Torah Reflections: Nov. 27 – Dec. 3, 2016

Tol’dot

Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

Why We Need Conflict

The twin brothers, Esau and Jacob, wrestled each other since before they were born. At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion we learn that: “Rebekah became pregnant. But the children almost crushed one another inside her.” [Gen. 25:21-22] Both, it seems, wanted to be the firstborn in order to inherit God’s promise to Abraham from their father Isaac. Esau was the one, eventually, to emerge first from the womb even though Jacob was still trying to pull him back as he “came out holding Esau’s heel.” [Gen. 25:26] The two boys grow up to become two clashing personalities; Esau was a “skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; while Jacob was a homespun man, keeping to the tents” [Gen. 25:27] And even though Esau appears to have de-facto inherited the firstborn status, Jacob’s conniving drive pushes him, first, to trick his brother into selling him his firstborn-right; and then—with his mother’s support—to deceive his blind father by impersonating Esau when Isaac pronounces the blessing that, consequently, makes him the leader of the tribe and the inheritor of God’s promise instead of his older brother.

But Jacob’s wrestling doesn’t stop here. In fact, our rabbis argue, Jacob’s whole life will be a life of wrestling; a succession of trials, torments and crises. Some see it as payback for his original trickery. They point to the fact that Torah describes Abraham dying “at a good ripe age, old and content;” [Gen. 25:8] and Isaac dying “old and content” [Gen. 35:29] as well; but that when it comes to Jacob’s last days he, himself, confesses that “few and hard have been the days of my life.” [Gen. 47:9] Yet Jacob who, ironically, is later called Israel—Divine Wrestler—is the one biblical character that becomes the father of the people that bear his name: the B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel. To this day, Jews are referred to not as the Children of Abraham or Isaac, but of Israel, of the wrestler.

Clearly, our tradition holds in high esteem the human experience of struggle. We need conflict. Conflict helps us grow and evolve. It challenges our convictions, and shakes us out of our complacency. Yeshiva students are, by design, paired-up to argue over biblical texts from different perspectives because doing so enriches their understanding. At an individual level, there is something deeply powerful when we allow ourselves to push through those inner places of conflict when we are put in a position that challenges our integrity, our beliefs, or our sense of right and wrong. Wrestling supports our continual evolving in the service of becoming the fullest individual we can be, by preventing us from being bogged down by too rigid personal orthodoxies.

Our culture, however, is deeply uncomfortable with conflict. It has equated conflict with clashing, war, violence, winners and losers. But conflict doesn’t have to be any of that. Every conflict is an opportunity to uncover those hidden aspects of self that might be unconscious roadblocks to our personal growth. This is how Yeshiva students approach it. Their wrestling is l’shem shamayim – for the sake of heaven. Ideally, their arguing is not meant to be about finding out who’s the best student, the more learned. No one wins. Their debate is to remain ego-less—ideally. Their purpose is to gain as multifaceted an understanding of a problem as possible by bringing into the conversation as many rabbinic perspectives as possible. The conflict is meant to expand their consciousness. Can we, too, enter into a practice that embraces conflict with love instead of reacting to it with fear? Can we set a Kavanah – an intention for ourselves to step into conflict as an opportunity to learn and grow? Can we learn to embrace differing perspectives on a given subject? Then, we would truly make our practice l’shem shamayim.

Interfaith Trip to Israel 2016_Post Shabbat Thoughts

I can’t believe we are already coming to the end of our trip. What an amazing experience once again! We have done so much; it is really hard to fathom. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Jana for making it all happen for us, and to Marla, our guide, for making every moment and every place so rich with meaning. This, differently than previous times, was a very special journey for me. Not just because I was blessed to lead the trip with Pastor Tim, but also because, for the first time, I was able to share the land of my youth with my son. This has been the most precious gift of all.

