Is Yom Hazikaron a good thing? This unusual question recently popped into my head while we were teaching our religious school students about the series of “Yom” holidays this month (Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, and Yom Ha’atzmaut). Yom Hashoah was easy for them to understand, if somewhat hard to relate to. Yom Ha’aztmaut, which we explained to them as the Israeli Fourth of July, was easy on both accounts. But where students had the most difficulty grasping any meaning was Yom Hazikaron. I tried explaining it as Israel’s Memorial Day but soon realized that this description was completely ineffectual to them: unless one has a family member in the Armed Services, Memorial Day, in America, has little civic meaning. Instead, it has devolved into little more than the last school holiday of the year and the pop cultural start of summer. This, in turn, led me to wonder: which Memorial Day would I rather have, Israel’s or America’s?
In Israel, war is a perpetual reality. Virtually everyone serves in the army. There have been six wars fought since 1948, with the first four (1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973) threatening Israel’s very existence. Even when it is not in formal war, Israel faces constant border skirmishes and rocket attacks from its hostile neighbors. And, perhaps most importantly, everyone has a relative or close friend who has perished in combat. Yom Hazikaron is marked in Israel with piercing air raid sirens, interrupting the evening and later the morning and bringing everyone together to commemorate the fallen. Ironically, for the generation I was teaching in religious school, America too has been in a perpetual state of war since 9/11. But because of our huge population, the remoteness of the armed conflict, and our strength compared to that of Afghanistan or Iraq, war for Americans lacks any existential resonance. We might worry about the financial impact of war and whether our troops are getting the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) treatment they deserve, but we do not worry about whether America will be wiped off the map tomorrow. When Memorial Day was first proclaimed on May 6, 1868, by General John Logan, to honor dead soldiers in the aftermath of the Civil War, I imagine it did express a similar sense of somber uncertainty. But today Memorial Day means little more than permission to wear white pants until Labor Day.
So the more interesting question to me is this: which Memorial Day is preferable, from a meta-perspective? Yes, Memorial Day in Israel certainly means more, but is that a good thing? Or would we prefer for Israel to reach a state of power and stability that it no longer fears the threat of annihilation that Yom Hazikaron hints at? From a psychological standpoint, don’t we want our children to grow up without losing friends and family to armed combat? Assuming conscription remains necessary given Israel’s small size, wouldn’t we prefer to military service in Israel to feel more like military service in Switzerland–an exercise of vigilance rather than preparing for the inevitable loss of life in war? On the other hand, Yom Hazikaron takes on a sacred feel that Memorial Day does not. Do we want to risk losing this sense of kedusha, of holiness? Do we like what it signifies about the value of each human life; of dedication to an obligation bigger than oneself?
I am eager to hear your thoughts. And in the meantime, may each of us take some time today to pause and reflect about the ultimate sacrifice paid by so many Israelis to enable each of us to have a Jewish Homeland to enjoy and celebrate.
Last week, my colleagues Rabbis Rebecca Sirbu and Ben Greenberg shared their opinions here about whether rabbis should talk about Israel, and each presented cogent and well-articulated reasons. I was inspired to respond, in part, by the use of “should” and “shouldn’t” in the headline. I cannot assert that other rabbis should or shouldn’t talk about Israel, but I would like to speak personally about why I don’t talk about Israel.
Israel is a topic that gets people’s blood pumping and, when emotions run high, impulsivity tends to override thoughtful and rational conversation. We sometimes allow ourselves to say things we later regret. As a rabbi who works primarily with adolescents, I strive to nurture the open-minded exploration of questions about Judaism and identity, which requires working against the competing desire to shut-down discussion of gray areas with a single, decisive “right answer.” In my experience, few deep and complicated questions have right answers. However, when teens and young adults talk about Israel, they believe there is only one right answer.
