Friday, September 30, 2011

Abraham's Journey - Rosh Hashanah Morning 2011-5772

This morning, we read the story of one of several journeys in the life of Avraham avinu, our ancestor Abraham. He was told in younger days to “Lekh Lekha,” to “Go forth from the land of his ancestors, to go forth from what he knew, from the old places and the old ways to the new, from constricting despair to freeing hope: all to find a better life.

But think about this for a moment. Our forefather Abraham had a wonderful family and tremendous wealth including a large number of animals and no few servants to help him care for his family’s needs. Abraham was blessed mightily by God long before the incident in today’s Torah portion, the result of which was that he would be blessed with descendants as numerous as the stars.

Every year, we talk of the journey of Abraham, his trials, his successes and his failures. Yet, we do not often hear of the stories of our more immediate ancestors, their journeys and their trials. We all too easily hear and then disconnect ourselves from distant paradigmatic stories of the journeys of the patriarchs of our people, while forgetting the sometimes even more amazing and perhaps more trying narratives of the people whose journeys in more recent generations have enabled us to be here today.

In my mind, my Great Grandfather Abraham’s story is one of the narratives that need to be remembered by modern Jews, narratives of the shtetl life lived by many of our Jewish ancestors, a life which still resonates in Jewish soul today.

Abraham was my father’s grandfather, born in 1881 in the shtetl of Dombrovich, Bessarabia, the sixth child born to Baruch Benedict Shapiro and his wife Chaya Batya.

Like the patriarch Abraham, who was called “Abram” in his youth, so too my great-grandfather was called “Avrum” in his youth and later came to be called “Abraham.”

The patriarch Abraham’s life was a journey from the land of his father to the promised land, from a place of ignorance to a place of enlightenment, from a place where his descendants would perhaps struggle to find success to a place where they were to be as numerous as the sands of the sea. My ancestor, Abraham, no doubt like many of your ancestors, too came from a land where his family had lived for generations, a place of ignorance, a place where getting through the day, much less the week or the year, could be a challenge. We are indebted to these men and women whose courage enabled us to be here today, celebrating the sweetness of the Jewish New Year.

What was life like in the Shtetl?

Too often, when we think of ancestors’ lives, we simply say that they had it tough. Sometimes we joke about our parents or grandparents, “Yes, we know, you had to walk for miles to school through the snow, uphill, both ways!” All the while thinking to ourselves, “It couldn’t really have been that bad.”

After getting a chance to read my Great Grandfather Abraham’s living will, which was recently translated from the Yiddish by my mother and a cousin, I came to believe that to have had to walk to school through the snow uphill both ways would have been seen as a blessing, not as a hardship.

For our ancestors, serious illness could strike at a moment’s notice. They saw loved ones suffer and die with ailments that would be easily cured today. They lived on the brink of starvation at times, shivered from the cold, and sweltered in the heat. Those hardships, and others, reinforced what was most important in their lives, the values and hopes that led them through times of challenge. I see some of those important values very clearly evidenced in my great grandfather’s life and which I maintain in my own life today. I would like to talk about three of these values as evidenced in Abraham’s life in the shtetl: the importance of Shabbat, education both Jewish and secular, and Zionism.

My Abraham may not be everyman, but I think that his story is somewhat representative of Jews in generations past, certainly of Jews in the shtetls. The shtetl story, turned into a comedy by Sholem Aleichem and then into a Broadway hit, Fiddler on the Roof, is a story that reverberates in our Jewish souls. Though certainly reminding us how far we’ve come in the century since, also reminds us what is most important.

In Tevye’s words [IRA READS]:

A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask 'Why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous?' Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition! [Sing – Tradition! Tradition!]

My great grandfather Abraham was born, 130 years ago, a fiddler on the roof in his own version of Anatevka. His family was very poor. They rarely had enough to eat. His father, Baruch, arranged business deals between people who had very little to begin with and his share of the transactions, when he received a share, was generally small. He barely made a living. Abraham’s mother, Chaia, plucked chickens to earn a few kopeks a week. His five older sisters took whatever work they could find, like helping with sewing to prepare girls for their weddings. The younger two sisters served as maids in Abraham’s significantly wealthier uncle’s home. Chaia’s brother evidently had some sort of factory and actually made a decent living.

When Abraham was three or four years old, the family home was destroyed when a fire raged out of control and their home along with several others burned down.

