Sunday, July 27, 2014

Devarim--More Words from Moses: But What About Sharing the Land?

Devarim

Here it is, another baking-hot, desert day, around 1440 BCE (Before the Christian Era). Poor Old Moses has asked his disciple—more like a son, really—Joshua, to blow the shofar and summon us people from our tents to the central square around the Mishkan, the desert shrine where, they say, the Spirit of our invisible desert God hovers, both inside and outside of the tent, and all at once—I cannot fathom how. Who can be in two places, all at once? It puzzles me; but then, I am Eliasaph ben Deuel, of the half-tribe of Menashe; a Person of No Importance, if you please; a simple cobbler, I, as my father was before me, rest his soul.
“You young people were born in this wilderness,” Moses calls at the top of his voice—
What voice? It’s old, and weak; it’s hard to hear him; the rooks cawing and the vultures circling are a distraction, as are the tumbling desert weeds which the hamseen, the dry wind, continually blows through the camp, and sand blasting into our faces, and so Joshua ends up repeating all that the Old Master speaks, as we bend our ears to him to listen—
“And I will not be with you much longer; the God-Most-High has declared that I shall be gathered unto Him, but on such a day as I do not know. And so it is important, most important….”
Here, the old man is seized by a fit of coughing, which does not cease until Pinchas, that zealot!—he who tip-toes ‘round the tents of us Israelites on Friday nights, making certain that no one is breaching any cohabitation laws—if he were in his own tent, minding his own business, we could all enjoy a peaceful evening—what’s he doing there? Ah! That’s charitable: he’s fetching the Old Man a goatskin of watered wine mixt with cinnamon and honey, to soothe his throat—
“That you hear what I have to say....”
Hearing that, we all squat down, for these discourses by the Old One can go on, even for hours, while Yerucham ben Zachor, the Rememberer, stares at Moses’s lips and moves his own, the better to remember, for stylus-marking later in cuneiform on clayey tablets, to bake, and carry along with us when we break camp—will that be soon? There’s no fruit left to pick off these skinny date-palms, and the creek’s gone bone-dry: it would serve El-Shaddai, the Mountain-God well (He goes by many Names, he does), to find us new digs, in these desert-lands, like he promised our Poppas and Mommas, long ago, in Egypt-land….
The sun beats down, and we shift from ham to ham, trying to avoid the stings of the desert bugs and the evil scorpions which are our constant companions; we joke that they are “Honorary Israelites” whom the Mysterious One has, like us, freed from Egypt, along with the Mixed Multitude of necromancers, harlots, and ne’er-do-wells who have gotten us into so much trouble: the Rebellion of Korach, the Golden Calf, the Temptations of Ba’al Pe’or, and so many more; so many have died, in this long, endless Wandering….
As the day’s heat builds, and Moses’s voice creaks on, many of us begin to dream, to remember, past speeches: he’s told us of the times before our births, and our tribal history, and about our God. Moses calls him “Lord,” and “Master God,” and other names; and why not? He speaks with Him, so he does, and Face-to-Face, at that—this God who freed us and our ancestors from Egyptian slavery, and how they rebelled, and wished to go back to that cursed land—he warns us, now, not to do so. But why should we? We have no memory of it, no indeed!
All we have ever wished for is some variety, some respite, from the manna, that “What-is-It?” bread, which falls daily, and which we gather never-endingly, that white, flakey stuff that we’ve been eating all of our lives: it is a curse. The one time, only once! That we—not we, but our parents—rebelled—a small rebellion—by asking for meat, some tiny bit of poultry, perhaps—how was Old Moses to fetch it for them? Was he to mount up to heaven, to beg the birds from the One Most High? But no: instead, the Mysterious One sent flocks, flocks of quail—at least, that is what my old mother and Uncle Ener told me, years before, when I was but a young lad—
and, so Uncle Ener said, “We had caught a covey of quail, Young Eli, and were sitting down to eat, when you know what happened?”
“No, what, my Uncle?” I asked, though I had heard the tale, so many times told, many times repeated.
“Why, He-Who-Is smote us with a harsh smiting, kicked us in the guts! We all scattered for the bushes, quickly enough, and moaned and groaned the whole night long—no more meat for us, not for a while!”
And Uncle and Mother laughed about it, laughed until they cried, while I wondered at the thought: a God Who supplies His people with meat, but grudges them the eating of it—it doesn’t seem right, somehow—
What’s that? What’s Moses saying? Oh, the Land: the Land, again: a Land most fertile, most good and moist, a Land where we will eat a-plenty—a land of wheat, and barley, and oil; a land of honey, and oats—and are we to share this Land? I suppose there will be Other Tribes there—Moses? Moses? I am raising my hand—tell us about the Other Tribes! Moses, Please!
Too late—see there, Old Moses is done: he is leaning on Joshua’s shoulder, and going into his goatskin tent, the one with the brazen serpent at its door-flap; that’s how you can tell it, from afar. Old Serpent! Now, what was Serpent’s purpose? Can’t recall—

Poor Old Moses—and, now that I look at his back, Joshua is looking older, too, with some more gray hairs on his beard and back—what remains, O’ Mysterious One? What remains for us to see and conquer, begging Your grudging help for Your rebellious children?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Modest Proposal, for Peace: Can It Be Done?

