Thursday, December 4, 2014

I Can't Breathe! M-E-T-A-P-H-O-R

The blow that knocks the wind right out of you and makes you gasp.
The asthma attack when your lungs just don't work right.
Choking when you swallow wrong.
Pneumonia, Emphysema, lung cancer that leave your lungs incapable of functioning properly.

Being choked.
Being thrown to the ground and held down.
"I Can't Breathe!"

How does one watch the video of Eric Garner's pleading and death without finding it difficult to breathe, to get choked up in fear and anxiety. 
Suffocation, drowning, these are two of our greatest human fears.
We watched a man grasped around the neck, put into what appears to be a choke-hold, and held down while he proclaimed time after time, "I can't breathe." Until, he stopped speaking because there was no more air for him.

I don't know why any officer moved to take him down to the ground. I don't know why anyone decided that a physical altercation was needed to stop a man selling individual cigarettes to homeless people who couldn't afford them any other way.

Being choked. M-E-T-A-P-H-O-R.
Being thrown to the ground and held down. M-E-T-A-P-H-O-R.
"I Can't Breathe!" M-E-T-A-P-H-O-R.

This was a father of six children. He'd had a troubled life. He'd been arrested 31 times. Now he was selling "loosies" to make a few bucks from people who were themselves struggling to breathe, to live.

I didn't sit on the Grand Jury. I have no idea what they saw and heard. I don't know if the officer who decided to take Eric Garner to the ground is entirely responsible for his death or even if he's the only one of the officers present who might be somewhat responsible.

I do know that I saw a man who was not violent thrown to the ground as if he was. 

I do know that he died at least in part because he was grasped around the neck and held down on the ground as he struggled to breathe.

I do know that he told the police officers that he couldn't breathe eleven times.

I do know he had been standing there on that sidewalk, assuming he was selling individual cigarettes, in order to make a few dollars because the government put so much tax on packs that poor people can't afford to buy a whole one.

I do know there are those in this country who feel like they're being choked and held down, perhaps by their own past mistakes, perhaps by those of their parents, perhaps by discrimination and racism, perhaps by a system that simply makes it difficult to rise.

I do know that there are far too many people in this country who wake up in the morning and long to be able to breathe: to have enough money, enough food, enough health, a roof over their head, enough love, enough hope for a better tomorrow.

But day after day, they wake up and say, "I can't breathe!"

I do know that we hear them. Sometimes they yell so loudly that we cover our ears. Sometimes they protest. Sometimes they riot. We see it on TV  and all over the internet. Sometimes we tune them out. Sometimes we change the channel. Then we stop hearing the voice. Quiet at last! Until the ambulance comes and we wake up momentarily and notice what we've done or not done.

Didn't mean it. Oh, there were opportunities. It wasn't all our fault. There were other factors involved. He was overweight. He didn't take care of himself. Not our fault. No officer's fault either according to the Grand Jury. No True Bill.

We heard but we didn't listen. Haunted:
  • I'm minding my business, officer.
  • I'm minding my business.
  • Please just leave me alone.
  • I told you the last time, 
  • Please just leave me alone.
  • Please, please don't touch me.
  • Do not touch me...
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.

Friday, November 21, 2014

To Bigotry No Sanction

"To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance," these words begin the letter of response to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, written by President George Washington. The President borrowed ideas – and actual words – directly from Moses Seixas’s letter to him. They are words of which we all should be mindful this weekend as the decision by the Grand Jury in St. Louis is announced. George Washington wrote that:
"The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."
Pres. Washington closed with an invocation: “May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”
Regardless of what happens with the Grand Jury decision in Ferguson this weekend, there are vitally important issues that need to be addressed going forward, not just in St. Louis but across the United States.
There is a lack of trust between police and minorities in many communities around our nation.
There is an assumption of active racism and bias. In many places, there is a history of it coupled with modern experience.
There are municipalities that fund themselves off of citing the poor for infractions often caused by poverty and need.
There is deep poverty and despair, joblessness and under-employment, a lack of quality education, hunger and homelessness.
Drug use, drug trafficking, robberies and murder connected to them are common and periods of incarceration are an assumed part of life.
Children live in environments where it is safer to be part of gangs and to arm themselves than try to remain apart from the gangs and guns.
Guns and violence are so prevalent in local communities that police officers rightly need to be on guard, something that can cause the rapid escalation of interactions into deadly encounters.
Far too many young men are dying.
Far too many parents and children are grieving.
There is plenty of blame to go around and a whole lot of work to be done.
Let us not stand idly by.
This weekend, let us pray for peace and change for the better. Let us be thankful for the many blessings in our lives as we head into Thanksgiving week, but also heighten our awareness of those who lack them in their lives. Let us "scatter light and not darkness."
Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Cherishing the Struggles: Living Each Day to the Fullest - Yom Kippur Morning 2014

The High Holidays are a time when we take the measure of our lives. What have we done well? At what have we missed the mark? What must we do to make up for our failings and improve our life and our world? It is also a time when we notice what is missing from our lives as well as what we have: health, happiness, love, financial security, friendship. Most of all, we note the absence of those who once were here alongside us. There have been separations and divorces. Children have gone away to college or for work. Some have returned home for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. There may be friends with whom we’re no longer close. Most painful of all is the absence of loved ones who have passed away, whose very presence enriched our lives; whose glance was reassuring, whose smile lit up our world, whose touch warmed our hearts. Our thoughts may be of them today.

Many of us will attend the healing service this afternoon and the Yizkor service that follows it, seeking healing as we remember. The services are both filled with prayers and readings of comfort. One particular reading, written by Herbert Louis Samuel, challenges us to consider the benefits of death and new birth:

“If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overthrown, but with the one inseparable condition that birth should also cease; if the existing generation were given the chance to live forever, but on the clear understanding that never again would there be a child, or a youth, or first love, never again new persons with new hopes, new ideas, new achievements; ourselves for always and never any others—could the answer be in doubt?”

The expected answer is “No.” Our minds tells us “No.” Of course, those new things are some of the best things in life, some of the most joyful. Yet, for some of us, if not for all of us in some way, our hearts say, “Wait a minute!” If we could live in health, if we could be young always, in love always, if we could sit here today and close our eyes and know that, if we put out our hand, it would be grasped by someone who loves and cherishes us… Could the answer be in doubt? “Yes.” Our minds understand that we must let go. Our hearts may never agree.

The rabbis tell us that Yom Kippur is the day when to an extent we rehearse our own death, the white of our robes and our kittels, connecting to our desire to humble ourselves on this day. On Yom Kippur, we are especially aware that we are mortal and we ponder life’s big questions: How good do I have to be? Why do bad things happen to good people? What is the purpose of my life? Why must we die?

Today, I am going to speak about the last of these, about death. However, I am not going to talk about what happens to us after death. Instead, I am going to talk about what the fact that we are mortal should mean to us in relation to three other questions:

What would we do if we knew how much time we had to live?
What would we do if we had no idea at all, that it would simply happen?
What lessons may we learn from reflecting and considering our mortality?