Because I’m not a full-time pulpit rabbi, on Shabbat I often sit as a “Jew in the pew” in synagogue. There I have found many adults who struggle with maintaining a balanced stance when discussing Israel. Occasionally, my colleagues seize the opportunity to express their views stridently in sermons, exhorting the congregation from their bully pulpits to see the “truth.” Later, at the Kiddush lunch, discussions quickly devolve into heated arguments in which otherwise rational and intelligent people present strongly-held opinions as facts. Having witnessed this type of polarization within a synagogue community, I can attest to the pain and alienation that a rabbi’s words can inadvertently cause. For this reason, I am especially careful when I speak about Israel and other issues that isolate listeners so that they metaphorically stop up their ears.
In addition to serving as a visiting rabbi or scholar-in-residence in congregations, I spend my summers working at a Jewish camp that employs many Israelis as counselors. Many of these staff members arrive at camp having just completed their military service in the Israeli army. Although I have acquired wisdom about numerous topics and although I am old enough to be their mother, there is nothing in my life experience that imbues me with authority to teach these young adults about Israel. I believe that it would be presumptuous of me to do so without establishing a relationship of trust and mutual respect, which would allow us to exchange stories of our diverse experiences and appreciate one another’s perspectives.
When I ascend the bima or stand at the head of a classroom to teach, I am keenly aware that I have precious little time to convey the richness of Jewish tradition and the potency of Jewish ritual to a group of strangers. Thus, I must reach deep into my heart to extract the essential teachings from my core and then reach across the vast chasm that separates speaker and listener. I look honestly for what is “my Torah” and attempt to share it. Since I cannot see what is in another human’s heart, since I cannot know what anyone else finds at their core, how can I say whether another rabbi should or shouldn’t speak about Israel? I can merely say, at any given moment, whether I should speak.
Rebecca Sirbu in a blog post a few days ago entitled “Why Rabbis Should Talk About Israel” made a compelling case for the necessity for rabbis to emulate civil, honest and respectful discourse on the topic of Israel. Israel can be such a divisive and explosive topic that it becomes all the more important for rabbis to demonstrate how one can engage in a dialogue about it without resorting to hurtful and destructive language. This idea, of course, makes a lot of sense. However, I have come to believe that talking about Israel, and for that matter, talking about politics in general is counter-productive for most congregational rabbis.
The members of our community who come to synagogue at all do so either only once a week or perhaps just a few times a year during high liturgical moments like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. These are people who for the most part live an existence that is dominated by discussions of current events, domestic and international politics. Many of them attend Federation or AIPAC luncheons, where the topic of conversation is almost always on Israel, more than they attend a Shabbat lunch.
Torah is the heart of the Jewish people. When I use the word “Torah” I mean the age-old wrestling with our tradition, striving for a connection to the Divine and the encounter with holiness. We, as rabbis, have a limited time with our community. We have the opportunity to engage many of them for a few hours a week and the great majority only a few times a year. As we grapple with the limited time we have to impact our community, one needs to truly determine what is the best use of that time. I have come to understand that for my rabbinate talking about Israel, that is to say talking about the political realities of Israel, as important as that is, is not the most productive use of my time with my congregation in the context of synagogue.
What do I talk about instead if I don’t talk about Israel? I speak about the Torah concepts and Jewish values and wisdom that must be the foundation of any conversation on matters of immense importance. Instead of addressing specific current events in Israel I address the underlying values. This is an area that I believe, as a rabbi, I am uniquely suited to address.
Rabbis can use their limited time with their congregants to model how Torah rests at the center of everything we do as Jews and how its lessons can inspire profoundly deep ways of examining our lives and the world around us. This, to me, is what being a rabbi is all about.
A professor friend of mine has been thinking about moments of interruption. How do we cope when they intrude upon our lives? Death is perhaps the most extreme example of this as in many ways our lives come to screeching halt in order to bury and mourn our loved ones. Jewish tradition has a number of rules as to when someone can interrupt their prayers to greet someone or remove their screaming baby in the middle of silent prayer. When can one interrupt performing one mitzvah if another one beckons as well?
But we know that the most interruptions occur when we are in conversation. Sometimes we assume that the person interrupting is simply rude, while the interrupter may feel that it is crucial to the moment. Universities have to make rules about when it is or is not appropriate to interrupt a speaker.
