t was almost two months ago that I wrote about #bringbackourgirls, lamenting the kidnapping of a school full of young girls in Nigeria and talking about the sad relevance of the mitzvah of pidyon sh'vuyim / redeeming captives.
Here we are again, two months after the Nigerian girls were captured by the Boko Haram terrorist group. Some of those girls escaped, some are still in captivity and are being held prisoner until they can be exchanged, apparently, for Boko Haram activists being held in Nigerian prisons. We do not know the fate or state of those girls. Let us not forget them as each news cycle brings us fresher causes for concern.
We must, though, protest, voice our outrage, yell into the wind: the new vogue in terrorism seems to be the capture of children. Three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by the Hamas terror organization just over a week ago.
There is little sense in asking why when discussing an act of terror. The "why" is to generate terror. And now, apparently, with the well-oiled mechanisms of social media, a new "why" is to draw the world's attention to the terrorist cause. Free publicity. Had you ever heard of Boko Haram, or knew what it meant before mid-April? Had you grown complacent about Hamas as it took its place in the government of the Palestinian Authority? The horror of children in captivity is too painful to contemplate for more than a moment or two . . . but those children, the remaining captive Nigerian girls and Israel's three boys, are living that horror every single moment of every single day.
This week's Torah reading, Korach, opens with one of the Torah's most difficult passages. A leader from the tribe of Levi, Korach, stirs up a crowd and pushes into Moses' face challenging Moses' authority and therefore challenging God's choices and leadership as well. The fate of the rebels is brutal: they, their homes, their families are all swallowed up by the earth. This is, of course, a cautionary tale against challenging God's authority and decisions. At a time like ours, as we look with helpless outrage at the faces of terrorist-abducted children, we wish some of that biblical justice could be meted out right now while the children are whisked safe and sound back to the embrace of their families.
God has adjusted the parameters of divine intervention in human affairs since the days of Korach and, I believe, is a source of strength, wisdom and guidance for us in the face of events we cannot fathom alone. We will pray for Gilad Shaer, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach . . . and their parents and all those who love them at Shabbat services here at Torat Yisrael.
For those of us who find that music helps express what is deepest in our hearts, here is a video of a song by two Israeli musicians:
One of the key elements of this week's Torah reading is introduced in the opening passage. God instructs Moses: "Send men and let them scout the land of Canaan that I'm giving to the children of Israel...." From that moment to this very day, Jews have examined the Land from outside her borders and used the culled information to sustain our bonds to that place.
This past week was one of the times when diaspora Jewish communities all around the world were focussed sharply on Israel. The Knesset was voting to appoint the 10th president of the State of Israel.
Many of us regretted, but reluctantly accepted the inevitability of , President Shimon Peres' retirement. Over the course of his decades of service to the State of Israel, the people of Israel and the Jewish people as a whole, Shimon Peres has been much more a statesman than a politician. He has proven to be an insightful and wise leader and innovator.
After months of conjecture, lobbying, speculating and commenting, the members of Israel's Knesset have elected Shimon Peres' successor, Ruby Rivlin. Mr. Rivlin is a controversial figure from the point of view of Jews living outside the state of Israel.
I invite you to follow the link I've provided to read an insightful "Open Letter" to Israel's new president by Times of Israel blogger and president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, Yehuda Kurtzer. You'll find a balanced and intelligent review of Mr. Rivlin's career and an intelligent presentation of the concerns raised here in the American Jewish community. I join Mr. Kurtzer in hoping that our most dire predictions about Mr. Rivlin's presidency will prove baseless:
Today we mark the first day of the Hebrew month of Sivan. Few first days of the month in the Hebrew calendar serve as milestones of significance as does this date. Since the second evening of Passover, over six weeks ago, we have been counting the Omer, marking the beginning of each Hebrew day (in the evening) with a blessing and a ritual counting of the day. Like marking off days on a calendar in anticipation of a great event, counting the Omer is our Jewish anticipation-builder . . . for at the end of the counting we will have arrived at the 6th of Sivan, Shavuot, the festival marking the paradigm-creating revelation of Torah at Sinai. From the moment that our Israelite ancestors looked back at the Sea of Reeds behind them and found their pursuers drowning in the waters that God had held back for them, until approaching the wilderness of Sin (please don't get caught up in the coincidence between the English word "sin" and the Hebrew geographic term, there is really and truly no connection save coincidence) the Israelites had already experienced some elevating and some challenging moments: They had faced the uncertainties of food and water in the wilderness and learned to rely on God to sustain them; they had been introduced to Shabbat as a day of rest for God (who did not produce manna on Shabbat) and for themselves (they did not collect manna on Shabbat); they withstood a fierce attack by Amalek and his troops and were defended by Joshua and the Israelite troops sustained and inspired by God; Moses, advised by his father-in-law, Jethro, established a system of self-governance and dispute resolution . . . all before arriving at Sinai.
