|Odysseus Returns Home, 8th C BCE|
Monday, November 24, 2014
Rabbi Mishael Zion | Moonshine Kislev 2014 | Text and the City
As the weather turns colder, the gaze turns inward. This year’s month of Kislev is bookended by thetwo holidays of the hearth and home: Thanksgiving and Hannukah. As myriads travel “home” this week for Thanksgiving, I wonder what makes a home worthy of its name.
I’ve been pondering this question as I’ve found myself moving back with my own family to the same neighborhood in which I grew up. As I walk down the familiar streets of Talpiyot in Southern Jerusalem, I keep wondering: after all these years, does it still feel like home? And more importantly – why do I care? As Viennese philosopher Jean Amery asked it: “How much home does a person need?” Why does this question keep cropping up in my life, even as our ultra-portable wireless lives seemingly allow us to feel at home anywhere in the world?
This question also underlies two issues in the headlines. As the United States allows millions of illegal immigrants to functionally call America their home, one wonders defines “home” and who gets to define who is at home and who is “alien”. As Jerusalem is plunged back into violence and a deep lack of personal security, the pat answer of home as a place of refuge and safety is undermined. Strangely, despite the lack of security – the sense of home goes unscathed, as it had in previous periods of fear. Home as safety is an aspirational, but insufficient, answer. I am sent scurrying for other definitions. This is where “A Bride for One Night: Talmudic Tales” by Ruth Calderon found me. In her explorations of Talmudic narratives, she keeps returning to stories focusing on the home, turning it into my recommended book for this stormy month of Kislev.
Rav Hama went and sat for twelve years in the study house. When he planned to return home, he said “I will not do what Ben Hakinai did [and surprise my wife after all these years]”.
He stopped at the local House of Study and sent a letter to his wife.
His son, Oshaya, came and sat before Rav Hama in the House of Study.
Rav Hama did not recognize him.
Oshaya asked him many questions of law. Rav Hama saw that he was a brilliant student, and grew faint, thinking: “If I had stayed here, I could have had a son like this.”
Finally Rav Hama returned home. Oshaya entered behind him.
Rav Hama stood before him, thinking: Surely this student is coming to ask me another question of law.
His wife scolded him: Does a father stand before his child? Do you not recognize your own son?
(Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 62b)
Seemingly a tale of a Rabbi over-zealous in his studies, so lost in his Yeshiva he doesn’t recognize his own progeny, this story easily evokes questions much closer to home. In our zeal for a professional life, committed as we are to the demands of a successful career, do we find ourselves not recognizing our own children as they grow up? 12 years or 100 hour weeks, postponing family until one becomes Rosh Yeshiva/partner/tenured professor, these questions are the clichéd conversations of our generation, and yet balance alludes us. The Home and the House of Study compete – can we have it all?
Rav Hama’s story is another version of the “treasure was at home” tales, as in Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist or Reb Nachman’s tale of the Treasure under the Bridge. Hama discovers that what he really wanted all along was to have a son learned in Torah, not just to be a scholar himself. That son was waiting for him at home all these years, ignored. Seemingly Hama has attained both of these by the end of the tale – he is a great scholar, and so is his son, Oshaya. He went on Odysseus’ journey and returned victorious. Yet standing awkwardly in the kitchen, father and son face eachother in formality, not intimacy. The journey was a failure if one is unrecognizable in your own home.
This story captures the essence of home as being known, familiar, comfortable, intimate. Home is where the guards can be put down, where you don’t have to explain yourself, where one is understood. Hama lost that familiarity with his son – and thus lost it with himself. “How much home does a person need?” None, says young Hama, leaving for twelve years. Home is where I am least understood, says the adolescent scholar, and goes. Only upon returning home, a decade and more later, does he understand just how much “home” was missed. The journey itself, the process of exile and return might be necessary, but there is a limit: the journey away from home must end before alienation sets in.
One post-script: The missing chapter about Rav Hama is the one I am most curious about. Did he stay home? Did he rebuild his life at home, or did the Yeshiva beckon him to return to his wanderings? The drama of return often gets the headlines, but it is what we build once we’ve returned home that is most challenging. That is the challenge we face today.