First, what would we do, if we could, to use the terminology of our tradition, number our days?

To an extent, over the past two years, I along with my family, many colleagues and friends, and untold others lived vicariously through the writings of Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, friends of our family, from rabbinical school days. Their son, “Superman Sam,” was diagnosed with Myeloid Leukemia in 2012 and died in December 2014. They came to call his illness, “Ninja Leukemia,” because it kept evading treatments. Their campaign to raise money to combat childhood cancer is the reason that my hair is this short. I shaved my head in March as one of over 70 rabbis who responded to a call for #36Rabbis to do so. Working with St. Baldrick’s, we raised well over $600,000 for Childhood Cancer research and raised awareness about the need for research. My wife and children have also been running races in honor of Sam.

Over the course of the past two years, we learned many things from the Sommer family as they faced the challenges brought by Sam’s illness. Phyllis Sommer wrote in January after Sam died:

Throughout the last two years, Sammy used to say to me often: "I miss my old life." I feel that way all the time now. I miss my old life. I miss my family of six. Desperately.

Do I want to turn the clocks back to May of 2012 and be in our "normal" life? Oh yes, I miss the oblivion of a "charmed" and "perfect" life with four healthy children whose biggest problems involved birthday parties and math problems and potty training.

Oh the pain and guilt of telling you that I don't know that I would want to give up some of the last two years. We made friends -- real, beautiful, powerful friendships -- with families in crisis, people who helped us, doctors, nurses, staff and volunteers at so many organizations....all of the people [who] touched our lives and became our community. How could I beg to erase that even as much as I wish I could turn back the clock? 

It’s this idea that led to me entitle my sermon today, “Cherishing the Struggles.” It is the understanding that for Phyllis and for many others, there are meaningful things that can be cherished even from times of deep struggle. Time and again, I have heard from families about the people who helped to care for their loved one during their illnesses. In some cases, they became like family members. Those relationships were born of the struggle. In the case of Superman Sam Sommer’s struggle, there was the addition of not only raising money and awareness but of educating hundreds of thousands of people about childhood cancer.

Those of us who have followed the Sommers’ blog, as they chronicled their son’s battle, saw this in every posting. On November 13, 2013 Phyllis Sommer told the world that the cancer had returned, even after the bone marrow transplant, and that there were no more options left. I can’t read much of that posting without tearing up, but these words are important for us to hear on this day when we think of what is most important in life. She wrote:

He still feels well. We don't know how long that will last. We're going to "suck the marrow out of life" as long as we can.
Quite literally and figuratively. Capitalize on his good days. Fill them with joy and blessing and delight. Stick his feet in the ocean and his head in the clouds. Fill his days with wonder and love.

When I look around this room, I see people with whom I know those words resonate because they have experienced similar feelings with their own family members and friends. In this room are wives and husbands, children, parents and others who have similar experiences. As you and your loved one faced illness, there were good days and there were bad days. Like the Sommer family, you did your best to capitalize on the good days, often altering plans to seize the day.

Knowing that time may be limited, we make different choices because our priorities change. Make a Wish Foundation is an organization that helps families “suck the marrow out of life” and work to accommodate that changed set of priorities. They helped to bring Sam and his family to Disney World, in August of last year, four months before he died. Make a Wish, along with help from the Sommers’ rabbi and congregational community, sent a special plane to bring Sam and his family to Florida so that he would not have to face all of the viruses that are found in the air of commercial planes. Then at Disney World, they provided a special suite at a hotel, a guide for the family, and a permanent-Fast Pass, enabling the family to skip all the lines. Phyllis wrote:

From 9am-3pm, we rode over 11 rides (and had lunch and met Mickey!) and some of them twice. It was awesome. Sam kept repeating over and over, "this is the best day ever!"
Gratitude? It doesn't even begin to describe it. We are bursting with it. It was the most amazing gift our family has ever received. It was an experience that will hold its magic for us for a long time to come. 

When Disney wants to do magic for an eight-year-old, very sick child and his family, they’re stellar at it. For kids like Sam, families may not have lots of opportunities to achieve “Best Day Ever!” Disney is exceptionally good at delivering that. And with the help of Make a Wish Foundation, children like Sam are enabled to have experiences in life that they would otherwise miss.

Regarding priorities, as we approached Rosh Hashanah this year, Phyllis remembered the conversation that she had with Sam’s doctor last year.

Sam was 8 days post-transplant. His immune system was incredibly compromised.
Solly [Sam’s younger brother] had just begun a new preschool. Germs....everywhere. (no matter how much hand sanitizer we used!)
I posed the question [to the doctor]: Tomorrow is Rosh HaShanah, I said, and it's Day 8. I really want to know if I can bring Solly over here. Sam hasn't seen him in over a week, and I just think it is important to have them all together. But if you think this is a bad idea, I will get over it. 

That’s the “time isn’t limited” mindset. It’s the “maybe next time” or the “I’ll get to it later, when it will be better” mindset. It’s the mindset through which most of us interact with our world most of the time, especially as parents: relatively cautious, prioritizing health and safety. It isn’t the “time is limited, there may not be a next time, just do it” mindset. Phyllis described the doctor's response:

Dr. M cleared his throat, and I could tell he was going to say something that I knew already. "He has a bad leukemia," he said. "That's the biggest threat to his life."
I remember taking a very big deep breath.
"Are you saying that I may never have all of my children together again on a Rosh HaShanah? That this could be our last one together?" The words came out all in a rush, almost defiantly. 
"Yes," he said. "That's what I'm saying."
Fine. Decision made. Solly will come. We all will be there. Together.
So I brought Solly on Erev Rosh HaShanah.
I imagined that every day was his last.
Just in case.
Today, I'm glad I did that.

At the end of her blog posting from November, when she announced that the cancer had returned and that time was limited, Phyllis wrote:

From now on, we will hold on tightly to each moment, we will celebrate and we will play and we will laugh and we will create a lifetime's worth of memories and moments in the time that we have left.
We have no other choice.

We understand that. When we know how much time we have, we maximize it. More magical moments: more hugs, more kisses, more time spent together. We call the family together because we know we won’t have many more, if any, opportunities to do that.

What about when we don’t know how much time we have?
Our priorities are different. We are very willing to wait for the next opportunity. We might say, “We’re too busy to go to Disney World this year.” “Next time around, we’ll see if we can go to Israel.” “I know that concert is happening next month and you’re really excited to go, but I have to work that night.” “I’m on a diet.” “I’ll try it next time.” “I’ll travel when I retire.” We postpone.

Then, often we never get the chance to do what we hoped to do. Physical limitations may make it difficult for us to travel: our knees, our back, perhaps the onset of a disease. Sometimes, we are not afforded the opportunity to live with the slow onset of age related limitations. We suddenly find ourselves limited or infirm. Sometimes, death comes with no notice at all. “If only we had… gone on that trip that we kept putting off.” “If only we had gotten that convertible this past year.” We’re left with “If only.”