With all that, my key take away from the trip can be summed up in one sentence: who tells the story matters. Let me explain. In the past few weeks, whichever holy or not-so-holy site we have visited, we have found ourselves at the center of competing stories. We have discovered that whomever owns the site, owns the story the site tells and uses that story to convey the message that is important to them. The Independence Hall Museum tells the story of the founding of Israel, the story that is being taught in every school in Israel and that has become the quasi-unquestioned Jewish narrative of the state. Being in the bilingual school in Kafar Qaba, we got that the Arab story of this event is radically different. That school tells both stories and in doing so attempts to create a different story for the future of Israel-Palestine.

In every Church or Christian site we have visited, whomever owns the site tells through shaping this particular space the story of Jesus they want to convey. This was true throughout our trip but was really made clear to us when we visited the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, the alternative site from the Holy Sepulcher, that claims their site as the true post-crucifixion burial place of Jesus. The people in charge of the space would only allow their trained volunteers to guide and teach in that space. When Pastor Tim shared with us—following the official guided and heavily scripted tour—his version of the story while we were still there, the site crew made it clear several times that we were not welcomed to do so.

But this was true as well for the Jewish holy site of the Western Wall. The Wall is “owned” by the religious ultra-orthodox. The tiny, hard to access space given outside of the main esplanade to the progressive egalitarian Jews—though an achievement in its own right—speaks volume to the religious balance of power there and who gets to dictate the story. In fact, the religious ultra-orthodox leadership is not only telling the Jewish story inside Israel, it is setting the tone for the entire Jewish people the world over. They are able to do so because they have been able to claim great political power and influence over the Israeli government, including key cabinet minister positions that allow them to shape the story of the Jewish people from Jerusalem.

Who gets to tell the story is critical. We have watched the religious story falling increasingly into the hands of the most radical orthodox in all three Abrahamic faiths. When the voice of religion could play a defining role in supporting the evolution of global consciousness, what we are seeing is that it is, instead, retracting, recoiling in fear from the advances of the post-modern world. But just as we, progressive Jews, cannot let the ultra-orthodox define who is a real practicing Jew and who isn’t, cannot let this one form of practice among a spectrum of practices be turned into the one gold standard of Jewishness, so can’t we let radical orthodoxy in any of our monotheistic faiths dictate the next chapter of human history. Just like in the bilingual school of Kafar Qaba, there is room for more than one story. We are richer for it when we can take multiple perspectives, include and integrate others’ stories. And so without denying the rightful space that belongs to the orthodox among us, we also need to boldly claim ours and be just as loud and proud as they are.

And loud and proud we certainly are. You should have seen us sing and dance at the Western Wall last night as we welcomed Shabbat together with the thousands of Jews of all traditions and from all places in the world who, as they do each week, gathered there to celebrate the Shabbat Queen with contagious joy. We proudly took our place in the many hora circles that form all over the place, and we loudly joined in song together with them. And that made me really happy.

Shavuah Tov, from Jerusalem.

Interfaith Trip to Israel 2016_Day Six

There is a beautiful parable in the story of Jesus that takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane that we visited today. The story goes that during Jesus’ celebration of Passover as he and his disciples are drinking the four cups of wine, sharing the matzah and eating the maror at their Seder, he leaves the table to go pray in the Garden. There, the very human Jesus who has foreseen the future that will follow his Last Supper, asks God to “remove this cup” from him. I imagine him crying that he is not ready. He is not prepared. He is not the one. Someone else should be chosen for this. He won’t be able to go through with it.

It is often when the mind comes to an impossible dead-end, when there is no way out, and no more explanations to be had, that something is released, something snaps. That something that falls away is the self’s illusion of control and, with it, the beginning of the dissolution of the self itself. Jesus arrives at that realization when he eventually comes to see the futility of his request that God “remove this cup” from him. He surrenders to the inevitable, he surrenders to “what is” and lets go of his need for this moment, for his life unfolding, to be any different than it is. In that place of realization, he exclaims: “Not mine but Your Will be done!” Now I don’t know what the original Hebrew or Aramaic would have been, but I hear in his declaration Joseph’s declaration to Pharaoh just before he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams: ‘Biladai – Without me/without a ‘me’, I am just an empty channel through which God will interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.” Here, too, Jesus may be saying “Biladai, Ken Yehi Ratzon. – I am empty of self, Thy Will be done/I realize that I am empty of self, and that all there is unfolding in Creation is Your Will, including my life path. I am not in charge nor have I ever been in control.”

