We had just moved back into the building. All my many boxes had been gathered up from the various storage spots where they
had been hidden away for the past year and were now sitting in the middle of the office area; a mountain range with peaks that reached halfway to the ceiling. (Clearly I hadn’t heard Rabbi Fleekop’s RH sermon yet)
One of the construction workers who was still on site, looked in on me standing there with all those boxes and asked: Anything valuable in there?
I think his concern was whether things needed to be locked up so they wouldn’t be stolen, but it was an interesting question.
I know I am behind the times. The executive director of one organization on whose board I serve has no paper on or in his desk. The executive director of another organization on whose board I serve is already on her second Kindle. And me, with my boxes, literally hundreds of them.
As the father of a special-needs child, I am often sensitive to the way people view my son. Will they judge him by his disabilities, or will they be able to see past his challenges and appreciate the beautiful child that he is? You can then only imagine my joy this past summer upon walking the streets of Jerusalem and hearing all the accolades my son received. Numerous times, absolute strangers would approach us and proclaim, “tzaddik” (righteous one). They then would often follow with an explanation of my son’s tremendous spiritual virtues and how fortunate we were to have him in our family.
This uplifting experience accompanied me into the Yomim Noraim period. Our prayers on Rosh Hashanah are very focused on mankind at large. We repeatedly beseech G-d that all the nations of the world become a single society. We yearn for the days when G-d will be accepted as King over the entire corpus of creation. The entire mankind should unite? Middle Eastern peace: Jews and Muslims, Iran all coming together? These are pretty ambitious, or shall I say audacious, prayers we offer up. Are we so unified as Jews, that we are ready to move on to more global issues? My summer experience notwithstanding, do we always view our brothers and sisters of diverse backgrounds with such encouragement and support?
If I am not for myself, who will be?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, then when? Hillel the Elder, Pirkey Avot/Ethics of the Elders 1:14
Nine years ago, our High Holyday theme was to consciously examine the narratives through which we see the world and which guide our actions. At that moment the Bush Administration was preparing to go to war against Iraq and many of us in this room were opposed. Our attention was on the Middle East, and it had become clear that if we were going to look at our internalized narratives, that the rabbi would have to address the narratives we use in regard to Israel and Palestine. I was not thrilled that this task fell to me because I hate talking about Israel-and-Palestine even though I have to talk about it all the time.
Moreover, I am required to listen to a cacophony of voices that flash across my computer screen every hour. Because of my position as rabbi and my admitted involvement in this issue as a progressive activist, I get emails and links from every perspective, not on a daily basis, but on an hourly basis: everyone from New Israel Fund and Americans for Peace Now to AIPAC and its weekly advice to rabbis on how to use the weekly dvar Torah to work in a plug for AIPAC’s policies as if these policies were required by the text of the Torah.
[Kehilla’s High Holyday services were conducted in 2002 on a theme of the reconsideration of the narratives by which we live our lives. The following is excepted from that sermon delivered within the context of that theme.]
A few months ago, we sat down to work out who was doing what sermons at High Holydays. Now, I have a list of High Holyday sermon topics that I think could last me enough years to get me to retirement. Talking about an issue as controversial as Israel and Palestine is not high on my list. So when I suggested in the leaders meeting that perhaps it was necessary for me to address this issue at Kol Nidre, I was a bit disappointed that everyone so readily agreed with me. But we knew that it would be totally unthinkable for Kehilla in this year to leave this topic off the High Holyday spiritual agenda.
The human world is today, as never before, split into two camps, each of which understands the other as the embodiment of falsehood and itself as the embodiment of truth. . . . Each side has assumed monopoly of the sunlight and has plunged its antagonist into night, and each side demands that you decide between day and night. . . . ” —Martin Buber, “Hope for this Hour”
Does this sound like a description of the combative rhetoric between Democrats and Republicans in the current election cycle? Or among Jews at different points on the religious or political spectrum? This description of polarized discourse, as contemporary as it is classic, was written in 1967 by Martin Buber.1 Family therapists Richard Chasin and Margaret Herzig write that ideological opponents often resemble families stuck in chronic conflict.2 There, he named the central problem of conflict interaction and hinted at the healing needed to transform it. In so doing, he anticipated the work of the best theory and practice in contemporary conflict studies.
I think it was the editorial page editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian who taught me an important life lesson: always greet people warmly. Years later, I learned that Pirkei Avot offered similar instruction (1:15): receive every person with “sever panim yafot,” sometimes translated to mean “cheerfulness,” but which I now take to mean something weightier—a countenance (panim) that transmits the value we place on the people we greet and the privilege of speaking to them face to face. It was somewhere in the course of graduate school or academic work that I learned that Hegel and Levinas had both built entire philosophies on the importance of the recognition we accord to one another.
