Friday, October 30, 2015

20 Years Since We Lost Rabin: Parashat Vayera

Do you remember where you were 20 years ago? Do you remember where you were when you heard that Yitzhak Rabin had been shot, that he was assassinated? I remember. I was in my dorm room, at college. I remember two thinks specifically from when Rabin was assassinated.
One, I remember thinking “please, let it not be an Arab.” It’s hard to remember back then but I remember, there was violence and terrorism, incitement, hostility, all in the wake of Oslo, and all I could think, with my heart in my throat, was please, don’t let it have been an Arab.
I also remember going to Hillel for what was supposed to be a memorial vigil but ended up being the rabbi and Hillel director talking about heaven knows what. It was boring. It was meaningless.  It was clear that he had no idea what to do or how to make sense of what had happened. I had hoped for meaning, for hope, and instead got senselessness.
That senselessness has become the byword for a Rabinless world. SInat Chinam, senseless hatred. It’s not just the hatred, the sinah, that continues to define our era, but that it is chinam. Since Rabin was taken from us 20 years ago this week we see evidence of that Sinat Chinam everywhere: in the language of politicians, in the actions of settlers burning down homes and attacking rabbis, to say nothing of the murderous rage of Palestinians who had hoped in Oslo but were betrayed by their own leadership.
Lots of folks have been writing this week wondering what would have been if Rabin had lived. The Israeli Hip-hop group Dag HaNachash wrote a whole song about it. The truth is, I don’t know what would have happened. Perhaps we would be in the same place we are in. One thing is clear since we have lost him, as Asher Schecter wrote in Ha’Aretz last year, we have not had political leadership that was willing to challenge the status quo, willing to be proactive instead of reactive. Rabin was nothing if not decisive and clear-eyed; would that we had such leadership today.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, which includes the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac, we tend to focus our attention at the build-up of that terrible moment: the journey, the walk up the mountain, the flash of the knife. We lose our focus once the angel stops his hand, but something interesting happens. Abraham lifts up his eyes, and then sees the ram. It’s not just that he sees the ram—he has to change his perspective; he has to see clearly, lift his eyes.

Our eyes have been downcast since we lost Rabin; and we have moved in a fog, acting as Abraham does, as if we don’t have a choice. We need to lift them up. Our vision of what might be is dimmed. It’s been twenty years too long. We need to look up. We need to lift our eyes again. May we have the strength to do so. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Lech Lecha: Our Shared Story

There’s a famous, apocryphal story about Ezer Weisman that when he was president of Israel he invited the Grand Mufti of the Waqf, which oversees the Temple Mount, or the Harm Al-Sharif, and the Chief Rabbi of Israel, to his official residence in Jerusalem. While there he asked them which of Abraham’s sons was sacrificed on the Temple Mount, The Noble Sanctuary, Isaac or Ishmael? The Chief Rabbi naturally said Isaac, and the Grand Mufti naturally said Ishmael, each citing their texts and their opinions, the conversation growing ever more heated. Finally, Weizman put a stop to it and, with a twinkle in his eye declared “you’re both wrong! It was a ram that was sacrificed up there!”
Today we see a similar debate taking place, only now the language is even more incendiary, and the results catastrophic. On the one hand the Palestinian leadership is stoking rumors online that Israel seeks to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque and ‘Judaize’ the Temple Mount; rumors that are leading to young men and women, in their teens and twenties, flinging themselves with knives and guns at Israeli civilians to attempt to murder them. These are not just Palestinians—many of these kids are Israeli Arabs, with Israeli rights. These rumors have also led to attempts at the United Nations to declare the Western Wall, Joseph’s tomb (which was set ablaze) and other Jewish sites as Muslim, leading many on the Israeli right to declare that this is proof that the Palestinians don’t want coexistence, they want murder. This has led to Israelis buying guns to protect themselves, barring Israeli Arabs from working in schools in some communities, erecting temporary barriers in some neighborhoods, the mob-murder of an Eritrean immigrant in Beer Sheba, and Bibi Netanyahu putting his entire lower half into his mouth, declaring that the Grand Mufti of the 1930s was responsible for the Holocaust, resulting in Germany saying “actually, that was us. Sorry.”
There are two powerful, compelling narratives going on here, but really they’re one. And the narratives begin this week with parashat lech lecha. Avram, dwelling in Ur, already an old man, is told by God to go to some unnamed land, the land God will show him, and will bless him. His descendants will inherit that land and all the families of the earth will bless themselves by him. It is an audacious story; to uproot one’s entire life to journey to an unknown place for an impossible blessing, but Avram does so, and thus fulfills his name, becoming the father of many.
It is cliché at this point to note that Avraham is the father of us and the Muslims, the kind of reference one brought up in the heady days of the Oslo accords. But it’s cliché because it’s true. It’s a shared narrative and a shared land. As Sarah Tuttle-Singer wrote in the Times of Israel last week: we’re not going anywhere, and they’re not going anywhere.
Right now the World Zionist Congress is taking place. Thanks to our efforts, 40% of the delegates are from ARZA, our American Reform Zionist Association, who ran on a platform of moving peace forward. They are meeting and working toward that effort now. There are voices on both sides—drowned out by incitement—who are calling for peace and coexistence. We need to everything we can to lift those voices up, in spite of our anger and our fear. Not Pollyanna ideas or foolish notions that the Middle East will suddenly be Northern Europe, but peace and prosperity on the ground nevertheless.