Although the walk to Sinai was through uncharted territory, the wandering of our ancestors was not random. The Israelites arrived at the third new moon . . . today's date, the beginning of the month of Sivan . . . guided by God's pillar of cloud during the day and pillar of fire by night and there they prepared themselves for the most extraordinary event they could not possibly anticipate.
I took a look at the challenges our walk from Passover to this first day of Sivan has involved as we, too, prepare to re-experience the revelation of Torah on Shavuot this coming week. We have mourned the victims of the Holocaust and shuddered when notes bearing Nazi rhetoric were handed to Jews attending Passover services in the Ukraine. We have found compassion and the conviction to speak out on behalf of the abducted schoolgirls of Nigeria, a compelling contemporary parallel to our own slavery story. We have organized to lobby for poverty-alleviating legislation here in Rhode Island. We have mourned both the troops who gave their lives for the establishment and defense of the State of Israel and those who gave their lives for the establishment and defense of the United States of America in two Memorial Days. Even in these GPS-guided days, our wanderings take us through uncharted territory.
We know that something great is going to happen next week. We have the advantage over our wilderness-walking ancestors in knowing that the revelatory moment awaiting us can bring wisdom and guidance, inspiration and challenge. The Sinai revelation was not a one-time event . . . our tradition teaches us that revelatory moments happen throughout time. When we come together as a community on Shavuot this week, let us stand shoulder-to-shoulder ready to accept the renewal of covenant with God which is the glue that binds us together . . . binds us to God and binds us to each other.
Letting the eternal and eternally renewing teachings of Torah into our daily lives will guide our walking and provide us with goals and aspirations and the tools to navigate the complexities we encounter in life.
Not a week goes by when there is not some news item about Israel or the middle east. This week, as we commemorate Israel's fallen defense forces during Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) and transition into the celebrations around Yom Ha'atzma'ut (Independence Day), I think it's worth taking a few moments to reflect on the beginnings of the State of Israel.
Israel is a unique mixture of ancient roots and modern formation: Through much of the book of Breishit/Genesis, we witness God's promise to Abraham and his progeny that their relationship with God's land will be part of an eternal covenant. This element of our brit/covenant with God is so essential to our being, we have turned daily to face that land as we pray no matter where in the world we are: South African Jews face north, the Jews of Scotland turn south, Jews in Tokyo face west and we here in Rhode Island face east during prayer. The element of The Land is so central to our brit/covenant with God, that our rabbinic literature has embroidered and elevated the nature of The Land in order to foster this ongoing love for God's Land: the fruit is sweeter, the animals healthier, milk and honey (actually date syrup!) flows with abundance. These images inspired us during millennia of exile. Jews in Europe would leave a small patch of wall unpainted in the upper corner of a room in their homes to show that life is incomplete as long as we are living anywhere but The Land.
Since 1948, the Land of Israel has transformed into a modern polity, the State of Israel. In 66 short years, a breathtakingly beautiful and raucous and fragile and steadfast and ground-breaking and brilliant and bewildering and inspiring democracy has emerged. For a moment, let us put aside the contentious issues of the day and remember how the State of Israel took shape. What follows is the proclamation issued in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948, the 5th of Iyar 5708. So much has happened since that day, and with the support and pride and involvement of Jews all over the world, the State of Israel will continue, with God's blessing, to thrive, grow and contribute as a respected nation.
Provisional Government of Israel
Official Gazette: Number 1; Tel Aviv, 5 Iyar 5708, 14.5.1948 Page 1
The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people.
Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.
After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.
Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades they returned in their masses. Pioneers, defiant returnees, and defenders, they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country's inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood.
In the year 5657 (1897), at the summons of the spiritual father of the Jewish State, Theodore Herzl, the First Zionist Congress convened and proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country.