May this month of Kislev be a month of regaining home-hood: being understood, feeling known, being safe.
Ruth Calderon, the public face of the new Jewish House of Study, even bringing Jewish text to the Israeli Knesset, had her book of Talmudic stories come out in English this year. Aided by Ilana A Bride for one Night” Calderon takes 17 Talmudic tales, lays them out for the reader to study themselves, then gives her own prose re-telling of the tale before unpacking it more analytically. Rabbi Hama makes an appearance, as do some other Bronfmanim favorites like Resh Lakish, Shimon bar Yohai and Elisha ben Abuyah. It is the best book currently out there to recreate or share with others the joy and passion of Jewish text study.Kurshan’s (‘95) fantastic translation, Calderon brings the Talmud to life in all their “color, their daring and their drama”. In “
Dedicated to a theme in the Jewish month, Moonshine is a combination Dvar Torah and springboard for learning in the coming 30 days. Moonshine - in honor of the Hebrew month’s commitment to the lunar cycle, with a hint of distilling fine spirits off the beaten track and - perhaps - intoxication.
Thursday, October 23, 2014
Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Moonshine Heshvan
Dedicated to a theme in the Jewish month, Moonshine is a combination Dvar Torah and springboard for learning in the coming 30 days. Moonshine - in honor of the Hebrew month’s commitment to the lunar cycle, with a hint of distilling fine spirits off the beaten track and - perhaps - intoxication. I’ll be hosting an online text study about the most clicked on texts towards the end of the month. Details forthcoming.
After the intense cycle of Jewish holidays, and with winter peeking around the corner, the month of Heshvan is all about returning to routine, to the simple repetitive tempo of life. No frills - life itself. Menawhile the Torah portions of Heshvan raise the root questions of human existence, wrapped in the stories of a primordial world. From Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, the Torah outlines the complexity – and darkness – of Humanity, and God’s attempts to work with it.
Noah. This year I find myself appreciating the Noah narratives anew thanks to the recent blockbuster commentary by Reb Darren Aronofsky. In studying the Deluge I always focused on God’s vindictiveness or Noah’s disappointing silence, not to mention the cute animals coming two by two. But returning to the tale of the Flood after a bloody summer, Aronofsky’s film puts a painful truth center stage: that Human beings left to their own devices are horrific. It is a Hobbesian tale of the deepest Human moral bankruptcy. Of a world turned from “very good”, to: “Great was humankind’s evildoing on earth, And every form of their heart’s planning, Was only evil all day. Then God was sorry that he had made humankind on earth, And it pained his heart.” (Genesis 6:5-6)
Something about this perspective rings disturbingly true this fall. How do we face Humanity’s murderous and destructive nature? It once seemed that the Enlightenment saved us from our darker demons. Yet the 20th century made us doubt if progress makes the world a more civilized place; now the 21st century brings to the fore those who shun progressiveness, turning the world back to more medieval fundamentals. And that is only in the realm of man to man (and woman?). In the realm of our relationship to the Earth, to Creation, we seem to be failing even more. Is it too late to heal our relationship to nature, to the world, to eachother?
Rain. Ideally, we should live in deep symbiosis with the earth. Humanity’s name, Adam, derives from the Hebrew word for earth, Adamah. Yet we fear the earth, for it reminds us that not only have we come from it – but that in the end, we will return to it. Earth symbolizes our death, our limits, our finitude. When Adam is banished from the garden, the Adamah becomes damned on his account. The word itself – Adamah - leers at Humanity: “Adam–Mah”, says Earth, “Human, what is Human?” Can we redeem our relationship to Adamah?
Heshvan, in which Nature molts its dried leaves and begins its slow process of hibernation and renewal, is also the month of rain. Rain, as opposed to Flood and Deluge, is a sign of blessing. Rain heals the curse of Adam/Adamah, offering a promise of divine collaboration with Humanity in the project called Life on Earth. Rain is about relationship. Just as Noah offers us a “pleasing smell” to the Lord after the Flood, so the rains of Heshvan leave the earth with a “pleasing smell” for us, Humans, to believe in the possibility of renewal and relationship, growth and change.