Circulating on the web now is an extraordinary talk by MK Ruth Calderon in her first Knesset speech. It can be viewed here in Hebrew and it is translated here. Aside from the content and the reclaiming of Jewish tradition and text for all Jews, there are two moments that stand out for me. One is her acknowledgement of Rabbi David Hartman who had just passed away. Secondly is when Chairman Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas) interrupts her presentation:
Rabbi Rechumei – a rabbi, a rav, a whole lot of man [“rav” can mean “rabbi” or “much”]. “Rechumei” in Aramaic means “love”. Rechumei is derived from the word “rechem”, womb, someone who knows how to include, how to completely accept, just as a woman’s womb contains the baby. This choice of word for “love” is quite beautiful. We know that the Greek word for “womb” gives us the word “hysteria”. The Aramaic choice to take the womb and turn it into love is a feminist gesture by the Sages.
He was constantly, he could be found before Rava, the head of the yeshiva at Mechoza…
Chairman Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas):
Rechem also [has a numerologically significant value of] 248.(the number of positive commandments out of 613)
Thank you. Yasher koach.
Thank you for participating. I am happy…
I think the idea she is saying is wonderful…
I am happy about this participation in words of Torah.
What is lost in this moment of the English translation is that as Vaknin adds his thought, there are sounds from the Knesset of what appear to be some protesting his interruption of Calderon’s speech. However, she apparently does not see it as a rude interruption, but rather a genuine moment of Torah study. In that short exchange a woman who is self-described as “very Jewish, very Zionist, secular-traditional-religious home that combined Ashkenaz and Sepharad, [Revisionist] Betar and [Socialist] Hashomer Hatzair,” has a brief exchange of Torah with a member of Shas. For those few seconds Ruth has transformed the Knesset into a Beit Midrash, a place while still filled with conflicting voices, but now for the sake of Torah. It was a brief, but real moment of a shared religious passion. Although Torah study is generally not the agenda of the Knesset, may more interruptions for the Sake of Heaven be found.
Should rabbis talk about Israel? In years past, Israel was a subject which united people. You could always count on one of the rabbis High Holiday sermons to be about Israel, why she is important to us, what we should do to protect her, and why we should go visit. Israel captured our imagination of what could be – a more perfect country by and for Jews. No longer would we be the down trodden and persecuted people. We would rule ourselves and be a light unto the nations. Her existence was our hope and our miracle.
This is no longer the case. Many rabbis I know are afraid to talk about Israel with their congregations. The topic is simply too divisive. If the rabbi comments on the success of Israel’s technology and innovation sector, perhaps mentions the company Soda Stream as an example, then congregants will quickly respond with a torrent of criticism about Soda Stream building its factory in the West Bank.
Even words will get you in trouble since they signal your political leanings. Do you call the land east of Jerusalem “The West Bank,” “The Settlements,” “Judah and Samaria?” Are the Israeli settlers reclaiming their own land or occupiers stealing the land? Any single word could lead to trouble.
Given these realities, what is a rabbi to do? Many have simply stopped speaking about Israel altogether. I understand why. No one likes being attacked. However, I don’t think this is the answer.
As Jews we are connected to Israel whether we like it or not. Our sacred texts, liturgy, and history all speak of Israel. Instead of trying to disassociate ourselves, we should strive to better understand each others complex relationship and feelings about Israel.
How do we open a conversation that is this divisive? There are no easy answers, and no answers that will work in every situation. But I would begin with the personal. As a rabbi, I would share my own complicated relationship with Israel, and then ask people to share theirs. I would encourage individuals to truly listen to what others are saying particularly if they feel differently. Perhaps if we could all agree to listen to one another, and stop the name calling which happens on all of the different political sides, we could actually have a conversation.
How can we possibly hope to solve the peace process when American Jews can’t even talk to each other if they sit on different sides of the political aisle? We need to start this conversation at home, now.
Tell me, what do you love about Israel? What do you dislike about Israel?
