Monthly Archives: August 2015

Rules

So, I arrived home yesterday morning. I have always been thrilled to return to New York. This time, not so much.

I miss Jerusalem. Terribly. The Hebrew word “norah” seems uniquely equipped to describe the depth of my longing.

Rabbi Lipskier (who I was delighted to see and who kindly gave me an Aliyah so I could say Gomel this morning) offered to pack my bags. I think he just wants my apartment. I may let him get his wish.

This week’s parsha is Re’eh. As regular readers may know, I’ve become increasingly inclined to dismiss coincidence merely as coincidence, at least insofar as matters Judaic are concerned. This week is another coincidence.

You see, Re’eh is all about the (unnamed) Jerusalem, what will happen when we arrive there, and what we are to do there (and not to do elsewhere). While the parsha is unusually wide-ranging (reminding us that the goyim sacrifice their own children, that we can eat giraffe but not hyrax, etc., etc.) Jerusalem is one of its central themes. I feel like it is calling me back, and I was especially pleased to have an Aliyah for this parsha (although my pesukim were all about permitted and prohibited food. Mmmmmmm. Giraffe. Tastes like chicken).

Coincidence aside, I have been fixated on one sentence. While I have read at least four different translations of it, here is my own: “You are not to do all that we do here today each man that is straight before his eyes.” When are we not to do these things? When we arrive in Jerusalem (and, a bit more broadly although I’m not absolutely sure of this, the Promised Land). What are we not to do? We are not do whatever we feel like doing. While my literal translation is a bit stilted (others speak of not doing whatever we desire, etc.), I like mine because it reminds me of what my grandmother used to say when we were eating and I was serving myself any and everything that looked good: you have big eyes. It is an expression that in my experience generally is used by parents to children to caution them to reign in their appetites, so it seems entirely fitting to me that this is how Ha’ Shem would address us.

(I also like the literal dimension of being told not to do “what is straight before your eyes.” What a wonderful way of describing the immediacy of impulse. For what is impulse but an immediate reaction to ‘what is straight before your eyes?’ Considered behavior is quite the opposite.)

What are we to do? Well, the parsha tells us. It begins with “Re’eh” “See.” “See I gave before you blessing and curse.” What is the blessing and what is the curse? Well (anticipating my favorite passage in Nitsavim – my bar mitzvah parsha which we read in a few weeks), the blessing is to follow Ha’Shem’s commandments. The curse is to disobey them. “Choose life for the sake that you and your seed will live.” (Netsavim).

And this got me thinking. It was only this summer that I finally began to appreciate the extraordinary and unique gift of Shabbat that Ha’ Shem gave us and that we gave to the world. (I’m not alone. Just yesterday, in The New York Times, Oliver Sacks, who episodically has been chronicling his final illness, wrote of discovering the beauty of Shabbat, something that he, too, came to appreciate only later.)

But there is another gift we have given to the world, a gift that is at least as important as Shabbat and (if I may verge on heresy here a bit) perhaps even more important (because without ithuman Shabbat would be impossible). That is the gift of knowing how to live in community with others, in peace with others, and with respect for others.

For while this passage in Re’eh may appear to be focused on matters like sacrifice and ritual, it is written far more broadly. ‘You are not to act simply as you want,’ it tells us. And it makes perfect sense that we receive this instruction just before entering the Land, and doing so without Moshe Rabbenu. In the desert, we had Moses to guide us, Moses to intervene for us, Moses to speak directly with Ha’ Shem for instruction and clarification and, if necessary – and it was necessary – Moses to plead with Ha’Shem to spare our miserable lives. But after Moses was gone, the direct line was going to be cut off. What we had was the word. We were left on our own with the guidebook, the instruction manual, of how we could survive and thrive and, conversely, how we would fail to do so if we didn’t follow the rules.

And there it is: a simple statement about survival in the absence of divine intervention. If you hope to survive in community with others (and who can survive if not in community with others?), then you’re going to have to curb your impulses and desires and channel them through the rules of life you are being handed. If everybody did whatever they felt like – if they did ‘what it was straight before their eyes’ to do – survival would be impossible. To my knowledge, never before in the history of mankind has such a statement been made in the context of free will.

And so it is our gift, given to us by Ha’Shem and transmitted by us to the rest of the world for the first time in the history of the world. It is a lesson on how to live together. It is, in short, the gift of survival. It is a lesson that teaches freedom is lovely (and necessary) up to a point, but life together would be impossible if everybody did whatever he or she felt like doing. Freedom you have, including the freedom to choose whether you thrive or die. But know that if you disregard the rules, your big eyes will lead you to real unpleasantness, even death. With apologies to Cole Porter, not “anything goes.” The gift we received is the gift of knowing what does and what does not go.