The family eventually built a new house with a store, hoping to make a living from it. The new house, like the old, had an earthen floor and the small wood burning oven was in the middle of the main room so that the heat could radiate out. Abraham’s family ended up having to rent out one of the few rooms in the home for use as a school room during the week. This brings me to Shabbat.

In his memoir, Abraham noted that:

All week long, we lived with the hope to have enough for Shabbat, that mother would be able to bless the Shabbat candles, and we would be able to wear appropriate Sabbath clothes. Ours had already seen better days.

Achad Ha’am said that “More than the Jewish people has preserved the Sabbath, the Sabbath has preserved the Jewish people.” For my great-grandfather, it was the hope of the Sabbath, a longed for goal, that sustained him and his family through trying times.

On Shabbat, his father would go to the synagogue. Abraham said that he would go in order to “forget the bad weekdays.” During the week, he would save enough money so that the family could have challah, a piece of meat, a little soup, tsimmes, a vegetable dish, and Kiddush. He made Kiddush over the wine and if there wasn’t wine, he made Kiddush over the challah. The family always sang songs for Shabbat. They lived with the belief that things would get better and that the Jewish Sabbath and the belief in God would help.

The family literally lived for Shabbat. Shabbat was the light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Shabbat brought renewed hope each week. Abraham said that his father was a first class optimist: every week speaking of how things would be better the next week.

This brings me to a joke that described much of life in Czarist controlled Bessarabia and eventually described Abraham’s own life. The joke goes:

You know the difference between a Jewish optimist and a Jewish pessimist? The Jewish pessimist says, “Things can’t get any worse!” The Jewish optimist says, “Sure they can!”

Shabbat not only made life tolerable for the Jews in the shtetl, it gave them a vision of a better life, a vision that eventually led many to leave the shtetl for distant lands such as America or Zion. But we are not yet to that point in the narrative, first there was much to learn.

It didn’t matter that the family had very little, one had to study Torah. When Abraham was four, his father wrapped him in a tallit and took him to cheder to study. If he learned well, he was told, God would reward him. He studied ten to twelve hours a day, except for Shabbat, until he was nine years old in all kinds of weather. They walked through deep snow in sub-freezing temperatures. Friday afternoons, he learned Russian and math.

Until he was nine, on Saturday afternoons, his father would listen to Abraham recite the week’s Torah portion, half in Hebrew and half in Romanian. But by the time he was nine, there were simply too many mouths to feed in the house and he was sent to live with his older sister and her husband, Mendel, a common strategy for survival in the shtetl. Mendel was a teacher of Modern Hebrew and was much more educated than anyone whom Abraham had known before.

Mendel saw that everything that Abraham had studied before had been simply words without meaning. Abraham had learned by rote and repeated what he learned without really understanding the words. Mendel taught him the meaning.

My great-grandfather returned home once a year for Passover. Because he now wore a shorter coat and not the long traditional one, his friends would not interact with him and called him a “non-believer.” In his words, “The little town appeared darker than it was before I left it.” He no longer felt welcome.

Then at age 12, if things were not difficult enough, things did get worse. His father died of pneumonia, a month before the wedding of one of his older sisters. Now Abraham was a breadwinner for the family, the only male in a family of nine.

He ended up working in a store in a neighboring town until he was 15 years old for about 10 Rubles a year and a little food, but as he said, “not enough.” The bosses didn’t have enough for themselves to eat. He was given a kopek to buy himself a piece of herring and bread for dinner. Every night.

Abraham slept in the store under whatever covers were there. At night, it was 30-40 degrees below zero and there was no heat. By the light of a kerosene lamp, he studied when he could and whatever he could. Abraham taught himself Hebrew, then eventually Russian and German. Learning Hebrew was also another step in creating Abraham’s life-long love of Zionism. Knowing Hebrew, the language of the Zionists, he became more involved in the Socialist movement and specifically with the Zionists who were associated with it.

Abraham was ultimately able to use his knowledge of Russian to obtain a job that paid more money. Then he used that money to open his own dry goods store and then a grocery store that was finally relatively successful. In that time he became married to my great-grandmother Pearl and had three children. But while things had gotten better for Abraham personally, things had worsened for the Jews.

There were pogroms in nearby cities and the socialists were on the rise. Abraham was one of them. He was a Zionist Socialist who followed Hayim Greenberg, the famous Zionist leader who lived in a nearby village.

When Greenberg was arrested, fearing that the regime would find out that he was also a Socialist, Abraham began plans to come to America, clandestinely, against the Czar’s orders.