Great Father. In the move from Adam to Noah and ten generations after that, God mostly hides his face from Humanity. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t kill ‘em. Until a new figure enters the scene. Avram of Ur, who somehow forces God out of His divine hiding place. What did Avram do that got God to seek out a new relationship with him? The Torah never discloses directly, but perhaps it lies in his name: Avram, Av-Ram, Great-Father. For the first time a human being stopped acting like a child, and assumed a parental stance towards the world. God later says as much:“For I have chosen him in order that he teach his children and household to do justice and righteousness” (Gen 18:19), choosing to share with Abraham news of the upcoming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham, unike his ancestor Noah, challenges God. This is the essence of the Abrahamic path – joining God in looking at the world as a parent, stepping up for others and expecting accountability – even from the Creator. Lets hope we see those walking in Abraham’s path today continuing this tradition in the coming month of Heshvan. It’s not too late.
Heshvan Learning Links:
A collection of accessible and provocative Biblical, Rabbinic and Modern texts for the coming 30 days.
“And he called him Noah, saying: May this one comfort us from our sorrow…” (Gen 5:29)
Rereading the biblical story of Noah, the best companions are Nechama Leibowitz’s study into the portion, or Avivah Zorenberg’s deep psychoanalytical reading (and now, Aronofsky’s film). But the simple text is powerful too, especially with Robert Alter’s literary translations. Or, better yet, R. Crumb’s Genesis who illustrates Alter’s full text. Be prepared for lots of nudity.
“Like clouds and wind without rain is one who boasts of gifts never given” (Proverbs 25:14).
What do you do if it doesn’t rain? Most turn to miracle makers and rain dances. The Mishna of Taanit, however, seeks to transform the drama of rain-dancing into a drama of social change. In a gradual process of public and private fasts, sit-ins and protests, the Rabbis delineate a process by which the failure of the elements brings humanity to introspection and self-improvement. Study the first two of Mishna Taanit, noticing how the process employs different spheres of power, public space and liturgy in its vision of social change as the key to climate change.
“Ten Generation From Noah to Abraham” - If the move from the very humanistic and universalistic tales to a narrow chosenness is on your mind, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ “Dignity of Difference” continues to be the best exploration of the tension of particularism and universalism in the post-modern, post-industrialist world. To follow in the steps of Abraham in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, read Jon D Levenson’s new “Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.”
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Yom Kippur 2014
It was Yom Kippur morning, and my father dragged my sister and I out of bed on a hike across Jerusalem, to learn how to pray. In the basement of an old home in a poor neighborhood, we met a band of Shlomo-Carlebach-infused, Simon-and Garfunkel singing, Hasidic-hand-clapping, irreverent-yet-trembling prayer leaders. Twenty five years later, I am still trying to understand the magic of the prayer that erupted in that damp basement.
After the intense summer the Jewish people have had, and with the world quickly unraveling around us, Yom Kippur will carry an even larger weight than usual this year. There is simply so much to pray for.
Unfortunately the opportunity for real prayer will probably pass most of us by. For too long Jewish prayer in America has been a spectator sport - Jews sitting in alienating pews, expensive tickets in hand, being lectured on politics or continuity, their souls untapped. No wonder generations have lost interest in the institution of davennen – the Yiddish term for heart-felt, soul-wrenching, raw, prayer.
Yet a new generation has been reclaiming the spiritual value of Yom Kippur. Communities across the country are reinventing, rejuvenating, and rediscovering the sweetness of this intense day. Prayer has become an option again. Indeed, the 25-hour atonement marathon which will commence this Friday night should be seen an intense urban retreat, an annual immersion in the experience of prayer, a source of nourishment for a year of spiritual practice.
Inspired by this renaissance, I want to offer a typology of four kinds of prayer leaders. Like all typologies, it is stereotypical and inexact. Moreover, these archetypes are rooted in the old world of Jewish prayer – a male world. As we reinvent Jewish prayer for a new generation, these archetypes can inform us in mapping out this most delicate of tasks.
Of Four Prayer Leaders does the tradition speak: The Cantor, the Technician, the Emissary, and the Baal Tefillah.
