Jews, who will stand up for us? If we are only for ourselves, then what do we stand for? And if not now, when?
May we find comfort as we work together to heal the the ecosystem of our society.
One week before Passover, in the midst of busy holiday preparations, I was surprised to find myself at a morning workshop for local rabbis that was held at Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco . . .and feeling that every moment was worth it. The seminar was on ways to dialogue about Israel within our Jewish communities. It was convened by Israeli Shaliach Nadav Shachmon and led by Leah Reiser from Resetting the Table, an organization that helps people dialogue across political and ideological divides. In the case of the Jewish community, those divides often center around the politics and policies of Israel, ironically the one topic that used to hold us all together.
Even though I have been involved in many kind of dialogue and interfaith work for decades (and even co-founded two interfaith dialogue groups myself), I learned a lot from the workshop. Moreover, I was refreshed and strengthened in my conviction that this type of work is crucial to our Jewish, American and even world future. We are living in a time when we are divided by ideological and political camps that are tearing the fabric of our country and also causing painful rifts in the Jewish community.
We began the gathering by sketching three formative experiences in our own lives that related to Israel (no artistic talent required). Then we had a chance to share one or more of those experiences in small groups. The other members of the group listened without judgement or feedback. Afterwards we offered responses, but only responses that were designed to evoke even more understanding from the teller of how that experience influenced their life. My dialogue mentors, Len and Libby Traubman, always emphasized that we start with stories, not with arguments.
The next part of the morning identified differences. We were offered various propositions about how events and discourses related to Israel influence us, and asked to position ourselves in the room based on "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." At this point differences among us were identified, but rather than argue about them and defend our positions, we got to listen to each other speak about why some issues effect us strongly. We practiced active listening and reflecting skills that led to a more open-hearted and nuanced understanding rather than shutting us down and creating more division. We learned why people felt the way that they do and that things are often more complicated than they seem at the surface.
The program on "Resetting the Table" was timely for Passover, because it made me think about who is welcome at our Seder tables and beyond, and what kind of conversations we have, not only about Israel, but about all kinds of important issues. The Seder itself contains the famous passage about the "Four Children," one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who doesn't know how to ask. But the kicker is that there are no such children in the Torah. Rather there are four examples of telling the Passover story, and from that our Sages wrote a a Midrash, an interpretive story, attributing these four tellings to four children and their personalities and learning styles. Although one version of this story got into the Haggadah (the Passover Seder guidebook), there were other versions in Rabbinic texts, and there are countless interpretations to the present day.
And so it is today: when someone disagrees with us or has a tone of voice we dislike, we may impute to them being a "wicked child." When they agree with us, they are the "wise child." While I believe in the value of seeking what is right, as a Jew I also strongly believe in nuance and complication. As my teacher Rabbi Daniel Siegel says, the Talmud has arguments on every page, but the purpose isn't to win the argument. It is to refine the argument, to gain greater understanding and to try to harmonize better with the divine will. They weren't like the "Simple Child" who wants everything to be black and white. They liked to complicate matters and then find commonalities among disputants. The Talmud (Bavli Eruvin 13b) valorizes listening and respect for others opinions over winning the argument. The house of Hillel is favored because they respected their opponents.
I was raised in Reform Judaism, that values the Prophetic strand of Judaism: standing up for what is right, social justice. I still value those as supreme Jewish values and I value the way of the Sages, who listened and debated, who questioned and harmonized disagreements, always trying to find the common denominator. At our Seder, we tell the story of an event of human liberation and justice . . .and we tell it from the advantage point of the Sages, making Midrash, interpreting and questioning.
If we lean too much to the prophetic side, we can become self-righteous in our quest for right. I see that all about me today. But if we lean to much to the sage side, we risk relativizing all arguments or shying away from taking a stand on important issues. We need both of these approaches, but today I think (as I've read from the great modern Israeli Talmudist Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz), that we would do well to learn from the Sages that things are often very complicated.
To grow our listening skills will make our table more expansive and open. May your Seder and your Passover be full of meaning, inspiring action for justice and also promoting dialogue for understanding.
Have a happy and meaningful Passover!
