I love the ocean. Whether surfing or just playing in the waves, as a native Californian, I feel at home when I am in the salty water of the Pacific. Mere moments after I jump in, I find tranquility, introspection, and rejuvenation. But I also am well aware of the danger the ocean poses. From sharks (yes, there was a Great White breeding ground near where I grew up) to stealth riptides to pounding surf, the ocean can be dangerous, even deadly. I vividly recall the terror I felt after wiping out while boogie-boarding many years ago: caught underneath a cavalcade of waves, I barely held my breath long enough to outlast the barreling set and resurface.
This sense of struggling to breathe is how I now feel about Israel.
On the one hand, I firmly believe that Israel faces threats to its security more substantial than any it has faced since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Iran is the most obvious of these threats. Its nuclear ambitions pose an existential threat to Israel and risk plunging the entire volatile region into a nuclear arms race. It continues to sponsor terrorism in Gaza, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, and remains the primary patron of Hezbollah. Even the purportedly “moderate” regime of Rouhani has refused to repudiate Iran’s unabashed desire to destroy Israel.
Israel also faces neighbors who themselves are fighting—officially or unofficially-with militant Jihadists. Whether it is terrorists in the Sinai confronting Egypt or the ongoing, tragic civil war in Syria, Israel currently is situated in the least stable geo-political neighborhood on earth.
Even “responsible” international actors continue to put Israel in their cross-hairs. Just last week, the UN Commission on the Status of Women decided that there was only one country on earth that deserved condemnation for its treatment of women. Who was that country? Not Saudi Arabia. Not Sudan. Not Nigeria. Israel.
These threats are real, substantial, and cannot be rationalized or justified as a response to any policy of Israel. Period.
On the other hand, how can I continue to support the ongoing rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government? In the desperate throes of the final hours of the recent Israeli elections, when Bibi faced a real threat of losing his grip on power, he made two deplorable, shameful statements. First, in an expression of blatant racism, he urged Israelis via social media to vote because “Arab voters are going en masse to the polls” and thus threatening the country’s “rightwing government.” I am proud that the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, of which I am a member, rightly condemned such hateful and xenophobic speech, saying, “This statement, which indefensibly singled out the Arab citizens of Israel, is unacceptable and undermines the principles upon which the State of Israel was founded.”
Second, either to curry favor with right-wing voters or in a display of his true colors (or both), Netanyahu eviscerated the prospect of a two-state solution by repudiating any support for a Palestinian state. He stated that no Palestinian state would be established for as long as he remained prime minister, calling such a move “simply yielding territory for radical Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel.” Rejecting a two-state solution not only flies in the face of a bedrock principle of American-Israel policy but also leaves no viable solution to the increasingly untenable status quo in the West Bank.
Even before the election, Bibi’s ruling coalition has endorsed policies that fly in the face of Jewish values and human rights. Led by coalition member Jewish Home, the right-wing government has taken draconian positions against Africans seeking asylum in Israel, incarcerating individuals who have fled brutality and civil war in their African homelands. Through the Prawar Plan, it has pursued inhumane, shameful policies with respect to Israel’s indigenous Bedouin population. Bibi’s statements and positions in response to rising anti-Semitism in Europe–that European Jews should just come to Israel–have, as my colleague Rabbi Amy Small recently put it, created an unnecessary and “anxious debate within the world Jewish community about his role and our relationship to Israel.”
So I find myself stuck between support for an Israel that is under siege and condemnation for Israeli leadership that continues to push immoral and egregious policies. Instead of being able to embrace Israel as a home, as a place I love, I feel myself drowning in this cognitive dissonance. How can I stay silent when BDS, or Students for Justice in Palestine, perniciously spread half-truths that, in the echo chamber of liberal university politics, resonate with and influence college students? But how can I defend Israel with integrity when the normative way of doing so is to demand unflinching support of everything Israel’s government does (AIPAC’s position)? The moneyed Jewish establishment has created a McCarthy-like ethos where any critique of Israel (JStreet, Open Hillel, Rabbis for Human Rights, etc.) is viewed as treason. Yet some of these very same groups, while openly critical of Israel’s rights violations, do not seem as willing to address Israel’s real, existential threats. In this context, as a rabbi, how on earth am I supposed to teach young adults about Israel? As a community leader, how am I supposed to cultivate a consensus of ahavat Yisrael, love and support for Israel?