In either case, there are regrets. We will always have regrets that we misspent our time together and that we did not have more time with our loved ones when things were good. That is not affected by whether or not we were given notice that the end was near. What we miss are the highlights, the magic that we could have created, the joys we could have experienced, had we seized the day.

What lessons do we learn from considering our mortality?

We are reminded again and again today that life is fleeting. No matter how much we think we are in control, we’re really not able to say, “I’m going to have 95 years and from 65-85 I’m going to travel the world.” We really cannot look at the calendar and plan that African safari for January 2020 with a degree of certainty. Neither can we wait to change the way we live our lives if we need to do so.

God may be endlessly patient with us, but God is endless, eternal. We are not. We are a people who believes in righting our path every year. We are the people who know that Unetaneh Tokef with its “Who shall live and who shall die” is the nature of life, even if we do not believe that God is somewhere writing names down on a ledger or, for some of us, even believe that there is a God. If I asked those in this room to stand if a loved one or a friend died too soon, there would be few who would remain seated and more than likely all of them would be young. The Yiddish proverb is “Der Mesche Trakht un Got Lakht.” “People plan and God laughs.” Often, our plans fail.

Our tradition sounds the Shofar. Not just for us to atone. We sound the Shofar to wake us up and to pay attention to our lives. We sound the shofar to get us to remove our faces from our cell phones and see the world that is more than two feet from our eyes and more than an instant into the future.

The words of this morning’s Torah portion include a stark choice: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.” Let us consider today that this choice is not one facing us only on Yom Kippur, but is instead always before us. We always have the choice to act or ignore, to seize the day or postpone. We always have a choice whether or not to take advantage of the good days and “suck the marrow out of life.”

The Torah gives us, in this context, the best advice I can offer:

“Choose life, therefore, that you and your descendants may live.”

Choose life: go on that magical family vacation, play that round of golf, go to see that concert with your kids. When it’s all said and done, it is better that more was done than said.

When it comes to the end, you’re not going to want your epitaph to read, “Always had time for work,” “There’s always next time,” or “Never Really Lived.”

So how about on this Yom Kippur Day, we all take the advice that Phyllis and Michael Sommer decided was best for Sam:

[Let’s stick our] feet in the ocean and our heads in the clouds. Fill our days with wonder and love.

Let’s choose life.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah tikateivu u’t’chateimu. May we be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet year!

Tikkun Olam in a Very Broken World – Kol Nidrei 2014

This weekend, Jews and Muslims each have major holidays. This conjunction of the Islamic and Jewish calendars happens every 33 years. Muslims celebrate a major feast holiday, Eid Al-Adha. Instead of feasting this weekend, we Jews fast.

In discussing Tikkun Olam, the Repair of the World, in connection with the fast day of Yom Kippur, as I will be doing today, the actions of Mohandas Ghandi came to mind. Ghandi used fasting as a way to bring awareness to important issues and promote what he believed to be right. Once, he pressured the British and Indian leadership to reconsider a Constitution that would have enforced the Indian caste system and maintained the oppression of the “untouchables.” Another time, in fact, the last fast that Ghandi undertook, was an effort to encourage Hindus and Muslims in New Delhi to work toward peace. Peaceful relations between peoples was a primary goal of Ghandi’s life’s work.

While they may not have fasted, we remember the actions of other individuals as well. Twenty-five years ago, there were protests in China’s Tiananmen Square. Many thousands of people were involved in the protests, but it is the image of a solitary figure standing in front of a row of tanks that came to symbolize that pro-democracy protest movement. In this country, in Montgomery, Alabama, a half century ago, Rosa Parks, a black woman, tired after a long day at work, was sitting in the “colored” section on a bus on her way home from work, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, and became a symbol for the Civil Rights movement. As I noted on Rosh Hashanah, individuals can make a real difference by inspiring others.

Yet, while there is more freedom today in China than there was in 1989, restrictions on freedom are still a prominent part of life there. In India, violence between Hindus and Muslims occurs regularly. In America, the Jim Crow Laws mandating segregation of public accommodations eventually were overturned and there has been progress, but discrimination still adversely affects minorities in America. The reality is that while individuals can make a big difference, they need a great deal of help from the rest of us to succeed. We have to do our part of the work.
Prejudice, oppression, and hatred remain a part of our world. And so, on this day when we contemplate how we live our lives and especially about how we act toward others, I am going to speak about discrimination in America, the concept of the Shandeh, bringing shame on one’s people, and the challenges we face in trying to overcome the prejudices we all have as we try to repair our world.

I’ll begin with a story from our own tradition. Take a moment and imagine. Close your eyes.

Think of yourself standing at the border of your nation, the only land you’ve ever known, looking out into an inhospitable land before you. You’re holding the hands of loved ones and friends. You’re tired. Exhausted to be more accurate. You don’t have much food to eat or water to drink. You’ve been traveling speedily because you have no choice but to do so. If you fell behind, they would have caught you and that would have meant oppression, persecution, and maybe even death. You yearn to move forward, to cross the boundary before you and to journey toward a place of freedom.

We have been in this place many times before as a people. My own grandparents and great-grandparents lived out this story in Eastern Europe.

Now, imagine yourself standing at the shore of a broad sea. You have no boat, but the pursuers still come after you. Some pray with teary eyes, minds filled with fear. Children look to the adults for answers. The adults look to their leaders. Their leaders plea for divine intervention. Yet, the waters do not part. It looks like there will be no escape.

Finally, you look on as one brave soul, perhaps believing with a degree of insanity that he could make it happen, begins walking out into the water. He has no idea how to swim. Carrying and wearing as much as he is, he’s not going to float well anyway. He walks out into the water until the water covers his head.

Suddenly, the waters part and there you and others, Nachshon and Miriam, Aaron and Moses find yourselves standing on dry land as you continue your walk to freedom.

Now, feel free to open your eyes so you don’t fall asleep!

That is the Midrash, the rabbinical tale of Nachshon, whose faith helped part the waters. The rabbis say that it wasn’t only Moses lifting his staff that made the waters part. It was instead that Nachshon believed that they would part and risked his life to demonstrate that. He had faith in God and because of Nachshon’s faith, the waters parted.

I recently discovered a version of this Midrash with a little modification at the end added by Rabbi Susan Talve, a friend, who is the spiritual leader of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, Missouri.

She shared a version of the story of Nachshon with her own ending at a community service in St. Louis following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Here’s my version of the story with Rabbi Talve’s modification.

You look on as one brave soul, perhaps believing with a degree of insanity that he could make it happen, begins walking out into the water even though he has no idea how to swim. Carrying and wearing as much as he is, he’s not going to float well anyway. He walks until the water covers his head. You panic. He’s going to drown! You know it. So you rush to the water and dive in. You’re not alone in doing that. Many people accompany you, all diving in to save this one young man.

