Israel, Judaism - Torah, Travel

Parashat Va’etchanan: Enduring and Faring Well in Israel

This is the d’var torah that I delivered this Shabbat at Kol Ami in Thornhill, Ontario.

The great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes the following words in one of his most famous poems, Tourists:

…Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker.

“You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

I must confess that when visiting new places, tourist attractions and cultural sites are not enough for me. I have taken a cue from Amichai’s impassioned charge in his poem. When traveling, I’m not content with the Disney World version of a place. I always feel as though I am missing out on something if I don’t get to peel back the layers of a society and try to understand the people I am seeing all around me. What are their values? What is the dominant public culture? What kind of government is chosen or enforced? How do people relate to each other? 

I’ve often also thought to myself: What would someone visiting Canada think are the guiding principles of our country? Earlier this summer, in what would prove to be an incredibly challenging time spent in Israel, I thought the same question: What would someone visiting Israel right now think are the guiding principles of the country?

As it happens – perhaps unsurprisingly – our own textual tradition has much to say about the guidelines and mores of establishing a functioning society. In the case of our ancestors the Israelites, these rules were remarkably detailed and covered all aspects of daily life. This Shabbat as we read parashat va’etchanan, we again encounter what is the most well known example of these rules – the aseret hadibrot – the Ten Commandments.

Now the idea of a societal legal code was not something new at the time of the Torah’s commandments. Certainly, the peoples of the Ancient Near East were already quite familiar with legal documents, including the idea of protecting such rights as human life, personal property, and familial relations. What was unique about our text – the text that would become the cornerstone of Jewish society and the foundation of much of Western Civilization – is that it framed a legal text in terms of a covenant with God. For us, establishing a moral, legal society is itself an expression of God’s will.

This Shabbat, I want to examine what I think is a unique and often overlooked aspect of our Ten Commandments, and God’s will within it. The fifth commandment reads:

כַּבֵּד אֶת אָבִיךָ וְאֶת אִמֶּךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיכֻן יָמֶיךָ וּלְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ

“Honour your father and your mother, as Adonai your God has commanded you, that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, on the land that Adonai your God is giving you.” (D’varim 5:16)

This is the only commandment that specifically includes a justification or added benefit for the performance of the duty – we are to honour our parents, so that we may have a prosperous existence in the Land of Israel.

Now this is peculiar to many – why is this the only mitzvah to have a benefit attached? Aren’t they all fairly important? And why is this the benefit that is included. Why not “Honour your father and your mother so that you may have all your needs met”? or “…so that you may live a safe and healthy life”? Moreover, why is this particular mitzvah the one to receive the benefit? Would it not be more appropriate, perhaps, for this benefit to be included in the commandment more connected to our ritual observance of Shabbat? Or why not attach such a benefit to belief in God’s eternal singularity?

This commandment pushes us to consider: what is relevant about the attached benefit being related to the Land of Israel? This mitzvah beckons us to ask: what is the connection between honouring our parents, and enduring and thriving in the land?

 

I believe that here we find one of the Torah’s most salient examples of what kind of people we are meant to be. In this one commandment, a direct line is drawn between our moral behaviour and our very existence. Our Torah is made up of a very long journey to reach the Promised Land, and here we are told that our time in the Land is dependent upon the performance of one singular mitzvah. Not belief in God; not observance of Shabbat or kashrut; not the Holiness Code’s laws of ritual impurity. Our life in the Land of Israel is indeed predicated upon our fulfillment of this mitzvah – upon our honouring of our parents.

Indeed, in the Mishneh Torah, the commandment to honour one’s human parents is compared to honoring God, and the Talmud teaches that since there are three partners in the creation of a person (God and two parents), honour showed to parents is the same as honour shown to God. (BT Kiddushin 31)

According to the prophet Malachi, God is the very one who makes this analogy!

“A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honour due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 1:6)

But is God really just dangling a carrot in front of our faces with this commandment? Is life in Israel just a form of positive reinforcement to get us to observe mitzvot? I cannot believe this. I believe that we honour our mothers and fathers not in order to receive the reward of the Land of Israel; rather our sustainable existence in the Land of Israel is itself based upon our living a life of honouring. Our existence in Israel is based upon the creation of a just and moral society – one where we give honour to those who gave us life and raised us. As the performance of God’s mitzvot is an attempt to become closer to the Divine holiness, we can only truly thrive in the Land if we are ourselves as holy, as moral, and as just as we possibly may be.