The truth is, I need Israel to be an or l’goyim, a light unto nations. It is not enough for me for Israel to be celebrated as a Start-Up Nation. Or the least egregious violator of human rights in the Middle East. Israel is my spiritual and moral home. As a result, I do hold it to a higher standard. I need it to represent the best of humanity, to apply the moral truths of our religion to contemporary reality. Am I expecting too much?
So here I find myself, to borrow from Greek mythology, caught between the Scylla of defending Israel and the Charybdis of criticizing it. I hope, like Odysseus, that I can somehow navigate this howling sea without losing my sanity. I pray that I can find, or create, enough oxygen in the discourse about Israel in America that I can breathe. But it grows ever harder each day.
I have sung the song “David Melech Yisrael” thousands of times. It’s easy to learn and fun to sing with hand motions. The song voices the hopes of the Jewish people; exiled, dispersed, powerless and persecuted, we have longed for the “good old days” of the strong, unified and powerful kingdom of King David. Some three thousand years later, we haven’t stopped wishing for a return to the Davidic monarchy. It is our messianic yearning, fueling optimism and collective hope.
Optimism is one of the Jewish values that most animates our spiritual worldview. But recent events have prompted me to revisit the content of this narrative. The wish for a monarch who rules over a united Jewish nation, even the whole Jewish people, looks different now.
It is time to replace “David Melech Yisrael” with a different trope. We do not have a King of Israel, and we shouldn’t. That was then, and this is now.
In 70 CE, when we lost the last grasp on our Jewish nation, our people dispersed. During that time of dramatic change, our leaders took to the study halls. Their leadership was built on learning, interpreting, and vigorous debate over all aspects of life. The record of those holy disagreements became the Talmud, the sourcebook for rabbinic Judaism. The Jewish ideas that inform our lives today flow from those pages. “When there are two Jews, there are three opinions,” the joke goes. But it’s true. The Jewish people thrive on diverse opinions freely shared.
Today, during another time of great change, the yearning for King David has a new voice. As if “David Melech” once again lives, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed the mantle of power for all Jews. The Prime Minister recently asserted that he is the representative of the “entire Jewish people.” Netanyahu argues that the Jewish people are endangered, and only a strong state of Israel can protect all of us. Together with his invitation to French (and other European Jews) to make aliyah – move to Israel – the Prime Minister has stirred an anxious debate within the world Jewish community about his role and our relationship to Israel.
We’ve been down this road before. In 1950, the head of the American Jewish Committee negotiated a pact with founding Prime Minister Ben-Gurion. The Ben-Gurion-Blaustein agreement with Israel asserted “without any reservation, that the State of Israel represents and speaks only on behalf of its own citizens and in no way presumes to represent or speak in the name of the Jews who are citizens of any other country.”
I support policies and politicians who make the world safer for Jews, and make Israel strong. But we will best accomplish this goal by vigorous debate and respectful divergence of views. My prayer for a safe, strong Israel includes a vision of a just, democratic nation. The voices of all its inhabitants, and all Jews, form the chorus to the song of Israel. No one representative, no king or absolute ruler, can achieve that. Only we can do that together.
You say you care about the Israeli election? Me too, but how much do you know? How many political parties are represented in the Israeli election? Which party best represents your views?(You can take this quiz if you are curious to see if your assumptions about yourself line up).
First, let me say that I love America. I love America in a way that is statistically consistent with the majority of Americans (only 15% of Americans said they were following elections ‘very closely’ just one month prior to the 2014 mid-term election, only 36% of Americans actually voted).