We are finishing our reading of the book of Exodus on Shabbat mornings at PCS. After the drama of the ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and receiving the Torah at Sinai, Exodus turns to what seems a much more mundane subject: building the first Jewish temple, a portable sanctuary known as the Mishkan. Mishkan is from the word, "Shakhan," meaning "dwelling," and it was seen as a place for God's presence to "dwell" amidst the Israelite community through their wanderings in the desert. related to word, "Shekhinah" (also spelled "Shechinah").
The Mishkan was decorated with precious materials, a golden menorah with botanical motifs, and the mysterious Keruvim ("cherubim") mythical winged creatures depicted in golden statues above the Holy Ark and woven into tapestries. A glowing copper wash basin was made of refashioned mirrors, mirrors said by the Midrash to be the very ones that Israelite women had used to beautify themselves and woo their exhausted husbands when they were still slaves in Egypt, thus maintaining the future of the people. When the Mishkan was completed and set up, God's presence filled it in the form of a cloud.
This year, as we read these portions about the Mishkan, I was having a little trouble getting enthusiastic about the Torah's focus on building dimensions, precious materials, and altars. When a Bat Mitzvah student asked me, "Why did it have to be so rich and elaborate?" I really had to pause and think what this meant. I tried to explain it as a labor of love, an act of community and artistry. But I questioned along with her whether building a fancy temple was the best way to feel closer to God today.
A few days later I was walking at Rockefeller State Park Preserve. As always, I was captivated by the site of deer grazing in the meadows and woods. I snapped photos of winged creatures like green-headed Mallard Ducks, diving black and white Buffleheads, and long-necked Canadian Geese that populate the lake. Even in winter I get to admire the striking red Northern Cardinals, dramatic Blue Jays, tiny gray Titmice, and other birds that continue to sing from the trees.
As I came to the lake in late afternoon, I turned and saw the entire lake bright and luminous with the golden light of the setting sun. A myriad of fluffy clouds were tinged with gold and reflected in the lake. The lake was half frozen, creating a dramatic design on its its mirror-like surface. I was transfixed by the beauty and transported out of my small self. Suddenly the boundaries of seer, seeing, and seen were effaced and I felt a sense of unity with the Whole.
It was then that I experienced my personal meaning of Sanctuary, Mishkan. My Mishkan can be found in any outdoor place in which I love, connect deeply, and feel the presence of Shekhinah, the divine revealed in nature. Lakeside at Swan Lake at Rockefeller State Park, I had all the elements of the Mishkan in a natural form: the shining reflective water, menorah-branched trees, heavenly light, glorious clouds, and even winged creatures--all lifting up my heart and soul and creating a sense of union with the whole, with creation and Creator.
Indeed, many traditional Midrashim and rabbinic commentaries found in the Torah passages about the Mishkan a parallel to the story of Creation, and in its furnishings, symbols of the natural world. Perhaps they were hinting that our world itself is the place to seek the divine, the ultimate holy temple.
I believe that this kind of spiritual and emotional connection to nature is imperative to our future on planet earth. For a long time, many of us have been cut off from nature or view it as a set of resources to exploit. A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times stated that only fear will motivate humans to address climate change. That may be true, but our future survival and thriving on the planet is about much more than climate management. I believe that only real love of nature and connecting deeply with nature will get us to care enough to protect our planetary Garden of Eden in all the ways that we need.
In my last year's LEAP Fellowship with CLAL (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), a group of rabbis learned from faculty in the Environmental Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, that people are much more likely to love and care for nature when we develop a love and connection to a particular landscape and place. And all the more so, I think, when we feel the sanctity, the holiness of a place. Then we want to make it a sanctuary, to protect it from rampant development, to guard and care for all the myriad species that call it home.
That's one of the reasons that I am adding contemplative nature walks and hikes to the programs that I offer my congregants. And of course, I have created a personal website, Wellsprings of Wisdom, that focuses on spirituality in nature.
Nature preserves like Rockefeller State Park Preserve show this in action. The generosity of a philanthropic family, the important role of government in creating a New York State Park system, and the dedication of volunteers such as Friends of Rockefeller State Park Preserve, all show that conservation is multifaceted and many sectors of society are needed to preserve our environment. As a photographer, I hope that my images of the Park will help to inspire people with a love for its beauty. As a "Rabbi Without Borders," I hope to connect people to the holiness in our natural sanctuaries, to the realization that Nature, the ultimate Mishkan, preserves us all and it us up to us to preserve her.
