Celebrating Homeland

We do not rejoice in victories. We rejoice when a new kind of cotton is grown and when strawberries bloom in Israel.
— Golda Meir

This week marks both Israel's Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and Israel's Independence Day so it's a great time to do an IQ test (Israel Quotient). How well do you know the ancient and modern history, language, politics, music, theater and literature of the country? When's the last time you visited? How often do you speak to someone from Israel? How knowledgeable are you about current events?

These questions make an underlying assumption about the Holy Land. It will always be here. It will always be a refuge, an in-gathering of global Jewry, a place of Jewish strength and identity, a mecca for those of different faiths. Yet there are still people who remember well the days before the State, when this assumption of Israel's existence was not even a dream, let alone a reality. And it's a good reminder to check in sporadically with our own feelings and commitments to the Zionist enterprise, which has so often come under biting criticism from without and within.

In the medieval period, Maimonides - who traveled to Israel with his family but settled in Fostat, the old city of Cairo - had this to say about the early relationship of scholars and the land: "Great sages would kiss the borders of the land, kiss its stones, and roll in its dust, as it states in Psalms 102:15: 'Behold, your servants hold her stones dear and cherish her dust.'" [Laws of Kings 5:10 ] If anyone has seen people get off a plane at Ben Gurion airport and kiss the ground, you can imagine the sages of old marveling at Israel's existence and never taking it for granted but treating it like the miracle ground it is.

And yet, when the country was founded, there were sharp attacks from some on the religious right who were not convinced that the timing was right. They believed (and some continue to believe) that Israel is a land and not a state and only when it's declared a state from heaven above, will they move there or, if they are there, respect and treat it as an independent political entity. Others believed that the Balfour Declaration and the UN decision were the actual signs from heaven above that it was indeed time.
In Kol Dodi Dofek (Listen, My Beloved Knocks), Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik famously challenged the right wing religious position using chapter five of Song of Songs. The beloved knocks on the door of his lover. She takes so much time answering that she misses him and then goes into a frenzy at the possibility that he may not come back for fear of rejection. "God who conceals Himself in His dazzling hiddenness" during our great suffering "suddenly manifested Himself and began to knock." This knocking was a way of awakening us to the possibility of an immense collective transformation, "...as a result of the knocks on the door of the maiden wrapped in mourning, the State of Israel was both Fate and Destiny." In 1948, God knocked on our door, as if to say that this is the miracle we waited for and needed after a war-decimated Europe almost put an end to us.
No one believes Israel is problem-free. Today, we are more divided about Israel politically than ever. Many don't rely on Israel to shape their own Jewish identities anymore nor do they support the country unequivocally. Rabbi Haim Sabato was in conversation with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (1933-2015) before his death and recorded this ongoing dialogue between these two great scholars in a new book Seeking His Presence. There, Rabbi Lichtenstein takes a sober view of the matter:

"I wish I could tell you that all we dreamt of in returning to Zion has come true. I wish I could tell you that all the problems and concerns have been resolved and that all is just as it should be. I wish I could feel that we have arrived "to the rest and inheritance" (Deut. 12:9), diplomatically, politically, societally, spiritually - in terms of sanctity, Torah and fear of Heaven. But I don't want to deceive you. Even if I wanted to, I would not be able to. You would see through it."

Even so, he observed that what we have is truly worth celebrating. Israel, he writes, is "not a perfect alternative" but "the best chance to safeguard the identity of the Jewish people, in quantity, in strength and in ideas." Israel is the global Jewish project, the place of our inspiration and hope. "The Zionist position," Rabbi Lichtenstein states, "adopted by the rabbis and other religious adherents of the movement as well, believed not only that man is capable and authorized to take up this mantle but that man is obligated to do so. He is obligated to fashion an optimal world, both spiritually and physically."  

Perhaps one of the reasons we don't celebrate Israel enough is that we set our aspirations for this optimal world so high that we and others judge ourselves much more severely when we fail than we would other countries. Let's all take a step back and a deep breath in, especially this week, and list our small and great victories, not on the battlefield but as Golda Meir declared, when "a new kind of cotton is grown and when strawberries bloom in Israel."
Happy Birthday Israel. Shabbat Shalom.

Blue and White Not Red

Great sages would kiss the borders of the land, kiss its stones and roll in its dust because it states in Psalms (102:15) : “Behold, your servants hold her stones dear and cherish her dust.”
— Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Laws of Kings, 5:10

These past weeks have been ones of anxiety and terror in Israel. The phrase that seems to pop up most in newspaper accounts is that, once again, violence in Israel is "heating up," an understatement when it comes to the brutality of the details. Some people see the signs as a rehash of past Intifadas, and the war weary know only too well where this all may lead. But something significant has changed, and it's important to name it. Whereas in the past, American Jews could be counted on to defend Israel, particularly in a time of vulnerability, today the answer is more likely to be "It's complicated."