There were a few more trials and tribulations before they could leave and it wasn’t easy when they did. Crossing the border to freedom was a very dangerous enterprise. Abraham came to America first, traveling 3rd Class. He worked for his sister, who had a store in Philadelphia, and then paid passage for his family. They arrived in America at the end of August, 1911, one hundred years and a month ago. My grandmother, Hadassah, who came to be known as Sophie, and after whom my daughter Hanna Sophia is named, was only two years old.

Imagine. “Lekh lekha! Go! Leave your father’s house now! The only home your family has known for generations. Abandon almost all that you own. Take your wife, your four year old daughter, your two year old daughter, and your baby son to the land that I have shown you!” Abraham, no doubt like many of the ancestors of those here today, actually did that.

In July of 1934, Abraham Pearlmutter visited Zion and even purchased land in Pardes Hana, land on which one of his sisters and her family eventually came to live after World War II.

Abraham was a Zionist, not for himself, but for future generations. Seeing what life was like for Jews without freedom or security, Abraham wanted to make sure that there would be a place where Jews could live in freedom and security.

It struck me, as I wrote this, that his hope for a Jewish homeland in Zion was no different than his hope as a child to be able to celebrate the Sabbath. One had to do the work to make it happen, to save up and to plan. Abraham was never a wealthy man. He had a grocery store in St. Louis that made enough to support his family. Yet, he took a good portion of what little he had and invested it in a dream, buying a parcel of land in British Mandatory Palestine in 1934, in the hope that it would become a homeland for the Jews.

He came to see that dream come to fruition in 1948.

How much has changed for my family over the past one hundred years! From impoverished persecution in a shtetl in Bessarabia with dreams of a better life to generations later having seen those dreams come to pass.

The story in our Torah portion is about a trial that resulted in Abraham’s descendents being blessed, it included a journey, a commitment to follow the will of God, and perhaps a bit of luck. Admittedly, this is quite an abstract of the story of the Binding of Isaac, but it is also at this abstract level that our forefather Abraham’s story meets my Great-Grandfather Abraham’s story and the stories of generations of Jews whose courageous journeys and whose commitment to do the will of God helped our people to reach this day, along with a bit of help from God, rams caught in thickets.

When we look back at how previous generations lived, it is amazing that we have reached this day. Though a small minority of the world’s population, we Jews, the descendants of our father Abraham, are indeed, as in the blessing in our Torah portion, “as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.”

Hope in Shabbat, a commitment to learning, and the pursuit of a better life made it happen.

My Great-Grandfather Abraham did not have a chance to escape persecution and flee to the safety and security of a Jewish state, an opportunity that persecuted Jews now do have, but he did have the opportunity to escape with his family to a land of freedom and security for which he was grateful beyond explanation. In 1950, on Thanksgiving Day, he tried to put into words that which we today all too often take for granted.

Abraham wrote, “How much the inhabitants of this land should give thanks for their home! ...I have a lot to thank God for, that I was one of the fortunate people who had the luck to come here in time and to live the years in happiness and freedom… Long Live America!”

Shanah Tovah!

Peace and Loathing in the Middle East - Erev Rosh Hashanah 2011-5772

Earlier this month, we marked the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. A few days prior, I flew to Washington DC for the Midwest Rabbis Summit hosted by AIPAC, where about 40 rabbis of all denominations heard from leading experts on events in the Middle East. On my way there, my cuticles were saved from trimming by a TSA agent who found a little Swiss Army pen knife that went missing months ago, possibly on a drive to St. Louis, and my taste buds were secured when my coffee, which I purchased on the secured side of the TSA checkpoint, was deemed safe at the gate by an agent who swabbed the top of the cup. I’m not sure if they were testing to see if it was too hot or if it was not 100% pure Colombian.

I went to Washington to hear from experts on the Middle East because so much has been going on and even more would be going on in the weeks that followed, especially during past two weeks when the United Nations General Assembly would convene. It has been a hectic month. During the week that I went to Washington DC alone, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and threatened to send Turkish warships to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza, the Israeli embassy in Egypt was attacked by a mob and the ambassador and embassy staff were forced to flee the country, and the Palestinian Authority president pledged to go forward in the United Nations with plans to seek a vote on statehood in spite of objections by the President of the United States and threats to cut funding by a large bi-partisan majority of members of Congress. President Abbas submitted a request for full statehood this past week, seeking recognition of a Palestinian state based not upon the pre-1967 armistice lines, but upon the 1947 partition plan, something that has gone largely ignored in the media and which would put large swaths of what is recognized as Israel within Palestinian territory.

