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Rosh Hashanah

by Tirzah Firestone | Published on September 1, 2007

Lately I have been musing about the strange posi­tion called rabbi, and reflecting: How many people are asked to stand with a starlit couple under the chuppah? Or are handed a newborn baby to bless and welcome into this world? Or are invited to the deathbed of a family elder and asked to guide gener­a­tions of family members through death and letting go? What an honor.

So before anything else this Rosh Hashana, I want to say how grateful I am for these priv­i­leges. Sometimes they are wearying. But never am I blind to the awe of this role.

That’s the auspi­cious, posi­tive, side of my job. Tonight, with your permis­sion, I also want to tell you what has brought me to my edge this year—to the edge of my faith, the edge of my work as a rabbi.

Most of you know that I came back to Judaism years ago after having been away. The teach­ings of Kabbalah played a big role. They reas­sured me that despite what may appear on the outside as a rather male-dominated ethnic club, Judaism is inher­ently far more grand and universal; that Jews hold to a faith in a vast inter­lacing web that envelops and invites all people to put together the pieces of this broken world, to redis­cover the mystery of Oneness of which we are all a part.

Yes, Kabbalah was a draw, but the biggest draw back to Judaism was far less sophis­ti­cated. If I were to char­ac­terize it, it was simple, unmis­tak­able kind­ness that drew me back— the warm and unadorned, salt-of-the earth humanity that for gener­a­tions has been called by a word: menschlichkite, the decency that tells us that no matter who you are, where you are, or how bad things get, there is nothing else worth doing more than reaching out. As Jews, we learn in hundreds of ways to go beyond ourselves—beyond our own honor, beyond our own egos—to think into the margins, to where help is needed.

I am cynical about a lot of things these days, but the power of kindness—of simple good­ness, the inherent Jewish ethic of decency—remains for me unscathed. This is what moves me time and again: to watch people of this commu­nity make room for others, go out of their way when one of us is sick or a tragedy has occurred. That same impulse of crossing the bound­aries of ego sent Jews en masse down to the south, to Alabama and Mississippi, as Freedom Riders and civil rights workers in the 60’s; that called Jews to rescue and resettle 3 million Soviet Jews in the 80’s; that catalyzed the foun­da­tion of AJWS, one of the most successful global relief orga­ni­za­tions in the world, in the 1990’s.

Of course, Jews don’t have a trade­mark on menschlichkite. To be obliv­ious to the walls of this world and reach out beyond them is an ethic surely not ours alone. Anyone can choose it. But I like to say it runs in our veins because so many of our ances­tors made the choice to culti­vate good­ness and not narrow­ness, largesse and not xenophobia—even when they them­selves were subject to hatred and discrim­i­na­tion, their own reality so often miser­able and not at all large. To choose kind­ness even when the world is unfriendly, not because it’s conve­nient, rather despite the fact that it’s incon­ve­nient, to me, that is greatness.

There are many great refrains in Torah that have incul­cated this lesson in our people: V’ahavta et hager… gerim hayitem b’eretz Mitzrayim, Love ye there­fore the stranger… for you your­self were strangers; and Lo Tuchal l’Hitalem, you cannot turn away when you see someone in need of your help. (I’ve often thought this may be the proof­text for Jewish guilt-neurosis.) Yes it may make us neurotic, but feeling the pathos of the world and reaching out regard­less of our own situation,for me, has remained our great­ness, because Life without simple kind­ness is simply not life.

What has brought me to the edge of my faith this year has been the witnessing of a formi­dable chal­lenge to this ethic of kind­ness. This Rosh Hashana, while we pray for a year of peace and bounty, we must be aware of the grave dangers in the road ahead: the growth of radical Islamic factions who rail for our destruc­tion, the funding of Hamas and Hezbollah by two of the richest coun­tries in the world, the formi­dable danger posed by the govern­ment of Iran.

