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Yom Kippur: How (not) to Open a Flower

by Rabbi Benjamin Barnett | Published on September 1, 2008

A teacher once shared with me an impor­tant lesson: “A flower cannot be opened with a hammer.”

We spend great amounts of time and energy, indeed, attempting to open flowers with hammers. In approaching the most personal and inter­per­sonal aspects of our lives, as well as global issues affecting entire nations, we often use inap­pro­priate tools for the job. When confronted with chal­lenges that are deli­cate and complex, we react as if we’re up against some­thing crude and simple.

This applies directly to the work of these days. When we engage with the task of teshuvah, growth and renewal, we need to do so with care. We often go at ourselves with a hammer, wishing we were smarter, quicker, more successful, more patient, more able to love and be loved. Yet we need to approach this work with patience and understanding.

The tradi­tion empha­sizes compas­sion at this season: “Show me an opening of repen­tance no larger than the eye of a needle,” the rabbis portray God as saying, “and I will widen it into open­ings through which wagons and carriages can pass.” Our sages recog­nized that directing ourselves toward teshuvah with an appre­ci­a­tion and honoring of our limi­ta­tions is more effec­tive in bringing about trans­for­ma­tion. Yes, we must exer­cise disci­pline. But if it is motored by blame, judg­ment, and strin­gency, as opposed to love and under­standing, it serves neither us nor God.

Well, if not a hammer, with what can we open a flower? The answer, of course, is nothing. We do not open a flower at all. A flower opens on its own.

This teaching points to funda­mental ways in which we are not in control of our lives and our world. Control is not our task. Tomorrow morning, as we did on Rosh Hashanah, we’ll davven the Unetaneh Tokef prayer: “All who have entered the world pass before You like a flock of sheep.” At first hearing, this is perhaps a disem­pow­ering and unin­spiring image, each of us mere sheep passing under the Shepherd’s staff. Yet, the under­lying message here is one that we are wise to heed: we do not possess unbri­dled reign over our lives. Thus the recur­ring image during these days of awe is the Book of Life, inscribed on Rosh Hashanah and sealed tomorrow evening. Within the book, Unetaneh Tokef offers, are consid­ered the ques­tions: “How many shall pass away, and how many shall be born; who shall live and who shall die; who in the full­ness of years, and who before his time.” These are ques­tions to which we have no answers and over which, ulti­mately, we do not have control. This is one of the central messages of these days, and perhaps of the spir­i­tual life in general. Our mortality is simply the most dramatic expres­sion of the preva­lence of factors in our lives—down to the inti­mate, every day level—that extend beyond our capa­bility to control them.

In saying that we lack control, I am not saying that we are power­less. On the contrary, we possess tremen­dous power to affect change, in our lives and in the lives of others…in signif­i­cant yet limited ways. In Mother Teresa’s famous words, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” Therein lies the differ­ence between control and power. Our domain is not the “great”—the total, the absolute, the ulti­mate. However, in that small and humble realm within which we operate, there lies amazing poten­tial. By recog­nizing where our power extends to, and devoting our energy where it can be helpful and effec­tive, we are more able to mani­fest the power inherent within us.

Although we cannot actu­ally open a flower ourselves, we can help create the condi­tions within which a flower can bloom. We can add water. We can insure that the flower is exposed to sunlight. We can nurture the soil in which the flower rests. While we cannot reach our hand into our lives and force change, we can do many small things—with great love—that contribute to sustained growth and blossoming.

If we lack a certain element of control over our own lives, all the more so concerning the lives of others. This lack of control inten­si­fies as we widen the scope to include entire commu­ni­ties, nations, and the world as a whole. No one, regard­less of his or her posi­tion within this global village, can control what is going on here. Yet our leaders often present an image of seam­less control. They, and we as citi­zens by expecting it of them, contribute to an assump­tion that claims control to be their task and respon­si­bility. We are often assured that we are the greatest nation in the world; that we have nothing to fear; that we need not make any sacri­fices for the greater good.

Our pres­i­dent and others have been known to speak about “not blinking.” The expres­sion is used as a mark of fear­less lead­er­ship. When the enemy confronts us, goes the conven­tional logic, we mustn’t blink. We react quickly to any act of aggres­sion, quelling the threat to our security.

I agree that having the pres­ence of mind and courage to act swiftly in the face of danger, or chal­lenge in general, is a vital compo­nent of lead­er­ship. A leader mustn’t be intim­i­dated or baffled to the point of immo­bi­liza­tion. Yet I pause at the insis­tence that a leader “mustn’t blink.” Blinking is, after all, a healthy and neces­sary func­tion. If we could somehow keep our eyes open without blinking, we would lose our sight. So while I think it is fair that we ask our leaders to keep their eye focused on the crises at hand, I ques­tion the thought that they should do this without blinking.