The Chazzan: Kol Nidrei
For many American Jews, the Cantor (or, Chazzan) is the only kind of prayer leader they’ve ever met. In their Cantorial Golden Age Jews – devout and otherwise - flocked to the sanctuaries to hear the best Cantors pour out their baritones before the Lord. Folk music and Shlmo Carlebach’s guitar have eroded the shine of the Cantorial cap. Yet even today there are certain prayers that demand a Chazzan - and first among them is Kol Nidrei. Those vows simply will not be absolved without hitting the right operatic note.
What is the key to the Cantor’s charm? Having a beautiful voice, an open heart and a musical ear are all important, but they are only the means to an end – connecting the community to something larger than themselves. Through the power of music the cantor allows his community to transcend space and time, connect prayer communities across countries and generations, unmediated. The Chazzan’s toolbox consists of those hard and fast traditional tunes –the Ashkenazi “nusach” or the Judeo-Arabic “makam”. Through them the individual is transported into that a-morphic mythic vortex called “the Jewish people,” all singing the same tunes. That is why we seek out cantors for Kol Nidrei – the inter-generational inter-spatial connection is the only way to face our broken vows.
In the mouth of the giften cantor, “nusach” can also serve to connect a person to themselves. Like an old friend who can tell you just how much you’ve changed, the nusach acts like a mirror. In the gap between the unchanging tune and the constantly changing human, the work of Teshuva -is born.
The Tefillah Technician: Shacharit
Yom Kippur morning. The fast lies ahead in all its length, hundreds of pages of prayers awaiting us. Enter the Tefillah Technician – a well known prayer leading type in Orthodox synagogues. Rabbinic texts call him “one who passes in front of the Ark” (“over lifnei ha-teyva”). The Tefillah Technician does exactly that – he passes so that the Tefillah, too, can pass. He provides a crucial service to a community in need of offering up their daily prayer.
The Tefillah Technician is no cynic. He takes his cues from the Priests, whose crowning achievement were the permanent sacrifices offered up each sunrise and sunset in the Temple. It is in remembrance of these sacrifices - known as Tmidim, constants - that daily prayer was shaped. It is this constancy which the Tefillah Technician is loyal to. Musical skill and performance art are of no import. A non-chalant yet exact performance of the ritual is needed, as prescribed and performed in the ancient annals of prayer. A polar opposite of the Chazzan, the Tefillah Technician shares with his musical counterpart the concept of prayer as a spectator sport: all the crowd is asked to do is say “Amen”.
The Emissary: Mussaf
High noon. An anxious hush spreads through the sanctuary as a member of the community approaches to lead the Mussaf service. It opens with a unique prayer, “Hineni heAni”, in which the leader asks for permission – from Community and Creator – to represent his people in prayer. The Shaliach Tzibur, literally “the emissary of the community”, is in the house. Jewish law requires of the prayer leader to be 40+, to have some grey hairs, to have children and a “need at home”. In other words – someone who has “skin in the game”. The Emissary must understand the complexity of life and of his community – she cannot be a hired hand. Here what matters is not tune or technicality, but connection to the community, true representation, knowing what burdens the people and bringing it before the Lord.
The Emissary’s true expertise, however, is in bringing the prayer fittingly to the community she serves. She knows what tune they expect for “Unetaneh Tokef”, when to open their hearts with a song and when to deploy super-sonic-speed. Constantly in his sights is a fear of “Tircha deTzibura”, becoming a burden on the community – and he deftly navigates the long services so that he never becomes one. The emissary parses and plans the services so that they follow the emotional arc of a community in prayer, delivering them safely to the “shores of forgiveness” (as poet Leah Goldberg once put it).
The Baal Tefillah: Neillah
As the sun begins to set on Yom Kippur, and the gates of prayer begin their slow return to lockdown mode, a fourth type of prayer leader stands up. The most introverted of the pack, neither Nusach grandiosity nor communal connection are foremost on his mind. The Baal Tefillah, literally “owner of prayer” is a person defined through and through by prayer. Alone, through the sheer prowess of her petition, she will climb up to the Heavens and hold the gates open until all the community’s prayers make their way in. His face hidden behind a prayer shawl - even as he represents the community, he hides from them – the Baal Tefillah is wrapped with his Creator like Moses on the mountain. His prayer is personal, and yet – like good literature – manages to reach everyone, including them in his own story. And when the gates of prayer are locked, he turns to the gates of tears, which never shut. His prayers spread like wings and carry the whole community to stand before the Seat of Compassion.