Suddenly, the waters part and there you find yourselves standing amid the waters on dry land as you continue your walk to freedom.

Rabbi Talve explained her version of the story in the following way: Nachshon, like so many of us who want to change the world and might respond in a desperate situation, wearied of waiting for a miracle to happen and acted rashly. What really parted the waters was that so many people rushed in to try to save him; not just his parents and those who knew him, but all of the others as well, risking their own lives to save the life of one child.

This ending and its explanation by Rabbi Talve make sense to me. One person can make a great difference. One person can be the catalyst for a movement, its Rosa Parks, but others need to jump in and help if the grand task is going to be accomplished.

Changing the world is not easy. A parting of the waters, as difficult as it may have been to accomplish, often merely allows for the first step on a long journey to be taken. Our tradition has the Israelites wandering through the wilderness for two generations, forty years, before we even entered the Promised Land after the waters parted.

Neither will the “promised land” of equality in Civil Rights and an end to discrimination and prejudice be reached easily. That destination will be reached only after a long and difficult journey as well. What has been accomplished thus far for minority rights has required blood, sweat, and tears and there is still much work to be done.

Rabbi Talve, in a recent article she wrote about the events in Ferguson, Missouri, argues that we continue to live in an America divided by gender, race, and class. As Rabbi Talve notes, in many municipalities across the country: 

Driving while black, shopping while black, just walking in the street while black, are crimes.  Talk to any parent of a black male and they will tell you about the "talk" everyone has with their child.  "Keep your head down, be polite, don't run from the police and…lose the attitude." 

A Grand Jury is now deliberating the case in Missouri and will decide whether or not Officer Wilson should be charged with a crime based upon the evidence. That said, the context of the shooting of Michael Brown is that of a broader national narrative: a history of conflict, prejudice, and discrimination. In that context, we encounter the rhetorical question that circulated at the time of Trayvon Martin’s killing by George Zimmerman and circulated again with the death of Michael Brown and events in Ferguson. It comes from The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. I think it says what needs to be said about the way much of our society sees African American men. The question is:

At what age is a black boy when he learns he's SCARY?

It is, of course, a pointed rhetorical question, one that mocks the discrimination that forms its context. In relation to that, the questions I might ask are:

At what age, did you first experience discrimination and prejudice?  When do you notice that people are treating you differently, not because you’re simply growing up and, perhaps, are bigger and stronger than those around you, but because you look differently than they do? Dress differently? Or act differently than they do?

Those are questions with which Jews are familiar. While we Reform Jews may not be readily identifiable as Jews because of the way we dress, our more traditional brethren certainly are and at times they face discrimination because of it.

That said, in Jackson, Mississippi, only recently, a Reform Rabbi colleague of mine, Ted Riter, went to a restaurant as was asked whether he wanted his salad “Large or Jew sized” with the accompanying explanation being that the smaller salad was “cheap, like Jews.” The owner didn’t even know he was speaking to a Jew when he said what he did.

Many of us have overheard conversations about Jews being cheap or untrustworthy. Those words are not usually said to our faces. There is even a term still too commonly used that refers to someone trying to get the best deal from you. The verb used is “To Jew” and means to “act like a Jew” in bargaining. It is a term based in many centuries of Antisemitism, during which Jews were almost exclusively in businesses that required bargaining. Jews were money lenders, tax collectors, peddlers and middlemen in all sorts of business transactions.

While, for the most part, we have not been seen as being a physically scary people, religious based hatred of Jews, conspiracy theories, and simple lack of knowledge about Jews has produced fear of the Jews as a collective. Even in the modern world, there are people who fear that Jews lurk in the background of politics and economics, pulling the strings of leaders.

Fortunately, in America today, we’re unlikely to be pulled over or harassed because we’re Jewish, even if we wear a kippah. But that is not and was not always the case and it wasn’t all that long ago that many clubs excluded both Jews and people of color. Signs could be found on no few establishments in America only half a century ago that read, “No Jews, No Blacks, No Dogs.” The term for blacks was more often the “N” word.

It has taken no little effort by individuals, religious groups, and others around the nation to overcome the stereotypes often at the base of these aversions. There is much more to be done. We also know how easily dislikes are renewed and reinforced.

The concept of a shandeh, Yiddish for shame, has long been a part of Jewish life. A shandeh fur die goyim is something done by a Jew or Jews that is seen as resulting in embarrassment or taint on all Jews in the eyes of those who are not Jewish. No few people would cite the actions of Bernie Madoff, whose financial crimes reinforced the stereotype of Jews and money, as an example.

This problem of a Shandeh isn’t unique to Jews and Judaism, however, though the Yiddish term certainly is. American Muslims regularly face this problem as well and an African American minister friend of mine wrote along these lines the other day about Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, and other NFL players accused of domestic violence as resulting in a negative reflection of black men as prone to violence.

We live in a nation in which only slightly more than 150 years ago, those professional athletes could have been considered property. We live in a nation where 50 years ago there were places where black and white athletes wouldn’t have been allowed to play together in no few places because of segregation. Today, laws may have changed, but our minds are still segregated to an extent. We apply different rules to different people, though we may try our best not to do so: sometimes because of their ethnicity or religion, sometimes because of how they dress or, yes, because of the color of their skin.

Our eyes can perceive differences in shade and color, but they do not force us to see those differences in shade and color as determinate of character and worth. Our minds do that. Our feelings do that.

When we ignore how our minds process difference, we can easily fail to realize our own prejudices. We can even allow our laws to enforce them—and as a nation, we have. It did not escape the notice of those protesting the events in a suburb of St. Louis, that in 1857, Dred Scott, a slave, after attempting to sue for his freedom at the Federal Courthouse in that very city, had the Supreme Court of the United States declare in a 7-2 decision that he had no legal standing in the court and even that he was an “inferior being.”

We, Reform Jews, with our belief that all people are created B’tselem Elohim, in the image of the divine, find such a thought unfathomable, not to mention horrifying, repugnant, and despicable. We also have experience with what happens when people come to be considered “inferior beings.” It happened to us only seven decades ago, after numerous times before that.

However, with the rapidity of technological change today, we tend to act as if society and human interaction change equally rapidly. While our society little resembles that of pre-Civil War America, 157 years are barely a blip on evolutionary chart. Much of our prejudice is connected to survival instincts, associating with those similar to us and avoiding those, even fearing those, who are not.

Reform Jews have been and remain at the forefront of combatting this challenging aspect of our humanity and our society, the ease by which we can discriminate and the difficulty we often have in overcoming it. When we add in socio-economic disparity, especially when historically connected to blessing and curse in many religious traditions including our own, the challenge we face is compounded.

Tonight, when we read the Kol Nidrei prayer, we spoke in the voice of the one forced to say “Yes,” when he or she meant “No.” We spoke with the voice of the persecuted minority, with the voice of someone fearful to stand up as Jew and say, “No!” We understand fear as a people. We understand being afraid of threats. Perhaps not so much today, but in past generations, we’ve had “The Talk” or something similar with our own children, warning them not to make waves, not to be noticed, not to trigger Antisemitism.