Politics is a strange thing; we say we care, but do we really? Of the 561 bills passed by last year’s Congress, how many can you name? Me, I can’t name even one. I remember the spectacle of Washington the past few years; Republicans blocked Obama; Obama snubbed John Boehner by not inviting him to golf. It was all very House of Cards – great theater. D.C. is rightfully called Hollywood on the Hudson because Washington politics are as entertaining, and as forgettable as a Netflix series. Who is running for president in 2016? That’s pretty far in the future, but someone named Bush or Clinton is always a safe bet. I love America and I think the laws we live by are very important, just not important enough to capture my full attention.
Let me also say that I love Israel, but I couldn’t tell you which 13 political parties are currently represented in the Knesset without Googling it. Today is election day in Israel and either Bibi will win or ‘Not Bibi’ will win (His real name is Isaac ‘Boujie’ Herzog of the Zionist Union Party). But, winning doesn’t mean that either one will necessarily take over. It just means that the ‘winner’ will be given 40 some days to see if he can build a coalition of 51% by making pacts with other smaller parties. [For more, check out JTA’s Who’s who in the Israel’s elections or 5 things you need to know about today’s election.
I know that Herzog is willing to work closer with the Arabs and that Bibi no longer supports a two state solution, but where do they stand on religious equality, the cost of housing in Tel Aviv, or on health care? I don’t actually know. It isn’t too hard to find out more about what is going on in Congress, or in the Knesset for that matter, so why don’t I?
In my defense, not investing significant energy in something that I purport to care about is not a new issue, nor am I alone. Rabbenu Bachya ibn Pakuda (11th Century Spain) said that people fail to pay greater attention to vital things (for him, God) because we become so enamored with the most immediate cause and effect, that we fail to look at the larger picture. He said that we either grow so comfortable with our present situation that we fail to look beyond simply preserving our personal station. Or, he said, we become so downtrodden, that we again fail to look beyond our own discomfort.
Our focus day-to-day is on ourselves. Which means that we are capable of deeply caring about something larger, say God, America, Israel, without feeling obligated to pay a commiserate balance of attention, even to these vital, greater-than-self ideals and values.
The 2006 Time Magazine Person of the Year was “You.” The internet, and specifically YouTube, were recognized for the powerful reflection of society that was then just exploding. The picture on the cover was a reflective mylar mirror. Just last week, ten years latter, the National Academy of Sciences published a study linking a rise in narcissism with a rise in aggression and violence. Other studies found a connection between narcissism and another growing plague, loneliness.
If I love America and I love Israel, why don’t I invest more time in learning and studying the minutiae of every bill and every election that shape my two home countries?
Hey, that’s a good question for my Facebook friends.
John Lennon once wrote in lyrical desperation, “All I want is the truth, man. Just gimme some truth.” Without any conscious intention, I woke on this morning before Purim, with Lennon’s aching voice circling my spirit. I smiled a teary grin, as I sang to myself, “All I want is the truth, man. Just gimme some truth.” Lennon’s song bemoaned that it felt impossible for him to discern the authentic truth through the rhetoric of political chatter and its associated punditry.
And that is all I want. Just give me the truth. The air waves are full of so much noise. The more black and white our politicians try to paint it, the more grey it all feels to me.
I love Israel. I stand for Israel. Please excuse the drama when I say that I would die for Israel. I believe that Jews only live with a measure of comfort in the Diaspora because of the fact that Israel exists. And Israel cannot merely exist. Israel must thrive and be strong.
And, I love the United States of America. Despite our profound societal problems, I feel privileged to live here. I don’t take the breadth of my rights for granted. Even though I want so much more to be better here, I believe that we are the shining city on the hill.