This all is occurring on the heels of the largest protests in Israel’s history, protests about the rising cost of housing due to the continued strength of the Israeli economy, as well as in the midst of tremendous upheaval in the Arab world in general. I cannot but think of the statement purported to be a Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

Tonight, I will address three questions as we begin this New Year. How did we get to this point? What stands in our way? And is there any light at the end of what appears to be a very dark tunnel filled with traps and hurdles? You’ll have to wait a few minutes for the explanation, but the answer to the last question is surprisingly, “Yes.”

First, how did we get to this point?

While, this month we marked the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attack, exactly eleven years ago today, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon walked onto the Temple Mount, an action that he believed symbolized his right as a Jew to access the holiest of Jewish holy sites and Israel’s reasonable claim to maintain control of it. The response to this action among the Palestinian people was extreme anger.

I would argue that the primary cause of the violence which came to be called the Second Intifada, and one that remains a concern today, is that it had become clear that the full goals of the Palestinian Authority were not going to be achieved through negotiations. Israel would not concede on several major issues, could not on others, and the United States was not going to pressure Israel to do so. Many Palestinians felt that the peace process had reached its end and it had failed them. I believe that the current Palestinian leadership feels exactly this way and it is taking an increasing amount of coaxing to even get the Palestinians to the negotiating table.

Meanwhile, a majority of those Israelis who were supportive of pressing the peace process forward abandoned the idea that the Palestinians were ready to make the concessions necessary to achieve peace and security for Israel. The political landscape in Israel shifted. Political parties on the left saw support begin to erode, something that has worsened in recent years with the rise of Hamas to power in Gaza.

Israelis across most of the political spectrum believe in a two states-for-two-peoples solution, but now insist on a security-for-statehood model for achieving that goal. Experience taught them that what succeeded with Egypt was not land for peace, not Sinai for peace, but security-for-peace. The Israeli-Egyptian Peace Agreement has lasted for 32 years and though threatened today, it has provided security for Israel and peace for Egypt. Israel’s peace with Jordan did not involve the ceding of any land at all. These peace agreements continue to be great sources of hope that peace is a real possibility for Israel and the Palestinians.

What stands in the way? Here are the four main stumbling blocks today as I see them:

1. Jerusalem.

In a land-for-peace model, the issues are whether or not to divide Jerusalem at all and how to divide Jerusalem if you are going to divide it. In the Camp David accords, the sides were clearly looking at a divided Jerusalem, discussing which areas would be under Israeli control and which would be under Palestinian control. This continued to be the model at work up until 2007 when Hamas took over Gaza.

The Israelis and Palestinians were amid peace negotiations under the administration of Ehud Olmert, even having produced detailed maps of divisions of Jerusalem’s neighborhoods.

Then Hamas took over Gaza. The Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas now had to deal with three major new problems: a sizable portion of the Palestinian population was no longer under their control, Hamas threatened to take over the West Bank as well as Gaza, and popular sentiment seemed opposed to compromise with the Israelis on the major issues of the peace process.

Meanwhile, Israelis began to think more about what would happen if those neighborhoods in Jerusalem granted to the Palestinians fell under Hamas’ authority.

To name a few concerns should Hamas and other militant groups be able to operate easily within the Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem: secure access to holy sites would be impossible to maintain, mortars and other simple rockets could be fired with relative ease into Jewish areas of the city, sniper fire which plagued Jewish Jerusalem prior to 1967 would once again become a serious threat and the likelihood of conflict arising that might require massive Israeli military action would be extremely high. Thus sentiment among Israelis has shifted toward maintaining a unified Jerusalem under Israeli control.

It is highly unlikely that the Palestinians would be willing to accept any agreement that does not include at least some of the Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem in the Palestinian state.

2. Right of Return.

The idea that not only must a future Palestinian state be allowed to accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees from the 1967 conflict, but that Israel must accommodate millions of refugees from the 1949 conflict who are hostile to its very existence is so unreasonable a demand as to be laughable were it not a main goal of the Palestinian side. If Israel is to be a Jewish state, most, if not the vast majority, of refugees may only be afforded restitution and remain where they are or potentially to locate themselves in the Palestinian state. The latter option is also problematic because it is highly questionable as to whether or not the Palestinian state could accommodate more than a small percentage of those who are considered refugees.