As we approach the prayers of Yom Kippur, these four types remind us that prayer can be so much more than a spectator sport. That prayer can be transformative (although it doesn’t always have to be), and that is not a great voice that makes a true prayer leader, but a connection to the community, to the traditional tunes, to the task at hand, or to one’s own self. These four archetypes of prayer are extremes – but somewhere on this matrix every leader can find their path. Each service and the role it requires; every community and the leaders they seek; each prayer-leader according to their skills and spiritual attainment. As we bring prayer back to its rightful – and delicate – place in our lives, may those who lead us become versed in these paths of old, carving out a “new song” for us all.
Monday, September 29, 2014
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Rosh haShana 5775 | September 2014
The drums of religious war sounded again this year in the lands of Abraham. In Syria and Iraq, Israel and the Gaza strip, the battle over who carries the Abrahamic promise has reignited. Can Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, bring a relevant message of hope to a world yearning to stop the violence?
The Power of Text Study
Throughout the year we give primacy to action – political, civil and, when needed, military. On the High Holidays we turn to the power of prayer. But much overlooked is the power of study. Studying ancient texts can help reframe our existence, heal our hearts and energize our limbs. Text study can change the world.
War mongers proudly use religious verse to incite heinous deeds. The liberal response is often to vacate the playing field of religious conversation altogether. This abandonment, however, is the quintessential desecration of God’s name in the Talmudic sense – associating God with death and dishonesty. This year, more than ever before, we must populate the world with a vision of God and Humanity so life-affirming, complexity-loving, and peace-seeking, so as to turn the tides of this desecration. Our resistance practice should be, in part, the study of our religious texts. We must weave them into a discourse of nuance, tolerance and peace, both within and between our respective religions.
The Jewish New Year grants us just such an opportunity. The Torah portions for this holiday tell the distinct tales of Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. The texts themselves are simultaneously tragic and heroic. They raise hard-hitting ethical questions and uncomfortable dilemmas. In other words, they are real. As we re-live the sibling rivalry of Abraham’s children, we must return to the tales of those two sons.
|Abel Pann, Banishment of Hagar and Ishmael|
On the second day of Rosh haShana Jews the world over read the story known as the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). Abraham is commanded to offer up his son, bind him (in Hebrew "akeidah”), only to be told to drop his knife at the last moment. This act is considered the founding expression of religious devotion in all three Abrahamic religions. It is Abraham's "submission", or "islam", which give that religion its name. In Christianity the Akeidah is seen as foreshadowing God's sacrifice of his own Son. Jews beseech God for forgiveness on Rosh haShana based on the merit of the Akeidah, sounding the Shofar, the ram's horn, a reminder of the ram that was offered up instead of Isaac on that fateful day.
But on the first day of Rosh HaShana, before the Isaac story is read, we read the preceding chapter, which tells of the banishment of Ishmael, Abraham’s first-born son (Genesis 21). Born to Hagar the Egyptian, Ishmael is banished by Sarah, who demands of Abraham: “Drive out this slave-woman and her son, for the son of this slave-woman shall not share inheritance with my son, with Isaac” (Gen 21:10). God concurs and Abraham obeys. Of all the texts to read on the New Year, why this one?
The answer to this question perhaps lies in the fact that these two chapters are in fact the same story, twice told. There is not one Akeidah, but two: the Akeidah of Isaac and the Akeidah of Ishmael. The parallels are stunning, and appear not only in the plot, but in the very words used in both tales: From the time of day - “Avraham started-early in the morning, he took some bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar” (Gen 21:14) and “Avraham started-early in the morning, he saddled his donkey, he took…Yitzhak his son…” (Gen 22:3)
Through to the last minute call of salvation: “God’s messenger called to Hagar from heaven and said to her… Arise, lift up the lad and grasp him with your hand” (Gen 21:17) and in the case of Isaac - “The Lord’s messenger called to him from heaven and said to him: Avraham! Avraham!... Do not stretch your hand against the lad” (Gen 22:11). Both tales end with a divine blessing: Ishmael - “a great nation will I make of him!” (21:18). Isaac will carry God’s covenant.