During the 1960s, as Jews came from the north to the south to aid in the Civil Rights struggle and were at the forefront of demonstrations, no few Jews in southern communities feared that they would face the backlash. However, throughout the Jewish year, we are reminded that we were once strangers. Our history is full of discrimination and persecution and threats against us, too often brutally carried out. We know how it feels and what it means to be considered “inferior beings.” We know the consequences that hatred can have and we should feel obligated to stand against it.

So, on this Yom Kippur, Atem Nitzavim! Here we stand, all of us arrayed before God. Again and again facing challenges.  Perhaps, we will be Nachshon, jumping into the waters before us, hoping that we can individually make a difference. Perhaps, we will be like Susan Talve’s rescuers of Nachshon, jumping in to save a life and parting the waters. Regardless, let us not be onlookers, complacent and silent, in the face of injustice.

Tomorrow evening, I will stand before the ark and read what I believe are among the most powerful words in any of our services over the course of the year:

Called to a life of righteousness, we rebel: arrogance possesses us. The passions that rage within us drown the voice of conscience: good and evil, virtue and vice, love and hate contend for the mastery of our lives. Again and again we complain of the struggle, forgetting that the power to choose is the glory and greatness of our being.

We can make the right choices. We can elevate the voice of conscience not only for ourselves, but for our communities. We can choose to overcome that struggle. Let us choose to stand up, even to march, for righteousness. Let us jump into the waters and change our world for the better.

May our fast indeed be the one of the Prophet Isaiah of which we will read tomorrow:

Is this not the fast, I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free and to break every cruel chain?

And may we do as Isaiah suggests: Let us remove the chains of oppression, the menacing hand, the malicious word. Then shall our light blaze forth like the dawn.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah, May we all be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.

Friday, September 26, 2014

What Do We Want the Next Generations to Preserve? - A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 5775-2014

In Today’s Torah portion, we read the story of how Isaac came to be spared so that the blessings promised to Abraham’s descendants could be passed on through him. In the past, I have discussed this story from a number of different perspectives. I have asked questions and offered some of my own answers to the challenges they pose. The test itself is problematic. Why would a righteous and benevolent God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son, even if God knew that the event would be interrupted by an angel? How can Abraham be considered righteous if he ever intended to go through with the sacrifice?

Many of you have heard my argument that in fact the sacrifice was an expectation of the times and that Abraham’s devotion to Adonai as his God and as the sole divinity of his descendants is the result of Adonai stopping him from going through with the task which he assumed to be expected by the divinities in which people commonly believed at the time. It’s certainly a different reading of the story, but that explanation makes me feel better about the character of Abraham and about God’s role in the story.

Often when we read this story, we miss seeing the forest because of the trees. We miss the fact that the story is principally about how the blessings of what came to be the Jewish tradition and the Jewish people were passed on from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to his children and then to generation after generation of the people who came to call themselves Jews because of their historical connection to the land of Judah. But we’re still not looking at the bigger picture even when we consider that. The bigger picture of the Torah’s narrative from Abraham through the entry into the land is about how and why the Jewish people are “chosen”, to use the traditional language, or why we have chosen a “special,” “different,” “unique,” or “important” religious path to employ terms that progressive Jews might choose to use.

The Jewish Tradition essentially argues that Isaac’s life was preserved so that the Jewish people would eventually come into existence. We see this idea also in the interaction between Isaac and his sons, Jacob and Esau, and between Jacob and his sons as well. The Torah tells us again and again of the difficult circumstances and challenges overcome in order for those blessings to be passed on to the next generation with the understanding that we are the beneficiaries of the prior generations. Our people’s history over the past hundred generations adds greatly to that narrative of overcoming adversity, challenge, and difficulty. The ongoing survival of the Jewish people is amazing. Some go so far as to say that it is “miraculous” that there are still Jews in the world today.

The overriding theme of our tradition at times seems to be, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”

While it is certainly true that we do like to eat and that is a funny joke, all of this history and all of our experiences as a people, however, including the miraculous narratives in our ancient texts, do not truly focus on our continuing existence on food.

The questions that we must ask ourselves today, based upon the Akeidah, are centered on one theme, “Why does it matter that we survived?” That is certainly something that we here today should appreciate. That said, three questions, which I will endeavor to answer, are the ones before us as Jews today.

The questions

What is so important about Judaism that it needs to a part of our lives?
Why should we care about future generations being Jewish? and
What do we want those generations to hold sacred?

I believe that the order of the questions that I just asked is how we normally might consider them. We probably ask them of ourselves slightly differently. We may start off asking, “Why should I be Jewish or do Jewish?” Then “Why should I care if future generations are raised as Jews, if I’m not sure of my own Judaism?” Those who can’t answer the first two questions with at least some satisfaction, probably would not ask the last question, “What do we want those future generations to hold sacred,” in the context of Judaism. They would think of it in more general humanistic terms and I think miss some exceedingly important things only found in the context of Judaism.

I believe that this order of asking the questions often leads to a misleading result, to the devaluation or even rejection of a stripped down version of Judaism devoid of most of its most important teachings, certainly as Reform Judaism would present them.

So let me start off by answering the last of these three questions first and then I will address the first two. “What aspects of Reform Judaism, its beliefs and practices, at least in my estimation, would I like future generations to hold sacred?”

To answer this question, I think it makes sense to go back nearly 130 years and see what aspects of Reform Judaism found in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform of Reform Judaism we still hold dear today.

I see the following both as valuable principles and as remaining true of us today.

Although, we see our own traditions as the best way for us, we respect other religious traditions. Our concept of truth as individual Reform Jews is one to which we personally hold dear, but not as the only valid way and not as the only possible truth.

We believe that science and the Jewish tradition are not antagonistic. As our understanding of the nature of the world in which we live changes, our Judaism, Reform Judaism, adapts with that understanding.
We maintain and promote work with those of other faiths as we seek to improve our communities and to advance the cause of righteousness.
And to use the words of the 1885 Platform, “In full accordance with the spirit of the Mosaic legislation, which strives to regulate the relations between rich and poor, we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.”
We care about making our world a better place.

There is so much more to add to the words of that platform: both actions representative of who we are and principles that guide us. Let me share some of these things that I think we should hold sacred beginning with the start of the 20th Century.

We shouted our condemnation at the treatment of the workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, demanding change, and we have stood fast against the exploitation of laborers ever since.

We protested for women’s suffrage and have championed the cause of women’s rights and equality.

We, and now I’m speaking about the Reform Movement, hosted the drafting of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the conference room of the Religious Action Center in Washington DC. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism continues to be a leading force advocating for the principles in which we, along with other progressive religious communities, believe.

Whenever we have heard the cries of the suffering and oppressed in communities whether across the world or right here at home, Reform Jews have spoken up and taken action.