I was recently interviewed by Jack Sweeney for a new Podcast, the Pleasantville Commuter. Listen with the recording below, or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher. You can also use this link for my episode.
During our recent trip to Israel, we visited Caesarea, a modern city built amid the ruins of an ancient town from Roman times. We strolled on the beach by the aqueduct that once ran for miles from Mount Carmel, admired the ancient bird mosaics, and marveled at the amphitheater.
We watched a movie about the history of Caesarea, with its many layers of civilization. It was destroyed by earthquakes and wars, only to come back again and again. After we saw the movie, my son remarked that the Crusader period usually seems like a short and unimportant part of the land's history, and yet it lasted two centuries, almost as long as the United States.
Being in Israel gives me a deep sense of history. Walking the streets of Jerusalem, I don't just feel connected to our Jewish history; I feel accountable to that history, much as walking near Independence Hall and the historic district of Philadelphia makes me feel responsible toward American history and the sacrifices made to establish and defend our democracy. While Caesarea reminded me of our human transience, Jerusalem represents our human endurance, putting me in touch with generations past and generations to come. I feel that my words today are part of a conversation that began four millennia ago and is recorded in the Bible, the Talmud, the musings of philosophers and the poetry of pioneers.
Archaeological sites pop up everywhere; I even saw one in a traffic circle in my husband's hometown of Ashdod. When we lived in Israel, a mosiac from an ancient synagogue was discovered outside our apartment and became an instant tourist attraction. And once I recall being in Jerusalem and looking at an excavation cut into the stone that showed the strata of centuries below our feet. Shortly thereafter, I was praying at the Western Wall when a book of the Psalms next to me blew open in the wind to reveal the words of Psalm 90:4, "For in your sight a thousand years are like yesterday that has passed, like a watch in the night."
I lived in Israel from 1978-82 and two of our kids were born there. Since then I've been back half a dozen times. But due to my husband's stroke several years ago, we haven't attempted a trip back since 2009. So it was very exciting to be able to visit for two weeks there this December and spend time with old friends, and Avraham's large family there (he's one of 11 siblings; 9 of whom live in Israel). We were accompanied by two of our grown kids; our eldest daughter came for one week, and our son for two. (In fact, I credit our son for arranging the trip.)
Being away for nearly a decade from a place you have lived makes you see it again with new eyes. In this and upcoming posts, I hope to share a few moments that stood out for me.
One moment was on our first Shabbat. There's nothing like Shabbat in Israel: it IS the day of rest or recreation for just about everyone. Many people now have Friday off, so the Israeli weekend is Thursday evening through Saturday night. The stores are busy with people shopping for Shabbat. Delicious scents of cooking pervade the neighborhood. Stores close by mid-afternoon on Friday and there is a palpable sense of Shabbat on the way, whether you live in a "religious" (Orthodox) neighborhood or not.
On Shabbat afternoon we had lunch at one of Avraham's brother's homes. Israel is a small country, so it's delightfully common for grown kids and grandkids to come home for Shabbat. (In fact, Israelis are fabulously social and gregarious in general, so much so that I wonder how introverts manage). In the gentle December sun, we were seated out in the garden with flowers blooming and palm trees shading overhead. The food was delicious, the conversation flowed, and the atmosphere was pleasantly Mediterranean. I felt a real sense of Shabbat Shalom, Sabbath peace.
Then the conversation turned to one of Avraham's niece's sons, who at just 16-1/2 is about to take his first round of tests before mandatory military service. His mother confided that she is really worried. For her and her sisters, going in the army (they lived on a kibbutz) was kind of fun, she said. But for the men she knows, it's too often been a source of trauma. Her coworkers, her own husband, and her father (as he later told me) have seen and experienced things during military service that left them with PTSD or experiences too painful to discuss. She hopes that won't happen to her two sons, but she's afraid that it will. She thinks it might be good if her son gets an office job in the military, but knows that he will probably aspire to be in a combat unit because of the prestige it holds among his peers.