This is a lesson that seems completely lost in modern America. It is really worth thinking abou

I Will Never Forget Jerusalem

This morning there were clouds.

It was striking. I walked out into the usual brilliant Jerusalem sunshine. But the central blue expanse was ringed with puffy white clouds.

These are the first clouds I have seen since leaving New York on June 17. Tomorrow, I return home.

I have been deciding whether to write for several days. It was my intention not to do so. Seeing family and friends will be delightful. But I have never been more sad to leave a place in my life. That includes New York, which I adore.

Last evening was my last visit downtown. I had planned to wander a bit, visit the Bezalel Artist’s house, check out a highly recommended religious bookstore, spend a little time in the peaceful streets of Rechavia, and studiously avoid the Old City. I thought that going there would make me even sadder to be leaving.

I did all that I had planned. But then, as the sun was setting, my feet started moving eastward on Yafo Street and there I was.

I didn’t plan to complete the circle, but could not escape the obvious. On my first day in Jerusalem – so long ago, it seems – I davened Shachris at the Kotel, laying tefillin for the first time. I arrived yesterday to a very crowded plaza, walked up to the wall, and heard a cry. “Mincha.” I picked up a siddur from a nearby chair, opened it, and davened Mincha and Maariv. Thus it ends. Thus it begins.

It was evening and it was morning. Yom Echad.

This summer was just that for me – Yom Echad.

I don’t plan to be overly reflective here. So much has happened that needs to settle and digest that it would be presumptuous even to try. I am rarely at a loss for words. I am now.

That’s all I have to say. Sad to be leaving, but happy knowing that next spring I will return to teach a short course at the law school of the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya. And from, there, if Ha’ Shem so wills it, back to Ulpan in Jerusalem. This time, perhaps, to stay.

Thanks for taking the journey with me. I’ll resume writing from New York.

 

If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem: Fear, Loathing . . . and Perspective

This has been a bad week in Israel. Just as I have been relating all the glories of this nation, so do I feel I must address its mistakes.

But first. Another Shabbat. My friends had departed and I made no plans so, after a day of studying, I decided to return to the Machlis’s one last time.   I was running a bit late but, as I approached the gate that leads from the Student Village to the street, I heard a man call “Adoni.” Sir. Leave aside the fact that at my age I find “sir” an insult, I know it was well-intended. I turned to see a Chasid walking quickly toward me across the plaza. I walked in his direction.

“Hebrew or English?”

“Hebrew please.”

“We need a 10th for a minyan.

“Where?”

“Sham.” He pointed. After almost seven weeks you would think I’d know that a Kabbalat Shabbat minyan gathers in the corner of the Student Village. Nope.

I was late. It was getting dark. What choice did I have?

And although the room quickly grew to 11 to 12 to 15, the nusach and service were so beautiful that I hung out perilously late. But I left.

It was dark. The shortcut to Maalot Dafna runs through an Arab neighborhood. I was wearing my kippah. The news around here might dictate the common sense that I risk being late by taking the long way or at least take my kippah off. No. These were neighbors. And as I, and all Israel, mourn the tragedy on the West Bank, I wanted to take my small opportunity to demonstrate some solidarity.

I arrived about on time. The Machlis’s Shabbat dinner was fun (and filled with an awful lot of Christians giving testimony although – for the most part – they considerately avoided mentioning a well-known Jewish carpenter). But I have written about the Machlis’s.

To the tragedies. First, a lunatic who should never have been let out of prison unrestricted attacked celebrants at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride parade. Second, an animal or animals apparently claiming to be Jewish burned a home on the West Bank and killed a baby.

So much to discuss. Where to start?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe opened his heart to all Jews. I’m going to have to talk with Rabbi Lipskier when I return because I – and apparently almost every other Jew in Israel – fail to recognize this behavior as Jewish. So what does it mean to be a Jew?

I like to add value here, and there is nothing I can say about these tragedies that hasn’t already been said by others. What I would like to do is offer some perspective. Because hard on the heels of each of these tragedies has come world condemnation of Israel, including loud condemnation from American Jews. This has been almost as painful to watch as the realization – again – that Jews are humans and are capable of the same kind of behavior other humans are.

There is no excuse for the behavior. And the Israeli government clearly failed in properly controlling Yishai Shlissel and has failed even more in controlling the behavior of some of the settlers.

Israel has taken responsibility. Almost every citizen is appalled. Almost every leading public figure has spoken out in anger, sorrow, and pain. They have vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice. They have vowed to do better.  (And, as I just learned, anti-violence protests are planned for tonight in  the three major cities, with leading public officials addressing each).