Loyalty is actually not that complicated.

You can be a loyal friend of Israel and still find Israel's politics or policies troubling. Like a friend in need, you sometimes must put aside differences when your friend is in pain because you understand that this is what is demanded of a friendship: intimacy and support in a time of crisis.

I was recently teaching a group of Israelis and Americans who serve on college campuses as Israel educators. Campuses today are often a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment. These educators reported that some executive directors of Hillels don't want to do any Israel programs for fear of protests. I've spoken to rabbis who balk at defending Israel from the pulpit. Mostly they don't bring it up. Where the mention of Israel used to bring pride, now the very word in some circles is a source of embarrassment or discomfort.

The quote above from Maimonides expresses the unambiguous love that the sages of the Talmud had for Israel. Even the dirt felt special because it was Jewish dirt. And it raises a question for those who question their feelings about Israel. What if there were no Israel? While most of us cannot remember a world without Israel, some do. It is not a fact we can take for granted in a country that was recognized on the world stage only in 1948. It makes all of us ask ourselves: what would be the most serious consequence of not having the State of Israel in the future?

Before the State, Theodor Herzl predicted that the very presence of Israel would magnify and uplift the world: "The Jews who will it shall achieve their State. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and in our own homes peacefully die. The world will be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind." It's a rosy and aspirational picture but not far from reality when you consider the technical, spiritual, medical and cultural gifts Israel has given the world.

And we need not turn to Herzl alone. John F. Kennedy said that, "Israel was not created in order to disappear. Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy, and it honors the sword of freedom." 

So what would the Middle East look like if there were no Israel? What would our Jewish Diaspora community do were there no refuge in times of despair? Think of the fate of Jews from Yemen and Syria, Russia and Ethiopia, France and the Ukraine - to name but a few. They found a friend in Israel when they could no longer live in comfort or safety where they were. Israel does not say to Jews in need worldwide, "It's complicated." Instead, the message is "Welcome Home."

It's time for us to think about what loyalty means, even a complicated loyalty - if that's what it must be for some. It must fundamentally involve our love, our allegiance, our pride, our support and our willingness to put aside differences when the country is in pain. Blue, white and red cannot forever be the colors of a flag stained in blood.

Shabbat Shalom

To Stand or Sit

“But as for you, stand here with Me
— Deuteronomy 5:27

There is an argument taking place among writers right now. Is it better ergonomically to write while sitting or to write while standing? Hemingway used to write while standing as did Nabakov. We've see an emergence of the writing desk and even the treadmill desk for those who can really multi-task. A. J. Jacobs devotes a section in his book Drop Dead Healthy to this question, saying "The desk is where most of the Crimes of Excessive Sedentary Behavior occur." Since he wrote this book to experiment with ways to achieve optimal health, he piled 3 cardboard boxes on top of each other on his desk and started to answer e-mails.

"It didn't go badly," he writes. "I shifted and rocked a lot. I kind of looked like an Orthodox Jew praying at the Western Wall, but with a MacBook instead of a Torah." His breakthrough came when he followed the advice of Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic and rigged a desk on his treadmill, what some have called deskercise and others have termed iPlodding. He wanted to write the whole book on this desk and even includes a picture of his invention. He claims it helps him focus.

Because our sedentary behavior cause aches and pains, scholars of old also took on this question. Is it better to sit or stand while learning Torah?

In the Talmud [BT Megilla 21a], the beautiful imperative above - to stand with Me - was understood as an ancient way we partnered with God. "The phrase 'with Me' indicates, as it were, even the Holy One, Blessed be He, was standing [at Mount Sinai]." We never think of God as standing with us at Sinai but as giving us something. The idea that God was not only giving us teachings but also standing beside us to support the way that we received them has great value in helping us understand the nature of transmission.

The Talmud then extrapolates, as it so often does. If God stood with us at Sinai to teach us, then teachers must also stand by their students when teaching them: "From where is it derived that the teacher should not sit on a couch and teach his disciple while he is sitting on the ground? "But as for you, stand here with Me." To this, one sage added, "From the days of Moses until the time of Rabban Gamliel [grandson of Hillel], they would study Torah while standing." Standing was a way of honoring Torah and an act akin to receiving the Torah at Sinai again. It was also a way to honor the teacher/disciple relationship. If we want people to really learn, we go to where they are to teach them. Why did this practice change, the Talmud ponders? "When Rabban Gamliel died, weakness descended to the world, and they would study Torah while sitting." 