I am reminded of a phrase that I heard years ago from a wilder­ness EMT instructor: “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” Or another wilder­ness instructor, who said that upon encoun­tering an injured person in the field, the first thing he always did, was smoke a ciga­rette. In other words, step back; take a breath; blink.

This slow­ness, this method­ical and consid­ered approach, is a vessel for power. It makes way for power in the most whole­some sense of the word: real, lived, creative power, the kind of power that produces personal and social change and makes for renewal and redemp­tion. When we orient ourselves in this way, we can thought­fully and skill­fully respond to what life is handing us. But the quick reac­tion, before we even have time to blink, reflects not control but the illu­sion of control. When we operate from within this illu­sion, we are actu­ally quite power­less. We are like the one who comes at the flower directly to pry it open without pausing to consider the soil from which the flower emerges; seeing only what is in view, and ignoring the fact that there is an entire root system alive beneath the surface. When we’re talking about taking human life, or relin­quishing control of hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money, I’d like our leaders to step back for a moment and blink.

In regard to global polit­ical real­i­ties, the chal­lenges against which we are up in the 21st century are amaz­ingly deli­cate. We cannot afford to go at them with hammers. And I do not mean simply the hammer of mili­tary action. There are many ways in which the hammer is employed, through any approach that lacks patience, care, and reflec­tion upon an entire system surrounding a problem, including our own role in that problem. As well, we are seeing that in order to approach solu­tions to these conflicts and chal­lenges, we must collab­o­rate. Ultimately, a flower’s opening, if we are to have anything to do with it at all, is a collab­o­ra­tive enter­prise. We cannot make it happen alone.

This ques­tion of coop­er­a­tion is one of the great chal­lenges of our day. As a species, we are being forced to work together on an unprece­dented scale. Only with genuine and digni­fied collab­o­ra­tion, which means sacri­ficing certain narrow and ethno­cen­tric perspec­tives, will we endure the crises we face. This was a trag­i­cally missed oppor­tu­nity following September 11th and since: our administration’s unwill­ing­ness, or at least failure, to look toward the rest of the world in part­ner­ship. Token gestures were made, but we have done expo­nen­tially more to alienate the moderate Arab and Muslim world than we have to build bridges that are vital to our secu­rity and the secu­rity of the world as a whole. We have gone down a misguided road of attempting to control, fore­going the oppor­tu­nity to harness the power that comes only with collaboration.

If this time forces us in the United States to stretch our bound­aries of collab­o­ra­tion, all the more so for Israel. Simply put, as I see it, Israel will not survive without genuine and sustained coop­er­a­tion with the Palestinian people.

I once received an email from a fellow Jew, bemoaning the fact that so many people where he lived were “Pro-Palestinian.” He offered this in a gesture of cama­raderie and commis­er­a­tion, wondering what could be done to dampen this senti­ment. I stared at the screen, fixed on that phrase, “Pro-Palestinian,” used as if it were a nasty word. I even­tu­ally responded by saying that, in my mind, being pro-Palestinian was not the problem. I shared that I am, in fact, pro-Palestinian. I am pro-Israel and I am also pro-Palestinian.

I cannot discern a way to be pro-Israel today without being pro-Palestinian. In fact, I do not know how to be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestine. From a strategic stand­point, Israel—that is, a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital—cannot survive unless a Palestinian state emerges by its side. When the dust settles, and the people—Jews and Arabs—living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean are still living side by side, there are two main options for a polit­ical reality if a two-state solu­tion is not reached. One would be demo­c­ratic but not Jewish: one person, one vote—a bi-national or multi-national democ­racy. The end of what we know as the State of Israel. The other would be Jewish but not demo­c­ratic: a Jewish state with millions of non-Jews living within its borders, before long a majority without basic rights such as voting, because that would dismantle the control neces­sary to preserve the Jewish status of the country. There is a word used to describe such a polit­ical entity, a word that even now is being applied to the situ­a­tion in the West Bank. For obvious reasons, we cringe when we hear it—apartheid. I trust you will agree that this would repre­sent the end of Israel as we know it or would ever want it to be. Every day that does not move us closer to the estab­lish­ment of an inde­pen­dent Palestine endan­gers the future of a Jewish state.

At this point in time, Israel has—at least officially—huge amounts of control. The govern­ment possesses mili­tary control over much of the West Bank, as well as moni­toring move­ment pretty much throughout that terri­tory. And in both the West Bank and Gaza, the Israeli govern­ment main­tains control over borders and airspace, as well as the capa­bility to dictate the flow of various resources. However, as we witness this status quo of control continue and become increas­ingly entrenched, we are simul­ta­ne­ously witnessing a decrease in Israel’s power.