Yet the world condemnation is loud and cynical. The Palestinian Authority – which celebrates its terrorists and acts of terror – has announced its intention to take Israel to court for war crimes – again. Hamas is pleased that it has an opportunity to retaliate and escalate. The anti-Semitic world again denounces Israel. And American Jews loudly join the chorus.

Full stop. Who has taken the United States to court for the extraordinary violence perpetrated on people of color, not by terrorists but by its official state actors – the police? Who blames the US government when – as so frequently happens – some nut allowed to carry a gun walks into a public place and wipes out dozens of people –babies and children included – without discrimination? Where is the liberal American outcry at the violence and violations of civil rights committed hourly in the rest of the Middle East and Asia, including our new ally, Iran and – yes – the Palestinian territories?   And, by the way, none of these countries – not even the US – express the outrage and pain of the Israeli government. None act so swiftly to do justice. And few – including the US – ever actually achieve it.

What is going on here? Israel is a liberal democracy with deeply humanistic values and lives by the Torah’s commandment that you are to treat the stranger among you as yourselves (for you were strangers in the land of Egypt). And it is a very diverse society. I see this every day. Israel recently ranked #7 in the world for hospitality and acceptance of gay people. Israel’s courts – again following religious commandment – rarely ever impose the death penalty. Israel has universal sufferage, with Arabs serving in the Knesset, the courts, and even the Supreme Courts. (Count the Jews even left in the Arab world, much less those treated with anything approaching equality.) In many respects, Israel is what the US claims it aspires to be.

(I have a little theory. Liberal critics of Israel but not the Arab states simply are racist.  They don’t expect non-Western, non -white people, to behave with the same standards as white people (although I actually don’t think Jews are white.)  Just a theory.)

The blindness of the world is understandable. Cynicism, cupidity, and anti-Semitism are, and always have been, rampant. The blindness of American Jews is terrifying and is bound to lead to tragedy.

Here is an example. Yesterday, in another forum, I commented on the tragic stories and pointed out a bit of what I have seen here. I got a response from a thoughtful, intelligent, and obviously quite sensitive New Yorker who noted appreciation of my defense and wrote (I paraphrase because I haven’t asked permission to quote) that watching the conflict over here is like watching one’s children fighting.

That an intelligent, sensitive New Yorker – and a Jew – could say this is appalling. Children? Whose child is Israel? Even a casual reading of history shows that Israel is about as self-made as a nation can be. Yes, there has been much American aid and money from American Jews. But Israel largely has stood alone in every war (including its war for independence) against tremendous odds. Israel has built an education, economic, technological, and scientific infrastructure that should be the envy of everybody. It has made enormous contributions to the welfare, well-being happiness, and comfort of hundreds of millions of people around the world – from this nation of seven million.

Of course none of this excuses these tragedies, or the other mistakes Israel makes. Your child? While American children are participating, often ill-informed, in political debates and protests on their college campuses, Israeli children are defending their country against the many nations that have declared their desires to destroy it (and those that would happily look on). They serve in the only army I know of where it is the right of every soldier to disobey an order on moral grounds without negative consequences. (Consider how My Lai and Iraqi torture might have gone were the US Army to have that rule.) They have been schooled in liberal human values and deeply human Jewish values. They are taught to put themselves in harms’ way in order to avoid damage or casualties to civilians. And they do. I see these “children” every day on the street. They are sweet, and young, and innocent. Yet each one of them could die today under the right circumstances. Some of them (well, young police), risked their lives just last week to allow me to pray safely at the Kotel. The risk of injury or death is far less likely for your kids on leafy college campuses (unless they die from alcohol abuse).

Your child? These children – and this government – defends the only state in the world where Jews are guaranteed a life free of persecution –as is every other citizen here. The history of the world should suggest that, no matter how comfortable American Jews have become, nothing is forever for a Jew. History shows us that German Jews were every bit as comfortable, every bit as confident in their security. These children ensure that if the worst happens, this nation will be here for us. Certainly the European Jews I’ve met here who recently have made Aliyah are glad it is.

Excuses? No. Excusable? No. Never again should be the motto, and the Israeli government and people must do everything to prevent such future tragedies.

But, as for you critics: Read a little history. Go beyond The New York Times , random headlines, and Facebook posts from people you really don’t know and whose opinions you have no reason to respect. Read for yourself. Think for yourself. Question whatever left-progressive priors might tell you about the picture of oppression (which is a useful exercise in any event).

And above all: Have a little perspective.