            Reading some of the invective which the Anti-Israel Facebookers (-ists?) fling against my people, I was caught by the charge of “Zionist elitism.” They reserve this relatively new term for those of us Jews who see anti-semitism in the more hateful charges thrown up (I choose my words carefully) online.
            This is, again, where Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are more alike than they might choose to believe; indeed, this might be where they could find common ground: the issue of Victimhood, the Jewish Yin to the Palestinian Yang, which I term the Semitic Ouroboros, the Mystical Serpent rolling through Time, Space, and History.
Historically, we Jews have always been victims: I recall reading an article of Nat Hentoff’s, some years ago, where he said that even we American Jews, living in relative safety beneath the red, white and blue, might not be surprised, were we to return home, and find posted on our door or in our mailbox, a notice stating simply, “Jews Out!” It is in our blood, our genes.
            That is why Israel’s Army must be the biggest and most dangerous dog on the block. That is why, if the Enemy—be they the Government (Czarist or Communist Russia), the Church (Middle Ages), an Army (Chmielnicki, Black Hundreds, White or Red Russians), or the Ultimate Evil (you know) comes after the Jews today with a knife, the Israeli Army answers with a gun. If a gun, then Israel has a missile. If a missile, then Israel has the Nuclear Solution—but only in case of Armageddon. (God forbid it ever comes to that.)
            And yet—in spite of all—the Historical Jew still sees himself as Victim; if you question him, he has the history to prove it.
            Meanwhile, what does the Palestinian have? Betrayed by his neighboring Arabs from the start, left alone and friendless, left to be a miserable refugee with only the ghosts of memory, fed lies or half-truths, for the most part, by dictators and self-serving gutter napoleons—he dwells amid squalor and waste, hungry and jealous, of whom? Surely, not of his fellow Arabs, those oiligarchs who preach Puritanical Islam, but jet off to Switzerland or Monaco to carouse, gamble, and drink in secret—but jealous of the Jew. The Palestinian refugee is the current Victim, and has his own historical scars to prove it.
            And that is why the Jew and the Palestinian should sit down, discuss their common histories, and inch, slowly, toward peace. What could they possibly talk about, they who have shed one another’s blood, over the past decades, wrestling together like brothers who hate one another with all their might?
Together, they would find much to discuss.
            Together, they could share a common narrative:
“I have suffered,” the One might say.
            “And so have I—but look: I have survived, and beaten down my enemies—and so can you,” the Other would respond.
            Together, they could plan mutual survival, and how they might help one another to flourish—economically, culturally, educationally—the details would wait to be worked out.
            No more blood.
            No more dead babies, or children hiding in shelters.
            No more burning buildings, or teenage boys lurking around street corners, trying to murder one another.
            All that would be required would be the willingness to do so, to overcome this rock-hard Stubbornness that the Politicians on both sides have built up, which has infected the latest generation of young men, so that they throw down their lives—and for what? A pile of stones? A tomb? A “holy place”? I tell you—and I consider myself a rabbi, a religious man, a teacher—a place cannot be holy today, if it requires blood to be spilt on a regular basis—have we not progressed upward to the Light of Humanity and Civilization, or do we still require Human Sacrifice, and of our Finest Youth, at that?

            It would not be easy, but it could be done, “for the Lord God Himself has spoken it.”

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God"--America's Mexican War, 1846-8: Its Lessons for Today

“We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God”—America’s War in Mexico, 1846-8

We can easily defeat the armies of Mexico, slaughter them by thousands, and pursue them perhaps to their capital; we can conquer and “annex” their territory; but what then? Have the histories of the the ruin of Greek and Roman liberty consequent on such extensions of empire by the sword no lesson for us? Who believes that a score of victories over Mexico, the “annexation” of half her provinces, will give us more Liberty, a purer Morality, a more prosperous Industry, than we now have?... Is not Life miserable enough, comes not Death soon enough, without resort to the hideous enginery of War?