We are individuals and groups who have marched for justice and righteousness in cities across America from Selma, Alabama and St. Augustine, Florida in the 1960s to Washington DC and Ferguson, Missouri in recent times, having been inspired by the words of the ancient prophets of Israel and living modern ones.

When we heard the words spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “I have a dream,” we felt it was our dream too. When we heard the words, “Free at last,” we remembered that we were once enslaved in Egypt.

Why? Because we hold Passover Seders where we remember that we, ourselves, were there and then, journeying from slavery to freedom. And we’re reminded at every service and even more so during every festival that we need to be thankful that we’re still not enslaved strangers.

We’re the people who construct Sukkot. Even if we don’t have one of our own or spend any time in one, we should be reminded why they exist. It isn’t just so that we have a way to use tree clippings, to create pretty multi-colored paper chains, or to show off our beautiful gourds. Our Sukkahs remind us that there are still those who sleep outside, sometimes in dwellings without four walls, in tents and in boxes, exposed to the elements, not by choice. Moreover, our Sukkot remind us that we were once like those people.

We’re also reminded during the Festival of Sukkot how to treat guests and that sometimes people who are strange to us, whom we do not know, can bring us blessings because of our care and generosity.

We are the people thankful that a little flame lasted as long as we needed it to last. Think about that. The miracle of Chanukah is not that the light blazed forth like the sun. Not that the light lasted for weeks or months or a thousand years. We’re thankful that a light which we needed to last for eight nights did so. We are the people of “Dayeinu.” Thankful for having enough, even when we know full well that what we have isn’t enough for us, much less for all those in need.

We are the people who believe that everyone is created B’tselem Elohim, in the image of the divine. For us, people of all races, no matter their sexual orientation, should be treated not only as of value in our world and to be respected, but even as holy, as representations of the divine made incarnate.

We are the people who offer thanks for our very existence, our creation, during every worship service, while remembering that when we were created, we were given the job of being stewards of the rest of creation, charged with keeping our world a fit place for animals and plants as well as for our descendants. Caring for the environment is not just smart, it is a holy task for us, sacred work.

We are the people who believe that the world in which we live is in dire need of repair and that acts of justice, righteousness, and kindness can help make it the way that it should be, better than it ever has been before.

We are the people whose holy texts may be summed up as Hillel did, “Do not do unto others as you would have them not do unto you. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it!”

We are the people who believe in the words of Rabbi Tarfon, that, “While we may be unable to complete the task, neither can we avoid working to accomplish it.”

We are the people whose holiest days are spent, not in feasting, but in Cheshbon Nefesh, a time for an accounting of our souls, during which we consider how we might improve ourselves in the year ahead. And we engage in teshuvah, a process of turning ourselves away from paths and actions that do not help ourselves or our world, while directing ourselves anew toward paths of righteousness.

We are the people who speak from the experience of centuries of suffering endured so that the current generations can live in peace, security, and prosperity.

We are the people who know that individuals can make all the difference in the world. For us, not only is the life of one worth the life of the whole world, but the actions of one person can change the whole world.

We are like Nachshon, marching into waters that have not parted, but believing they will, just as Abraham Joshua Heschel marched into waters that had not yet parted in Selma, Alabama alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We are the people who generation after generation in spite of suffering hardships and setbacks that have could have, perhaps should have, caused our people to abandon the task, stubbornly believe that we can change this world and turn it into a Garden of Eden.

We are the people who do not just pray and sing about a better world, we volunteer, give, and build a better world: from homeless shelters and food pantries, to hospitals, social services, and schools, from environmental and social action programs to the arts of all kinds. We don’t just talk about making our world better, we make it happen.

We are the people who risk our lives to make matzah out of meager rations in concentration camp barracks, because the mitzvah of remembering and being thankful that our ancestors were sustained in life empowers us even there and then, in the most horrible places and times.

We are the people who sing songs around candles lit in the midst of darkness. Not only lit in darkened rooms during the festival of Chanukah, but lit during humanity’s darkest times and often while under threat.

We are like the people of the nation of Israel, often first on the scene with medical help after major disasters and whose doctors perform life-saving surgeries on children from Gaza even while in the midst of war against their parents.

We are the people who brought socialist ideals to deserts and swamps and made them bloom into one of the world’s leading economies and an agricultural marvel.

We are the people who have survived and thrived in a tiny nation, surrounded by enemies, on land that takes a bit of effort to get to flow with milk and honey.

We are a people who know that we and the nation of Israel have faults, but instead of ignoring them, we discuss and debate, march and protest; and we speak out for peace and tolerance, justice and righteousness, even when war and conflict is the easy answer.

While we are the people willing to sit in the dark and to joke about it.

We are a people whose anthem is HaTikvah, The Hope, and who strive to spread hope and light wherever there is despair and darkness.

All of this and so much more about our tradition, I would like future generations to hold sacred and to preserve for their children and to improve upon for the sake of humanity. None of this requires blind faith. None of this requires a belief in a kind of divinity at all.

This brings me back to the first two questions? Is this all reason for future generations to be Jewish? For us to be Jewish ourselves? I think it absolutely is, if we these ideals to be held sacred. They will not be or will not be to the same extent if they are not connected to the Reform Jewish tradition or to the Jewish tradition in general.

Preserving them requires participation in Jewish life, having Jewish experiences and receiving Jewish education. It means that we have a task, a mission if you will. We must take part in transmitting these ideals to future generations and to do that, we must be a part of the Jewish community.

They say, there is no I in “Team.” Well, there is no “Judaism” without U. The Temple and the Jewish community will be better if all of us take part in its life and our role in the broader community will be enhanced, if we are all involved. We would certainly love to have you add your voice to our congregation during services, but also your smile and words of joy, congratulations, support, comfort and consolation to our community members before and after them. Come and be a part of social action projects, educational programs, and social programs. You will help make our Reform Judaism better.

I know that there are many members of our community who are not Jewish. No few are here today with their families. Many of our loved ones and friends who are not Jewish regularly attend our services and programs. We appreciate and honor all of them. Our congregation has long lived by the philosophy that it should be a welcoming spiritual home for every member of our families.

And so let us take a moment to thank our family members and friends who support us on our Jewish path and support our congregation. Thank you for your love and companionship, for your care and support for us individually, for our families, and for our congregation. You are an integral part of our lives, our congregation, and our community. Thank you. Thank you.

On this Rosh Hashanah day, let us renew our commitment to supporting what we hold sacred, strengthening our congregation and our own commitment to Reform Judaism. Together, we can change our congregation, our community, and our world for the better.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah tikateivu!

May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet year!

Israel and the Jews : Jewish Identity at Times of Conflict. A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775-2014

This summer, my daughter Hanna and I had the opportunity to go on the Jewish Federation’s Mission to Israel. We visited the major Jewish tourist sites, of course. We ate schnitzel and falafel like it was going out of style and wandered through many a shop selling tourist oriented chatchkies. We rode “Tornado Boats” over the waves in the Mediterranean off the coast of Caesarea (a lot of fun, but feeling has only recently returned to our backsides). We walked in, floated on, and occasionally dragged rafts down the Jordan River as Druse adults and children held Saturday afternoon Bar-B-Qs all along its shore. We enjoyed hearing Hebrew spoken as a living breathing language in a living breathing modern and amazing Jewish state.