All the spiritual traditions the world over have a version of this story, even the 12 Steps of Recovery speak of our powerlessness and invite their practitioners to “let go and let God.” One of the reasons is that this teaching, this realization, is the first required step on the journey toward enlightenment. Yet, at this time in our nation’s history when we are asked to step up and take a stand, the Truth of this teaching might look like an abdication of responsibility. If all is God’s Will, then I can just sit back and watch the world’s story unfold before my eyes. But that would be missing the point that the Gethsemane encounter is making. In the garden, Jesus was bearing witness to his own agony, to his own inner resistance while at the same time contemplating the magnitude of history in his story. In that place of witnessing all that was arising in that moment, the inner turmoil and the historical unfolding, he sourced in the silence of the heart what God was moving through him to do. He dissolved his resistances and surrendered into the flow of Divine unfolding. He grabbed ahold of that metaphorical cup again and forged ahead. Had he followed his own will he might have gone home to Nazareth and, who knows, try his hand at carpentry and live to a ripe old age. Surrendering to God’s Will, he stepped into a story bigger than himself even if that meant he would be suffer an agonizing death.

On my personal small scale, I find myself pacing back and forth in my own metaphorical garden of Gethsemane. There is great turmoil within since November 8.  I sense the historical unfolding around me, and many competing voices swirl in my consciousness with conflicting messages from “go home and try carpentry” to “grab onto that cup and run with it.” I feel I need to wait a while longer and find my “Biladai” moment in the silence of the heart. Maybe this journey through Israel came at the right time to help me just do that. Ken Yehi Ratzon.

Interfaith Trip to Israel_Day Five

I have always had a complicated relationship with Masada. The site itself is remarkable. King Herod’s narcissistic paranoia brought him to build seven magnificent fortresses in different parts of Israel, and, if anything else, Masada has to be his crown jewel. The story becomes more challenging with the Roman army’s siege of the fortress in their attempt at wiping out the remnants of the Jewish rebellion at the time, including the group of Sicarii that had taken refuge atop Masada. As the story goes, the day before the final push of the Romans into the fortress and before the unavoidable fight, the Sicarii decided as the ultimate act of resistance, to not give the Romans the satisfaction of victory and to enact a suicide pact by which fathers killed their families, ten designated men killed the fathers, and so on until the last one of them.

In its early days, the State of Israel, in search of a unifying national myth saw in Masada a symbol of heroism, resistance and sacrifice. They coined the slogan: “Masada will never fall again.” Nowadays Israeli soldiers are taken up the fortress to swear their military oath of allegiance and shout this newly minted mantra of Masada with pride. But not everyone saw in that story the story of national heroes. Some understood the tale to be a warning against the destructiveness of nationalistic ideals. Frankly, I feel that though both perspectives have merit on their own, they are both missing an even more controversial issue which is often overlooked. Here was a group of fighters, resisting the Roman Empire and engaging them in a fight atop impregnable Masada. Yet in the moment of the final clash, instead of taking down with them as many of their sworn enemies as possible they commit collective suicide? Is this really the model we want for Israel?

Masada has become extremely problematic in Israeli lore because of this multi-layered contradicting symbolism. Yet, at the same time, the question this story is posing remains critically relevant. Should we let ourselves be swallowed up by the global forces of the Roman Empire, or should we resist and preserve what has made us unique even if that means becoming recluses in the last bastion of resistance? Obviously the answer isn’t easy. Jews have wrestled with it since the times of the Sicarii and before. Do we merge with the current culture and risk losing ourselves and disappear as a people, or do we remain faithful to our traditions and way of life even if that means being ostracized (and worse) from the evolving world around us? When it comes to assimilation, how far is too far?