One clue towards this idea is the location of this commandment itself. The first five are often understood as being בין אדם למקום (between a person and God), while the second five are בין אדם לחברו (between one person and another). But this one – the fifth Commandment – can be interpreted as belonging to both groups.

Our parasha this week asks us to consider – What are the guidelines and mores of establishing a thriving society? This remains a struggle for us today as much as it was for our Israelite ancestors. Every day, the modern State of Israel faces innumerable challenges in its efforts to be a moral, just, and hopefully a holy community. If our State of Israel is meant to be one where our people can long endure, where we can fare well, as we are clearly meant to do… it must be a society that continually strives to attain holiness; it must be a place that creates laws and legal codes in an attempt to bring about a more just and righteous existence. It must be a place where honour is given to each other – not merely out of hope for some divine reward, but because this is the path to creating a long enduring community.

I was considering these ideas yesterday while reading a poignant commentary by Israel’s prolific Rabbi Donniel Hartman. Writing about the ease with which Israelis optimistically tell each other “hakol b’seder” (everything is okay), he had this to say about Israel’s current state of affairs in its war against Hamas:

“Everything is not OK when in striking distance of most of our citizens lies a terrorist organization with a charter which calls for our death and with the means and the desire to terrorize half of Israel whenever they so will it. Everything is not OK when our only avenue for defeating them will entail an unacceptable amount of casualties on both sides.

Everything is not OK when the only way we can fight Hamas is at the expense of innocent non-combatants behind whom they take cover. Everything is not OK when the only deterrent at our disposal is to wreak havoc on their society. Everything is not OK when we are forced to impose a blockade, with its horrific humanitarian and economic costs, simply because we want to limit their access to missiles and explosives that will be aimed at our citizens.

The paradox of Israel is that the only way for us to be a Western society is for us to embrace some measure of instability along with “hakol b’seder.” The only way for us to be a Jewish society is to embrace our values despite the danger. Everything will never be OK. The challenge is what to do when one recognizes this.”

What are we to do? What is Israel to do? In an intriguing twist in the Torah, the earlier reading of the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus only includes the line “that you may long endure on the land…” (Shemot 20:12), not yet receiving the idea in Deuteronomy that we “may long endure and fare well on the land.” Apparently there is a difference between mere endurance on one hand, and endurance coupled with faring well on the other.

I think this duality is at the heart of what Rabbi Hartman is writing about. Yes, Israel is blessed with the Iron Dome missile defence system, a powerful army, a strong democracy, and somehow an eternally optimistic people. Despite the dangers of war, we will long endure in the Land.

But can we endure without faring well? At what point do we begin to compromise so much that our endurance comes at the expense of our faring well? The progression of the Torah teaches us that endurance on its own is not good enough; we are meant not only to long endure, but to long endure and fare well.

Rabbi Hartman enjoins us to remember “the only way for [Israel] to be a Jewish society is to embrace our values despite the danger.” I believe for us, in our observance of the violence in Israel and Gaza; in our viewing of local and international media; in our conversations on Facebook and Twitter; it is often far too easy to consider only the danger. Far too often, we are preoccupied only with Israel’s endurance. But hidden just beneath this surface in our parasha this week is the powerful reminder that endurance alone is insufficient. Endurance must be coupled with faring well. Likewise, combating danger on its own is insufficient. We must also be concerned with the perpetual embracing of our values.

The connection between a righteous existence in Israel and honouring ones parents goes one level deeper. What do we mean when we say honour? The Hebrew word כַּבֵּד (ka-bed) comes from the same shoresh (root) as the Hebrew word כַּבֵד (ka-ved), meaning “heavy.” The only difference is a dot in the second letter. Our duty is a heavy one, and we must treat it with the gravity it demands.

Israel – Medinat and Am (State and People) – must remember this. I pray that those making decisions in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv read this week’s parasha and are reminded of the heaviness of this duality. I pray that we, too, do not forget this powerful charge in our relationships with Israel. Yes, we should read and watch the news with a keen eye. We should share commentary and media online. We should dialogue with friends and colleagues. But our goals should not be limited to endurance. This Shabbat, may we now and always direct ourselves towards an existence in which we long endure, and in which we fare well with each other.

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Travel

Back in the U.S.S.R.

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Ascending our friend, Vladmir, in the streets of Minsk

This Pesach, I had the privilege to travel to Belarus with HUC-JIR to support Jewish communities in their celebrations of Pesach. I had hoped to write regularly about my experiences there, however the country remains politcally oppressive in many ways, particularly when it comes to freedom of speech and criticism of the State. As a result, I was considerably cautious in what I posted online – not wanting to jeopardize myself or the communities that I was working with. Over the next few days, this will instead be something of a retrospective of my time there. I’ll have much to say about the experiences we had in individual communities across the country throughout Pesach – I’ll update each of them in their own post. For now, I’ll begin with some observations from my initial encounters with the people and places of Belarus.