What’s the truth for me? The truth is that I was angry at Prime Minister Netanyahu for coming to speak in the greatest auditorium in the world without an invitation from the US President. I believe he acted disrespectfully to the Office of the President. I believe that it is bad form to use the US Congress as a political tool and campaign stop just two weeks before an Israeli election. I believe that the politics of this all might have, in fact, obscured the grave and serious facts about the real issue at hand: Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And finally, I think the speech created a potential for greater partisan fissure, when for most of our recent history, the support of Israel has been an agreed upon partisan issue. That is why congress shows up in such great numbers to the AIPAC Policy Conference annually. I am moved by their attendance every year, both Democrats and Republicans.
What is the truth for me? Once the Prime Minister was intent on speaking, I lobbied in every way possible for every member of congress to show up. Israel is too important for anyone to misinterpret a boycott of a political situation for a boycott of Israel herself. Too many of my own congregants were pointing to anti-Semitism when I believe the truth was more about politics than it was about being against Jews and our Homeland.
What is the truth? The truth is that Prime Minister Netanyahu brought me to tears. I love Israel and believe that Iran has evil intentions. I believe Iran when its leaders say they want to wipe Israel and Jews off the map. I believe in “Never Again” because too many of my own family members were wiped out by the Nazis. I believe that we can’t be innocent or foolish in our assessments of Iran and its ruthless leaders. I fear for Jewish safety.
What is the truth? The truth is that I was moved to tears because of my love for Israel and I also felt, at the same time, the nagging feeling of being manipulated by political theater. I wish that the leaders of the lands I love the most would spend their time not giving speeches, but instead strategizing in Situation Rooms, every scenario possible towards mitigating the Iran problem. Iran’s intentions were made loud and clear yesterday. But very few options were given. War might be the only option, but the drumbeat towards conflict should be accompanied with every other alternative possible. Our lives are worth too much now….as much before a conflict as they would be after such an event.
What is the truth? The truth is that we are frightened and we have to be very careful not to be paralyzed by our fear. It is up to our political leaders to just give us the truth. Not their nuanced versions of narrative to help build either of their political resumes. But a line of reasoning which binds us together as Jews and Americans towards a course of survival and flourishing. I have come to the point where I vote Jewish first. I just pray that both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu care as much about our survival as they do about their ownership of power and political legacies. And perhaps they should spend more time hearing and learning from one another and less time making political theater…..all of which makes the truth so much tougher to discern.
Tonight we are told to don masks and disguises to celebrate Purim. We add layers of truth and dare by virtue of our celebration. When the raucous Purim parties end we will arrive home sweaty with joy. The first thing we will want to do is rip off our costumes. We will want to stop pretending. We will want to be us again. We will look in the mirror and see the truth of who we are without façade.
When the holiday of masks and disguises is over, once again, we will sing, “All I want is the truth, man. Just gimme some truth.”
Should the Jews of Europe move? And if so, to Israel or to America?
“To the Jews of Europe and to the Jews of the world I say that Israel is waiting for you with open arms.”
– Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu after a second terrorist attack in Europe within just a few weeks.
After an a murderous terrorist attack in Copenhagen, killing a cartoonist, two policeman, and a Jewish man walking out of the main synagogue in the Danish capital , Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu went to the media and announced that it was time for the Jews of Europe to move home.
“Israel is your home. We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe,” he said. “To the Jews of Europe and to the Jews of the world I say that Israel is waiting for you with open arms,” Netanyahu said.
He said these things and I was confused. Anti-Semitism is hideous and frightening wherever it pops up, European anti-semitism terrifies some of us in a unique way – the Shoah (Holocaust) is still fresh in our collective psyche. Part of me thought, “Yes, get out of Europe. Go with Bibi. Go to our Promised Holy Land.” But there was another part of me, a darker, deeper place inside me that said, “Yes, leave Europe, but come here, to America – It’s safer.” These might be the voices you would expect from a duel American-Israeli citizen. But it also speaks to the popular narratives of modern Jewry. Where does Yentl (Barbara Streisand) go when she realizes that Europe, the old country, could no longer be home? America. At the end of Schindler’s List, after having ‘saved’ by Oskar Schindler, the group of Jews come upon a Russian soldier.