Perhaps the U.S. as a nation has come to its Masada moment in these past presidential elections. A substantial part of our nation asked itself: “When it comes to globalization, how far is too far?” and may have come to the conclusion that the way things are today is, for them, already too far. There are values, a way of life, a certain quality of what makes the U.S. what it is that, as far as they are concerned, are being threatened by the new Roman Empire of Globalization. When the Jews were faced with that question in the 1700’s they responded in different ways. Though the analogy is poor, the Sicarii at the time became the ultra-orthodox Jews that closed themselves off into their own religious fortress with the goal to preserve what they saw as authentic Judaism. Others proposed a compromise half way between preserving tradition and assimilation. These became the Conservative and Reform movements at first and later on the Reconstructionist and Renewal movements to name but a few. Many decided to leave Judaism behind and to fully assimilate into the secular modern world.

It is possible that we will see in America a similar unfolding. Some will remain the American Sicarii, violent nationalists bent on preserving White Supremacist Patriarchal America. Others will come to a place of compromise on the spectrum of preserving a set of uniquely American values and welcoming Globalization. Another group will decide to transform into global citizens away from a uniquely American identity. My concern is that, oftentimes, the voice of the most extreme is the one to dominate the conversation; the acts of the violent to dictate the unfolding of the narrative. We will have to commit to act as counterweight in order to prevent the extremist views to derail the process and to help along whatever transformation is yearning to be born.

Interfaith Trip To Israel_Day Four

There was a time in my life when I was powerfully attracted by the possibility of living on a kibbutz. When I was 16, I spent a summer in Israel working on a kibbutz in the northern part of the country called Beit HaShitah. I fell in love with the place and the way of life. Something about the idea of working as part of a community toward a shared goal, of living outdoors and doing physical work, of breaking free from the individualistic capitalist lifestyle that the socialist-anarchist in me rejected. It felt ego-less, humble and simple; a sort of modern monastic life. I was religious at the time so I imagined my life on a religious kibbutz would be split between praying to my God and tending the earth. What better combo? I also imagined I would probably join one of the kibbutzim by the Dead Sea in the middle of the desert as I always loved being there.

Obviously I never made it happen. It remained an unfulfilled desire that I filed under “Idealistic Aspirations of Youth” in one of the drawers of my life story. Today, as we toured Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu on the bank of the Jordan river a few hundred yards north of the border with Autonomous Palestine, that desire got reactivated. Maybe this time, however, because of the turmoil in our world today, this was more about escapism than idealism. A part of me dreamt again, for a moment, of disconnecting from everything and returning to a simpler way of being. After all, it used to be that if you lived on a kibbutz, all your basic needs were taken care of. You didn’t own anything as everything belonged to the community, but you didn’t have to worry about anything either. In the first few minutes of walking through this kibbutz today that felt really right and enticing. Who needs to go back to “civilization” and why would anyone want to be a part of it? Beni, the Kibbutz member that was assigned to be our guide, showed us how over the last couple of decades, Sde Eliyahu had become the leader in Israel in organic farming through one of their promotional movies. It sounded particularly good and tempting.

I think it is healthy, from time to time, to question the decisions we have made, the life we have chosen. Often it is when we travel, when we are given the opportunity to come into contact with other ways of living and hold those as against our own, that we can step outside of ourselves and look at our own life, that we can play the compare-and-contrast game and imagine what our life might have been if we had made different choices. It is healthy as well because being exposed to other possibilities of defining how a human life may be lived in the short amount of time we are all given on this earth, helps us question the definition our society has given us and by which, consciously and unconsciously, we live. In our case we might still choose the American way of life, yet if we do, we might do it with greater awareness. I wouldn’t choose, today, the life of a kibbutznik. Though I still find many parts of it attractive and a part of me would have no problem with rejecting civilization in order to live as a farmer/meditator recluse, my life path lays elsewhere. I am grateful for the chance today has given me to touch again this part of self that, unless placed in this kind of context, doesn’t get activated. It is good to spend time sitting together with this other part of me, my inner monk.

Tomorrow we climb Masada. And that’s altogether another metaphor for our lives.