--Horace Greeley, Editor, The New York Tribune, May 12, 1846

            The Emperor Napleon needed money, hard cash, to prosecute his war against the British, Germans, Austrians and Russians, and so he sold Louisiana and a great deal more to Pres. Thomas Jefferson of the US, in 1803, for a price of $15 million, or approximately 4 cents per acre—a bargain at the time, an unimaginable bargain still (no one had consulted the Native Americans, who did not believe anyone could “own” land, anyhow, and the whites did not care what they thought). The fledgling America now found itself with a new, albeit weak, neighbor, Mexico, which went on to win its own 1821 revolution against Spain, and thereby gained what are now New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, and part of Colorado.
            In 1836, a loud-mouthed and boldly-acting bunch of Texicans broke off from Mexico in 1836 and declared themselves “The Lone Star Republic,” with more than a little not-so-covert aid from the US, which desired “Pacific frontage,” as it was called, for trade expansion. The Slave States were always looking to expand, as cotton depleted the soil. In 1845, Congress brought Texas into the Union as a slave state.
            James Polk, a Democrat and expansionist, occupied the Presidency, and he was eager to add land and states. When he ordered Gen. Zachary Taylor to move US troops to the Rio Grande, it was a direct challenge to Mexico—that is, a provocation. Taylor had opposed Texas annexation, but he was a good soldier, and followed orders.
            In America proper, we have no record of how ordinary Americans, the native-born and immigrants both, felt about any rumors of war—there were no public opinion polls at the time, no Facebook to transmit half-baked rumors, no TV, radio or Web. Most of the people hungered for information, and the press was happy to beat the drums for War. Here is the New York Morning News: “Young and ardent spirits that throng the cities…want but a direction to their restless energies, and their attention is already fixed on Mexico” (quoted in Zinn, p. 158).
            At the same time, Taylor’s force, by entering Mexico, had broken international law, both then and today. A military incident followed: one of his aides, a Col. Cross, was ambushed and killed—Taylor assumed by “Mexican guerrillas,” though we will never know; he was buried with full military honors, and Taylor prepared to avenge his death (Zinn, 2010, p. 151).
            Still, here is the dissenting voice of another officer on Taylor’s staff, who left us his diary. Col. Ethan Allen Hitchcock, 3rd Infantry Regt., Commanding:

I have said from the first that the US are the aggressors (sic)….We have not one particle of right to be here….It looks as if the [US] government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses, for, whatever becomes of this army, there is no doubt of a war between the US and Mexico….My heart is not in this business…but, as a military man, I am bound to execute orders (Zinn, p. 151).

            After a US patrol of Taylor’s troopers were surrounded, attacked by Mexicans, and wiped out—sixteen dead, others wounded, the rest captured—Taylor sent messages to the governors of Texas and Louisiana, asking them to recruit 5,000 volunteers, as he had pre-planned with Washington prior to his departure, and he sent a dispatch to the President: “Hostilities may now be considered as commenced.”

            Historians agree that Polk, by his actions in sending Taylor, “had incited war by sending American soldiers into what was disputed territory, historically controlled and inhabited by Mexicans” (Schroeder, J., Mr. Polk’s War, quoted in Zinn, p. 152).
            At the war’s beginning, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois of the Whig Party was not yet serving in Congress. In 1846, his “spot resolutions” became famous—he challenged Polk to “specify the exact spot where American blood was shed ‘on the American soil’” (Zinn, p. 153). He continued, speaking against the Democrat-held House on behalf of the Whigs:

The marching of an army into the midst of a peaceful Mexican settlement, frightening the inhabitants away, leaving their growing crops and other property to destruction, to you may appear a perfectly amiable, peaceful, unprovoking procedure; but it does not appear so to us…. (Zinn, p. 154).

            In Brooklyn NY, the young poet Walt Whitman, caught up in the war fever, wrote in the Brooklyn Eagle, “Yes: Mexico must be thoroughly chastised! …Let our arms now be carried with a spirit which shall teach the world that, while we are not forward for a quarrel, America knows how to crush, as well as how to expand!”
            It is noteworthy that his later poetry struck a distinctly anti-war tone, in “Song of Myself” and “Leaves of Grass.”
            When white Americans spoke about the Mexicans themselves, there was a strong element of racism, as well. The American Review talked of Mexicans yielding to “a superior population, insensibly oozing into her territories, changing her customs, and out-living, out-trading, exterminating her weaker blood.” Senator H.V. Johnson spoke of “manifest destiny,” meaning that the “Anglo-Saxon race” was destined to conquer the entire continent (quoted in Zinn, p. 155).
            In Concord, MA, in a famous incident, Henry David Thoreau took a stand, refusing to pay a poll tax, knowing that it would be used to fund what he considered an unjust war. Accordingly, to punish him, the town fathers of Concord put him in jail. When his friend and fellow Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson came to visit him, he exclaimed, “Thoreau, what are you doing in there?”
            To which Thoreau replied, “Emerson, what are you doing out there?”
            His friends eventually paid the fine, and Thoreau went on to write On Civil Disobedience, which influenced both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
            Finally, it was the common soldier who marched, fought, looted, raped, and suffered.