Again, I am not speaking about the power to domi­nate. I am refer­ring to the power to actu­alize the kind of world, or society, or nation that one envi­sions. Israel is an amazing country. Rabbi Maurice Harris of Eugene sums up Israel’s central achieve­ments this way: “Israelis have revived the Hebrew language, shared new agri­cul­tural tech­nolo­gies with poor coun­tries, created the freest press in the Middle East, and main­tained a parlia­men­tary democ­racy that includes Arab repre­sen­ta­tives. Israel protects the holy sites of minority reli­gions and hosts an ener­getic high-tech economy. There is nowhere safer in the Middle East to be openly gay, to demon­strate against the govern­ment, or to crit­i­cize the opin­ions of reli­gious leaders.” This is not even to mention the renewal of Jewish life and Torah learning that has occurred through our return there. These aspects, and others, reflect the visionary quality of what is known as spir­i­tual Zionism. This move­ment, founded by Ahad Ha’am, insisted that the polit­ical entity could not be an end of itself. Rather, it can only serve as a vehicle for the revi­tal­iza­tion of the Jewish people through our pres­ence in the Land of Israel. I am moved by that vision, as I have tasted the fruits of revi­tal­iza­tion that have been born from our pres­ence in the land.

Its future flour­ishing, however, is threat­ened. Yes, it is threat­ened from without, as it always has been, by Arab extrem­ists. It is also increas­ingly threat­ened from within, by the main­te­nance of this control, by the exis­tence of what is referred to as the occu­pa­tion. If I’ve walked away with anything from the time I’ve spent trav­eling in the West Bank, it is a glimpse into what day to day life under occu­pa­tion entails. It was not an easy pill to swallow. Each year, the terri­tory of the West Bank gets broken up more and more, with roads reserved for Israeli citi­zens that allow them to travel to settle­ments, and which cut off an increasing number of Palestinians from one another and from vital resources: farm land, hospi­tals, jobs, and schools. The area has been progres­sively broken up into cantons, sepa­rated from one another by check­points. Therefore, move­ment is greatly restricted, so that the Palestinians not only lack sover­eignty over their borders and air space, but are actu­ally severely limited in where they can go at all beyond their own towns or villages, which means an increasing hand­icap in the ability to sustain them­selves and estab­lish a func­tioning economy.

Renowned Israeli author Amos Oz writes, “Two Palestinian-Israeli wars have erupted in this region. One is the Palestinian nation’s war for its freedom from occu­pa­tion and for its right to inde­pen­dent state­hood. Any decent person ought to support this cause. The second war is waged by fanat­ical Islam, from Iran to Gaza and from Lebanon to Ramallah, to destroy Israel and drive the Jews out of their land. Any decent person ought to abhor this cause.” We cannot stop the latter, hateful cause without supporting the former, the aspi­ra­tion for freedom and secu­rity for millions of inno­cent indi­vid­uals, created in the image of God like you and me.

Professor Ze’ev Sternhell, recip­ient of the Israel Prize this year for his work in Political Science, states: “Occupation is rotting our society. The terrible violence in the terri­to­ries is spilling over the Green Line. This is inevitable — different stan­dards and laws for different people cannot exist without affecting all of society.” I would say, following the lead of Sternhell and many other Israelis, that the occu­pa­tion is choking, not only Palestinian society, but Israeli society as well. I cannot see how else Israel can reclaim the power inherent within its vision, unless it relin­quishes this control. Yes, there are great risks involved. But the alter­na­tive to risking repre­sents certain end to the State of Israel. In my mind, Israel, for its own survival, has no choice but to bend over back­wards, to risk—in wise and appro­priate fashion, but to risk—vulnerability for the sake of secu­rity and survival.

I know that some of you in this room will not agree with what I am saying. I am not proposing to speak as the authority on Israel. I do not speak as an Israeli, or as a histo­rian or polit­ical scien­tist. I speak as a rabbi, and primarily as a devoted Jew, an ohev Yisrael—a lover of Israel, who has encoun­tered real­i­ties that have shaken me. True to our name, Yisrael—“God Wrestler,” I have wres­tled with what I have read and seen first hand. I continue to wrestle, to struggle with how I inte­grate what has disturbed me with the deep love and connec­tion I feel with Israel and that land as a home for the Jewish people. I share what I do in the name of opening, or contin­uing, dialogue.