All of these are genuine mortal threats and need to be taken seri­ously. But there is another enemy, more insid­ious yet, because it comes from within and hence it is in our blind-spot. We cannot see it or witness it well, and for this reason it is more dangerous to our secu­rity than any outer enemy. That enemy is our fear, and the danger of being held hostage to it.

Like simple kind­ness, fear has also been incul­cated into us. It lives in our cells and it is full of the real trauma of our suffer­ings, centuries of expul­sions and pogroms, and hatred in the streets.

And to some degree, fear is wise. As Hannah Arendt has said, fear is an emotion indis­pens­able for survival.
Fear tells us when the world is not with us but against us, when we are unsafe and we must hide for protec­tion. But when this voice of fear threatens our basic humanity then we need to take another look. When fear threatens the prin­ci­ples upon which our exis­tence is based, when fear for our own secu­rity puts us in a strait­jacket that holds us hostage, then, my friends, fear has become the sover­eign power in our lives, which can and will justify any action. And then the simple humanity that has been our people’s hall­mark for centuries, the lifeblood flowing through our veins, becomes danger­ously threatened.

Last month, with Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, a rabbinic colleague who guides Jewish leaders into Palestinian terri­to­ries of the West Bank through her orga­ni­za­tion Encounter, I saw the graphic effects of our fear in the West Bank. The West Bank, along with Gaza, are the would-be sites for a Palestinian state. She brought me there with other Jewish Zionists to see for myself. And what I saw shocked me.

I saw a land now sliced by a concrete and barbed wire wall, 450 miles long. In many places, this wall snakes along­side beau­tiful 4 lane super­high­ways. Imagine my shock to be told that by the end of the year, this highway is for Jews only. Upon ques­tioning I was shown prim­i­tive roads for the trans­port of Palestinians.

I saw that this wall, also called the secu­rity fence, completely encir­cles many Palestinian villages and cities now, keeping their inhab­i­tants locked in or out, at the mercy of young Israeli soldiers and strict sched­ules. Palestinians are sepa­rated from their fields, their jobs, schools, and unbe­liev­ably, from medical treat­ment. Yes there have been secu­rity threats that come through these gates and check­points. Nevertheless, I found myself ques­tioning the holding back of women in labor and chil­dren in need of emer­gency blood trans­fu­sions. I heard too many stories, not only from Arabs by the way, but from Israeli soldiers who were simply “carrying out their orders” and were strug­gling with the loss of inno­cent life in which they had participated.

In Jerusalem, living life and defending life trumps almost all else. But is that only Jewish life? And there were other ethical ques­tions that emerged for me: the wide­spread rationing of drinking water to the Arab villages, prohibiting people’s access to their land to harvest their own crops, the uprooting of olive orchards to build the wall …were these within the moral code of our people?

Friends, I invite you to ques­tion my ques­tions. Do your own research. Find out for your­self what is happening. If you go to Israel you will see the wall for your­self. Most of us go to Israel, see the wall, stop short and say, whew, glad that’s there. Few people ask: What’s on the other side? What we Jews see from the super high­ways are (quite lovely in places) deco­ra­tive panels of wood and brass. On the other side of the wall, the cement and razor wire is not so pretty. But from the other side, you will see amazing graffiti-art that tells a story: I saw a majestic dove caught in barbed wire, a horned, and ghoulish Statue of Liberty, and the words that made my eyes stream: “Don’t they remember the Warsaw Ghetto?” “We are not all terror­ists!” and closer to the settle­ments, “Death to the Arabs.”

It’s impor­tant to say what prompted this wall: the cumu­la­tive terror of violent explo­sions at any bus stop or café; the horror of people like you and me, on their way to work or having dinner with their family, being blown up. The govern­ment of Israel has a duty to protect its civilian popu­la­tion from these attacks. And the suicide bomb­ings HAVE signif­i­cantly less­ened since this wall was built. Yet it seemed clear, as I went back and forth daily from the terri­to­ries into Israel, that many Israelis know little or nothing of the humil­i­a­tion, loss of morale and loss of life that is going on behind the wall. Totally under­stand­able that our brothers and sisters in Israel just want to get on with normal life and to do so, they need security.