What is the meaning of this parallelism? Studying these texts offers us an opportunity to ask how our stories – the children of Isaac and of Ishmael – are intertwined. Are we total strangers to eachother – or are we brothers, cousins? Can we not inherit together? Are we playing out the consequences of narrow-minded jealousy or of righteous protectiveness? What role – as perpetrators and heroes - do God and Humans play in this drama? How does one heal from centuries of sibling rivalry? When we see the conflict through this biblical lens, one thing becomes clear: we are stuck in the same eternal story, whether we like it or not. Can we turn this cruel fate into a shared destiny?
Lift Your Eyes
As I returned to these stories this year I noticed something that hadn’t occurred to me before. Both texts end with the protagonist lifting their eyes.
“And Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw: there, a ram caught behind in the thicket by its horns!” (Gen.22:13)
“God opened [Hagar’s] eyes, and she saw a well of water; she went, filled the skin with water, and gave the lad to drink” (Gen.21:19).
Stuck so deeply in their own interpretation of reality, Abraham and Hagar believe their only option, indeed, God’s will, is to see their children perish. With the call of the angel, an expansion of the horizons takes place. The notice something they couldn’t see before: a well in the distance; a ram entangled by its horns. Mired as we are in the vicious dynamics of this past year, our texts can help us imagine a new reality. Let's lift our eyes and see it.
Interested in studying these texts yourself this New Year? Click here for an experimental study guide for each chapter: The Binding of Isaac and the Binding of Ishmael.
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Today is the first day of the month of Elul. This summer has been too much and it is “too soon” to be able to write a paragraph which begins with the words “This summer has been…”. As another cease-fire is declared in and around Gaza (odds are this one will stick, both sides too bent out of shape to break it), Ferguson returns to an unhealthy simmer, and the other atrocities lose their media sex appeal, perhaps we can begin to take stock. After two months in which it’s been hard to string a comprehensible sentence together, all I can manage so far are snippets of realizations, paragraphs threads without clear conclusions. Yet I need the darkness of Av to make way for the early dawns of Elul.
In general, very little thinking should take place during August. It is too hot to think. Europeans have it right when they simply shut down the nation and drift off for their “vakanzie”. Things will make more sense in September.
The Jewish calendar agrees. The month of Av peaks as it enters the depth of destruction and mourning on the infamous Tisha b’Av (Ninth day of Av), coasting in the sweltering heat until a new moon appears. The new month of Elul will bring with it a touch of autumn, that first breeze which reminds us that the humidity is not here to stay, that existence can become merciful again. The pious among us awaken early to “seek out our ways, investigating and seeking a path back”. Preparations for a new year begin, a cleansing process: may a year and its curses end, may a year and its blessings begin.
Yet this year, after a harrowing two months, 50 days of war, how can we enter Elul if the grip of Av well not let up? How can I enter the internal work of change when war is all around? How do we turn Av into Elul?
In 2006 the second Lebanon war mostly passed me by. My friends donned uniforms and disappeared into Southern Lebanon. My wife – six months pregnant – was called for reserve duty at her Intelligence base (dealing another blow to my Israeli masculinity). I hunkered down in Jerusalem’s National Library, reducing the war to a “media issue”, not anything too real. Like a teenager with an eating disorder, I’d stuff my face with news, updates and op-eds at weird hours of the night, and then call for a “media fast”, declaring that “it’s all too disgusting to engage with”.