Interfaith Trip to Israel_Day Three

How do we heal our world? How do we move past what divides us to create, together, a tomorrow that will be richer because of the pain of yesterday? How do we stand strong for what we believe in without demonizing those others who stand strong for what they believe in? Yes, I am talking about the US Presidential elections and, yes, I am talking about Israel. Because the Israeli-Palestinian experience has something to teach us, Americans, about moving forward. We could go one direction—as Israeli and Palestinian governments have done—that of separation, that of “I’m right, you’re wrong,” and move the two sides of the country further and further apart until all possibility of communication breaks down and all that’s left is violence and death. Or we could go a different direction—as some small minorities within Israel-Palestine still are—and choose healing and reconciliation, understanding and compassion. Today we met those who refuse to accept as fait-accompli the polarization of peoples meant to share the same land. Today we humbly learned at the feet of Jews and Palestinians alike, how to move forward back home. Today, among others working toward peace on the ground, we met Dr. Hassan Agbaria, the principal of a bilingual Arab-Jewish school named “Bridge Over The Wadi,” in the Arab village of Kafar Qaba. He is my new hero (and I never use the word hero lightly).

In his school, hundreds of children, pre-K through 12th grade, Jews and Arabs learn together in both languages; Hebrew and Arabic. Instead of simply opting for their local Israeli public school, families from the nearby Jewish village of Katzir, choose every day to drive their children to this Arab village so that they can benefit from a bilingual education and be raised to learn tolerance in an integrated community. Every day, Muslim families of this and other villages around, defy their own society and its norms, and choose to drive their kids to this school as well. Each classroom in every grade has two teachers, one who teaches in Hebrew, one who teaches in Arabic. Teachers are all women. This was a deliberate choice of Principal Hassan in part because he believes women were better conveyers of the school’s vision, in part because having working Arab women also creates change back in their own communities. We arrived at the school right at noon and, as it probably was lunch break, dozens of kids were running around in the courtyard some playing soccer, some playing “marching band” and banging on improvised drums. Girls and boys of all ages, Muslims and Jews playing together. One of the Jewish ten year olds was asked to say a few words to us because he was known to speak some English. His name was Lior. We asked him how many Jews and how many Muslims were in his class. He had no idea. The thought never occurred to him to look at his classmates that he had known since he was three in this kind of way. Next to us, two girls who must have been the same age as Lior, one Jewish one Muslim, were talking to each other as best friends do sitting side by side and interlacing their legs and giggling together. It was so simple, it was so normal, it made me cry. I asked Principal Hussan how they choose their curriculum, especially around teaching history, knowing full well that there is no shared historical narrative between Palestinians and Israelis. Each side sees what has happened over the years in a radically different way than their counterpart. Dr. Agbaria used an apt example since we just had been at the Independence Hall Museum in Tel Aviv, that of Israel’s Independence Day. Each year, May 14th, toward the end of the school year, comes the marking of a day that the Palestinians call “Nekba – The Catastrophe.” Principal Hussan told us that they are not there to try and manufacture a third historical narrative that would retell a modified story and smooth over the difficult parts. Instead they see their mission as being about teaching both opposing narratives, exactly as each side tells it, to all the kids. They teach kids, from the youngest age, to recognize the truth in each competing and contradicting story, to see that each perspective is right however partial and limited to only one side. These kids learn to listen to each other’s story, to appreciate multiple points of view, to hear the pain and recognize the fear behind them from the youngest age; and we, adult citizens of the supposed greatest civilization that ever ruled the earth can’t even do that between Americans who, for the most part, don’t have language and religion as an obstacle.

Principal Hussan holds a vision as his guiding principle. His vision to which he dedicates every minute of every hour of his life, is a vision of peace, mutual recognition and understanding. In an area of the world where the overwhelming majority perceives such a vision as a threat, Principal Hussan is risking his life to give these children the chance to live a different dream. There are now six such bilingual schools in Israel that follow this model. “Bridge over the Wadi,” however, is the only school in a 100% Arab village. Beyond the world-changing model that these centers of education promote, there are dozens of other such programs and organization working on the ground, and in spite of their government, to make peace with their neighbors. Israel is changing, a new dawn of possibility is here. And this is exciting for Israel-Palestine.