“Where should we go,” one of them asks.
The soldier answer, “Don’t go East, that’s for sure. They hate you there. I wouldn’t go West either, if I were you.” And, more or less, the credits roll as we watch the real survivors walk with the actors that portrayed them to place a stone at the grave of Oskar Schindler in Israel.
“I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that You have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.” – Jacob’s prayer before reuniting with Esau who swore to kill him (Genesis 32:10).
Has the Jewish people become two camps?
There can be no replacement for our home:
כי מציון תצא תורה, ודבר ה’ מירושלים For the Torah shall come forth from Zion, and the word of the Holy Blessing One from Jerusalem.
And yet, we cannot ignore the importance, and historic roll of the Diaspera (those Jews dispersed in lands not our own). Judaism has been deeply influenced by the cultures in which we have lived – Even the Torah was given to us outside of the land, not to mention the encyclopedia of rabbinic thought, the Babylonian Talmud.
Some will argue, but I do not think all the Jews of France and Denmark should leave their homes. Freedom is work standing up for. And yet, and yet. The primitive, fear-driven part of my brain wonders: “Might it be that we have indeed become ‘two camps’ for the same pragmatic reasons that Jacob once divided his family? If one should be attacked, at least the other would survive.”
Long ago, legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan sang in his gravelly tones, that “the times, they are a-changing.” He was a truth teller in a time of historic social justice activism.
Those of us who remember the 60s and 70s recall the courage of Vietnam protesters, civil rights marchers and women pursuing equal rights in society and under the law. They stood and strong and took great personal risks to advance their just causes. Values, ethics and laws were challenged—and changed. These efforts were not without cost: The Kent State Massacre. The Watts Riots. Lynchings. Beatings. Imprisonments. It seemed as if our nation was on fire as the passion and effort lurched our society into a new evolution. Not that the work was completed, but, strides were made.
And then, many, or most, of the activists got married, had kids and that, for the most part, was that, as Dylan’s message was lost in the 5-CD player shuffle. But in truth, the times never stop changing, nor do we, in our priorities, morals, social values, and willingness (and sometimes lack thereof) to accept challenges—and to raise them.
Last week, we watched in awe as some 3.7 million citizens and world leaders converged throughout France to raise what I took to be a cry akin to “Never Again”—though it remains unclear what the next steps in this multi-national outcry against terror may be.
The news now reports details about the long and twisted web that directly links the Paris attacks to ISIS, painting an unnerving picture of the months and years to come. At the same time, the actual terror of the attacks—the human fear and anger and frustration—have oozed from news sites’ front and home pages and have settled into a somewhat safer space in our lives.
In our own lives, perhaps. But not so much for the people of Paris, or Boston, or the Iraqi Christians fleeing from the same terrorists. Or the people of Belgium whose have learned that their police force had been targeted. Or maybe the Ohio neighbors of Christopher Cornell, the seemingly average boy-next-door, who is in custody for allegedly planning to bomb the U.S. Capitol building and gun down fleeing legislators in the name of ISIS. And not so much for the families of all who have been murdered in these horrendous attacks all over the world, nor all who came within a hairs’-breadth from becoming victims.
In our lives, for the most part, we have known people who were directly affected by the injustices against which the throngs rallied. Now, we are being called to respond to a global crisis and ensure basic physical security and basic human rights for all who seek peace.
Of course, this nightmare hits us very close to home as we read of the proliferation of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel commentaries in France and many other many nations after last weeks’ attacks (links: 1, 2, 3, 4). So when we hold the cry “never again” as a sacred commitment to our people, we must extend our commitment to our entire human family, because none of us will ever be safe until all of us are safe.
