Thursday, September 25, 2014

Erev Rosh Hashanah: We Still Have Hope

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion and on the opposite mountain I am searching for my little boy. An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father both in their temporary failure. Our voices meet above the Sultan's Pool in the valley between us. Neither of us wants the child or the goat to get caught in the wheels of the terrible Had Gadya* machine.
Afterward we found them among the bushes and our voices came back inside us, laughing and crying.

I don’t like flying. I am, honestly, afraid of flight. The idea of getting into an aluminum tube held aloft by physics alone sends my heart racing. It’s been like this for a long time. The only thing that calms me down is reciting t’fillat haderech, the travelers’ prayer, and reciting psalms that begin ‘shir Hama’alot’—a song of ascents. And when I am absolutely convinced I am going to become a statistic, I plead that I have too much more work to do.

This is an irrational fear, one rooted in nothing more than my own anxiousness. Today, I have other fears that, once upon a time, I would have thought irrational, even inconceivable.

Today I fear for Jews around the world and at home being attacked exclusively because they are Jews. I fear individuals and groups attacking Jews or those believed to be Jews, with the express purpose of doing them harm because they are Jews. I am afraid that our People is under assault in a way we haven’t been in 70 years.

Today I fear for the survival of the Jewish state, a fear my generation has never known. I fear for its survival against an insidious evil that is sweeping across the Middle East. I fear inaction or worse, wrong action from a West that has lost the ability to differentiate right from wrong, up from down.
Today I fear that well-meaning people of faith and without faith, who see suffering and want to accept easy morality tales, who subconsciously continue to use Jews and the Jewish State as the blank canvas to cast all they find repugnant in their own countries, are giving succor to anti-Semitism. In doing so, organizations like the Presbyterian Church USA that have so often been our natural partners in social justice are needlessly unspooling decades of good will and good work that may never be repaired, certainly not in this generation.

I fear that Israel, in its grief and anxiety for the future, may be losing its moral core. I fear that in mourning children, Israel and Israelis are lashing out with rage. That in defending itself righteously, voices of intolerance and hate in Israel are gaining strength, and in supporting settlement building by fringe elements, Israel is losing the ability to speak truth to power.

Today I fear that children in this country are not safe. Jewish children, black children, white children, are not safe. We have allowed our fears to isolate us and violence to tear communities apart. A person is shot blocks from the synagogue and no one says anything; even the residents of the apartment complex are too concerned to get to work to worry about the blood stains on the street. We look at each other with suspicion, and assume the worst; of our teachers, police officers, of people different from us, of people we’ve known for years.

I fear the voices that say it’s too late to save our world: we are too violent, our political system too broken, our climate too polluted, our world too competitive.

I am even afraid for me and my colleagues, rabbis who want to speak out about Israel from a nuanced and thoughtful perspective, but are convinced they will be shouted down, or ignored, or even have their job threatened because they are perceived as having the wrong stance on the Jewish State.
And it’s not only my fears. I speak with teens who are afraid about what has been happening in Israel, who don’t understand why their friends don’t see what Hamas is doing. Teens who are combating anti-Semitism in places like Ridgefield, New Jersey and Pine Bush, New York, places with large Jewish populations where nevertheless, kids are assaulted and verbally abused and swastikas are painted on walls and school administrators respond too often with a shrug.

Friends, there is a generation growing up with fear, who are increasingly convinced of the bleakness of the future in a way we haven’t seen in some time. They are afraid, and that fear is partly our doing. We have become paralyzed ourselves. We don’t know how to act, we aren’t sure of the right steps to take. We don’t want to do the wrong thing for fear we will fail. And we are told again and again that there is no hope—there are no partners for peace, that Europe, to quote Sylvan Schwartzman, is “a bloody trap.” That people are the way they are, that injustice is a natural part of the world, that the only thing people respond to is strength, and by strength we mean force. We sacrifice our hope and moral compass to defeat that which is hopeless and morally bankrupt. We fight fire with fire.

Tomorrow morning, you and I will read a story about a goat and a child; we will read a story about sacrifice in the hills of Jerusalem. We will read a story we call the Akedah—the binding, but perhaps should be called the Nisa—the Test, when Abraham takes his son Isaac (though some say Ishmael), his only, his beloved, his first born, to offer on the mountains of Moriah, the mountain later called Zion. It is a test I fear we are still taking in Jerusalem, one still involving children, sacrifice, and our temporary failures.