But what about us? What is our vision for our country? Can we learn from this experience and stand, with love in our heart and an invitation on our lips, for such a vision without rejecting or demonizing those who think otherwise? Can we act today to manifest our vision for tomorrow? Can we take a firm stand in support of that vision and move from a center of love, understanding and compassion, to counter the forces of exclusion and division?

We have much to learn from this growing grassroots movement toward peace, blossoming in Israel, and, for once, though they may be a thousand setbacks and many dark days ahead, there may be cause for optimism. And I’ll take optimism over bloodshed anytime.

Blessed are the peacemakers…

Interfaith Israel Trip 2016_Day One

Is it possible?

After spending time in Tel Aviv this morning both at the Independence Hall where David Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel’s existence, and walking through the artists’ market of Nachalat Binyamin and the Carmel Suk; we drove north to the Galilee and spent time visiting a couple churches in Nazareth each claiming to be the spot of the Annunciation where Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she soon would become pregnant. We learned that there are two churches because of two competing stories. One had Mary at her home, the other at the village’s well drawing water when Gabriel appeared. Both churches, in their own way, are magnificent designs of inspired sacred space. Time and again I find myself drawn into the silence that places such as these are able to evoke in me.

Nazareth is known to be the capital of the Galilee. Eight percent of this region of Israel is Arab-populated and predominantly Muslim but with a strong Christian minority as well. Nazareth itself is one hundred percent Arab-Israeli with roughly 60,000 Muslims and 20, 000 Christians. Some years ago, Israeli Jews started building a little village the next hill over that they named Upper Nazareth. Attracted by the modernity of the new constructions, Arab-Israelis from Nazareth started buying homes in Upper Nazareth and constitute now 20-30% of the new village’s population. It is predicted that, within a generation, it will soon become an Arab-majority village with Arabs living side by side with Jews.

So I asked myself, is it possible? One of the main arguments that I have heard from the political right in Israel that opposes the peace process is the fear that Palestinians’ only goal—despite their claim to the contrary—is, ultimately, the destruction of Israel. That we can’t trust them with a peace agreement they will never honor; that Israel needs to fortify its defenses, keep building a separation wall, impose strict checkpoints to prevent terrorists from entering Israel, and maintain a military presence inside Palestinian towns, villages and territories. But these 80,000 Muslims and Christians of Nazareth don’t have a security wall surrounding them, don’t have checkpoints that restricts their movement in Israel whatsoever, and have no Israeli military presence in their streets. Yet with complete and unrestricted access to any place in Israel, I can’t remember a time when any Arab resident of Nazareth ever perpetrated a terrorist act against Jews. Even though, as full-fledged citizens of the state of Israel, they are still a discriminated-against minority (as minorities seem to be the world over) which could justify them having a bone of contention against Israeli Jews; without mentioning the legitimate anger and resentment toward Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza.

It seems to me that the example of decades of peaceful cohabitation within Israel between Israeli-Jews and Arab-Israeli could serve as a tangible example of success and something to point to as a more probable outcome of a negotiated peace agreement between the two people. I understand that there are many complex layers of this conflict that a short blog post that is necessarily limited cannot address. There are legitimate concerns coming from all sides of the political spectrum both in Israel and in Palestine. Yet, to me, the security fear-based argument from Israel’s political right I mentioned above, though understandable, may not be as iron-clad that it purports to be. I don’t think that Israel is really afraid of what a potential fledgling Palestinian State could do. The balance of military power is overwhelmingly on Israel’s side, and a disarmed Palestinian State could be a negotiated condition for independence. Looking at the Nazareth example; given the chance to live peacefully and freely in a democratic context, it appears as though—like other peoples the world over—that the Palestinians would chose to contribute, respect and be part of such democratic nation-building. The narrative one chooses, the example one points to, affects one’s vision about what could be. After today, I am growing more convinced that Nazareth more than Gaza, is a true representation of the future of Israel/Palestine where Jews and non-Jews have already lived together in peace side by side for decades. And as it has happened within the Israeli State borders, so could it happen within the boundaries of a Palestinian State as well. And though I reject Gaza and the violent aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal, I choose Nazareth. Like we heard this morning at Independence Hall: “If you will it, it is no dream.” But that is the problem, isn’t it?