This summer I did not have that privilege. Perhaps it was the fact that I was responsible for the safety and well-being of 26 teenagers, perhaps it was my own 7 and 5 year old, aware and questioning about sirens and terrorists and soldiers and war. My first war as a parent. Perhaps it was my sister in Beer Sheva, sending whatsapp updates from their bomb shelter, or the fact that now it was not just friends serving on the front, but students. Perhaps it was the fact that the Gaza strip was my home for 18 months in the 90’s (a small military outpost alongside the Rafah crossing) or the fact that this is the first conflagration of the conflict since moving back to Jerusalem. And maybe, as so many Israelis said early on, it simply feels different this time. It’s real. The sirens are not “there”. They are here. And the despair of the people and misguidedness of our leaders feels so thick you can almost touch it.
A word of Torah for a bloody month of Av. Why do we suffer? Jewish tradition offers us two narratives, each powerful and pervasive. But – as Rabbi Larry Edwards pointed out to us this simmer – they are stuck in parallel, always in proximity but never overlapping. “מפני חטאינו גלינו מארצנו” vs. “בכל דור ודור עומדים עלינו לכלותינו”. “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land” and “In every generation they stand up to destroy us”.
What caused the Second Temple to be destroyed? The Roman Empire, or our baseless hatred? A disinvited party guest with a funny name – Kamtza – or the inevitable might and corruption of Emperor Vespasian and his sons?
You can divide today’s political analysts (and ones relatives) into these two parties, and never the twain shall meet. “It’s because of our sins!” says the brow-beating-self-hating-Liberal. “No matter what we do, they will always hate us,” retorts the xenophobic-self-righteous-Conservative. Haaretz vs. the Jerusalem Post, Fox vs. NYTimes and the Forward, Maimonides vs. Yehuda haLevi. Rabbi Ishmael vs. Shimon Bar Yohai. One calls for an internal corrective, the other sees introspection as misguided self-hate. One sees a world out to get us, the other sees us as our own worst enemy. It feels nearly impossible to hold onto both of them at the same time. And it seems to be just as much about one’s own personality as about whether what’s trending on your smartphone is stories about ISIS or Yisrael Beiteinu. Which one is more optimistic? That depends on what kind of person you are.
Both worldviews in their extreme are unhinged. Two roller-coaster rides running side by side with similar experiences and yet inverted conclusions. One is a narrative of total disempowerment – we will always have enemies and that cannot be changed, all we can do hide from history/await divine salvation/mow the lawn. The second narrative believes in our total agency, as if everything that happens in Jewish (or Israeli) history is solely in our own hands. They are both wrong. And they have both never been more accurate.
I am a total “our own sins have brought us here” kind of guy. I believe it is the way our Prophets have taught us to look at the world – Amos, Isaiah, Meir Ariel. And even if it’s not the only explanation for the reality we’re facing, it is the one I can do something about. I prefer self-flagellation to victimization. For what is the meaning of the Jewish people – to fight anti-Semitism or to model an ideal society? Maimonides seems to agree: the only meaning that can be derived from suffering is self-improvement.
There are days when the entire Jewish people fast because of the calamities that occurred to them then, to arouse [their] hearts and initiate [them in] the paths of repentance. This will serve as a reminder of our wicked conduct and that of our ancestors, which resembles our present conduct and therefore brought these calamities upon them and upon us. By reminding ourselves of these matters, we will repent and do better in the future. (Mishne Torah, Laws of Fasts 5:1)
I used to think we don’t need the Ninth of Av now that we’ve rebuilt a Jewish state. Why mourn destruction now that we are rebuilding. I know today that there is no more important holiday today, in this era of our Third Sovereignty. The month of Av reminds us that we can have it all – and then lose it. And that it is our own mistakes that will make us lose it. If we don’t shape up it will happen again.
Thus the nights of Av make way for the dawns of Elul.
But then I raise my gaze from the comforts of Jewish guilt and look the enemy in the eye – and the hatred is real, and eerily repetitive. How can I indulge in introspection when I am under attack? Yes, I am flawed, but the attack is real. Like Job’s friends, those on the sidelines – rooting for me, yes – come and tell me that I am the source of the problem. I welcome such criticism, but right now it is doubly hard to hear. I want to believe my enemies (external and internal) are rational, enlightened, reasonable; and that “if only I would…” then surely “they would…”. But the medieval violence of this summer makes me question those assumptions. And so I can sit out Elul in my self-righteous bunker and claim it is everyone else’s fault but my own.