Although they had volunteered to go to war, and by far the greater number of them honored their commitments by creditably sustaining hardship and battle, and behaved as well as soldiers in a hostile country are apt to behave, they did not like the army, they did not like war, and generally speaking, they did not like Mexico or the Mexicans. This was the majority: disliking the job, resenting the discipline and caste system of the army, and wanting to get out and go home.

--Chronicles of the Gringos, quoted in Zinn, p. 168

But today, between Israel and Palestine, the Negev and Gaza: what is to be done? The question stands….






Sunday, July 13, 2014

Mattot: The Israelites' Triumphant Battle Against the Midianites, Led by the Zealous War-Priest, Pinchas

Mattot

Scene: A storage-tent, full of bags of gold and silver, vessels of copper, iron tools and weapons, tin gimcracks, leaden vessels—“any vessel that can withstand fire” (Num. 31:21-23). These items of booty are waiting to be “passed through fire” and thereby ritually purified of their pagan connections, while other items—fine glass, coated pottery, enamelwork—lie, carefully stacked, in an opposite corner, to be “passed through water.” These will, afterwards, be declared hekdesh, “dedicated to God’s holy service in the Mishkan/Sanctuary,” or  divided “equally between those who went forth to war, and the rest of the community” (Num. 31:27). Off to one side, sitting cross-legged on a prayer rug, is Pagiel (Pah-GHEE-el) ben Machli ha-Levi, secretary-recorder-accountant to Pinchas ben Eleazar ben Aaron Ha-Kohen, Avenger of God against the sinning Israelites in Baal-Pe’or, Wielder of the Lance Against Zimri and Kozbi, and Official War-Kohen-Priest against the Midianites, who tempted the Israelites to sin there, and who were, therefore, attacked and conquered by the Israelites at God’s Command (Num. 31). It was Pinchas who, we may assume, led the Levites who carried the Holy Ark into battle to boost the morale and give courage to the triumphant Israelites, as they defeated the Midianite troops, whom they afterwards decimated, by God’s command. As the dawn sun lights up the contents of the tent so that it shimmers and shines, Pagiel, who has been napping over his papyrus-sheet, suddenly jerks awake, dropping his stylus.

            H’m? I am Poor Brother Pagiel, by your leave! You need not thrust your weapon in my face (waving his hand at the loot, still fuddled at being suddenly awakened by You, Reader, the Intruder)—there’s booty here—I mean, hekdesh, that which is sanctified to the Lord God above, Blessed Be His Name!, and will be apportioned out to Ourselves Below, as well—and counting, reckoning, and recording it’s my job—and all alone, mind you. Not much coin in the Accountant’s Fund, apparently—well—I better move along, and get to it—What? Battle? Where? Oh, the killing-fields: poor Midianites, they never stood a chance (he drops his voice) for when you’ve God Almighty on your side, the Thunderer Who moves both heaven and earth, there’s none can stand before you—Oh, pardon me, Friend—
            (He grunts, rises, stretches)
            --But I must be about my work. That Pinchas—Kohen Pinchas, All-Holy-Priestly-Prophetic-Pinchas, if you please—he’s not the patientest fellow to work for, I can tell you—but battle? Well, let me tell you—I was there, right in the thick of it, holding on to the Holy Ark, brought it right into the middle of the combat, me holding tight onto the left-hand carrying pole, rearward there, giving morale and buck-up-courage to Our Boys, just hacking, hacking at those Midianites—Ohoo, the blood that was spilt!
            We caught them off their guard, there: don’t you see? They thought they’d hidden all their weapons away, but we knew where they were; some Midianite double-agent had told our spy, who told another spy, and Presto! There we were, and there were they; poor devils! Never stood a chance.
            Share the land? You know, I’ve never really thought of that, we being all alone in this ungodly Wilderness, and all—nothing but enemies, all around, it seems—and besides, the Lord-God-He-Who-Is has promised it to us, and every inch! (Reaches down to a beautiful golden goblet, embossed with precious stones; holds it up and turns it, glinting in the morning light) As this gold cup I hold doth witness to me—I have set my eyes upon it; yes, I have, and told my Boss—my Pinchas—
“This one’s for me, M’Lord Kohen, what d’ye’say? Hey?”
            “Just keep accounts, Pagiel,” so he said, “we’ll settle up when all the fighting’s done.”
            “We’re not done fighting?” so I asked him back, and he looked at me, distant, eyes-far-off, as though he were receiving Prophecy—the sort that Moses gets—poor Moses! He’s so old now, losing track, and no control o’er the People….
            And Pinchas tells me,
“I know, Pagiel, I will be the next, after Moses, to lead this People. God has told me so, rewarding me for killing Zimri. God knows, it takes a warrior-priest to keep His flock in line. And once our purpose melds together with God’s—why, there’s no end to all the Good we can do!”
            I moved away: there’s something strange to me—though I’m religious, make no doubt of that—when a man—be he priest, or something even more—tells me that God speaks clear only to him. I went, and sat, and ticked away accounts, ignoring him, his eyes closed, praying there, off to the East, to his own God, alone.
            God knows that I’m no scholar, but I recall when Our Boys were rounding up the girls and little kids left over from the fight (Num. 31:17-18), all of them crying, in a panic over their loss—I couldn’t help but feel so sorry for them. Was it their fault, for listening to wicked leaders? Or were their leaders all that wicked, then? When all the tragic, bloody business is done, all I want’s a plot of land, a place to farm—perhaps a little house, a fence to lean upon—and a neighbor close enough to talk to, laugh with, no more foe—and why can’t he be Midianite? That’s all I’d like to know.