The point holds even more, I think, for the importance of discussing—civilly and with mutual respect—matters on which we do not agree with one another. Many Americans these days are lamenting the decline in such civility that has taken place in the United States Congress in recent years. Friendships have been destroyed, apparently, and alliances that once produced important bipartisan legislation have broken down. Some good people have been chased out of politics, and voters have been deprived of the sort of nuanced argument and substantive debate that require full and sympathetic hearing of what the other side has to say.
We are losing our ability to talk civilly to each other – as a nation, in Israel and in our own Jewish community and congregation about Israel. The stakes are high – civil discourse is the essence of democracy and of a healthy community. We are witnessing a toxic time where issues play out with venom - and the implications are dramatic.
Regardless of our personal politics, we should be disturbed by the tone and tenor of the debate in America. It is disturbing when forums about health care routinely result in name-calling, interruption of speakers and vilification of those with whom we disagree. We should be alarmed when a Congressman calls the President a liar during a speech. And it is both sides of the political spectrum that have been infected by pervasive nastiness.
I believe we face a landmark moment in America, in Israel and in our Jewish community. Our Rabbis teach that it was sinat chinam – causeless hatred – that brought about the destruction of the Temple. That type of hatred is present in our midst. It is time to lift our voices in a call for civil discourse and ethical disagreement.
The Shma Yisrael is the most famous line in Jewish tradition. If we are asked for a single sentence, which captures our essence, it is likely that the Shma would come to mind. Just recently Ted Kahn, one of our esteemed shofar blowers on Rosh Hashanah, deepened its richness. You see, he explained, even those with diametrically opposite views of God can say the Shma with a full heart. If one is an unquestioning believer, one can recite the Shma with its emphatic affirmation of One God. If one is not certain about the Divine Presence, one can say, also with a full heart: “Shma Yisrael, I don’t know Elokeynu, I don’t know Echad!” And if one is rather certain that God is not present, one can say: “Shma Yisrael, I deny Elokeynu, I deny Echad!” Standing together in a sanctuary packed with people, these variations would blend so perfectly, that we might not even know that the one sitting next to us holds a religious position quite apart from one’s own. And the sheer sound of our chanting aloud as one empowers us all.
I love this bit of self-deprecating humor because it touches on a great need at this hour. We are a passionate people. We hold a spectrum of views on many issues, most especially on those that face our people. It is that very character of our people that gives us color and gives us strength. It is that very character of our people that can do us in and truly tear our fabric of peoplehood. How we choose to handle our differences is of momentous importance. Today I want to hold up the way of passionate compassionate dialogue. I want to reflect on Israel and our response to Israel in crisis.
February 1, 2011
We are in the midst of the final section of the Book of Sh’mot and the devastating highlight of this section is the Sin of the Golden Calf. And when the people saw that Moses was late coming down the mountain they turned to Aaron and they said, “Make for us a God of gold who will lead us, because this One (God) of Moses the man, we don’t know what has become of Him.”
Israel wanted to worship God by portraying Him as a Golden Calf. Now, unconditional love of anyone, especially the Jewish people, requires that we try to understand their interest in worshipping a Golden Calf. What’s so terrible about this?
First of all they honor God by planning to make the Calf out of gold, the most precious metal. Gold is central to the construction of the Mishkan, the Ark, which is made of gold. The Menorah is made of gold. The two tiered, six leveled Table for the Shabbat Challa is made of gold.
Secondly, they just saw God work the Ten Plagues in Egypt and split the sea. They saw God defeat the Egyptian army and all of its chariots and horsemen. They perceive God as mightier than anyone. They look around their environment and it’s quite natural for them to see in a young calf, soon to be a bull, an example of might and power. What is so terrible about that? Alright, they made a mistake, but why such rage and anger from God and Moses in response? Their sin has in it some perfectly reasonable ideas.
The Empire’s legions methodically secured the country against the rebellion— grim, implacable, confident. Inside the walls of the capital, five separate factions battled. Rebel elements overthrew the traditional leadership of the city, pillaging and killing. Then they turned against each other, Balkanizing the city. As the conqueror’s noose tightened around the city walls, those who tried to flee were killed by their countrymen. Hunger mounted, because rival factions had burned stores of grain in the course of their battles. As the siege worsened, rebels tortured the wealthy to reveal their hidden food supplies. The conquerors understood that the battling factions were doing their work for them, so they took their time, pacifying the rest of the country. Finally, starving, divided Jerusalem fell, the Temple was destroyed, and 2000 years of Exile began.