This right was recognized in the Balfour Declaration of the 2nd November, 1917, and re-affirmed in the Mandate of the League of Nations which, in particular, gave international sanction to the historic connection between the Jewish people and Eretz-Israel and to the right of the Jewish people to rebuild its National Home.
The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people--the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe--was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the community of nations.
Survivors of the Nazi holocaust in Europe, as well as Jews from other parts of the world, continued to migrate to Eretz-Israel, undaunted by difficulties, restrictions and dangers, and never ceased to assert their right to a life of dignity, freedom and honest toil in their national homeland.
In the Second World War, the Jewish community of this country contributed its full share to the struggle of the freedom- and peace-loving nations against the forces of Nazi wickedness and, by the blood of its soldiers and its war effort, gained the right to be reckoned among the peoples who founded the United Nations.
On the 29th of November, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel; the General Assembly required the inhabitants of Eretz-Israel to take such steps as were necessary on their part for the implementation of that resolution. This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable.
This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.
Accordingly we, members of the People's Council, representatives of the Jewish Community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist Movement, are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British Mandate over Eretz-Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.
We declare that, with effect from the moment of the termination of the Mandate being tonight, the eve of Sabbath, the 6th Iyar, 5708 (15th May, 1948), until the establishment of the elected, regular authorities of the State in accordance with the Constitution which shall be adopted by the Elected Constituent Assembly not later than the 1st October 1948, the People's Council shall act as a Provisional Council of State, and its executive organ, the People's Administration, shall be the Provisional Government of the Jewish State, to be called "Israel." The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
The State of Israel is prepared to cooperate with the agencies and representatives of the United Nations in implementing the resolution of the General Assembly of the 29th November, 1947, and will take steps to bring about the economic union of the whole of Eretz-Israel.
We appeal to the United Nations to assist the Jewish people in the building-up of its State and to receive the State of Israel into the community of nations.
We appeal--in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months--to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.
We extend our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.
We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream--the redemption of Israel.
Placing our trust in the Almighty, we affix our signatures to this proclamation at this session of the provisional Council of State, on the soil of the Homeland, in the city of Tel-Aviv, on this Sabbath eve, the 5th day of Iyar, 5708 (14th May, 1948).
Daniel Auster Mordekhai Bentov Yitzchak Ben Zvi Eliyahu Berligne Fritz Bernstein Rabbi Wolf Gold Meir Grabovsky Yitzchak Gruenbaum Dr. Abraham Granovsky Eliyahu Dobkin Meir Wilner-Kovner Zerach Wahrhaftig Herzl Vardi Rachel Cohen Rabbi Kalman Kahana Saadia Kobashi Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Levin Meir David Loewenstein Zvi Luria Golda Myerson Nachum Nir Zvi Segal Rabbi Yehuda Leib Hacohen Fishman David Zvi Pinkas Aharon Zisling Moshe Kolodny Eliezer Kaplan Abraham Katznelson Felix Rosenblueth David Remez Berl Repetur Mordekhai Shattner Ben Zion Sternberg Bekhor Shitreet Moshe Shapira Moshe Shertok
Along with many members of the Conservative Movement and Conservative rabbis this week, I received a letter from the leadership of our sister Israeli movement, the Masorti Movement, explaining the latest developments in the inexplicably complex effort to gain access to the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount for prayer by non-Orthodox groups of Jews.
This length of retaining wall is as close to the site of the great Temple as we Jews can get. The Temple was the focal point of the Jewish world from the time of Solomon (10th century BCE) to its final destruction at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE. For close to two thousand years, the western wall has served as the prime pilgrimage destination for Jews.
I remember my first visit to the western wall quite vividly: it was 1973 and the approach to the section of the wall reserved for prayer was much simpler than it is today: no gates. It was a quiet place for contemplation and prayer. There was a very low, moveable metal barrier separating the men's section from the women's section. I was overcome by the confluence of physical reality and the mythic power of biblical narrative before my eyes. I was in that place.
I'll admit I was young and in love and in Israel for the first time in my life . . . but with all that being said, I am sure that it was not the stars in my eyes that blinded me to political and religious tensions around the site. It is that over the decades, this site has accrued layer over murky layer of political and religious, politically religious and religiously political conflict. The tensions and confrontations that now muffle the spiritual significance of the kotel were just not there before the intifada, and before the non-orthodox movements began to establish Israel-rooted congregations, youth movements, seminaries and organizational structures.