Friday, July 11, 2014

A Night-Visit from Isaac; Ishmael Doesn't Come


I sat alone in my study—rockets and missiles flew over Israel and Gaza; how could I comfort my congregation, this Shabbat?—and the hour was growing late. It was then I heard him, on the stairs, but smelled an ashen odor, at first, as if of human sacrifice… I was almost frightened, though I knew he would never hurt me; quickly I rose, and moved the books—Conor Cruise O’Brien’s The Siege: the Story of Modern Israel, and Reb Moshe: the Life & Ideals of HaGaon Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt’l—off the chair, so he could sit his bones down.
            As he came ‘round the corner, he smiled at me; he looked weary—Father Yitzchak, Isaac, second of the Patriarchs; he who was almost sacrificed, half-brother of Yishmael ben Hagar of Egypt, Father of the Arabs and Palestinians.
            “Shabbat Shalom, R’ Yitzchak,” I said.
            “Shabbat Shalom, R’ Dovid,” he replied.
I noted how Isaac grimaced a bit as he sat back in the old office chair, and realized that his leg-and-back-wounds from his Father Abraham’s laying him on the bundle of sticks, prior to his near-sacrifice, had probably never healed. I had always considered poor Isaac a lightweight by comparison with the lofty religious pioneer, Abraham, and the conniver-turned-hero, Jacob; Isaac had, after all, been born into the family shepherding business, and only deepened the wells his father had dug, meaning that he was a simple link in the Jewish chain, rather than an innovator. Still, I was grateful for his visit.
            “Could I trouble you for a sip of water, Dovid?” my guest asked, and I remembered my manners, going to the bathroom to fetch him a paper cup. The Patriarch looked puzzled as he held the frail vessel gently in his hands and lifted it to his bearded lips, but smiled when he understood its purpose.
            “I am more used to pottery, you see—“ he said.
            “Yes,” I interrupted, for it was growing late, the Israelis were threatening to invade Gaza, and I dearly wished for our conversation to begin, “Where is Ishmael, your brother?”
            “Can’t you guess?” asked Isaac, and his eyes grew at once softer and sadder, “Where else should he be? He is with his people, in Gaza, as I am here with you. My father Abraham, my mother Sarah, all of my children and grandchildren—they are all assembled invisibly in the Land which the Lord God gave them, watching over and protecting Our People.”
            “Is there no land for the Children of Ishmael and Hagar?” I asked.
            “Ah, Dovid’l, you cannot ask me that,” smiled Isaac, bitterly, “It is not given to me, or to any of your ancestors, to tell you what will occur in the future. The Lord God Almighty alone knows the answer to that.”
            “Will God decide the fate of our people, and the Palestinians?” I asked, pressing the Question further.
            “You know well,” said Isaac, and in his words I suddenly realized that this man, whom I once believed weak and helpless, had a stronger backbone than I might have thought, “that God makes allowances for the Free Will of humanity. And then, there are also Fate and Chance. Politics did not exist in my day, and the Weapons were not nearly so sophisticated. Our World was so much smaller, Dovid’l….”
            “Is there nothing that remains the same, R’ Yitzchak?” I pleaded.
            “One thing,” said Isaac, and he held up a steady, admonishing finger, “The hatred that humanity bears for one another.”
            “But is that Jew-hatred?” I asked.
            He shook his head.
“Call it what you like,” he said, “but in this case, I believe it is simple jealousy. Don’t you think that when, for example, my father went to purchase the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite, and that old thief made such an exorbitant opening price, did he not expect my father to bid him down? But Papa was in such a fit of black grief, and blind mourning, that he paid it on the spot. And then, Ephron regretted not asking for more. He was jealous. It is simple jealousy that leads to hatred: that, and the cynicism stemming from years and years of one people dominating another. I cannot say more, for I love our people so much, so much, that I dare not criticize them. I—“
            I looked, and saw tears coursing down Isaac’s time-withered cheek.
            “But I loved my brother Ishmael as well,” he said, “for he taught me first to hunt, creep softly through the woods, and use a slingshot. We might have stayed friends, had he not become a wild young creature, when he grew older,” he continued, “I believe he sensed that I was to be the favored son. That was Mother Sarah’s doing,” he said, “and she was within her full and perfect rights, according to Hurrian Law. But it tore our family apart. That is what I see now, happening here again—“
            He put his face in his hands and cried silently; I reached for a tissue, and handed it to him, but he frowned; he did not know what to do with it. At length, he understood, and blew his nose, loudly. Then, he rose.
            “I have said, perhaps, too much, my Friend,” he whispered, nodding slowly. “It is not for me to come between the pass and fell of mighty opposites, my children and those of my brother Ishmael. That is something your people and theirs will have to settle; I hope, without too much spilling of blood, if at all. But I warn you of one thing, before I go.”
            “And what is that, my Father Yitzchak?” I asked, even as the morning-light began to spread through the room, and his form began to fade.
            “That our leaders think very carefully, before beginning any massive invasion,” he said, “for killing many, once begun, is very hard to stop.”