I will start: I love the idea of a Jewish homeland. I love thinking that if my life were threatened here in the US because I was a Jew, there is someplace I can go. I dislike the control the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has over religious life in Israel. As a woman and a liberal Jew, I could not practice Judaism the way I like to in Israel.
I look forward to hearing your answers to these two questions and starting a conversation where all views are heard without judgment.
It was January 2007, almost exactly six years ago. I was sitting in my office, reviewing a dense corporate document retention proposal, when I realized it was time for a career change. I had questioned whether I wanted to remain a lawyer for several years. On the one hand, the law firms where I practiced treated us like indentured servants. We worked extremely long hours, were yelled at, and spent most of our time toiling away at menial tasks like reviewing boxes of emails or proofreading our bosses’ work. On the other hand, the pay was great and the risk was low. All we had to do was sacrifice our time and our pride and we could do quite well. For years, the financial benefits of the job and the uncertainty about what else I might want to do held me in check. But by 2007, the drudgery of the work and the sense of how meaningless it felt became too much for me. I decided that the risk of switching careers—even to something as dramatic as becoming a rabbi—was worth it.
This dilemma of accepting an unpalatable status quo or taking a risk on an uncertain but potentially transformative new direction is basically what the Israelites confront in Parashat B’shalah. The Israelites have just fled from Egypt and have journeyed as far as the Sea of Reeds when God rouses Pharaoh to chase after them. God is looking for the big finish to the Exodus drama, a climactic battle in which God can once and for all establish supremacy for all to see (Exodus 14:4). The Israelites, however, are not amused. In fact, they are terrified. Whatever faith in God they might have developed from experiencing the ten plagues quickly evaporates in the face of charging chariots and alarming battle cries. They beg Moses to let them return to their former lives of slavery in Egypt. But Moses tells them to have faith, and God, through Moses, parts the waters of the sea so that the Israelites can pass through to the other side. We all know what happens next: the Israelites make it safely across the sea, and once they get to the other side, God causes the waters to crash down upon the Egyptians who are in hot pursuit, drowning them in the sea.
In a fascinating commentary, though, our Sages did not just assume that the Israelites had the courage to march into the parted sea. Even though this event, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, would become a seminal moment in Jewish history which we recount twice a day in our liturgy (in the Mi Chamocha prayer), the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 36b-37a) depicts the Israelites as being hesitant to take the plunge:
Rabbi Yehudah said: When the Israelites stood by the Red Sea, the tribes strove with one another. This tribe said. “I’m not going into the sea first.” And another tribe said, “I’m not going into the sea first.” [Finally,] Nachshon the son of Amminadav jumped and descended into the sea first.
Rabbi Yehuda reflects how we often feel when facing a life-altering challenge. The fear of making change can often be paralyzing. Inertia is a powerful force, as is the psychological comfort of predictability, no matter how unpleasant the predictable may be. We can—and do—come up with a multitude of justifications for staying right where we are. We are conditioned, both culturally and biologically, not to go into the sea first. But Rabbi Yehuda’s account also expresses the truth that it only takes one leap, one chance, one moment of action, and our whole world can change.
We each face these crossroads in life. For some, it might be whether to remain in a relationship that has gone stale or whether to endure the pain and anguish of ending the relationship with the hope of finding a better one. For others, like myself, it might be whether to remain in a job that lacks fulfillment but provides a steady paycheck, or to pursue a dream job that might not work out.
We even experience this crossroads at national levels. As the Israeli election on January 22 showed, Israel is almost perfectly split between center-left and right-ultra Orthodox parties (each bloc received approximately 60 out of the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament). Israeli leaders, in picking a new government, will have to choose between retaining the status quo coalition of the past few years or forming a new coalition that embraces socioeconomic reform, equal treatment of Haredi and Hiloni Israelis, and an engaged peace process. Will a Nachshon ben Amminadav emerge to lead Israel into a new, dynamic, and possibly redemptive future, or will Israel’s leadership remain entrenched on the shore, arguing among themselves and unwilling to take the first pivotal step forward?