Betrayed by our leaders. Trapped under their rule. This is not a description of Gaza, it is a description of Israel. “If only someone else was the leader now and not that shmuck” “If only democratic elections meant that my ideology always wins”. It seems that the Israeli narrative of the first month of conflict was a renewed Israeli solidarity, a careful leadership and a homefront that discovered it had a spine. The narrative of the second month has been the waffling of the leadership and the abandonment of those towns and kibbutzim closest to the front. Either way, the people are something to be proud of, the leadership is not. And yet – as always – the people will pay the price while the politicans keep eachother propped up. I can only imagine what the internal narrative on the other side is.
Then why do I still expect “leaders” to solve this crisis – Israeli, Palestinian, American? There is no ilitary solution, but it seems there is no political solution either – at least not one to be generated by so-called “heads of state”. But what is the alternative, and am I really ready to embrace what such an alternative might means for my life? The conclusion seems to be that it is not enough to simply vote in the elections and post things to Facebook to make a difference. So now what?
Unable to change my leadership, and unwilling to take the mantle of political action myself, I can at least turn the reality of Av into a metaphor for Elul. Like the failed leadership of our states, my own life has been led by weak, indecisive leadership. Like them, I have opted to keep the status quo at all costs, preferring short term comfort over long term health. Like them I have gullibly believed in the power of a third-party to knock sense into me (John Kerry, personal trainer), or that an appeal to rationality will bring an “end of the conflict”. I mean, we all know when the right answer is in the end, why can’t we just get there now? In my own life, it is not so simple. Why doesn’t he just shake off the bad internal leadership and become the change he wants to see in the world? I don’t know, maybe because it’s easier to blame outside enemies (especially when they are real, like your kids taking up all your extra time).
Half a thought. Anyone who left this summer with the same opinions as they had entering it, is wrong. As the events unfolded in the Middle East this summer, on the streets of Gaza, the siren towers of Tel Aviv, the hills of Northern Iraq, the conference rooms of Washington and Cairo, did nothing make you change your mind? Did you not learn anything new that reshapes your understanding of the situation? In all those news items and op-eds and you tube videos, not to mention first-person experiences, was there nothing consciousness-altering? If you are holding fast to the same diagnoses and data that you had before all this happened, if you haven’t revisited your tightly held axioms, truly engaged a perspective 180 degrees different from your own, didn’t listen to voices that undermine what you believe to be true… well, then you’re probably like all the rest of us. But maybe we can use these next 30 days, outside the barrage of rockets and news flashes, to reach some fresh conclusions.
Agnon in his compendium “Days of Awe” describes the upcoming 40 days between now and Yom Kippur as “Days that don’t return, hours that will not reoccur”. Elul is all about opportunity. Will we take it? Will I?
Resh Lakish said: What is the meaning of the verse (Proverbs 3:34):
“As for the scoffers, He scoffs at them / But to the humble He grants favor”?
A person who comes to defile - the doors are opened to him;
But one who comes to purify - is helped.
In the school of Rabbi Ishmael it was taught:
It can be likened to a shopkeeper selling [foul smelling] Kerosene Oil and [wonderfully fragrant] Persimmon Oil.
If a purchaser comes to measure Kerosene, the shopkeeper says to him: Measure it out for yourself;
But to one who came to measure out Persimmon Oil he says: Hang on, wait, until I can measure together with you, so that both you and I may become perfumed.
(Talmud Bavli Yoma 39a)
God, claims Rabbi Ishmael, likes to smoke it up with his customers. Those who purchase the good stuff, that is. He also keeps foul smelling, toxic and dangerous substances, and unfortunately allows for their purchase as well. A true believer in the free market, our Creator. She enables those who come to defile (and they are proud to say that they bought their wares in Her shop). But it is those who seek to purify that She invites into a relationship.
After a summer in which kerosene was spilled on our homes, our children, our futures, and left to burn – let’s hope the sales of Persimmon oil go through the roof. And as we come to purify – ourselves, our communities, our collective futures – let’s wait awhile, pause, perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to experience the storekeeper joining us in the pleasure of the moment.
May it be a good month,