            And vanished. What is left to do? What can anyone do? The Question Stands.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Triumph of 1967; the Facebook War of Today

           
In 1967, I was a fresh-faced sophomore at Yeshiva University High School for Boys, Manhattan, New York City, the Center of the Universe. Daily, I rose at 6 am, davened with tallis and tefillin, stuck my head beneath the sink tap to douse my hair and comb it smooth, poured about half-a-bottle of Vitalis onto my scalp to erect a pompadour that would have pleased Ronald Reagan, ate my plowman’s breakfast of rye bread and yellow American cheese, kissed the mezuzah with my right hand, stepped out on my right foot (Mother’s orders), and joined the Morning Crush Hour onto bus and subway, my cardboard, plastic-encased Manhattan Transit Authority (MTA) pass clutched tightly in my sweaty adolescent palm. I was off to the Shining Edifice on the Hill, the copper-colored Bastion of Modern Orthodoxy, Yeshiva University’s Main Center, in Washington Heights, about an hour’s ride away. On the ride, I might do homework, read for class, or do some last-minute cramming for any exam coming up. Like the Billy Joel song, I was constantly Under Pressure.
            I was the first graduate of my elementary school, the East Side Torah Center, to attend that venerable pile. In my little childhood yeshiva, I had been a shining light; at YUHS, I became just one more drone in a busy hive of all-male Orthodox Adolescent Go-Getters, all striving to impress our rebbes, learn “just one more blatt” of Gemara with Rashi, Tosefose (Medieval Commentaries), and excel academically. Leaving an exam, drained of whatever information we had memorized and spewed out on paper, we greeted one another, not with, “That was a ball-buster!” but, “Wodjaget? Wodjaget? Wodjaget?” (i.e., “What grade did you attain?”) repeated endlessly, like a competitive talisman.
            When Gamal Abdel Nasser, the semi-insane dictator of Egypt, blocked off the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and sent the United Nations observer team packing, I (and many of my classmates) shared some concern with our elders, all of whom had lived through the Israeli Independence War, but, truly, did not realize the gravity of the Situation. Israel, to us, was more a prayerbook reference, or a mention in the Torah reading; it was, after all, on the Other Side of the World, and the world was a very big place, in those days. Our World began with Talmud and concluded somewhere in an Academic Morass of Geometry and Biology. We knew more about rate times time equals distance and the genus and species of the Bullfrog (Rana Catesbiana) than we did about Prime Minister Levi Eshkol.
            As the days went on, the tension mounted—New York City was the most Jewish city in the world in those days—our rabbis (most of whom held shul pulpits, besides their teaching positions) began to allow us boys to bring our transistor radios to school—pitiful tinny-sounding Japanese boxes they were, but we treasured them as our music lifeline to the 1960s, which were passing us by. We had heard vague rumors of the hippies, LSD, and “Make Love Not War,” and we knew that LBJ was slowly turning up the heat in Vietnam by sending in more US troops—but we were just high school boys, and the Reb (our classroom rabbi, whoever that might be) was giving a Gemara quiz tomorrow: we had to study, study, study… What did the Rosh say about a messenger bringing a Get (Jewish writ of divorce) from abroad? “He must state, ‘Before me it was written; before me it was sealed.’ What if he said only one of those things? Then, the Get is invalid….”
            “I’m fifteen years old, I’m not even dating, and they’re teaching me how to get divorced!” I would complain to my parents.
            The Situation in Israel grew progressively worse, and we did begin to worry. Our family had no personal connection to Israel; we had no relatives there. But we heard rumors, as did all of us, of Nasser’s fulminations, threatening to kill every last Jew and fill the Mediterranean with their bodies. This was not good. This was becoming frightening. Would there be, God (He was G-d in those days) forbid, another Holocaust?
            And then, of course, finally, like a lightning bolt, came Israel’s sneak attack, or preemptive strike, whatever you choose to call it—and massive military triumph. We saw the photos: Israeli paratroopers weeping before the Wall; long lines of despondent Egyptians soldiers, mostly barefoot, marching off to captivity; bewhiskered, bedraggled, exhausted-looking Israeli soldiers waving flags and smiling brightly at the camera….We, like everyone else, were caught up in the sheer euphoria of the military and spiritual victory—tiny David had, once again, vanquished Goliath. Our ears rang with “Jerusalem of Gold” and “Sharm al-Sheikh.” We read thanksgiving prayers; we laughed and cried.