Except for one day a year, on the fast of the 9th of Av, the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, I am not moved to pray at the western wall. That's my choice, for my own reasons. The centrality of this site in Jewish history, Jewish practice, Jewish spirituality is absolute and it should not be acceptable that Jews wishing to pray in proximity to this retaining wall should be booed and assaulted and physically removed . . . or even have to ask special permission and special access when other Jews have free access any time at all.
The leaders of the Masorti Movement in Israel are eloquent, determined people of vision and understanding. Understanding that there is a wide spectrum of Jewish identity and Jewish practice and Jewish community in the world, and it all converges on Israel. How ironic it is that in the only sovereign Jewish state in the world, Jews are discriminated against for their Jewish commitments. Trained and ordained in Israel, the only place in the world in which the marriage or the conversion I conducted is not recognized by the government of the country in which I was trained and ordained.
We are not understanding each other well, we diverse Jews. The principle of כלל ישראל / klal yisrael / the collective concern for the collective of the Jewish people is atrophying from disuse.
I pray that we will, none of us, receive such letters from Jerusalem again.
I'd like to suggest, though, that a more meaningful tribute to the memory and meaning of Nelson Mandela finds expression in the acknowledgement of the fact that the relationship between the Jews, Israel and Nelson Mandela were not always the most amicable.
Indeed, it is no more than historical fact that Israel long supported, and sold arms to, the South African regime that oppressed and imprisoned Mr. Mandela and that Israel was among the last nations of the world to join in isolating South Africa at the end of Apartheid. For many of us in Israel, this policy was disturbing to say the least.
At the same time, Yasser Arafat and the PLO were publicly staunch supporters of Mr. Mandela and the ANC. The two liberation movements were drawn together by the parallels they perceived in their respective experiences.
Given this background, Mr. Mandela's attitude toward Israel and toward the conflicts in the Middle East are very impressive: rather than being drawn into a partisan relationship with the Palestinian people, Nelson Mandela assessed the parties involved through the lens of his own wisdom and experience. Indeed, according to an article published today in the Times of Israel, Mandela had the clear vision and presence of mind to use the occasion of his own presidential inauguration to bring the warring parties of the Middle East together.
In other contexts, Nelson Mandela publicly expressed his support for a secure and stable Israel, acknowledged personal ties with South African Jews who had stood by his side in his youth, and had even commented, on the eve of his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, that Yitzhak Rabin was more deserving of that prize than himself.
In our culture of growing polarization, in politics, in economics, in religion . . . a voice of balance and integrity like Mr. Mandela's should be exalted. And the loss of such a voice should be deeply mourned.
Thanks to our TY member and Cohen School teacher, David Wasser, I had the pleasure and challenge of speaking at the Moses Brown TEDx event last night. My mission: to sum up some aspect of my journey to Israel with Imam Farid Ansari and Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson . . . in 12 minutes! This is my TEDx talk . . . an apt topic, indeed, for this week's Torah portion as we contemplate the significance of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and their offspring for our own lives.
A rabbi, an imam and a minister get on an airplane: sounds a bit like a joke . . . mostly we three companions have been on a journey of exploration and bridge-building and assumption blasting that has literally taken us places we never expected to go . . . . together. So, not a joke, but a lot of laughing has been involved.
The imam is Imam Farid Ansari a six-foot-something American born black guy who is an ex New York City cop and now serves as the spiritual leader of the Muslim-American Dawah Center of Providence and is the head of the Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement.
The minister is the Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson, a few inches short of six foot American white guy from a family of Swedish immigrants who is a born and bred Rhody, an American Baptist Minister and is the Executive Minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches.
I am Amy Levin, a nice, short, middle-aged Jewish lady from New Jersey.
We three learn from each other all the time . . . we meet for diner breakfasts and scheme together and debate with each other and inch by inch have edged away from assumptions and caution to trust. Through the friendship and integrity of these two men have taught me that it’s ok to question my long-standing assumptions and to step out of my safe space.
My first ten years of life, my family lived in a mixed catholic and black neighborhood of East Orange, New Jersey. On my way home from elementary school, the Catholic kids from the parochial school that lay between my public school and our garden apartment, used to chase me into the neighborhood alleys calling me "dirty Jew" and scaring the bejabbers out of me. Christmas and Easter were not happy associations for me, they were, instead, reminders of my "different-ness."