Interfaith Israel Trip 2016 _Arrival Day

Tel Aviv, Israel; November 17, 2016

What a miracle! I am re-reading these first few words—the date and the place where I am writing from—and I am moved by a sense of awe. Don’t get me wrong, my zealous Zionist years are far behind me. As an Israeli citizen, I have found myself highly critical of Israel’s current government and, at the same time, concerned with the world’s criticizing of Israel indiscriminately, as if all Israelis supported this government’s policies and actions. What would we say if other people painted Americans as being all Obama-supporters or, starting January 20th all Trump-policies supporters? But disagreeing with one’s government doesn’t make one a traitor or an anti-American/Israel; doesn’t cause one to go burn the flag tomorrow. Often the opposite is true. We are highly critical and work to hold our government accountable to fulfilling our country’s vision because we care; because we know ourselves to be part of a human evolution project bigger than ourselves; bigger than any one nation.

Walking with our group through the streets of Tel Aviv to and from our first group dinner at Magenda, a local and oh-so-delicious Israeli restaurant, I was moved by seeing the Israeli flag wave in the wind. That reaction surprised me. I pointed out to my son Lior who was walking by my side of the miracle that such a flag existed, that Tel Aviv existed, that Israel existed. That a flag with a Jewish star painted on it could symbolize the existence of a place of refuge for all Jews of the world—a safe haven from the dangers of living at the mercy of the next rise of an anti-Semitic wave in whatever country we currently find ourselves—is an absolute miracle.

And though we might disagree with the current Israeli government policies, though we may be aware that for too many non-Jewish minorities in this land this flag represents oppression and evil, we simply cannot abandon Israel and what it was founded to stand for. When it comes to the Israeli project, still in its infancy when compared to America’s or the European nations’ for example, the phrase from the Talmud’s Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” comes to mind: “Lo Aleicha HaM’lacha Ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah – It is not incumbent upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from contributing to it altogether.”

Perhaps this interfaith tour of Israel might give us a new way to think not only about the unfolding of the Israeli narrative and project but give us clues as to how we can move forward together as an American nation as well. I am looking forward to the journey ahead.

Torah Reflections: November 6 – 12, 2016

Lech Lecha

Genesis 12:1 – 17:27

Abraham: A Promise For The Future

This week’s Torah portion marks the beginning of the Patriarchal story in the Book of Genesis. Abraham receives God’s call to leave his home and travel to an unknown land with the assurance of God’s promise: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing…through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” [Gen. 12:3] And then, as Abraham arrives in the land of Canaan, God appends His promise to him saying: “I am giving this land to your descendants.” [Gen. 12:7]

But we immediately notice a problematic twist in God’s promise to Abraham: it is written in the future tense. God’s promise is not to be fulfilled in Abraham’s lifetime, but through his descendants. In fact, no sooner had Abraham been given the vision of this grand future than the reality of the present comes crashing down on him. Canaan will have to wait. There is famine in the land and Abraham is forced to migrate down to Egypt. He eventually manages to find his way back to the Promised Land only to split it with his nephew Lot whose own tribe has now grown too big. Abraham then risks losing everything, finding himself drawn into a nine-king war, trying to free Lot who had fallen captive during one of their battles. Abraham’s reality never lives up to the hopes of the oft-repeated Divine vision. Time and again God reiterates His promise of land and peoplehood; but each time the tenuous promise is threatened by yet another danger in Abraham’s way.