If 50 years ago it felt as if our nation was on fire, today it can seem as if the whole world is aflame. The people who are now on the front lines fighting this world scourge are our brothers and sisters every bit as much as the twelve million individuals who were murdered by the Nazis. They face torture and execution as their communities are destroyed. They are victims not just of terror, but of hatred parading as righteousness—even as the ISIS equivalent of “Heil Hitler” is ringing throughout the Islamic extremist world. It is again time for action and passion. A time to raise challenges—and meet them. As we learn in Pirke Avot, (Ethics of our Sages) we are not required to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.
Nous sommes Juifs. We are Jews. It is our duty to act, and teach our children not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors both next door and half a world away. We need to learn and educate and inspire others. We need to give generously to help victims of terror wherever they are in the world. And we must make our voices heard here at home by our legislators so that they will know that we are not willing to not stand idly by. Not now, not ever.
Two Israelis were stabbed last week, Israeli military and police response has continued, and leaders within Fatah have begun talking about a third intifada. There’s no rational response to the heartbreak and fear the Jewish people are feeling right now toward circumstances that threaten our connection to a place we call home. Indeed, we are a people who has historically been forced, in a state of fear, to flee from land to land, deprived of the luxury to think of any place as home.
Today in the US, not only the Jewish friends I have, but also most people I am in contact with, no longer move from place to place out of fear, but propelled by promises of prosperity, or perhaps by the force of history. Whether I am in Israel, or in the US, I feel the pain of being uprooted again, and again. Of not being indigenous to any of the lands I’ve lived on, nor knowing any longer what “home” means. Having just moved to a new city, I am grieving the people and places I will forget as I depart for a new place and meet new people.
This week, in Parashat Toldot, we read that Isaac is thriving, despite losing contact with his father after Abraham attempts to sacrifice him on a mountain. The Torah says, “Isaac sowed in [the] land and reaped a hundredfold the same year” (Gen 26:12). But one day, as Isaac tries to get water for his household, he finds that “the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham” have been stopped up with earth. Then king Abimelech tells him to go away (26:15-16). This, according to commentator Nehama Leibowitz, is “the first expulsion” of the Jewish people, foreshadowing millennia of exile, persecution and wandering. Our feelings of uprootedness start here.
Powerfully, however, Isaac does not flee. Instead, he settles there and “dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham.” A midrash sees Isaac’s act of uncovering the wells as representative of yishuv ha’olam, settling more deeply into his world. Not only does he redig these wells, but “he gave them the same names that his father had given them” (Gen 26:18). In his act of naming, Isaac places himself in relationship with his estranged father, and the history of his family in that particular land.
According to psychological research, “The more children [know] about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Despite all our displacement, this research tells us that in order to thrive, we need to reclaim our sense of belonging – wherever we are. Can we, like Isaac, begin to uncover the wells of our ancestors? How do we settle more deeply into the feeling that we belong, whether we consider ourselves to be living in a promised land, diaspora, or exile?
As we drink the water from these wells, the stories of our ancestors give us perspective on our daily experience. Learning these stories, we become more resilient. For me the water is the book of midrash my great-great grandfather wrote, the journal my great-aunt kept, and the family tree my mother has been assembling. As I open the covers of these wells, I prepare to nourish my roots, and ground myself more deeply in the soil of this moment of my life.
Last night I sat among 850 supporters of Israel and its Israel Defense Forces at the annual Friends of the IDF dinner here in Metro Detroit, Michigan. I attend this event each year and last night was not much different than past events. I was moved to tears watching the video screens and hearing about young Israelis who had to overcome difficult personal challenges while serving in the Israeli Army to defend the Jewish state. I listened as one young man, now an attorney in Israel, thanked a local Detroit family that sponsored him so he could attend law school after the army despite both of his parents being unemployed due to serious medical problems. He, like so many Israeli professionals, had to leave his job over the summer when he was called up from reserves to serve in Gaza.