My husband, baby daughter and I moved to Israel in September 1981. The first week we were there, I walked past the main department store in downtown Jerusalem. The window display declared in huge letters and lots of sparkle: Shanah Tovah! Happy New Year! Referring to the impending holy day of Rosh Hashanah . . . . Not the secular calendar date of January 1st. I wasn't in Kansas anymore. I wasn't in suburban New Jersey anymore. I was part of the majority culture for the first time on my life! I relaxed in a way I never had back in the States. Now the people around me were going to be celebrating my holidays, school vacations were going to coincide with my festivals, restaurants were going to be kosher wherever I went . . .
Being not-the-minority was a revelation. Through the twenty years of living in Israel, which included lots of economic and social challenges, I never lost the sense that I was where I belonged, I was in my place and the people around me were my people.
. . . . For the most part . . . I was living in a rather siloed culture, in the middle of western Jerusalem. But I did have a few encounters with my Arab neighbors ... Before the first intifada (which began in 1987), my daughter and I would encounter Arab moms and kids from the Arab village across the road at the playground that lay between a Jewish and an Arab neighborhood. The kids played together. One day, a young Arab mom offered me a fresh almond from a little bag she brought to the playground. But encounters like that disappeared . . . a fence was built alongside the Arab side of the playground . . . when the intifada began.
After the intifada began . . . our apartment building was at the edge of our Jewish neighborhood. Across the street was a bare hill and in the valley over that hill was an Arab village. And one evening, coming home late from work, I got out of my car and a rock came sailing over the hill at me. And another one. It took me a minute to realize what was happening . . . and then I ducked behind my car and yelled (in Hebrew) “I didn’t do anything to you!”
So, my inclination was to stick to my Jerusalem: the part of the Jerusalem that speaks Hebrews and closes school for Hanukah and empties the bread shelves during Passover. For the girl that used to be chased home being called “dirty Jew,” it was a whole new experience being surrounded and protected by “my own.”
And then a dozen or so years after leaving Israel, I’m sitting at a Providence diner with a minister and an imam . . . not my natural comfort zone people. We began with the premise that all three of our faith communities are co-existing in Rhode Island and we should try to deepen the interfaith conversation since we’re all here anyway.
Our diner conversations led to join press conferences where we have stood together for mutual respect between our communities, compassion and peace in the Middle East. We brought an exhibit about the history of Islam in the United States to Rhode Island.
And then we we were invited to speak at a symposium in Jerusalem about green and sustainable pilgrimage. We were billed as the “collaborating clergy” . . . as we planned our presentation we began to realize how far we’d come, how much trust had grown between us and how odd it seemed that our collaboration was such an extraordinary thing that we had to be imported to Jerusalem from Rhode Island to explain how we do it.
Rhode Island, with Roger Williams’ legacy of religious liberty, is a very conducive place to build bridges between religious leaders and religious communities like those that Don and Farid and I have built.
The first place we visited was a baptismal site on the western bank of the Jordan River . . . As we followed the slope down toward the river we came to a wooden boardwalk on which several groups of Christian pilgrims from Africa and Asia and Latin America and Europe were each gathered, readying themselves for immersion in the Jordan. As an Israeli living in Jerusalem, I would note the turn from winter to spring by the sudden spurt of tour busses on the streets . . . including those carrying Christian groups . . . but I’d never witnessed the reverence of Christians for the Holy Land that I had only experienced as my Jewish Holy Land.
We then moved on to the mosque of Nebi Musa . . . which is Arabic for mosque of the Prophet Moses . . . which should sound a bit like the Hebrew the Navi Moshe . . . . and Don and I watched as Farid reverently bathed his feet and disappeared inside the mosque to pray. Farid emerged from the mosque, and we returned to Jerusalem.
Even though I am the one with the Israeli ID card, each of my travel buddies had connected to places in my land to which I could only be a visitor. I had been so focused on our role at the symposium, our travel arrangements and accommodations, that I really hadn’t thought that much about what the experience of moving through Israel with a faithful Muslim and a faithful Christian would be like. That first day, I gained an appreciation for the significance of this land in the faith traditions of my friends . . . but I still held on to a sense of ownership, I felt as though I was offering the gifts of unique experiences to my friends.