* * *

Belarus is a difficult country to describe. As I walked the streets of its cities, towns, and villages, I often felt as though I was traveling backwards through time and space. The country is not so much a confluence of East and West, as is Israel. Rather, Belarus appears to be a country that confronts a confluence of the worlds outside of and the inside of its borders; wanting desperately to reap the benefits of the wider modern world, yet exerting extreme pressure to keep its citizens in a very specific place.

Belarus is the last Soviet country remaining in the world. One president has presided over the country for two decades, changing the rules of democratic voting to suit his own needs. Oligarchs rule the country, and there is little question of the imposing power of socialism that still grasps the land. Yet the Adidas and Levis stores are footholds of American-style capitalism, and the iPhones in the hands of its youth are a sign of the relative freedom of access to international media. This is certainly not Turkey, with its shuttering of Twitter and clamping down on the internet. Yet criticizing the government in the press is a criminal offense, and while freedom of speech exists, it is clearly limited. When speaking about the government, people either proudly proclaim their love of “our father, the president,” or speak in hushed tones, looking over their shoulders to see who might be listening.

Landing at the airport, anyone of us would be forgiven for thinking that we had stepped back in time to the 1960s U.S.S.R. We were given immigration papers that we were required to have every hotel stamp, in order to track where we were traveling within the country. We were informed that each community we visited was required to verify that we had spent time with them, and indicate what we were doing there. Stepping out of the airport into the pouring rain, I was once again confronted with the clichéd image of Eastern Europe as a cold, grey, landscape.

In some places, Minsk feels like a cosmopolitan city, with streets lined with cafes and boutiques. But then you gaze upwards and see the imposing, brutalist architecture; the looming presence of Lenin, immortalized in iron statues on corner after corner after corner; the hammer and sickle emblazoned on red stars high over head. The KGB (yes, it still exists) occupies a fortress on the main thoroughfare. While it is certainly a beautiful city, its beauty is propaganda, a tool designed in an almost sinister way to ensnare the minds and hearts of those who walk its wide streets.

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Victory Square, in downtown Minsk. The red letters on the buildings read: “Heroic deed of the people is immortal.”

Early one morning before sunrise, in a taxi on the way to the Minsk train station, Arseni – our Interpreter – was conversing with the driver in Russian. Like in Israel, taxi drivers in Belarus are often a wealth of knowledge and insight, sages on wheels. They seem to be quite open to frank conversations, immediately speaking with anyone who will listen. From my severely limited grasp of the Russian language, I could tell that they were speaking about the upcoming International Hockey Tournament taking place in the city, and the infrastructure improvements that were taking place. Later, Arseni relayed to us that the driver had told him how disappointed he was in the selective nature of these upgrades, only in places that the international media was going to see. He said, “I want to live in the country that I see on the news.”

On our train ride from the metropolis of Minsk through the countryside to the city of Babruysk, we asked Arseni about the role of music in the country. “Yes, we have a lot of talent,” he told us. “Maybe it comes from not being allowed to express ourselves publicly. This builds up inside us and comes out in music.” I was struck with a powerful blow by the eerie poetry of his words. Sitting in the suffocating train car, I immediately felt a profound sense of confinement; wanting to get up and express some iota of freedom, even if only by walking around. An odd feeling to have, given that were were in the country specifically to celebrate the freedom of Pesach.

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Walking the “streets” of Babruysk

Arriving on the train to Babruysk, I can only describe my first sight of the city as something out of the film EuroTrip – its stereotyping of the Eastern European countryside frighteningly accurate:

While Babruysk and its sidewalk-less streets was a challenging city to navigate, our next destination – the picturesque town of Grodno – could easily be mistaken for any old European city, complete with cobblestone pedestrian walkways, pristine buildings, and inviting parks along the river. It is stunningly beautiful, spared from destruction by the Nazis “thanks” to their swift conquering of the region. But much of this beauty is superficial: one night, after leaving the darkness of a cellar pub, I learned that walking on the grass in Grodno is prohibited, a punishable offense. Enter said pubs, and you learn that foreigners are often viewed with suspicion – leered at and seen as prime targets for scamming and cheating.