There wasn’t a single person in the large synagogue social hall last night who wouldn’t identify as a strong supporter of Israel. There were hundreds of Israelis in that room last night who had served in the IDF and emigrated to Detroit. There were also many Americans who had volunteered to serve in the IDF or who are related to Israelis who had served. There were families who contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Friends of the IDF to build army bases and classrooms and fitness centers throughout Israel. Like me, I’m sure, all 850 of the men and women in that room remember precisely what had happened in Tel Aviv nineteen years earlier. It was on November 4, 1995 that the Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a Jewish religious extremist. And yet there was no mention of that day.
Rabin’s assassination was my generation’s JFK assassination. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. It was a beautiful, sunny Shabbat afternoon. My girlfriend (now my wife) and I were standing outside my AEPi fraternity house when someone told us that there was a rumor that Yitzhak Rabin had been shot dead. CNN was already showing video footage of the peace rally in Tel Aviv where Rabin’s life was taken. As my fraternity brothers began returning from the afternoon’s football game (I hadn’t attended), I told them the news. We were all shocked. As a leader at my university’s Hillel, I was asked to speak at several community vigils the next day. I was called by newspaper reporters asking for my opinion on the assassination and whether it would end any hope for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. It was my first experience being interviewed at a TV news studio. I had always been a Zionist, but November 4, 1995 made me, and so many of my peers, feel closer to Israel than ever before. I began researching ways to return to Israel that summer.
So much has happened in the 19 years since that horrible day. Israel has endured more terrorism, fought more wars and has yet to mend its internal fractures. As Americans went to the polls yesterday in our midterm elections, so many of us refused to check our concerns about Israel at the door. We take them with us into the voting booth. We discuss the candidates’ positions on Israel and the Middle East.
I’d like to think that last night’s omission of the anniversary of the Rabin assassination was just an oversight. We memorialized all of the victims of terrorism and all of those men and women who lost their lives while serving for the IDF. Yitzhak Rabin was an IDF general long before he was a politician or a statesman. For me, I will never forget November 4, 1995. I pray that we continue to honor the memory of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. To forget his contributions to the State of Israel would be an assassination to his legacy.
Today likely is going to be a rough day for liberals. Election prognosticators are predicting that Republicans will win enough Senate elections to re-take majority control of the Senate. This will give the Republican Party control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the Bush Administration.
This result will be painful to many liberals because it is based not on an ideological change in the electorate, as occurred in 1994, but on the success of Republican obstinacy and effective ineffectiveness over the past two years. This Congress is on pace to become the least effective Congress, in terms of bills passed, in U.S. history! The Republican Party has been transparent in its desire to block any Democratic domestic legislative proposals, even those that hold strong support nationally. As Senator Mitch McConnell, who is poised to become the new Majority Leader of the Senate, famously remarked in 2010, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” There is little effort to pass constructive, pro-active legislation. Instead, the Republican Party has been fixated on events of political theater such as the House of Representatives voting 54 times to repeal, defund, or otherwise thwart the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).
It can feel dispiriting to see obstinacy and ineptitude rewarded with more power when there are so many critical issues in need of resolution. Competent governance, isolated from petty politics, would come up with a way to pass middle-of-the-road measures such as gun control laws requiring that anyone who purchases a gun first passes a background check; comprehensive immigration reform that includes a slow but transparent path to citizenship for the eleven million undocumented residents currently living in America; climate change legislation, whether via a cap and trade program or a carbon tax, to make a significant reduction in our carbon emissions; funding to update our crumbling infrastructure and our archaic electronic grid. These (and countless others) are issues that ought not be liberal or conservative issues. They are the type of progressive, moderate legislation that is necessary to keep our country safe and vibrant. And they are all pipe dreams in a Republican Congress.
