Who Saves a Life, Saves a World

October 22, 2014

Bad news from Jerusalem today: a man in a car mowed down passengers exiting a light rail train. Some were Israeli, some American. A three month old infant is dead. Video makes it clear that this was a deliberate act, not an accident.

Hamas is celebrating, although reports conflict as to whether it has taken credit or not. I do not understand people who celebrate the death of an infant.

On October 1, Ibtisam Rashid was at a checkpoint in Israel, trying to take her 5 year old grandson to a chemotherapy appointment. She had a fatal heart attack and died after being denied crossing.

I lived in Israel before they built the infamous security wall. Buses were bombed regularly. My grammar teacher came to school once after helping to pick up the bodies of schoolchildren whose bus blew up in front of his car.

I do not know the answer to the matzav, the situation. I cannot fathom the pain of the parent whose child was smashed by that car. I cannot fathom the pain of the little boy whose grandmother collapsed at the checkpoint.

This week we read the story of a man named Noach. He received word from God that his family alone was to be saved from the Flood, his family alone out of all those on earth. He followed the directions he received from God: he built the ark, he put the animals on it, he shut the door when it began to rain.

Noach (whose name is related to the word for comfort)  was comfortable with the idea that God had singled out his family for survival. He did not question the idea that others would suffer and perish. He did not ask if innocents might die along with sinners. He shut the door.

Some of our sages point out the contrast between Noach and Abraham. Noach had concern only for God’s command and his family’s well being. Abraham was concerned about the suffering of theoretical innocents, the people he thought might be in Sodom.

Let us not become Noach, concerned only for ourselves. Let none of us, on any side of this conflict, be callous to the suffering of the other. Let us be like our common patriarch Abraham, concerned for more than his own. Let us remember that every death is a tragedy, a whole world lost.

May the day come when all people on all sides can see the humanity of the other.


We Measure Our Days in Various Ways

August 25, 2014

Yahrzeit candle

Yahrtzeit candle for Jewish mourning.

Oy. I just stumbled onto a new measure of how difficult this summer has been.

I get statistics from WordPress, the nice people who make my blog work, and discovered that one of my old posts has been getting a lot of traffic this summer: Baruch Dayan Emet – Why Do We Bless God when Someone Dies? 

It didn’t get much interest when I first posted it on December 7, 2013, only 7 views. Then it was mostly ignored until June 30 of this year, when suddenly it got 187 on-site views. It seems that when you Google “Baruch Dayan Emet” one of sites on the first page of Google is my post. Suddenly everyone needs to know what that phrase means and why we use it.

Death is persistent in the news this summer. It is with us in the news from Israel and Gaza. It is with us in the news from Missouri and Los Angeles and the Ukraine. It is with us in news about earthquakes and hurricanes. It is with us in news about murders and suicides. So Jews are saying “Baruch Dayan emet” more often, and hearers are going to the Net to find out what that means.

I think I need to post about some phrases for rejoicing, just so that those explanations are waiting for their moments, too.


The Mitzvah of Rebuke

August 2, 2014

"Hatred" by Ben Slow, photographed by MsSaraKelly

“Hatred” by Ben Slow, photographed by MsSaraKelly

If someone is misbehaving, it is a mitzvah (a commandment) to rebuke them. We get this from the Holiness Code in Leviticus:

.לֹא-תִשְׂנָא אֶת-אָחִיךָ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ; הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת-עֲמִיתֶךָ, וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, and you will surely rebuke him, and you will not bear a sin because of him.  (Leviticus 19:17)

There are three parts to the commandment: (1) don’t hate other people (2) definitely tell them if they are doing wrong and (3) don’t bring sin upon yourself in the process.

We Jews excel at part (2) of that commandment. We love to tell other people when we think they are in error. However, lately we in the Diaspora been doing a lousy job of (1) and (3).

For the past three weeks on various social media, Diaspora Jews have melted down into a frenzy of rebuke. Pro-Israel, anti-Israel, anti-Israel but anti-Hamas, pro-Palestinian but anti-Hamas, seeking one state, seeking two states, words flying like shrapnel. The name-calling is out of hand, with Jews hurling words like “Nazi” and “traitor” at one another. In some cases, these are educated Jews, too: people who should know how to conduct an argument for the sake of heaven. Our tone has too often grown hateful. If we do not yet actually hate other Jews, we are paving the way there with these words that dehumanize the other. 