            A defining moment, for me, was when our Biology teacher, Mr. Wepner, took time out from tossing hapless leopard frogs into a massive glass jar prior to pouring in a killing chemical and dispatching them to Frog Heaven, so we could dissect them. As we sat eagerly, scalpels in our hands and frog-mayhem on our adolescent minds, he stood up at his desk, which, in the school basement Biology Lab, was perched over our heads. (Charles Dickens would have been proud.)
            “Boys,” he addressed us, solemnly, “I’m giving out tsedakah, charity boxes. Fill them up: I don’t care if you go up to perfect strangers in the street—Jews, non-Jews, whomever. Israel needs our money; Israel needs our help.”
            To this day, that appeal remains at once the shortest and most effective plea on behalf of Israel I have ever heard. And Mr. Wepner (whom none of us had even suspected was Jewish) was right: on the way home, via bus and subway and long walks in between, perfect strangers, Jews and gentiles, all colors and ethnicities, were coming up to me in the street—a definite no-no in the City—and shoving coins and big bills into my cardboard box. By the time I reached home, it was bulging, and I felt proud: proud to be a Jew, and proud to be supporting Israel, the Second Home I never realized I even had.
            Even amid the joy, turmoil, and unbelievability of the event, there was, as with All Things Jewish, a Dark Shadow, one which I myself learned from my various rabbis through the years, and, once I became a rabbi, passed on to my students, as well:
            We worldwide Jews love Israel, the birthpangs of our Redemption, beginnings of the Age of the Messiah, May He Come Speedily in Our Day. And we need Israel—why? Because if the anti-semites ever conquered America and threatened our Jewish Existence, the Israeli Army would come to rescue us.
            Was this a good thing to teach to small children in Hebrew School? Good or bad, nevertheless, I did—until one bright little girl went home and told her parents (we like it when the kids do that; it shows that They’re Listening, and They Care) What the Rabbi Had Taught About Jewish Survival. And her mother told the Grandfather, who was a veteran of World War II.
            And what did Grandpa reply to both Mother and Granddaughter?
            “If the anti-semites try to take over America, why can’t we fight them here? America is different.”
            And, you know what? He was right. So I changed my narrative. Now, I strive to reach out to members of other faith, cultural, and racial communities—mainly, when I teach English (the rabbinics does tend to creep in; it’s part of Who and What I am)—I am trying to Build a Community of Good Will, so we can look out for one another—against Haters of All Kinds, in this country and the world.
            But now, 1967 has come and gone, and Israel and Palestine are fighting on Facebook. How do I feel about this?
            It means that we’re getting a lot of information all at once—not from news organizations that edit and filter out the rumors, but “raw intel,” as the spyboys call it. And because Israel is a democracy, there are, I would suspect, possibly one or two reporters on every Israeli block (I exaggerate, but you get the idea). As for Palestine, which does not really exist, but is an agglomeration of different families, tribes, and power-grabbers (Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, and Allah alone knows who else), there are no certified, trustworthy reporters to bring the news; therefore, there is more rumor and propaganda (let’s face it) than on the Israeli side.
            So, of all the reports bursting onto Facebook and other social media, ever second, whom can we believe is telling the truth? There are many versions of Truth. If I tell a story, and you reader, tell the Same Story, we both filter it through our respective consciousnesses, and color it according to our personalities, experiences, and biases. There is no such thing as Purely Objective Truth. This always Lies in the Middle.
            So, in the end, we can only wait, hope, and pray.
            I pray that the hostilities end quickly, and that the air war, rocket to missile, does not inflict too many innocent casualties.
            I love my brothers and sisters in Israel, Jews, Arabs, and Christians—they are my tribe—but I am concerned for the lives of innocent Palestinians, as well.
            I believe that, in the end, a negotiated settlement and Peace are the only solution—a two-state solution.
            Finally, we live in a world where the Questions are, frequently, easier to ask than there are Answers for them. But, for some cosmic or existential reason, Israelis and Palestinians have been linked by Fate, or God, or Allah, depending on your beliefs or politics. They will never separate, nor can they ever be separated. There is a Wall of Hatred and Suspicion between them; even worse, there are Walls separating members of both communities from one another, as well—Jews hating Jews, Palestinians hating Palestinians….
            The only solution is Dialogue, beneath the auspices of a Neutral Power—and who might that be?
            The Question stands….