3. Settlement Blocs.

Israel settled hundreds of thousands of people across the Green Line, most in suburbs of Jerusalem with the vast majority of the rest in settlement blocs along the 1949 armistice lines. Just yesterday, Israel announced the approval of the construction of 1,100 housing units in the Southern Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, which is South of Jerusalem, just on the other side of the 1949 armistice lines. I do not have all of the information yet, but it seems to me that if this construction expands the scope of Gilo, that it should not be done at this point even if there is an expectation that Gilo would be on the Israeli side after a peace agreement and if it does not expand the scope of Gilo, but only fills in empty space in its midst, that the timing of the announcement of this construction at a moment when Israel needs to convince other nations that it is serious about making concessions for peace is highly questionable in the least.

Territorial exchanges have been discussed in previous negotiations and could easily adjust the total land area in a future Palestinian state. Major settlement blocs including the aforementioned suburb of Jerusalem, Gilo, will almost certainly be included on the Israeli side, potentially with territories currently in Israel becoming part of a future Palestinian state. Settlements in the heart of the West Bank would almost certainly become part of a future Palestinian state and have been included on the Palestinian side in every peace proposal to this point.

For peace to work, the Palestinians must be granted territory that makes statehood realistic as well as having reasonable access to Jerusalem. The continued expansion of Jewish suburbs across the 1949 armistice lines around Jerusalem makes this more difficult.

4. Security.

Security is a hugely important issue, but it is also quite simple. No matter what the resolutions of the issues of borders and refugees might be, no matter what pressure Israel receives from other nations, if proposed solutions jeopardize the security of Israel to such an extent as to threaten its very existence, they are not viable. If you say, “lots of things could do that,” then you have seen the problem.

Direct negotiations are the only way to address all of these issues. As President Obama said at the United Nations last week:

I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN – if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians – not us – who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem.

So Rabbi, now that I’m really depressed, where is the light?

The light comes from several areas.

The first bit of light is a big one. Terrorism and violence have failed to achieve the radical goal of eliminating the Jewish state. Wars have failed. There are no troops massing on the borders of Israel set to invade. Neither are there frequent terror attacks occurring that kill or maim Israeli civilians, though admittedly this is as much because of the effectiveness of the security barrier as it is because of a reduced desire to attack.

A second bit of good news is that the Arab world is realizing that the existence of Israel, nor the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is the root of their troubles. Instead, it is an absence of freedom, an absence of economic opportunity, and a sense that average people in the rest of the world are doing better. They are realizing in increasing numbers that dictatorships might make for stability, but they are not so good for prosperity or freedom. The Arab Spring is a good development.

Third, the thought process is changing. The Prime Minister of Turkey has certainly not been a good friend of Israel. In fact, he has been one of its fiercest critics of late, supporting Hamas and even threatening to use Turkey’s navy to defend ships trying to breech Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Yet, Prime Minister Erdogan noted in a speech to leaders of nations in the region that:

Freedom, democracy and human rights must be a unifying slogan for the future of our peoples. I urge all of you to protect the nations. It is right for everyone in the region – Israel too.

Many in the region have realized that not only is Israel not the primary cause of their problems, but that what Israel has done, making the desert flourish, is what they want to see in their countries. The question in the broader Arab world is changing from “How do we destroy Israel?” to “How can we be like Israel?” Not so much among the Palestinians, Syria, or Iran, the latter of which is working apace to acquire nuclear weapons with which to threaten Israel, America, and its Arab neighbors. But the common people, seeing the prosperity in Israel and wanting to see it in their own nations, are seeking democratic reforms.

It is a good thing that relatively fewer in the Arab world see Israel as the primary cause of their suffering, or even as a primary cause of their suffering, however, they have not yet come to accept Israel, much less to see it as a potential friend.

Ultimately, while we have a long way to our goal of a peaceful and prosperous Middle East and there are many obstacles in our path, there seems to be a burgeoning willingness to try to get there.

And so I offer this prayer for the New Year 5772:

May this new year be a year that sees Shalom increase in our world, a year that sees freedom enjoyed by many more people than enjoyed it this year, a year that sees economies flourish—bringing prosperity, a year that sees hope rise amid despair, light burst forth into darkness.

May this new year be the one when we may stop saying “maybe next year”, when Israeli children and Palestinian children will come to know what it is like to be at peace, real peace, enduring peace.

May this year be a year of blessings.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah tikateivu.

May you be inscribed for a good and sweet year.