And then there is the matter of “don’t bear a sin because of him.” Rebuking another person in public, causing them shame (or hoping to shame them) is a sin. In Bava Metzia 58b, the rabbis liken public shaming to murder. Immediately after that passage, they tell the story of Akhnai’s Oven, in which the rabbis cause Rabbi Eliezer shame, with tragic results.

Talking about others is lashon haraevil speech, another sin. It is not simply gossip (rechilut) or spreading lies, but also speech that damages another’s reputation. Saying about another person, “She is a traitor to the Jewish people” or “He is a bloodthirsty murderer” when your talk about it does not have an important purpose (to save a life, for instance) is lashon hara. One may say, “well, that’s my opinion” but the point is, we are forbidden to spread around opinions like that. If you have a problem with a person, talk to him directly and privately.

With the backdrop of the dreadful situation in Israel and Gaza, emotions run high. However, we can and must control our tongues and our keyboards. Hateful speech does not help Israel, and it does not help the innocent victims of violence. Statement of the facts, pointing to sources, giving tzedakah: those things can help. Organizing peaceful demonstrations can help. Letters, emails and phone calls to powerful people can help. And yes, some situations may call for proper rebuke: rebuke that happens quietly, without name-calling, that asks for specific changes in behavior.

This week, when we observe Tisha B’Av and remember the great disasters in our history, our teachers will remind us that the Temple was lost because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred.  

My brothers and sisters, we in the Diaspora cannot afford to scream at one another on Twitter and facebook. We cannot afford to hurl hateful speech at one another. We have seen in the past what comes of this behavior. 

Our Israeli cousins are running for shelters, IDF soldiers are dying and wounded, and civilians are dying in Gaza (never mind for a moment whose fault, people are dying.) Around the world, we are seeing a resurgence of anti-Semitism that smells sickeningly like the 1930’s in Europe. Mobs are marching in Europe, chanting “Death to the Jews.” Jews were beaten in the street in Canada. Canada! 

Now is a time for purposeful action and purposeful speech. There is indeed much that must be done. It can be done without name-calling and without public screaming matches. No matter what your opinion, those are wastes of valuable time and energy, and they carry the seeds of tragedy.

Ribbono shel olam, You who know our inmost hearts, help us to act and to speak with holy purpose. 


For Beginners: Israel in Conflict

July 18, 2014

The situation in the Middle East grows more and more grim as Shabbat approaches. A couple of thoughts, especially for those readers who are beginners in Judaism:

1. Those of you who are feeling upset and disturbed, this is a time to reach out to your teachers and your community. Go to services this Shabbat. Contact your rabbi, or your teacher, and let them know what’s going on with you. Simply be in Jewish space; it will help.

2. One way to feel less helpless is to do something to help innocents who are suffering.  The International Committee of the Red Cross has an an “Israel and Gaza Appeal Fund” to assist those who are suffering in the current conflict. It coordinates and assists both Magen David Adom (The Red Star, in Israel) and the Palestine Red Crescent Society. The International Rescue Committee also works in this area. Every gift of tzedakah, no matter how small, will help sufferers and will also help the giver feel less helpless.

3. If you are just beginning to study about Judaism, let this be a time to learn, not a time to attempt to teach others. Some may approach you and ask you to explain the conflict, knowing that you are interested in Judaism. If you don’t want to engage on the topic, say so. All you need do is say, “The situation in Israel and Gaza breaks my heart. Can we talk about something else?”

4. Another things you can do is study. A popular recent book on the subject is My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit. Another excellent book is Israel is Real, by Rich Cohen. He is not a scholar, and I have some quibbles with details, but it’s readable and honest. Or ask your rabbi for a recommendation!

5. Do not believe everything you see on the Internet.  Again, if something disturbs you, contact your teacher or rabbi. Also, be careful what words and images you spread. Unsubstantiated rumors do not help the situation, no matter whom they allegedly favor.

