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!
There is a length of retaining wall supporting the western side of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that is probably the most iconic piece of real estate in the Jewish world: The Wall / The Wailing Wall / The Western Wall / The Kotel . . . there is not a bus tour of Israel that does not include a stop at this place. Every Jew around the world engaged in prayer faces north, south, east or west in order to face this spot.
Instead of serving as the focal point of tranquility and spirituality and mutual respect throughout the Jewish world, we have witnessed repeated clashes between the ultra-orthodox and almost every other segment of our people acted out on this spot. Almost twenty years ago, involved in leading the Masorti (Israeli Conservative) Movment's Tisha B'av service (commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples . . . according to one tradition because of senseless hatred among Jews) I was removed from the Kotel plaza by Israeli police. Over the last several months, news reports have documented Israeli police alternately (depending on the month and the latest court ruling) either removing women praying at the wall for Rosh Hodesh (the new month) or restraining angry ultra-Orthodox protestors who were outraged by the women praying at the wall for Rosh Hodesh. The Israeli paratroopers--iconic in themselves within Israeli society--used to be inducted into their units at the kotel . . . until the ultra-orthodox succeeded in prohibiting the ceremony because female Israeli soldiers sang at the ceremony.
This seems to be one place where we do not seem able to separate religion from politics.
But I was present at one unique moment of blessing standing before the Kotel. I stood with Imam Farid Ansari, Reverend Donald Anderson, and representatives of the Hindu and Confucian faiths. Ringed by quiet but curious ultra-orthodox youth, we each prayed in our own way as part of the First International Jerusalem Symposium on Green and Accessible Pilgrimage. These few moments changed forever my associations with the Kotel and set me to dreaming once again about a spiritual center of tranquility and inclusivity and universal blessing:
4th of July Parade, Bristol RI
Through a sauna-like haze, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Bahai, Quakers, Secular Humanists . . . everyone of every stripe celebrated American Independence yesterday. Our own Steve Shapiro marched in yesterday's historic Bristol July 4th parade representing the Jewish War Veterans.
There are many things we celebrate when we come together on the 4th: beyond the burgers and the fireworks, we are celebrating American democracy . . . a fractious, deeply-rooted, clunky, impressively reliable system that has protected the free speech, free electoral system, free economy, free practice of faith and free public debate which enriches our lives and supports the aspirations of so many of our citizens and new immigrants.
Demonstrators fill the streets in Egypt, July 4, 2013
How different was the mood in the streets of Egypt this same week: just as hot (but much less humid), wall-to-wall demonstrators and flags pushing back as the hopes of the Arab spring have deeply disappointed, and deeply divided, the citizens of Egypt.
It is early days to predict whether Egypt is ever going to enjoy a system of democracy as extraordinary as our own . . . personally, I wish for them the level of frustration we experience here from time to time from our political system. We have learned to trust the system; we have learned that as much as we may be "underwhelmed" by the views, methods, commitments of any given elected official our system of checks and balances will prevent the most egregious government steps. We've learned that we'll have a chance to vote again before too long and express our opinions in the most effective ways possible.
We've learned that democracy is not perfect. Indeed, 237 years after winning our independence, we are still tweaking the system, instituting course corrections, applying new knowledge and values to make sure that the foundational principles of democracy remain viable as our culture, technology and economy continue to evolve.
I hope you all enjoyed a steamy, but joyous, 4th of July . . . and I hope that next year, as we celebrate our 238th year of independence, we'll witness the people of Egypt celebrating becoming a step closer to a real democracy for themselves.
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.