On our first Friday night in Israel, July 13, most of our group attended services in Nahariya at Emet v’Shalom congregation with which Temple B’nai Jeshurun has had a relationship for over a decade. We were welcomed by our friend Dr. Norman Loberant, who specifically thanked the Temple for our financial support over the years. Some time ago, nearly a decade now, I believe, we helped Emet v’Shalom purchase a computer and other office supplies. Generosity is always remembered.

Partnership Together arranged for us all to have dinner in the homes of people involved with the partnership after Shabbat services. Though news had trickled to some of us later in the day, many of our group found out during conversations at those dinners that three Israeli yeshiva students had been kidnapped.

Jews as a people are worriers. We know that the sun is supposed to disappear at night and reappear in the morning, but our inherent anxiety makes us feel better reassuring ourselves with prayers and offerings of thanksgiving during services just in case.

In a now by-gone day, the Jewish joke about this worrying was:

What’s the definition of a Jewish telegram [aka the original form of text messaging]?
‘Start worrying… [stop]
Details to follow.’

And so at those Shabbat dinners, there was anxiety about “our boys,” which only increased over the next couple of weeks, along with whispering about what might be yet to come. Unfortunately, fears that the boys had been captured by terrorists were true and the boys lost their lives. Only a few days after our group left Israel, the latest installment of a very old conflict grew into a war.

Tonight, I would like to talk about the impact of events in the Middle East this summer on Jewish attitudes toward Israel, the rise in both anti-Israel sentiments and hatred of Jews and Judaism, and a bit about what the future holds for Israel in a realigned Middle East. While this all appears to be distressing, there really is some good news out there as we celebrate this New Year, in spite of the ongoing violence in the region.

Jewish Attitudes Toward Israel

The statement is “Two Jews, Three Opinions.” When it comes to Israel, those two Jews are much more likely to express many more than three opinions. I don’t want to discuss the history of debate concerning Israeli policies nor do I remotely have the time. I’d end up closing this sermon by welcoming you to Rosh Hashanah morning services, if I tried to do justice to the topic. Instead, let me simply say that debate among Israelis concerning how Israel should act in regard to Palestinians is extensive, emotional, often heated, intensely personal and full of discussions of Jewish values, morals, ethics and obligations both to Israelis and to Palestinians. Not that different from debate in the US.

In most past conflicts, there has been a relatively easily recognizable divide between the Israeli left and right concerning how the government should respond. Yet, during the conflict this summer, the opposition leader from the Labor Party, Boogie Hertzog, sometimes sounded like he was more assured that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was making the right decisions concerning Gaza than Netanyahu himself was.

At one point toward the end of July, polling showed over 90% of Jewish Israelis supported Netanyahu’s actions in regard to the conflict with most of the remaining 10% advocating for stronger Israeli military action against Hamas.

Where did this sudden change toward “Two Jews, more-or-less One Opinion” among Israelis come from? I think that Rabbi Arthur Green’s letter that he sent to students and friends offers the answer. Just so you have some perspective, to say that Rabbi Arthur Green, a leader of the spirituality movement on the progressive left, leans left is like saying that Rush Limbaugh leans right.

After explaining that he is by no means a fan of Prime Minister Netanyahu and discussing his criticisms of Israeli policies regarding the peace process in the past, Green stated in regard to the recent conflict:

Then we saw the tunnels.  That changed a great deal for me.  Those tunnels were there for the clear purpose of attacking, killing, and kidnapping Israelis (witness the handcuffs and tranquilizers found in them), surely including civilians living in the nearby kibbutzim and towns.  Those are Israelis who are not settlers in post-1967 territories, but within what all of us (except Hamas, of course) recognize as part of Israel.  Those tunnels had to be destroyed, and I give TsaHaL and Netanyahu lots of slack for accomplishing that vital task.  That’s “vital” in the literal sense of “life and death.”

This said, Israelis also could not help but shift their gaze from the south of Israel a bit to Israel’s east and north and see the horrifying things that the army of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) was doing to its opposition there, especially to Yazidis and Christians. The rise of the Islamic State, for Israelis, even for very, very far left—leaning Israelis, has had an impact on their thought process in regard to the battles against Islamist fighters in which Israel has been and continues to be engaged. Thus, Rabbi Arthur Green came to argue something you might hear from someone on the right that:

I have little doubt, my friends, that many within the ranks of Hamas would do the same to us – yes, all of us: “Jews,” not just Israelis – if they could.  True, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood that spawned it are of different and more moderate origins than ISIS.  But that, I’m afraid, is no longer relevant, a distinction without a difference.  The hatred of Jews spewed forth from the Hamas and Hezbollah propaganda machines, including blood libels, literal demonizing of Jewish souls, etc., make it quite clear to me that we, in their fantasy world, would not be protected “dimmis” (subjugated minorities, thank you), but candidates for slaughter. 

The broader view of Israel’s neighborhood also gives a new light on why there is a need for a homeland for the Jewish people to live in peace and security. Green summed up Israeli fears quite accurately when he stated that, he “shuddered” to think of surviving bands of Jews fleeing from these fighters in the way that the Yazidis were doing at the time, literally huddled on a mountaintop with nowhere to go to evade “convert or die” demands and quite possibly with no help forthcoming. He concluded by noting the impact of these conflicts on his own mindset regarding the peace process:

So do I still believe in what I would have said a month ago, that we need to “take risks for peace?”  Yes, I still say it, but you’ll hear it coming out with a lot less confidence, and hopefully no self-righteousness.

The response to that statement from Arthur Green is “Wow!” It’s a change in attitude almost along the lines of Senator Ted Cruz saying that he now thinks the Affordable Care Act might not be such a bad idea. This summer changed many perspectives.


The events this summer have also created opportunities for those harboring anti-Jewish views to share them openly. Deborah Lipstadt, expert on Antisemitism and the Holocaust, has noted with alarm the recent rise of blatant Jew-hatred in Europe.

