Tag Archives: Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Goodness in the Wilderness

This is a text version of my sermon from this past Shabbat, 5/18/18 –

     We began reading this morning the fourth book of the Torah, called in Hebrew Bamidbar, and in English the Book of Numbers.  The book is primarily concerned with the wanderings of the Israelites through the wilderness in the course of their forty year journey to the Promised Land.  By and large it does not paint a pretty picture.  The Israelites are, to use a technical term, ‘kvetchy.’  They complain frequently to Moses, about just about everything, from the difficulty of the journey, to the quality of the food, to the qualifications of Moses to be their leader.  That complaining is a theme that runs throughout the entire book.

     And the brief snippets of narrative that the Book of Numbers offers are no better, and in fact might even be worse.  It is in Numbers where we find the disastrous episode of the quail, where God gets so angry at the people for not being satisfied with manna that God gives them so much quail to eat that they all become sick.  It is also in Numbers where we will read about the rebellion of Korah, a communal agitator who challenges the leadership of Moses.  And Numbers contains the infamous episode of the spies, who go to scout out the land, bring a bad report back to the people, and cause God to decide that none of the Israelites who left Egypt will ever get to see the Promised Land.  Or if you want to read about a family squabble you can look at Numbers 12, which describes Aaron and Miriam challenging the authority of their brother Moses, and then as punishment Miriam’s public shaming.  Last but not least it is in Numbers where Moses will strike the rock, and will be forbidden by God to enter the Promised Land.

     Not a pretty picture, by any means.

     And I’ve always wondered, wasn’t there anything good going on when the Israelites were wandering for all those long years?  If you think about it, there must have been!  It was forty years!  There must have been weddings.  And after the weddings, babies were born.  Friendships were formed.  I am sure there were countless acts of gemilut hasadim, of loving kindness, of one person helping another.  I imagine there were many sacred moments, celebrations of holidays, brises, and probably there were people who were gravely ill, and recovered, and their family felt tremendous gratitude.  There must have been hundreds and hundreds of good things that happened to the people as they wandered towards the Promised Land, but the Torah doesn’t describe any of it.

     On the one hand, I understand.  In any dramatic narrative you have to have tension.  That is what is interesting.  That is what catches people’s attention.  Imagine if you went to a movie, and the plot was as follows:  two people are married, they have two children, they get up each morning and go to work, they are successful in their jobs, they come home each night, have dinner as a family, the kids tell the parents they are getting straight ‘As’ in school, the parents put the children to bed, watch an episode of a Netflix show, and then get into bed themselves, kissing each other good night before they fall asleep. Who would watch that?  It would be boring!

     But still, reading through the Book of Numbers, you can’t help thinking you’d like a little bit of that ‘boring.’  It can feel like an unrelenting tale of woe and misfortune, as if nothing good ever happens, or ever will.  As if the only thing the people know how to do is complain.  As if there is no goodness at work in the community, no good people going about their day to day lives and doing the best they can to live with kindness, compassion and mercy.

     If you think about it, it is not unlike the way Israel is often portrayed in the news media and the international community.  It has been a difficult week for Israel.  I am sure almost everyone in the room is aware of the terrible situation at the Gaza border crossing earlier in the week, and if you pay any attention to the news you know that some 60 Palestinians were killed, and many others wounded, as they demonstrated and attempted to break through the border fence.  

     At this point there have been thousands upon thousands of words written about what happened.  Much of the debate tends to fall along political lines, between left and right, the left tending to blame Israel for what happened, the right tending to blame the Palestinians, particularly Hamas.  We know for certain that there were Hamas fighters at the border, and we know that Hamas incites violence, and that it has a stated goal of destroying the State of Israel.  That we know.  

     We also know that no Jew who cherishes the values of our tradition feels proud of what happened at that border this week.  There has been tremendous angst, both in Israel, and in the Jewish community abroad, about the loss of life on the Palestinian side, and this is something we should be proud of!  That we value life that highly, even the lives of those opposed to us, even the lives of those whose stated goal is to destroy Israel, that we feel guilty, and we worry, and we wonder if something could have been done differently so that fewer lives would have been lost.  

     This is not to say that Israel is perfect.  There is no perfect country in the world.  The United States is not perfect.  Israel also is not perfect.  But Israel is not all bad, the way it is all too often painted in the news.  Sometimes you can read the news about Israel and it is like reading the book of Numbers.  All that you find are descriptions of the tragedies and the deaths and the condemnations and the UN votes.  One grim narrative after another after another.  That is the Book of Numbers.  