I felt for our niece, raising her sons to be sensitive and caring, and then, at the age that we send our kids to college, sending them to the military (2 years, 8 months for men and 2 years, 3 months for women). In the USA, military service is voluntary, but in Israel it's required (although not fulfilled by all, including most of the ultra-Orthodox, which is a sore point). Her father and husband both served in combat units, and maybe her sons will, too. They are part of a decades long conflict with no end in sight.
This wasn't the moment to analyze the politics of the conflict; it was a moment of recognition. A recognition that this is all part of the Israeli reality: a beautiful and dynamic country, sunshine and Shabbat, family and friends, and yet along with it the constant underlying reality of national conflict and military service for one's children. When we work for or pray for peace upon Israel, it shouldn't just be an abstraction, but a real and urgent yearning for Shalom.
Last week we had a great book discussion at PCS about the book Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, by Yossi Klein Halevi. It is not only a thoughtful exposition of the Jewish narrative, but also a sincere invitation to Palestinians to engage in dialogue and find a way to a shared future living side by side in two states. Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Together with Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University, he co-directs the Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative.
Yossi published his book for free online in Arabic, in order to foster real dialogue. So in preparation for our program, I shared the online book with Imam Nadir Farris, my dialogue partner and cofounder of the Palestinian-Jewish Dialogue of San Antonio which was active in the early 2000's. He is also an engineer and businessman. (You can read about our activities here. ) Nadir wrote me a beautiful letter in return which I shared with everyone at our discussion. He gave me permission to post it here, and I hope that his words will give you hope as they do me. He also asked me to put him in touch with Yossi Klein Halevi, which I will do.
As we approach Thanksgiving, I am grateful for all the good people in our world like Yossi Klein Halevi and Imam Nadir Faris, who work for peace and coexistence on our precious planet Earth. (And be sure to join us for our next Israel program, Nov. 28, 7:30pm, with Adam Finn, about his work for an Israeli Human Rights group.)
Here is Nadir's letter:
Salam / Shalom Dear Friend,
First of all, let me express my condolences to the Jewish community at large for the recent massacre in Philadelphia. My prayers and thoughts are with the families and friends of innocent victims. This senseless incident is a testimony that some people continue to have hate towards others instilled deep in the upbringing just for the fact they are different. I continue to have faith that love and peace will eventually prevail.
I read a few pages from the book you texted me about. My apology that though the subject is interesting, but I have not had enough free time to read the rest. Soon I will though. From the pages I read, I can tell you it was great to know that there are Israeli citizens who think that way, especially in the midst of all hate and extreme wings in charge that continue to agitate hate among the two nations. While reading it, I felt the writer was talking to me. It took me back years while I lived in Palestine and seeing the Israeli soldiers often with all the emotions charged on both sides. Reading the book made me want to travel to Jerusalem to meet the writer and say him I'm a Palestinian Muslim, so let's talk and we will definitely have lots to say. I truly admire such people who are able to go beyond the politics and reach out to "the enemy" and open the heart and the dialog in order to humanize the other side.
Today's politics of the Israeli government is definitely dehumanizing to the Palestinians. They have the upper hand over Palestinians and the ability to reach out and have some peace if they wanted. Had they done that, I'm convinced they would have found acceptance from many or at least some Palestinians. As always, I believe it is the duty of the strong to reach out to the weak and so I blame Netanyahu and team for the continued conflict. Palestinians have their own shortcomings with bad leadership that is marred with corruption and does not represent the population. I know my people and believe if they got good honest leadership and had more peaceful Israel government they will go for peace. My dad always told us the conflict is merely political because he had many Jewish neighbors while growing up in Haifa as a young man and that was normal to coexist together.
In summary, I believe there are still many peace-loving people on this earth. Majority of people want to have good life for themselves and their children, but the problem is that these are not active in politics and left the stage to the minority who have agenda to dominate and take advantage of others. This minority is ruling in most parts of the world and dictating the outcome.
I pray things will get better overall and especially between Israelis and Palestinians so one day you and I can travel to Jerusalem together in celebration where we can go anywhere in the area without check points and seeing many security guards or soldiers. Amen.
Best Regards to you, your family and community.