Over the next few days, as we engaged with the participants of the symposium, I became the humble tourist: Don and Farid were embraced and welcomed by the Christian and Muslim communities of Jerusalem’s Old City and villages on the West Bank of the Jordan River . . . they went to places I could not go and they came back with beautiful stories about warm welcomes and meals at family tables. I wasn’t the only one welcoming them to Israel and showing them around any more . . . I was sharing the privilege and watching their spiritual enrichment from the sidelines.
Don and Farid showed me facets of my own country that I had totally missed because of politics and wariness and my own enjoyment of being part of the majority for a change.
Abraham, the biblical Abraham. His name, translated from the Hebrew means “father of many peoples.” We keep forgetting that. I was trying to own Abraham in a rather exclusive deal until I travelled to the land of Abraham with two other of Abraham’s children: there is so much more truth in the expanded family of Abraham’s children, of Jews and Christians and Muslims. The Torah recounts the moment of God’s blessing to Abraham: the original Hebrew is: vnivr’chu b’cha kol goyei ha’aretz . . . all the nations of the land will be blessed through you. All the nations of the land . . .
It’s more than ok to let go of the assumptions that you may think are providing you with a sense of security and a sense of place. Find yourself some out of the box true friends and give yourself the gift of a new perspective and a new humility.
Olim celebrate new Israel ID cards.
Israel is an exciting place: Just as I arrived about ten days ago, a plane load of new immigrants (olim) from the United States landed at Ben Gurion airport. Over half of those on board were children. All kinds of people were on board: Orthodox families, secular singles, retirees and students.
Watching the news that day brought me back to my own arrival in Israel as a new immigrant: I stepped off the plane with my husband and my 16 month-old daughter. I knew some rudimentary Hebrew and had visited Israel a number of times over the last few years. My husband's parents and grandparents and sisters had moved to Israel, so we had the benefit of immediate family, as well as extended family all over the country. With all that, I still had a tremendous amount to learn, and a tremendous amount to assimilate.
The magic and the privilege of living in Jerusalem never really wore off. But every day sights that would stop me in my tracks ... like a glimpse of the Old City Walls while standing at a city bus stop ... became part of the unnoticed everyday landscape. Getting on that bus and hearing Hebrew and Spanish and French and Russian and English and Amharic and Hebrew used to elevate the ride, bringing home to me the face that Israel is home to Jews from all over the world. Then, I stopped seeing my fellow bus passengers so much, engrossed in figuring out how to get my errands before and still be on time to pick up my kids from pre-school.
Watching the news of this plane load of new olim brought it all back to me. I was happy for them, thinking of all that awaits them: the magic of those glimpses of the old and the new, of breathing in the air of the one place on earth that is our place. I was even happy for them for all the challenges that await: learning the Israeli children's stories and songs, figuring out how to navigate through the Israeli bureaucracy of Ministry of the Interior and the municipal tax office.
This week's Torah portion, Eikev, includes Moses' exhortations to our wilderness-wandering ancestors on the eve of their entrance into the land of our matriarchs and patriarchs: remember God's gifts of Torah and manna; keep true to the commitments and inspirations of Torah no matter what distractions and temptations your neighbors may offer you; don't forget to stop and enjoy the beauties and blessings of our land; be prepared for lots of difference of opinions and public debate ... just don't lose sight of the essentials.
If you've never been to Israel, perhaps it's time to plan a visit to experience this for yourself. If you have been to Israel, then think about coming back to recharge your spiritual batteries. It will work during the week we read Parashat Eikev, or any other time!
Over twelve years after our American complacency was shattered by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we are still finding our way through a forest of security and privacy issues. As we take in the revelations about the Obama administration's collection of data on phone calls made, these issues are raised afresh. President Obama and our national security leadership have denied absolutely that calls were listened to without appropriate judiciary warrants. We are listening, too, and are probably inclined to believe or doubt those denials based on our own political leanings and proclivities . . . for none of us in the general public really have any way of knowing how this data has been processed.
What sort of guidance does Judaism provide in this existential conflict of interest between protecting innocent populations and protecting the privacy and anonymity of citizens of a democracy?