I wish you a Shabbat of peace and learning, of goodness and grace, of light and love. Shabbat shalom.


Reflections on Israel, July 2014

July 9, 2014

My heart is in the east, and I am at the farthest west.

How can I taste food? How shall it be sweet to me?

How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while

Zion lies beneath the fetters of Edom, and I in Arab chains?

It seems to me a small thing to leave all the good things of Spain,

Seeing how precious in my eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.

                                              – Yehuda HaLevi, 12th c.

This 12th century poem is the best way I know to communicate the relationship of Jews to Israel. The poet who wrote it was a Jew who spent much of his life as a refugee from various regimes that were unfriendly to Jews. He was born in Spain, but he was never able to put down roots anywhere. If you asked him, he would tell you that Israel was his home, even though he had never seen it.

He disappeared en route to Israel. We hear the last of him in Cairo, where he could have stayed. He was a celebrity in the Jewish world of his time, a superstar poet and philosopher, but he wanted to go home. He insisted on going, despite the fact that Jerusalem was in the hands of Christian armies who slaughtered every Jew they found. We don’t know if the old man was on a boat that sank at sea, or was taken by pirates, or whether he did indeed reach the holy city and was (as legend has it) trampled to death by a Crusader’s horse.

My heart is in the east right now. I have heard from friends and colleagues who have scrambled to bomb shelters again and again over the past week. I am worried about friends from whom I haven’t heard. It has also stirred my memories of being in Israel during another difficult time, 12 years ago. I moved to Israel to learn Torah, and wound up learning more about bomb shelters and gas masks than I ever wanted to know.

I am angry at the handling of this story by the news media. The rockets and bombs hitting Israel for ten days were not deemed newsworthy. Only when Israel at last began to defend herself again the bombing did anyone take notice, and then it was to talk about “escalation.” What escalation? What other country on earth would be asked to sit quietly and accept bombardment? One million Israelis will sleep in or near bomb shelters tonight.

And yes, I am aware that there have been a terrible number of Palestinian civilian casualties. Their leadership has chosen to shelter their rocket launchers and military facilities in civilian settings, using their own people as human shields. That’s why Israel held off for so long. But I do not apologize for the fact that my people have chosen to keep military targets away from civilians. I do not apologize for the fact that Israel does not use old people and children for human shields. I wish that Hamas would do the same.

Not all the “photos of Gaza” published in social media right now are actually photos of Gaza, or of the current conflict. For more information about that, go to Grasswire.com or follow them at @grasswirefacts.  I am angry at the lies, at the manipulation of public perception.

I cannot imagine where this will end, because I know Israelis, and I know how the Jewish heart feels about the Land. No bombardment, no kidnapping, no murder, no harassment, no threat, no propaganda will change the fact that for thousands of years, Israel has been the home of the Jews, the home of our hearts. I wish that the world would not encourage Hamas in its murderous deception, and its use of innocents for military purposes. I wish that there could be two states, and that we could find some way to agree that Israel can exist, and a Palestinian state can exist.

My heart is in the East, and I am at the limits of the West, praying for peace.


We Can’t Have It Both Ways

July 7, 2014
Four Boys

Four Boys

My regular readers have probably noticed that I’ve been unusually quiet for the last week. Events in Israel this past week have left me speechless. I wish I could say something useful about what’s been going on there, but between the storm of my own feelings and the swift winds of events, I’ve been silent.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Rabbi Yitz Greenberg‘s comment about Jewish theology after the Holocaust: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” In other words, words are not sufficient to express the disaster of the Shoah, much less to “make sense” of it. It was senseless, mindless evil.

So, too. was the murder of Mohammed Abu Khieder, another burning child. The Israeli police have arrested several Jews for this crime, and the full weight of the law will be brought to bear. But what has given me as much pain are the comments I have been reading and hearing in the wake of the crime.

  • “The murderers do not represent us.”
  • “They are not real Jews.”
  • “They (the Palestinians) are still worse than we are.”