So what is a despondent progressive to do today? I was thinking about this last night as I attended a lecture by the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, author of the bestseller My Promised Land. Shavit was discussing the events of this past summer in Israel and what his vision is for Israel’s future. One thing he said, in particular, struck me. Shavit declared that Zionism is all about being active. Zionism rejects apathy and passivity. It is based on the premise of making the impossible possible. It is about dreaming the dream and then grounding that dream in reality through blood, sweat, and tears. The miracle of Israel’s creation, and its continued existence, is testament to what Zionism can achieve.
I do not mean to suggest that a midterm election is on the same par as the 2000 year struggle to reclaim the Jewish homeland. The political and theological impact of the creation of Israel is incomparable. But I do believe there are instructive lessons from Shavit’s depiction of the modern Zionist struggle that those who are in political mourning would do well to learn. First and foremost, to those who are feeling despondent,don’t give up. Don’t feel defensive about the Affordable Care Act, income inequality, or the need for enhanced environmental regulation.Don’t take this election as a repudiation of your values and aspirations. Continue to dream and hope. Come up with a vision for the society you want to create, and then go about the hard work of realizing this vision pragmatically and skillfully. After all, starting tomorrow, the battle for 2016 begins anew!
As we cross from 5774 to 5775, the Akeida (the Binding of Isaac, which is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah) tells us to look both ways so we can perceive the fullness of our reality.
As he looked up, Abraham saw the place from afar (Genesis 22:4)—three days before, God commanded Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering on a mountain. Even though he is still far away, the moment Abraham sees the mountain he begins to anticipate his grief. He doesn’t raise his eyes again for a long time.
We all know what this feels like. This past summer, many of us stopped looking up as well. We “saw from afar” news of rockets falling on Israel and on Gaza, the murder of another black child—this time in Ferguson—the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, Robin Williams’ suicide, and the spreading threat of ISIS. We were flooded with images of beheadings, pleas from helpless parents for the release of their captive children.
And to avoid the pain, we learned to look down. And in looking down, we missed everything else.
Did you hear – just this month – about teachers at an elementary school in Cudahy California, who got together to donate 154 sick days to a Carol Clark, a sixth grade teacher who was diagnosed with breast cancer? Or about the zoo in Victoria that released five endangered species, including Tasmanian devils, back into the wild after their populations grew back to a healthy size? Or about the UN report that the ozone layer is recovering?
As Abraham looked up, he saw a ram (Genesis 22:13)—in Rashi’s commentary on the Akeidah, he quotes a midrash that the ayil, the ram, is one of the ten things in existence before the creation of the world. According to this midrash, the ram was always there and Abraham just never saw it. With his eyes cast to the ground, Abraham has forgotten something central about the very nature of the world around him.
And with his gaze lowered, Abraham nearly kills his son Isaac (and some say, the news of what Abraham has gone off to do actually kills Sarah). In the moment he raises the knife above his head, Abraham has come to imagine that nothing else is possible. But when he lifts his eyes, he sees a new possibility, a new way of being in the world.
Like Abraham, we learn to expect disappointment and loss, rather than to notice the unexpected wonders that surround us. In order to protect ourselves, we learn to lower our gaze. We get into the habit of looking down at the brokenness and shadows in our world, jobs and relationships. And like Abraham, we cannot perceive reality until we start to look up and see that something else is possible. The Akeida comes to us this year to teach us to look both ways before crossing.
How do we do this?
Before bed each night, my partner and I share with each other five things that we are grateful for. Some people keep a gratitude journal. There’s even a Facebook meme going around of sharing what you’re grateful for, and tagging other people to do the same. There are so many ways to strengthen our instinct to look up, and get better at noticing what is going right.
On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate yom harat ha’olam, the birth and renewal of our world. As we cross into 5775, we aren’t merely surviving anymore. We aren’t just trying to hold back the knife, or protect ourselves from what is going wrong. We can and must work on flourishing—lifting our eyes to find a saving ram, connecting to the nourishment of our food, feeling the love of an old friend.
Before you cross into the new year, take on a practice that will help you break the habit of just looking down, and help you to look up and see what is good in this world.