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Grodno’s park, with grass you are not allowed to walk on

Belarus – the difficult country to describe – was also a difficult country to spend time in. As challenging as it was, our time with the Jewish community there was still a resounding success. It was astounding to observe the differences from our visit to Lithuania the week before. Lithuania – a modern, advanced country and member of the EU – has a comparatively minuscule (yet incredibly optimistic) Jewish community.

Lithuania carries some curious historical baggage when it comes to its relationship with its Jewish community. Having been occupied by the Russians during and after the Second World War, there is a fair amount of animosity among Lithuanians towards anyone who sided with the Soviets, even if it was against the Nazis. Of course, the Jews of Lithuania allied themselves with the Russians, and as a result, the current Jewish community finds itself in the unfortunate place of being stuck between an allegiance to its Lithuanian home, yet thankful to the Russians for helping end the Shoah. As a result, Judaism has found a significantly more comfortable home in Belarus, and is thriving there. As one of the Jewish scholars we met in Vilna joked, “there are plenty of rabbis fighting with each other in Belarus.

I was fascinated by this sociological paradox. Stephanie poignantly remarked to me, “even when we’re on the right side of history, we’re on the wrong side of history.” Fortunately, our time in Belarus was a clear indication of how the Jewish community there has emerged on the right side of history. In more places than we were able to visit, over 1,500 Jews celebrated Pesach with Belarus’ Progressive Jewish communities.

Over the next few days, I’ll share more thoughts on our experiences in the communities we visited. For now, as I stare out the window on our flight home to Israel and I count down the minutes until I will again be surrounded by the sounds of Hebrew (as abrasive as they may be at the airport), I am profoundly thankful to have had these experiences in the country that gave birth to my great grandfather.

Judaism - General, Travel

We F*cking Won

A week ago, 2,400 kilometers from where I normally spend Shabbat these days, I found myself in Krakow’s progressive shul for Kabbalat Shabbat. I was spending the week in the Czech Republic and Poland as part of my training to be an Educator/Tour Guide this summer, and had just spent the entire day at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Needless to say, the arrival of Shabbat was a welcome respite from the downtrodden atmosphere of the morning and afternoon.

Beit Krakow meets in the Galicia Jewish Museum, which houses a collection of stunning photos of Krakow’s Jewish past and present. Singing the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, we were surrounded by pictures of the former glory of this city, and of the destruction that took place there.

When most Jews conjure up an image of Poland in their head, I would imagine that it is dark, grey, and grainy, and looks something like this:

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This is certainly the image that I had long had inside my own head. That is, until I travelled to Poland for the first time two years ago. The fact is, Poland – Krakow in particular – is experiencing a Jewish cultural revival, where the country is re-embracing its heritage as a center of modern Jewish vibrancy. In truth, when we think of Poland, the image in our minds should look something more like this:

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Krakow Jewish Culture Festival

On Shabbat last week, as I prayed, surrounded by members of the Krakow Jewish community, mere steps away from where the mass genocide of Jews once took place, the image of Poland as a sad, grey place was further pushed from my mind.

As the rabbi chanted Shema and arrived at the paragraph about tzitzit, she walked over to a young boy – maybe two years old – who was sitting on his mother’s lap. She handed him her tzitzit. He gathered them in his hands, brought them up to his lips, and kissed the fringes.

I nearly lost it. Inside my head, a voice called out, “WE WON! You tried to kill us, but we are still here, vibrantly celebrating Judaism on the very spot where you tried to exterminate us. WE WON!”

Having spent a considerable amount of time at Auschwitz, at Birkenau, at Terezin;  seeing the remains of Judaism in Europe, I don’t minimize the importance of remembering the dark, grey history of our past there. But I don’t believe that memory of the Holocaust needs to be based solely on a dark, melancholy view of the past.

We must also look to the present and the future. Survivalism is not a compelling framework for Judaism – we have to offer meaning in the here and now. Young Jews should travel to Poland to see the death camps. But they should also see the Jews who bring their children to shul on Friday night. The should see Krakow’s Jewish Cultural Festival. They should see the JCC there, with its young, new rabbi. Doing this, it becomes more difficult to keep that grainy, grey image in our head.

And that’s a good thing. If we’re going to have an identity based on the Holocaust, it should be one where at the end, we get to rejoice and shout out for all to hear… They tried to end us. But we f*cking won!

Life, Travel

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Before running off to graduate school/seminary, my job involved a ridiculous amount of traveling. For much of the year, I hopped from airport to airport to airport around North America and often to Israel and Europe. I learned the code-words for countless airports. My body was tormented with the frequent time-zone changes. For a few months each summer, I spent more nights sleeping in summer camp beds, less than stellar hotel rooms, and pull-out couches than I did in my own bed in New York. I loved it. I even helped create a travel hashtag on Twitter.