There was an article in Ha’aretz this week citing several studies that pointed to how the Palestinians, Jews and Druze and Israeli Bedouin all share common genetic ancestry; we are closest to each other. There may not have been an Avraham as appears in the Torah, but we come from one ancestor. We are all mishpocha. So were Cain and Abel. So it’s up to us to decide whether we want to use our shared story to justify harm to one another, or to uplift one another. And we have to make that choice again and again, otherwise it won’t be a ram sacrificed, but all of our children. Amen. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Genesis: For the sake of beginnings

Rabbi David Wolpe posted a question online this week: Does it ever seem that those with guilty consciences are good people and evildoers feel innocent?

I’m not sure how to answer the question, because as I understand it, it is a question of kavannah, of intent, of the internal person. Or worse, the exterior image of the internal person. That is; if I do something wrong and feel bad about it, then that makes me better than someone who does something wrong and justifies the action.

The problem, of course, is that the action remains the same, whether we feel guilty as a result or justified, ‘innocent’. The wrong has been committed, the toothpaste is out of the tube, and it’s never going back.

I lift up this question—deep, challenging, problematic—because it seems to me that so much of what’s going on in the world—going WRONG in the world—is not being addressed because we’re spending so much time dealing with intentions. What are Russia’s intentions in Syria? What are Iran’s intentions? What is the intention of the 17 year old Palestinian walking down the street, or the 40 year old Israeli settler? We assume we know. More than that, we assume the intention, not the action, is the most important thing. Want to bring this closer to home? Tony Allen and Dan Rich, in a presentation yesterday about Wilmington Schools and its educational needs, pointed out very clearly that too much energy around Educational reform has been bound up in fighting over who got it wrong and assigning blame rather than moving forward to do what is right.

The question of intent focuses us on the past:  what we ought to have done, or said, in the moment that is gone; or the future:  perhaps my guilty conscience will obviate me of further blame. But the past doesn’t exist. It’s ceased to be. Likewise the future doesn’t exist either: we don’t know what will happen twenty minutes from now, never mind twenty years. The only thing we truly have is this moment, this time.  Intent becomes a dead end—unless it changes behavior in the here and now.
The first words of Torah, bereshit bara Elohim, are strange words, not grammatically correct. God Creates ‘bereshit’, with ‘beginnings’. What does that mean?  For the Lekhivitzer Rebbe it meant in fact that “God created for the sake of beginning.” That is, every moment, and every action of every moment, is a beginning. We could use that time to dwell on what was, or fret about what will be. We could begin with love or with anger, or even worse, indifference. We could begin from poverty or justice. Our actions will decide the nature of those beginnings, and from them might emerge whole worlds, and if we are very careful, those words may be “tov”, good. May they be full of wisdom. May they be right.