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Haftorat Pinchas: Prophet Elijah Walks at Midnight

Pinchas

(Haftorah: I Kings 18:46-18:21)

            Elijah the Prophet is a busy man. Since he never died, but rode off in a fiery chariot to Heaven, he functions in Judaism as a Divine Messenger, going to-and-from the World-to-Come, bringing news from Above and Below. He is the hero of this Shabbat’s Haftorah, and so, I was lucky for an audience.
            Elijah is not my favorite; no, not since my childhood. In our old, 1920s “Treasury of Biblical Tales, illustrated with full-color paintings by Milo Winter,” he was a harsh-looking, dark-browed, desert-dweller, wearing a rough garment, half cloak and half robe, belted tightly with the skin of a serpent. He never had time to linger, what with running faster than the king’s own chariot, deep into the Wilderness, to save his life from the assassins that Queen Jezebel sent on his trail.
            Both of us were on our best behavior tonight: it was well-past midnight when I cleared a chair for him in my cramped study—he sat, not happily, curled up in my old grey cloth office chair, next to the bookcase holding the works of Yeshayahu Leibovitz, another tough customer, as well as Yehuda Amichai’s poetry—a man of probity and kindness. We spoke in low voices, like thieves, suspicious of one another’s motives. I was worried about the Current Crisis in Israel, and eager to learn what the Prophet knew from Beyond, but could not press him too much; he might feel insulted, and leave abruptly.
            “What was it like, eating a cake baked on coals brought to you by ravens?” I asked. Food is always a good icebreaker, although this Prophet, lean and sunbaked as he was, did not look as though he ate very much. An errant scrap of turkey pastrami from my own dinner swam out from between my molars as I spoke, and I gulped some iced tea to cover my faux pas.
            “Hm—ashy, half-raw, and plain—what d’ye think, Rabbi?” returned the Prophet, putting just the slightest sarcastic spin on “Rabbi”; I knew that my being leftwing Conservative did not sit well with his 9th Century BCE worldview. Then again, one could hardly think that “Judaism” even existed then, either; his was just one tribe among many, compared to the Canaanites, Philistines, Egyptians, and whatever enemy-of-the-moment then existed. That gave me an idea.
            “Prophet of Israel—if I may respectfully call you that—do you have any advice on what Modern Israel should do in its current crisis?”
            “Crisis?” repeated Elijah, and his face grew worried. I knew that his eternal love of his People, despite their failings past and present, overrode any harsh judgments he might have of them. Perhaps this old battleax of a prophet could advise us, after all.
“Crisis? Listen to me, Young Man—“
--and here, I was happy and fortunate to sit at the feet of one of Ancient Israel’s finest prophets and teachers—
“There will never be a time when our People will dwell in complete safety; no, far from it. When Israel feels most secure, that is the time when our God will test them. We are not meant to ever dwell completely in peace, either within or without; we are to be an eternal stranger and sojourner among the nations, even as I, I alone, dwelt in the Wilderness, there amid thornbushes slashing and ravens croaking.”
He did not look at me; he looked out the window—at the moon? No, past it; his eyes shone with a divine inner light. This was the True Prophet, a great leader of Israel: alone, unappreciated, yet going about his holy life’s work in the only way he knew—
“Yet, no matter how alone I felt, there was always the Presence of God with me, always that self-same Message He brought—“
            “And what was that message, Elijah?” I asked, leaning forward, eager to hear the Word of God.
            His face was aglow, far beyond that of the street-lights that shone through the window. “’After the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire—I tell you, Young Man; d’ye hear me? I say, ‘after the fire, a still small voice.’ “
            “And that was your charge, to anoint Elisha,” I said, touching his hand gently.
            “No, no—don’t you see?” he said, shaking off my hand, and, grasping his shepherd’s crook, rising from the old grey chair,
“It was—it was—for me, to look into myself, to look into my heart of hearts, to find peace. Yes. That is what they must do. If they can look into themselves, to see that they must rip out this overweening Pride that blocks and sullies their souls, and return the Image of God back to its proper place, as I did—then All will be Well. Yes. All will be Well.”