Sitting while teaching was a sign of weakness. The sages debated the point. In Deuteronomy, one verse says, "And I sat on the mount" while another says, "And I stood on the mount" (Deuteronomy 10:10). This is interpreted by the sage Rav to mean that "Moses would stand and learn Torah from God and sit and review what he learned." Rabbi Hanina said, "Moses was not sitting or standing but bowing." Rabbi Yohanan believed this means that Moses simply stayed in one place when he taught where Rava said, "Moses studied easy material while standing and difficult material while sitting."

We have constructed very set spaces for learning that may not optimize our study. Our imaginations are often locked into the classrooms of our childhoods: desks evenly spaced apart facing the teacher's desk in neat rows. Very little about real learning, the integration of knowledge and wisdom develop this way. The Talmud understood that when we learn we need movement.

The Talmudic passage also made me think of the expression "to stand with Israel." We mean that we are together in unity and support. But I thought of Rava's contribution to this debate. Moses studied easy material while standing and difficult material while sitting. It may be easier to stand with Israel than to sit with Israel, to consider the complex and nuanced ways we can support our homeland in crisis. Slogans, reverse racism, simple political bantering are ways that people tend to protest - to stand with Israel - but real, long-term solutions can never be reduced to a simple formula. They always involve loss, anguish, compromise, patience, diplomacy and resilience.

It's time to stand with Israel and to sit with Israel, too.

Shabbat Shalom

You Are Not Alone

“Judaism has always looks upon the individual as if he were a little world; with the death of the individual, this little world comes to an end.”
— Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik

A number of Facebook posts this week requested that people in Israel attend Max Steinberg's funeral. As a lone solider  - a soldier who decides to serve in the IDF from another country and is thus without family - Max was one of 13 killed in the fighting this past weekend. Max's friends  - and even strangers - were understandably concerned that Max would not have a lot of people to send him off to his eternal resting place. 

Max's death and the death of anyone who gives his or her life in service to others raises the profound and niggling philosophical question of the rights of the individual in relationship to the community. What is my responsibility to others? What are the limitations of my responsibility? How do I achieve community?  The quote above, by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his article "The Community," stresses that each person must treat himself and be treated by others as no other. We will weave excerpts of his article into Max's story.

“Each individual possesses something unique, rare, which is unknown to others; each individual has a unique message to communicate, a special color to add to the communal spectrum.

Max joined the army six months after visiting Israel with Birthright. His parents had never been to Israel. His network of family and friends there was not deep. His mother told NBC news what any mother would have: "I never thought I'd have to bury my child. It's not supposed to be that way." His mother wanted him to be buried near her in Los Angeles, but when she got to Israel, she understood why he needed to be buried there, to be near what was newly important to him.

[A human being] is a single, lonely being, not belonging to any structured collectivity. He is also a thou-related being, who co-exists in companionship with someone else.

Max's family learned something about us. Death is a gruesome teacher. But when we mourn the loss of one person, we do so as a group, a collective entity that recognizes and acknowledges that we are not whole without the presence of even one. You cannot be Jewish alone. You always exist in companionship with someone else, even at moments when you are painfully on your own.

The originality and creativity in man are rooted in his loneliness-experience, not in his social awareness. The singleness of man is responsible for his singularity; the latter, for his creativity. Social man is superficial: he imitates, he emulates. Lonely man is profound: he creates, he is original.

Max's friends who posted their concern, need not have. Trust in our people. We show up. We are there because Max may have been a lone soldier but he was never a soldier alone. There was nothing to worry about - other than everything else to worry about - because 30,000 people were there to pay their respects to Max and to thank him for his service to his country and his people. 

Halacha [Jewish law] says to man: Don’t let your neighbor drift along the lanes of loneliness; don’t permit him to become remote and alienated from you...

Josh Flaster, who leads a group that supports lone soldiers in Israel described Max this way: "Max was a small guy with a big heart...He put himself at risk throughout his service to look after other soldiers who might have been in danger. He wasn't eight feet tall but he acted like he was."

Lonely man is a courageous man; he is a protester; he fears nobody; whereas social man is a compromiser, a peacemaker...

We attend funerals of soldiers who are strangers because they protected us even though we are strangers. We are a world full of strangers who often exist solely because of the kindness of strangers. 

...when lonely man joins the community, he adds a new dimension to community awareness. He contributes something which no one else could have contributed. He enriches the community existentially; he is irreplaceable

Max, I don't know you. And now I never will. But I know one thing about you. You are irreplaceable.

Shabbat Shalom