[In July and August], pro-Gaza protesters on Kurf├╝rstendamm, the legendary avenue in Berlin, chanted, “Jews, Jews, cowardly swine.” Demonstrators in Dortmund and Frankfurt chanted, “Hamas, Hamas; Jews to the gas!”
On the eve of Bastille Day, a group of Parisian Jews were trapped in a synagogue by pro-Palestinian rioters and had to be rescued by the police. A [couple of months ago] signs were posted in Rome urging a boycott of 50 Jewish-owned businesses. In central London.., anti-Israel protesters targeted a Sainsbury’s grocery, and the manager reflexively pulled kosher products off the shelves. (The supermarket chain later apologized.)…
Seventy years after the Holocaust, many Jews in Europe no longer feel safe.
It is in this context of threats against Israel and a spike in Antisemitism, that Yair Lapid, Israel’s Minister of Finance and the leader of the Centrist Yesh Atid Party, spoke in August at Platform 17, a Holocaust memorial site in Berlin. He asked a question that no few others have asked over the years:

Why didn’t they fight? That is the question that haunts me. That is the question that the Jewish people have struggled with since the last train left for Auschwitz. And the answer – the only answer – is that they didn’t believe in the totality of evil. They knew, of course, that there were bad people in the world, but they didn’t believe in total evil, organized evil, without mercy or hesitation, cold evil that looked at them but didn’t see them, not even for a moment, as human.
As Lapid suggests, for the most part, we tend to think that people around the world and in every circumstance act as we would if we were in that circumstance. We have empathy. We put ourselves in their shoes. Too easily we forget that when we place ourselves in the position of others, we are replacing their understanding with ours, often including hindsight; their faith with ours; their emotions, their experiences, their attitudes with ours.
Yair Lapid argued from Platform 17 in Berlin that empathy makes it difficult for us to understand that real evil can happen. Knowing ourselves, we, in Lapid’s words “cannot believe that human beings — human beings who look like [us] and sound like [us] — are capable of behaving that way. Because good people always refuse to recognize the totality of evil until it’s too late.”
Acting as if we can put ourselves in the place of Hamas fighters does a tremendous disservice to Israel, because Israel isn’t fighting people in Gaza who think or act like us. As a good example, here is a statement by Muhammad Deif, leader of Hamas military operations in Gaza during the recent conflict: 

Today you [Israelis] are fighting divine soldiers, who love death for Allah like you love life, and who compete among themselves for Martyrdom like you flee from death.

We do not think as they do. Meanwhile, Yair Lapid concluded his statement on that Platform in Berlin with words that sum up both Israel’s dilemma and ours as supporters of Israel as it considers how to respond to Hamas’ attacks:

The Holocaust placed before Israel a dual challenge:
On the one hand it taught us that we must survive at any price, and be able to defend ourselves at any price. Trainloads of Jews will never again depart from a platform anywhere in the world.

On the other hand, the Holocaust taught us that no matter the circumstances we must always remain moral people. Human morality is not judged when everything is ok, it is judged by our ability to see the suffering of the other, even when we have every reason to see only our own.
The need to survive teaches us to strike hard to defend ourselves. The need to remain moral, even when circumstances are immoral, teaches us to minimize human suffering as much as possible…
This is all the more true for those who wish to create a two-state solution that will both create a Palestinian state and preserve the Jewish state in the process. Israeli author, Yossi Klein Halevi’s now famous statement meshes well with Lapid’s sentiments. Halevi said, “I have two nightmares about a Palestinian state: That there won’t be one and that there will be one.”

We know that so long as there is no peace agreement that creates at least a two-state solution, if not a three state solution with a separate Gaza, that we’ll be worried that someday, there may no longer be a Jewish state of Israel. An Israel that would include the West Bank and Gaza may not maintain a Jewish majority for long, even without bringing Palestinian refugees into the land.

We know as well that if Hamas rearms in Gaza, it is almost certain that we will see another conflict in the not too distant future. And we can imagine that if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, the possibility increases of Hamas or some other group taking over in the West Bank and turning it into another Gaza, especially if the Jordanian border were to be controlled by them, where rockets will fly by the thousands into every corner of Israel.

But that is also the central fear connected to Halevi’s “That there will be one.” Can it be assured that a fully independent Palestinian state will not pose an even bigger threat to Israel’s existence than the absence of one poses? That it won’t be taken over by Hamas or even worse militants? Especially, looking across the region today, at the rapid rise of ISIS? The problem at the moment is that the answer to that question is clearly, “No, at the moment it can’t.”

Yet, as messy as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s solutions are, the situation today is not as bad as it sounds. The Palestinian economy in the West Bank is one of the fastest growing in the world. There is a great deal of economic cooperation across the border and there are many Palestinians who’ve struck it rich in the tech industry alongside the Israelis. The two sides are peacefully coexisting, cooperating more and more, and doing so peacefully, even though there are issues that divide them and for which negotiations remain essential.
And there is more good news. First, not only do we as a people survive, but the Jewish state continues to thrive. Israel has the ability to wrestle with choices of how to respond to threats. There is little doubt that it can defend itself against most of them and respond substantially to all of them. 66 years ago, when Israel was founded, and during the wars of 1967 and 1973, there were concerns that the Jewish nation would not long survive. The question now is not if it will survive, but how. Today we can ask, “What will Israel be like a decade from now? How about when it celebrates its centennial?”

And while there have been fears of isolation over the years, Israel is far from isolated today. Sure, votes almost always go against it in international fora, especially in the UN, where it confronts both Jew-hatred and anti-Western voting blocks. However, Israel now has many strategic partners and friends including India and China which have significantly increased their economic and academic ties with Israel in recent months. Israel’s economy is booming, especially the technology sector, where Israeli tech companies impact virtually every corner of the computer and biotech markets. Israel faces a growing problem of wealth disparity. The challenge is to spread the success around a bit more.

Most importantly in the category of good news is the strategic cooperation between Israel and Egypt in the ongoing conflict in Gaza. Never has Israel had an Arab partner whose strategic goals aligned with Israel’s to the extent that it now has in Egypt. It is not as if Egypt and Israel are suddenly best friends, but they do see eye to eye, especially in regard to Hamas. Along with Egypt, Israel maintains excellent relations with the Kingdom of Jordan, which is not only a strategic ally, but a partner in many endeavors. Israel just signed a $15 billion dollar agreement in which Israel will become the primary supplier of natural gas to Jordan. Israel and Jordan already have had strong security cooperation with Israel helping Jordan to defend its Syrian and Iraqi borders. And while relations with Saudi Arabia are not as good, they are far better than they ever have been. The same, by the way, is true of Israeli relations with the Palestinian Authority which is part of an informal alliance of pro-Western anti-Islamist regimes in the region, of which is Israel is now seen as a primary cog, cooperating behind the scenes.

So while we’re still looking at a situation in which Iran moves ever closer to obtaining the capability to quickly produce a nuclear weapon and we’re witnessing ongoing violence and chaos in Syria and Iraq, Israel is not doing as badly as you might otherwise think. Not that badly at all.

I think that Yossi Klein Halevi summed it up well in a recent article for the LA Times when he said, "Here we are, in a traffic jam—in Jerusalem. But sometimes I think about how the most ordinary details of my daily life were the greatest dream of my ancestors." We are Jews living in an age when we can make the age old messianic dream, “Next year in Jerusalem,” be a reality simply by getting on a plane.

While all of us may not agree on just how to accomplish the task, may the coming year be one that sees peace increase in our world, especially in the Middle East, and particularly among Israelis and Palestinians. May it be a year of health and happiness of joy and sweetness for ourselves and for our families and friends.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah tikateivu, May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet New Year.