It would be so easy for us to give up. To give up on the well-meaning critics of Israel: the Presbyterians and the college students and the Europeans. It would be easy to give up on the Palestinians themselves, their hearts clearly filled with hate and rage and fear. It would be easy to give up on Israel, even; to divorce our love for the Jewish people from the Jewish homeland. Perhaps it’s even better to tune out the entire Middle East, to change the channel whenever news about Syria or Iraq comes on.

It would be easy for us to give up hope that things may ever change, to harden our hearts, to assume the worst, to let our anger and fear and angst rule us when we talk about Israel. That may be the hardest part of the test we face.

Friends, just as Isaac was bound, so are we bound. Just as Abraham was tested, so are we now tested, and while the answers elude us, we must keep at it with our hearts open, or we will surely fail.
Now is not the time to give up hope in a Jewish state. Now is not the time to give up hope in the Israeli citizen craving peace—perhaps not Shalom, wholeness, but at least sheket—quiet. Now is not the time to give up hope on the Palestinian who nurses his hurts and wounds but is still has a place in those hills. Now is not the time to give up hope on our neighbors and the non-Jews in our lives and assume each would wear a red armband were this the 1940s.

When I speak of hope, I don’t speak of blind faith, or naiveté. I don’t pretend that Gaza will suddenly turn into Norway, that Hamas will magically become Canadians. Israel is in a tough neighborhood. Nor will I pretend and wish away the issues internal in Israel; while the majority of Israelis want the Jewish state to be also a democratic state, we have members of the government who are uninterested in nuance. While most Israelis were horrified by the murder of Muhammad Abu Kheder, too many members of the government or political parties within government acted sanguine. And this is not to say anything of the hostility from the settlers in Hebron toward native Arabs. While most Israelis want a two-state solution, many of them are wrestling with the thought that it may be a one-state solution, with another failed state or no-state on their border. All of this in a larger picture of ISIS, the Syrian civil war, Iran, and an intensity of anti-Semitism not seen in the postwar period. When I say hope, I recognize that it’s awfully hard to be hopeful.

Nevertheless, we must have hope. The same hope that Abraham carried in his heart as he brought Isaac, his son, to be sacrificed on a mountain in the desert. We read tomorrow as Abraham says to Isaac, “God will see to the sheep for the sacrifice.”

We must have hope, and we must act on that hope. Hope, not force is the remedy to fear. Hope, not rage, will give us the strength to respond. Not grief, not anger, not even certainty, but hope.
Hope gives us the strength to respond to our non-Jewish friends to show them that Israel is neither an apartheid state nor should be the source of their angst. Hope gives us the will to stand up to the anti-Semite with calm and grace. Hope gives us the power to reach out to the stranger and build community, to plant roots together and secure a future together. Hope makes the sacrifice worthwhile.

We must have hope and act on that hope—in the streets, in our lives, all the time—if we are to see justice done in this world, to see bigotry finally banished not only from public discourse but private thought, to see the world we imagined for our children. We must have hope to see a new religion born on the hill, of freedom and righteousness and equality for all. For if we don’t, if we give in to fear, then the sacrifice will be our children after all, and we will set their future ablaze.
We must remember that Israel’s anthem is “Hatikvah”, the Hope, a hope that has sustained us for millennia. And in singing about that hope, we focus on the wrong words. We emphasize lihiyot am chofshi b’artzeinu, eretz tzion yeriushalayim: to be a free people in our land, the land of Tzion, Jerusalem. That is what we sing the loudest, what we sing twice.  But the most important line is before that, the one responding to the Prophet Ezekiel: Od lo avda tikvateinu: we haven’t given up our hope. We mustn’t give up our hope. We may not give up our hope, for to give it up means to give up on Israel, on our Jewishness, on the world, on each other.

I have read that Israeli soldiers, on their way into Gaza, sang the Hasidic song Kol Ha’Olam Kulo: all the world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid. We must not be afraid. More than that, we must have hope, hope to see us through the fear, hope to see us through our temporary failure, hope so that our voices return to us, laughing and crying. Od lo avda tikvateinu, we haven’t lost our hope. May it always give us strength, strength to overcome fear. Amen. 

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