I have found that while catapulting through the air at 37,000 feet, I was often at my most productive – ploughing through a few dozen emails, writing blog posts, designing advertising materials, and catching up on some good reading. I often wondered why… with limited access to reliable internet, terrible coffee, and the peeping eyes of my seat-neighbor, how could it be that I was getting so much done? And why did I feel great about doing all this work? You know that physical feeling of satisfaction you get inside when you’re being über productive? That’s the one.

Turns out there may be some good reasons behind this phenomenon. Check out this quote from an article at Fast Company on the benefits of early rising:

And when I asked our Philosophy PhD-turned-VC why I felt most productive on a plane, he opened his Moleskine to the opening cover where he had this quote from Pascal pasted: “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” In other words, not being able to go anywhere cuts away the need to think about new stimuli–and finally allows us to focus.

Makes sense! Earlier in the article, the author learns about Flow Theory – something I actually spent much of this past year learning about in my studies on Experiential Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adults. Check this out:

When I asked him about what makes him happy now, he cited a book called FlowMihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to the “optimal experience” and what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of skill-expanding consciousness appropriately enough called flow. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life.

Some people view airplanes as cold, sterile, claustrophobic disasters. Not me. I’ve got something of a retro-romanticism when it comes to air-travel. Maybe it’s because I see flying as an opportunity for deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life.

Got shit that needs doing? Hop on a plane, lock yourself in, and get going!

Bonus points: the airport codes listed in the title of this post are from a three-day hopscotch across North America I took to visit my family before heading to Israel for the year. It also includes a detour through Houston so I could get a chance to fly on the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Billboard Judaism, Food, Judaism - General, Travel

Hummus, Random Christian Dude, and the Israeli on his Cell Phone

I was killing some time in the Milwaukee airport today, and I broke a couple personal rules. Well not really rules, but general guidelines.

1. I enjoyed eating airport food.
There’s this little cafe there called Alterra Coffee, that has a phenomenal menu of decent food and great coffees. And the guy working there didn’t look like he wanted to kill himself. I would actually go back there even if it wasn’t in an airport. Highly recommended if you’re passing through MKE.

2. I answered “yes” when asked by a stranger, “Are you Jewish?”
When the big, burly, clearly Midwesterner sitting next to me on the concourse leaned over and asked me this – having seen my kippah – it wasn’t as though I could lie, so I answered “yes.” Not really frightened, but certainly hesitant for what was about to transpire, I engaged in a conversation with Random Christian Dude (RCD).

Random Christian Dude laid the heavy one on me right away, asking me “Are you devout?”

Now devout isn’t really a word most Jews would use to describe their observance or beliefs, but I kind of knew where he was going, so I answered “Sure.” When Jews see my kippah, they often ask “Are you really religious?” Now I know the Christian equivalent is “Are you devout?”

(As an aside – I’ve never been asked this question by an Orthodox Jew, though I imagine most would make their own assumptions about my beliefs and practices. But it’s such a loaded and specious question to begin with anyways).

RCD – who turned out to be a pretty nice, if not awkward, guy – said that he considered himself to be a devout Christian, and assured me that he had the utmost respect for Jews, Judaism, and Israel (three distinct things that, while clearly intimately related, are not one and the same), and that “of course, as you know, Jesus himself was Jewish.” Pretty standard fare for an encounter between a Midwestern Christian and a Canadian-cum-New Yorker Jew.

Then things got interesting.

Random Christian Dude asked me if I was familiar with Genesis 6. Not being able to quote chapter and verse, but being pretty familiar with the beginning of the Torah, I answered “sort of.” RCD then launched into a series of questions about my perception of the nephilim, the story of Noah, why people destroy the earth, and what God’s intentions are for humanity.

I honestly had no idea what to say. I stumbled through some words about humanity’s responsibility for one another, and that Judaism places a huge emphasis on interpersonal ethical living, but pretty much I had no idea where RCD wanted the conversation to go. Plus, I was trying to enjoy my really delicious hummus wrap from Alterra.

Sensing I was a little overwhelmed, RCD backed off as I ate and checked my email. And then he walked away. I sat on the relatively comfortable airport lounge chair for a few minutes, trying to digest what just happened. And also my hummus sandwich.

And that’s when I overheard Hebrew being spoken, and saw the Israeli businessman talking on his cell phone who had watched the entire interaction, a coy smile on his face.