Jonathan Stein, a PhD in Near Eastern Studies, and an attorney, writes in an article on Judaism and Privacy (www.myjewishlearing.com): "However, there is evidence from [classic Jewish] sources that privacy is not in fact a value in and of itself, but an instrument for achieving social harmony and religious welfare. Thus, the general duty of confidentiality gives way when it clashes with issues of communal import. Court witnesses may not claim a confidentiality privilege to avoid testifying. Concerns of justice override any privacy interest. This is in contrast to American law, where doctors, lawyers, ministers, and spouses can often avoid testifying about information they received in confidence."
In the United States, we have become socialized to assume a constitutional "right to privacy" of which we are more protective than a mother bear with her cubs. Whether there actually exists such a constitutional right is a matter of debate, in fact. In Judaism, however, there is no debate. An individual's "personal space" must give way when matters concerning the well-being of innocents in the community are in question.
In an article published in 2002 (Living Words IV: A Spiritual Source Book for an Age of Terror), Alan Dershowitz recounts the changes of heart he underwent after 9/11 regarding the issue of "roving warrants" (which attach to an individual instead of a particular phone or phone number) and national identity cards. He wrote: "Terrorists should never make us give up our liberties or change our values. But experiences of all kinds--whether they are natural disasters or the horrors wrought by criminals--inevitably provoke thoughtful people into rethinking attitudes and values. This process is a healthy one. It is part of what Socrates called "the examined life."
In Israel, the country that is in constant arbitration between protecting the privacy of individuals in a democracy established with protections for free speech and human rights and protecting a population under almost constant threat of military and/or terrorist attack, the public debate sounds similar to ours, but the background premises are rather different. In Israel, it is the most routine of procedures to have one's bag opened and examined, go through metal detectors, etc., when entering a movie theater or a shopping mall or a coffee shop. To object on the grounds of invasion of privacy would be absurd in a setting where such a lapse might provide the opening for a pizza parlor to be blown to bits.
In Israel, we see, on the ground, the principle Dr. Stein described in theory: in Judaism, privacy is not a value in an of itself . . . it is a luxury we enjoy when circumstances permit.
Many of us enjoy many luxuries here in the United States. Whether we must eschew this particular one in order to maintain public safety or not is a matter of public, crucial public, debate. But our tradition encourages us to keep an open mind and look at the issue not only as citizens of a democracy, but as Jews informed by our tradition as well.
This week, we read the opening chapters of the book of Numbers, Bamidbar. This is a clear case in which meaning is lost in translation: The book is entitled "Numbers" in English based on the census that is related in the opening chapter of the book, but in Hebrew the title "Bamidbar" means "wilderness" . . . as the book relates the saga of the Israelite journey through the wilderness from Sinai to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.
This is also a week in which the whole world is watching the spiritual wanderings of the residents of modern Israel.
The Christian Science Monitor, The Arab News as well as The Jerusalem Post, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and every other Jewish news source has covered the turn of events at the Western Wall this week.
One month ago, at the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Iyyar, police arrested (for the umpteenth time) women who were participating in a participatory women's service celebrating the new month . . . for disrupting the peace. Following these arrests, a series of Israeli justices have ruled that it is not the praying women who have disturbed the peace of this significant historic sight (the Western Wall is the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, the height on which the long-destroyed First and Second Temples stood).
Today, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Sivan, saw a new development in the wake of the court decisions. This month the women returned to pray . . . but instead of arresting the women, as ultra-Orthodox Jews threw chairs, water and worse at them, the police restrained the outraged onlookers.
Since 1948, with Jewish sovereignty over Israel established, a significant dynamic of wandering came to an historic resolution. We are, in the words of Israel's national anthem: am chofshi b'artzeinu . . . a free people in our land.
But in other profound ways, we have not yet arrived.
The tendency to self-righteousness and even contempt between Jew and Jew is not limited to the conflicts within Israel around the Western Wall. Although generally less violent, there are those within the Jewish community who label other Jews as violaters of Torah, abductors of innocents, sabotagers of our tradition.
In my view, we will remain at the very beginning of our spiritual growth as a people as long as we foster theological one-upsmanship and self-righteousness. I await the spiritual milestone at which all of us who identify with our Torah and our people and our God and our tradition will be able to address each other with theological humility and say: your path may not be mine, your interpretation of Torah may not be that which is practiced in my community, but we are all the children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekkah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel and we share the same God, the same values and deserve the same respect.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.