I share what I do not simply to focus on Israel, but because the chal­lenges that Israel, and the Palestinians, face are reflec­tive of what we face glob­ally in these times. To achieve genuine secu­rity amidst this insta­bility, we need to collab­o­rate in ways we never have before. Israel has the oppor­tu­nity to serve as a light to the world, demon­strating the power we indeed have to trans­form the ways in which we interact with the ones we call other.

Regarding Israel, it is often said that there is no partner for peace. Again, fear and skep­ti­cism is warranted. And in the spirit of the self-reflection called for during these days, I have to point out that there has been settle­ment growth, as well as expan­sion of existing settle­ments, during every Israeli admin­is­tra­tion, including those of the Labor party. Even in the years between the Oslo accords and the second Intifada, times of hope when we were presum­ably moving closer to peace, settle­ments continued to expand signif­i­cantly each year. So when we ques­tion whether there is a Palestinian partner for peace, it should not be a shock to us that Palestinians raise the same ques­tions about the Israeli side. How are they expected to trust, many ask, when the land upon which they are presum­ably going to build a state grows smaller and less viable each year?

Israelis have reason to fear. They know, as Jews have known throughout the gener­a­tions, about suffering. The conver­sa­tion regarding the conflict often devolves into who has been wounded worse, who has more right to fear, and who is more to blame. At this point, I do not believe that it is helpful to try to answer those ques­tions. What does matter is that both people’s fear and suffering is real. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict asks us all to consider the ques­tion of whether we can honor another’s narra­tive, even as it conflicts in places with our own. Can we relin­quish the control of telling the story our way all the time, for the sake of harnessing the power of what can occur in part­ner­ship? More than ever in the 21st century I believe this to be true, that in order to be pro-self, we must also be pro-other. This is the radical collab­o­ra­tion to which these times call us.

Amos Oz writes, “In the lives of indi­vid­uals and of peoples, too, the worst conflicts are often those that break out between those who are persecuted…Often each sees in the other not a partner in misfor­tune but in fact the image of their own common oppressor…[Arabs see Israeli Jews as] a new offshoot of Europe, with its colo­nialism, tech­nical sophis­ti­ca­tion and exploita­tion, that has clev­erly returned to the Middle East…[while Israelis see Arabs as] pogrom-making Cossacks, blood­thirsty anti-Semites, Nazis in disguise…”

Similarly, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish called the conflict, “a struggle between two memo­ries. The Palestinian histor­ical memory clashes with the Jewish histor­ical memory. Peace can come about only when each side under­stands the memo­ries of the other — their myths, their secret long­ings, their hopes and fears….”

On Rosh Hashanah, the two Torah portions we read concerned Ishmael and Isaac. In the first, Ishmael is sent off into the wilder­ness with his mother Hagar, saved at the point of death by an angel. In the second, Isaac’s life is spared when an angel calls out to stop Abraham from bringing the knife to his son’s throat. The two brothers meet again only one time in the Torah: when they come together to bury their father. And this is the only point at which the two brothers are referred to jointly as “[Abraham’s] sons.” It is in their grief, and in their shared pain we can imagine, caused by the man they are burying, that they are able to come together. Perhaps it will be for these descen­dants of Ishmael and Isaac, when their suffering ceases to be a barrier between them and becomes instead a gateway to recon­cil­i­a­tion. (Above para­graph inspired by Arthur Waskow)

A flower, after all, can be opened with a hammer. It just can’t be opened and survive. May we this year preserve and culti­vate the flowers of stability and secu­rity, both within ourselves and in the world. Let us come together to know the power of small acts performed with great love. May we move one step closer to our vision for a better world—for us and our loved ones, for the Jewish people, and for all who dwell on Earth.

Gamar Hatimah Tovah. May we be bound within the Book of Life.

Rabbi Benjamin Barnett serves as the rabbi of Beit Am in Corvallis, Oregon. A partic­i­pant and facil­i­tator on the first two Encounter trips in 2005, he has chan­neled that expe­ri­ence into leading dialogues within the Jewish commu­nity regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During his time living in Israel and trav­eling in the West Bank, Benjamin strove to encounter the humanity of each person, on all sides of the conflict. This aspi­ra­tion forms the core of his rabbinic work, as well as in leading a diverse Jewish commu­nity. A prac­ti­tioner and teacher of contem­pla­tive prayer and mind­ful­ness medi­ta­tion, he views these prac­tices as vehi­cles for culti­vating a more mature and respon­sive aware­ness through which to meet the Other. A grad­uate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Benjamin has lived and learned in Jewish commu­ni­ties across the reli­gious spec­trum. He and his wife Rachel live in Corvallis with their children—Lev, Arava and Judah.

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