But can this situ­a­tion really produce long term security?

Travelling through this terri­tory, seeing these things, I found myself whis­pering over and over like a mantra: What is happening to us? How did we get here? Is this the result of our fear? Once we were victims, now we are seen in the world as the aggressor, the oppressor. The tough guy who bull­dozes orchards, dictates lives, and lays the tracks that spell ruin to others. For this is how we are seen. God forbid this be the new image of Jew! God forbid this be our new narrative.

And here we are: What does all of this trouble have to do with us here tonight? Why oh why am I bringing this in to our lovely festivities?

Listen: each of us who sits here tonight, far away from the conflict in the Middle East, may or may not feel that this is your issue to wrestle. Either way, what an incred­ible metaphor this “secu­rity barrier” is! A useful symbol with which to look at our own lives, which is what this holiday is all about…. We all have some form of fear that we carry around with us, and most of us have constructed some form of wall or boundary to keep us safe and highly func­tioning. Ask your­self: at this time in my life, how do my own personal fears shape the land­scape of my life? How do I person­ally protect myself? What do my walls look like? Are they Permeable or impen­e­trable to what’s going on around me? Do they ever make me Lonely? Disconnected? Maybe I need better bound­aries? Maybe I keep myself too safe?

Because it is possible that for the sake of one’s own safety and comfort we put up walls that protect but also numb us, and a kind of scle­rosis of the soul is the result.

For me, speaking about these things is like coming out from behind a wall. For any Jewish leader to speak out about the Occupied Territories in Israel is risky. You risk being pidgeon-holed as anti-Zionist or self hating, or worse, dismissed as a traitor. And so many of us who have witnessed these things submit to a tacit silence. I have to ask myself: Which is worse: speaking and risking my repu­ta­tion or not speaking and risking my soul? For me the choice is hard but clear.

So I thank you for hearing me tonight and I invite you to ask, to learn, to be curious, to pene­trate to the other side of your personal safety and comfort, to connect beyond your­self, whether having to do with Israel or your own life.

I’ve told you what has brought me to the edge of my faith this year. Let me close with what restores it:
~ Encounter: A non-political, non-profit orga­ni­za­tion that takes Jewish American leaders to the Palestinian terri­to­ries to meet face to face with the people and learn Palestinian perspec­tives and narra­tives firsthand.
~Rabbis for Human Rights: A group of Israeli and American rabbis who defend the Palestinian farmers against settler attacks, who help them harvest their olives, who defend their right liveli­hood in the courts.
~Bereaved Families Forum:A growing group of bereaved Arab and Jewish fami­lies who have lost loved ones to acts of terror meet regu­larly to share their pain, opening tele­phone hotlines for Arabs and Jews to speak to one another about their grief.
~There are more and more fami­lies giving eyes, hearts, and other organs for trans­plant to indi­vid­uals of the so-called “other side.”
~There are seven different Arab non-violent resis­tance groups around the West Bank.
~Combatants For Peace: There is even a group of Israeli soldiers and Palestinians just out of Israeli prisons who have joined forces to publicly denounce the cycle of violence.

There are many more such orga­ni­za­tions that reach beyond the wall. This reach, this largesse, is what helped our ances­tors survive. We might even say that this largesse was the great­ness of our very first ancestor, Abraham. Tonight, the eve of the Jewish new year, is also the eve of Ramadan for Moslems around the world.

May the Spirit of Abraham our Father bless all of his chil­dren: To break down the walls of cement and silence, to reach beyond our fear, to return to our simple humanity, wherein lies our greatness.

Thank you for listening. Thank you for joining me in welcoming this new year with courage.

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