Change is always hard. We yearn for stability, structure, and continuity in our lives. Yet the wisdom of our tradition is that God will support us if we are willing to take the plunge into uncertainty. The narrative of the Israelites standing at the Sea of Reeds offers us more than just an historical/mythical account of our people’s origins. It empathizes with the difficulties we face, today, between taking risks on an unknown but potentially meaningful future versus remaining mired in an unpleasant, yet known, present. And it offers us hope if we are only bold enough to claim our own redemptive path.
After the Israelites realize their freedom from the Egyptians, they break out into raucous celebration. The people unite in a triumphant and jubilant song, known as Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, which we recount each year during the Torah reading for Parashat Beshallah. May each of us be blessed with the courage to follow our own paths of meaning in life. And may our decisions enable us to sing with joy about the lives we create for ourselves and our people.
Are you on the freedom bandwagon yet? Celebrations of the concept of freedom seem to be permeating the cultural-political zeitgeist these days. Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” which tells the story of President Lincoln’s efforts to pass a Constitutional amendment banning slavery, just received a leading 12 nominations for best picture of the year. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which we celebrate the birth of the great civil rights hero who helped lead African Americans in their struggle for freedom from racial oppression, is just around the corner (January 21).
And have you seen the Piers Morgan-Alex Jones interview yet? In a clip that has gone viral, Jones, a radio talk show host and gun enthusiast, launches into a vitriolic tirade about guns, freedom, and potential revolution that makes one wonder how he qualified for a gun permit in the first place.
All of this happens to be coinciding with the time of year in which Jews read the Exodus narrative. At first glance, it appears to be perfect timing. After all, the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery to freedom formed the moral and linguistic basis for Kin’’s civil rights oratory and is inextricably intertwined with Western society’s development of a natural right to liberty (which underlies both the 13th Amendment and gun owner’s claims to liberty from government intrusion into gun ownership). Continue reading
Ask any Jew what Hanukkah is about and you are likely to get one of two possible explanations: Maccabees or Menorahs. The first approach emphasizes a story about national liberation from tyranny. In this account, based on the First Book Of Maccabees, Mattathias the priest and his sons stood up to the mighty Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV, waging a successful three year-long guerilla war that, against all odds, freed the Jews from oppression and returned them to self-rule. The second narrative centers on oil in the Jerusalem Temple. As recounted in the Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 21b (which omits the Maccabean revolt altogether), when the Jews tried to restore worship in the Temple, they could only find one small vial of sealed olive oil with which to light the eternal flame of the menorah in the Temple. Though the oil should only have lasted one day, it miraculously wound up lasting a full eight days, until a new supply of oil could be found.
It is quite fascinating to see how these two stories continue to resonate today. After World War II, and especially after Israel’s founding in 1948, the story of the Maccabees’ military prowess in defeating large, neighboring enemies became a popular new paradigm for thinking about Jewish toughness and masculinity. We no longer had to see ourselves as meek and bookish victims but could instead refashion ourselves as heroes, standing up to those who challenged our authority to express our Jewishness publicly. This notion of Jews being courageous and selfless, fighting for the preservation of Jewish civilization, continues to resonate today. On the other hand, many Jews focus more on the ceremonial candle-lighting aspect of Hanukkah, fashioning Hanukkah into a kind of “Christmas for Jews,” complete with candle lighting, festive eating, gift-giving, and caroling. We don’t have to feel left out of the pageantry and fun of Christmas because we have our own Jewish version, and for kids it is even better because we get presents for eight days while Christians only get gifts once! Continue reading
“I hate them,” he said, with quiet conviction.
“Who do you hate?” I probed.
“Them. The Palestinians. I hate them.”
It was at that moment I realized that I held in my hands a pivotal moment. My response had the potential to shape my children’s lifelong attitudes regarding Israel and her neighbors.
I used to be more of a peacenik. I believed that both sides had legitimate points and (relatively) equal rights to the land of their ancestors. But as time has passed, it has gotten more and more difficult for me to have compassion for those on the opposing side.