This, from people who scoff when someone says that pizza parlor bombings are not true expressions of Islam. This from people who would be incensed at the suggestion that the Holocaust was not the action of “real Germans.” This, from people who read the news stories about Jews marching in the streets of Jerusalem, of the Holy City, chanting “Death to the Arabs.”

We, who were so noisy about how Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal were “our children,” are now hastily disowning six other young men who chose to act out what other Jews were saying in the street.

It is easier to be connected with blameless victims; we can grieve, and people will feel sorry for us. We can be angry at the Other. But when the criminals are our own, it is much more difficult. It is hard to say, yes, that child is mine.

We can’t have it both ways. If we are going to hold all Palestinians responsible for the murders of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali, then we must not be surprised if they hold us all responsible for the terrible death of young Mohammed. On both sides, we have innocents, on both, we have the guilty.

Until we are willing to claim both for both sides, and admit both for both sides, there can be no peace.

 


Why I am a Zionist

May 5, 2014

I am a Zionist.

I wasn’t always sure about that. I am not quite as old as the State of Israel, and during the first part of my life, before I was a Jew, I watched from a distance, detached, as Israel struggled for survival. There was no reason to feel invested: I was not yet a Jew. Some things I thought inspiring, some disturbing.

Then I became a Jew. That meant I could not be neutral on this subject; I am invested. So I studied.

In the year 136 of the common era, the Romans put down the Bar Kokhba Revolt in Judea. The Roman Emperor Hadrian decided to make an example of the Jews, lest any other subject nation get the idea of revolution. The majority of the population of Judea was killed, exiled, or sold into slavery. Torah law and the Hebrew calendar were prohibited. Torah scholars were executed in droves. In an attempt to obliterate the memory of the Jews, the Roman province was renamed Syria Palaestina. Jerusalem was destroyed, and the new Roman city of Aelia Capitolina was built on its ashes. Jews were forbidden even to enter the city except on Tisha B’Av, the Jewish day of mourning for the lost Temple. 

So the Jews were scattered across the world: some to Europe, some to Asia, some to Africa, a stateless people clinging to a memory of home. Periodically individual Jews and small groups would decide to go home to join the small, stubborn remnant that persisted in the land, the Old Yishuv. Some Diaspora Jews sent their bodies home for burial. Particularly after a disaster, like the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, there would be movements to return in larger numbers.

History took a vicious turn in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even the most enlightened and scientific societies of Europe had an ugly and growing tendency to Jew hatred. In the rest of the world, there was enough of this hatred that doors began slamming. Theodore Herzl, a journalist, read the writing on the wall in the Dreyfus Affair. By the time the Jews of Germany realized what the Nazi regime would bring, there was nowhere for Jews to go, because nowhere in Europe or America or South America or Asia or Australia was their home.

I don’t need to tell you the rest of that story.

Zionism is the belief that there needs to be somewhere on the face of the earth where Jews are in charge of their own destiny. Through the actions of Jews, and through the agreements of the nations of the world, as well as through history, that place has been the small plot of land at the far east end of the Mediterranean, bounded on the north by Mt. Hermon, and at the southeast by Egypt.

There were other people, Muslims and Christians, with homes there when the Jews went home. There were nations with interests in seeing to it that they and the Jews did not live peacefully together. There have been great wrongs done on all sides. But there have also been moments of promise, moments when we could glimpse the possibility of what could be.

I am left, at the end, with the conviction that there needs to be an Israel. I believe that the 7 million Jews living there, many of them born there, have a right to be there. And I believe, as well, that the Palestinian people have a right to live in peace. I believe that as impossible as it seems to find peace, after all the years of war and bitterness, that there is nothing to do but keep trying and keep living.

This week we are observing Yom HaZikaron – the day that we remember the 23,169 who have died defending Israel and in acts of terror. Then, when the sun goes down, we observe Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. This is the week for remember that nothing can be taken for granted, least of all freedom and dignity.

This week we pray for the strength of spirit to do those things which need to be done. We pray for leaders on both sides who can see past their own self-interests. And most of all, we pray for hearts that can transcend cynicism and despair to lead us all the rest of the way home.

 

This article was slightly amended for clarification. See comments for details. Thank you to my readers for helping me express myself clearly!

 

 


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