We find ourselves facing the same challenge as Abraham does in Torah. The dichotomy between his aspirations and his reality is ours as well. And it comes into focus for us perhaps especially when elections come around. Every presidential election cycle seems to bring up within us—reflected in the many articles and publications that spring up during these months—the yearning for a promise of what our country could be, of what our world might become. Last Tuesday night our fellow Americans reminded us that we still live in a white-supremacy patriarchy. The advances we believed we had made only triggered an overwhelming emotional reaction in those who felt their own values and worldview threatened by them. We need to hear that. As we continue to work toward evolving beyond this white-supremacy patriarchy, we will need to also tend to the basic needs for safety and inclusion of those who feel under attack. More polarization, more rejection and more outraged battle cries won’t help. We must move to dream a bigger dream, to hold a grander promise that would enlarge the circle of inclusion. Why? Because a vision worth working toward might need to be one similar to the one here-above that Abraham also heard; that our presence be a blessing to the earth and all its inhabitant, that we continue to seek peace and justice in our cities and in the world, that we uphold as guiding principles the values of compassion, inclusivity, truth and love.

Now we also have to accept that, like for Abraham, our reality will always fall short of the vision we hold, of the promise we carry—if it didn’t, it would mean that our vision wasn’t big enough to start with. But should that preclude us from continuing to dream? Perhaps in these times more than in any other, the tenuous promise of what our nation stands for seems to be deeply threatened; there is famine in the land. But should that deter us from doing all we can to keep the vision alive? Abraham didn’t struggle to save the imperiled Divine promise time and again, just for himself. He did it for future generations. It is our duty to keep the promise of a post-white-supremacy patriarchy nation alive. It is ours to manifest within our homes and our communities, within our towns and our cities. Not for ourselves, but for the generations that will follow, so that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Torah Reflections: October 30 – November 5, 2016

Noah

Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

The Tower of Babel

This week’s Torah portion speaks of two main events: The flood, and, in its wake, the dispersion of mankind following the Tower of Babel episode. It appears that both events are the Divine response to what humans building cities for themselves might represent.

At the end of the previous portion, the descendants of Cain build for themselves a city (Gen. 4:17-24). In the process, they grow not only disconnected from God, but also increasingly arrogant. They create for themselves a high-culture society, and achieve unrivaled military might by making iron weapons; to the point where they boast to have become more powerful than God. Consequently, God vows to destroy mankind, and follows through with the flood.

But only a few generations after the waters have receded, humans are building yet another city. Just like Cain’s descendants, the post-flood humans build a military fortress; this time with a high tower. Though many commentators have pointed to the fact that the tower was reaching to heaven because mankind wanted to assert autonomy and challenge God, Torah never speaks of heaven as being the place of God’s dwelling, rather only as God’s creation. The insistence on building “a tower that reaches the sky” [Gen. 11:4], stresses the highly fortified nature and impregnability of the city. Humanity, finding strength, security and comfort living together in one small place, hunkered down, closed itself off from the world, and disconnected itself from the earth and from God. But despite their best efforts, God intervenes and scatters people all over the earth anyway, and in so doing multiplies their languages.

Why were the cities in Torah seen as the center of evil and sin? Because they symbolized mankind’s resistance to fulfilling the purpose for which we were created. We read: “God then said to [Adam], ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and tame it’” [Gen. 1:28]. This injunction is repeated in this week’s portion: “God then blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply; and fill the earth’” [Gen 9:1]. We are to fill the earth, to be scattered everywhere; not to be concentrated in one place, closed off from the natural world. In fact, we are to immerse ourselves in nature: “So the Eternal One sent [Adam and Eve] away from the Garden of Eden, to work the soil from which they have been taken” [Gen. 3:23]. The word for “work” in this verse is “la-avod” which, in Hebrew, refers to sacred work, to prayer and worship, to spiritual work as much as physical work. Humanity’s purpose is to be the sacred workers, the caretakers, the stewards of this hallowed earth. Through the sacred work of our hands the earth fulfills its purpose of bringing forth its bounty. Despite what many interpreters have claimed, the Torah does not assert that the earth is here to serve us and our needs; it rather posits that we are of the earth, bound to live in a harmonious and sacred relationship with it.

Our practice is to not only see the holiness of who we are in ourselves and each other, but also to know the holiness of where we are; to glimpse the face of the Divine in all we see, in all we taste, and work toward restoring balance to our ecosystem so there never shall be a flood again.