That’s a part of our history we seldom tell: that the Jewish people were divided over whether to revolt, and that ideological conflicts and factional hatred left them weakened and fractured.
The Rabbis drew a sharp lesson from the self-destructive factionalism that doomed the Second Commonwealth. We learn from Yoma 9b: “Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three evil things that prevailed there: idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed.... But, why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time the people were engaged in the study of Torah, the practice of mitzvot and acts of benevolence? Because during the time it stood sinat hinam— causeless hatred prevailed. This teaches that sinat hinam is equal in gravity to the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed together.”
Jewish tradition teaches us the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred within the Jewish people. Recent events are proving we need to learn far more from this tragic history of infighting. Today, internal squabbling and hurtful accusations of anti-Israel behavior are providing a dangerous distraction from the far more significant threat: delegitimization.
For those of us who are passionate supporters of Israel, it’s often difficult to hear views that depart from Israeli government policy or the current conventional wisdom. Some of us are infuriated when those on the left question particular policies or decisions of the government, as some did during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Others are angered when groups on the right consistently resist the efforts of successive Israeli governments to negotiate with the Palestinians on the basis of land for peace. But however much we may differ with those positions — and those differences should be debated vigorously — we need to recognize that the positions come from groups firmly invested in the Jewish people and the welfare of the State of Israel. They may differ on how Israel ought act to best secure its future, but they share a deep and abiding commitment to that future.
It is now official: Coke Zero is coming to Israel. As the story goes, the executives at Coca Cola headquarters settle on an effective plan advertising to introduce the product to the citizens of the Jewish state; they decide to utilize the same commercial billboard campaign employed in the desert climate of the American Southwest -- an arid climate similar to much of that found throughout our ancestral homeland. Better yet, the entire ad was a series of three simple images -- there were no words to translate, nor idioms to rework, or explain. At the end of the first quarter of sales, the results come in: they are abysmal...beyond horrible. The CEO summons the regional executive vice president to headquarters in Atlanta, to figure out what went wrong. “Well, it took us a while, but we finally think we’ve figured it out. As you recall, the billboard had three images on it: In the first, a man is lying, quite parched, on the desert sand, under a sweltering sun; in the second, he’s been given a Coke Zero, which he’s drinking with great thirst-quenching delight; in the third and final frame, he’s smiling, refreshed and revived.”
The CEO follows the words of his subordinate...but is growing impatient: “So... what went wrong?” “Well”, the sales exec replies, we forgot that it’s a Jewish State...with Israeli citizens...all of whom read, in Hebrew...you know, not from left to right...but, rather, from right to left. So they read the ad, in reverse: In the first frame, they see a happy, smiling man; in the second, the man gulps down a Coke Zero; but then in the third frame, he’s taken ill, and he’s lying on the ground, helpless and all alone in the desert!”
With the country and the American Jewish community increasingly and stubbornly polarized, fatigue, rampant frustration, and residual hope have led many to call for civil discourse. Volatile community conflicts rife with public attacks, private threats, and pervasive fear have spurred a wave of efforts seeking to undo the damage of our polarized public space. In the Jewish community, polarization has been most acute with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Jewish organizations and synagogues creating official policies to avoid discussing Israel altogether, and rabbis across the country retreating from — as one puts it — “the death by Israel sermon.” In the resultant wave of civility efforts, those invoking civility generally have one of three things in mind. If civility is to be successful, we must rightly assess the value and consequences of each line of thinking.
I would like to begin my remarks with a blessing and end with a blessing.
Take special care to guard your tongue
before the morning prayer.
Even greeting your fellow, we are told,
can be harmful at that hour.
A person who wakes up in the morning is
like a new creation.
Begin your day with unkind words,
or even trivial matters—
even though you may later turn to prayer,
you have not been true to your Creation.
All of your words each day
are related to one another.
All of them are rooted
in the first words that you speak.1
I care about everyone in this room and I am distressed how we are talking or not talking to each other about the most critical issue of our time as a Jewish community: Israel. I do not know if the words we speak will determine the fate of Israel, but I am certain they will determine the fate of this community. We are still in our morning prayers, so there is time to reflect.
Well, the High Holy Days are upon us once again, and from the look of things, it seems the season of repentance and atonement is going to prove harder than ever to slog through this year. Not that we won’t give it our best. The trouble is, it’s hard to repent effectively when you believe all your problems are someone else’s fault.
Oh, we’ll say all the usual things: We have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen. We have lied, dealt falsely and led astray. But we’ll really be thinking: Not me. It was the other guys. Sure, some of my crowd may have lied and betrayed, but it wouldn’t have happened if they’d listened to me. Anyway, it was the other guys who started it. My folks were just minding their own business.