We Jews have a historical right to the land. It was promised to us by God; hence the moniker, The Promised Land. But it would be inaccurate to deny that there were other peoples living there even at the time of the Bible. If “Joshua Fit De’ Battle Ob Jericho,” as the Negro spiritual goes, there must have been someone with whom to battle. To pretend that there was not a sizable and deeply-rooted Arab population in the land is both foolish and simply wrong.
The time period leading up to the establishment of the sovereign State of Israel in 1948 is fraught with geopolitical missteps and gaffes that charted this current course for disaster. From the very beginning of Israel’s existence, she has been under near-constant threat from enemies, both external and internal, always having to defend her right to exist to the international community. Along the way, decisions made by Israel’s government have contributed to, though not caused, the untenable situation.
And then there is the fact that none of the surrounding Arab countries have done anything to help the Palestinian people.
And then there is the reality that the Palestinian people have continually chosen leaders who have their very own selfish and self-serving interests at heart.
And then there is the inevitability that years of oppression, whether real or perceived, whether by Israel or their own leaders, has instilled a hatred and resentment in the Palestinian people that locks them in this vicious cycle of violence.
And none of that matters in this moment because I have this one opportunity to give the “right” answer.
“No, you mustn’t think that. You must never think that.”
And I say that because I don’t want to become like “them.” Like the terrorists. The ones who have so little regard for human life that they knowingly and willingly place their weapons among their most innocent and vulnerable. The ones who choose to use the money given from the international community to increase their firepower rather than build up a healthy infrastructure for their own people.
They are Hamas.
“If you want to hate someone, my dear children, hate them. Hate the haters. Hate the murderers. Hate the terrorists. They are the ones who have been shooting rockets into Israel for your entire lifetimes. They are the ones whose actions allow just 15 seconds for kids like you to run to bomb shelters. But feel only compassion for the innocents who are being used for political gain. Feel empathy for the children whose government builds weapons that will kill them rather than shelters that will protect them.”
Is this an oversimplified response? Is it a white-washed one? Yes, to both.
There will be time enough to revisit this situation and its nuances now – please God – the fighting has ceased.
But my children are still young. And they are still impressionable. And above all else, I want them to cling to the Jewish ideal that all life is sacred. Even the lives of our enemies. So I show them footage of the humanitarian aid that the IDF safely transfers over the border with Gaza. We read stories about the injured brought into Israel and cared for by Israeli medical professionals. We see pictures of military actions that are halted when intelligence indicates that the loss of human life is too great to justify them.
Because the moment that we regard all Palestinians with hate, we will have lost our own humanity. And that would make us no different than the terrorists.
I hope that I’m not the only one who immediately thought of the sacrifices that appear scattered throughout the Torah. -There are several in which pairs of animals are sacrificed, but of course, the most famous is the sacrifice of the goats on Yom Kippur. It is a bit different in this case of course: rather than one animal being sacrificed, and the other set free, the turkeys are delivered to the White House in a motorcade where one is pardoned, and then both are retired – to live long lives elsewhere.
I decided not to bother to go and look up the origins of this mysterious ceremony, so that I can imagine it in any way that I wish.
The human predilection for symbolic action is so enormously pervasive.
On the day before much of the country engages in a ritual of gathering families together, many offering examples of what they are grateful for, many, many of them eating the same ritual foods – turkey, pumpkin pie, stuffing, watching the same football game… on this day before, the main dish is pardoned and offered an escape to a long life. I hope all of you will consider offering your own thoughts on what this could possibly mean in the comments.
Compare this ritual to that of the ancient Israelites and their sacrifices of atonement. It makes me wonder if, even in ancient times, the Israelites didn’t really consider sacrifice to be efficacious for atonement any more than we think that it is. After all, the rabbis, after the Temple was destroyed did not elect to maintain a sacrifical cult, even though they could have offered sacrifices somewhere that was not the Temple, as they had prior to it. many of the rabbis hated tashlich – that ceremony still beloved today, in which we cast our sins out with bread to be eaten by the fish – symbolizing several things at once – generosity, atonement… and yet, few people believe that throwing crumbs at fish is really the same as doing the hard work of repentance. Continue reading