     So sometimes, and maybe particularly when Israel has had a difficult week, we need to remember what goodness has come into the world because Israel has existed for 70 years.  We should remember that Israel is the sole democracy in the Middle East where equal rights for men and women are upheld, where freedom of the press is respected, and where religious diversity is allowed.  We need to remember that Israel is a nation of learning with great universities, libraries, and museums.  Since Israel’s founding 10 Nobel prizes have been awarded to Israeli scientists, more per capita than any other country in the world.  Their discoveries have been shared with every nation, and the entire world has benefitted from them.  This week it might be good to remember  that Israel is a country with state of the art medical facilities where Jew or Arab, Christian or Muslim is cared for.  We should remember that Israeli agricultural innovations are used all over the world, from South Africa to Columbia to Nigeria to India, and help feed thousands and thousands of people.  Even though we ask you to turn your phones off in shul, we should remember that there are cell phone and computer technologies that are relied on across the globe that were created in Israel.  And we should recall – in a week that has been hard for Israel – that the first ingestible video camera was invented there, that other medical technologies, invented in Israel, are used all over the world, and are saving lives every day.

     Israel is not perfect, that is true.  And it has been a hard week.  That is also true.  But Israel and her people are constantly striving to do better, to be better, and to make the world itself a better place.  May they continue to strive for those goals, and for the greatest goal of all, peace, in the years ahead – 

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, Israel, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

Capital Ideas

Following the news this week about Donald Trump’s announcement that the US will formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital I am reminded of an old story about a Jewish court presided over by a wise Rav who can see all sides of an issue.  After one side presents its case to the Rav he proclaims ‘you’re right!’  The second side then presents its view of the case, in direct opposition to their opponent’s.  After carefully listening, the Rav proclaims ‘you’re right!’  A second member of the court leans forward, saying ‘But Rav, they can’t both be right.’  At which point the Rav exclaims ‘You’re right too!’

So it is with Israel, Jerusalem its capital, the Palestinians, the (largely moribund) Peace Process and the way these issues are viewed by the right (in a political sense) and the left.  Both sides are a bit right (in the sense of being correct!), and both a bit wrong.

First the left.  The left is correct in that Trump’s move leaves Israel more isolated internationally, and potentially more exposed to violence internally.  En masse the western nations Israel would like to have a good relationship with have sharply criticized this week’s announcement, to include Great Britain, France, and Germany.  The left is also correct in that they continue to wrestle with the moral compromises required to maintain control of the Palestinian population in the West Bank (now nearly 3 million strong).  And they are right when they say that the continued buildup of settlements over the green line is making it harder and harder to one day separate the two peoples.

But they are also wrong.  It no longer makes sense to say that this declaration will destroy the Peace Process.  There is effectively no Peace Process at this point, and although you can point to the Netanyahu administration to explain this, the truth is the Palestinian leadership is just as much to blame, if not more so.  Besides, as many on the right have pointed out, the US refrained from making this change for decades, and it never helped to move along peace negotiations.  A better message from the left would have been ‘Yes of course Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and we are grateful the US has formally recognized this.  But we also want to remind everyone that if Israel is ever going to have a chance at peace with the Palestinians we have to be prepared to accept a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.’  The fact that the left is unable to say this is an illustration of how ideologically inflexible the lines have become, and of how difficult it is for people to view these issues with a sense of complexity and nuance.

The right, for its part, is also correct and incorrect in its reaction to Trump’s announcement.  They are of course correct in stating the obvious – Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and that is not going to change.  Everyone knows that, even the Palestinians, so why not just come out and state the obvious?  They are also correct in pointing out that the Palestinians have been poor peace partners, never wasting an opportunity to waste an opportunity.   Last (but certainly not least) they are right when they remind us that Israel is commonly held to higher standards and expectations by the international community than just about any other country on the world scene.  All true.

But the right is wrong as well.  They are conveniently ignoring the real problem, which is the rapidly growing Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza.  Trump’s statement does nothing to help Israel cope with that existentially threatening elephant in the room.  It certainly does not advance the idea of peace in any way, and it also in all likelihood removes the US as a trusted broker in any future negotiations that might take place.  If you have a US embassy in Jerusalem surrounded by one large territory that is controlled by Israel but is majority Palestinian in terms of its population, that is not a good place to be.  And yet it sometimes seems that Bibi and his right leaning cabinet are determined to take that path.

At the end of the day Jewish groups both right and left have almost overwhelmingly embraced Trump’s statement, as they should.  How can we reject something we have waited so long to hear?  But it is difficult to swallow so much snake oil just to get to the sweet taste at the bottom of the bottle.

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To the End of the Land

‘To the End of the Land’ is the English language title of David Grossman’s 2008 best selling novel about Israel, family, love, war, hate, fear, loss, and the sacred quality of land.  This book is no beach read.  Weighing in at close to 700 pages, it asks the reader to wrestle with dark and difficult themes and challenging questions, and it does not offer easy answers or happy endings.  Having just finished the book last night, I find its narrative and even more so its characters haunting me this morning.  There is nothing else I have read that so truly captures the modern Israeli experience, namely the challenge of living with hope and love under the constant shadow of the knowledge that life altering tragedy is a moment away.  In Grossman’s Israel, it is not a question of will tragedy strike, it is a question of when.

There is a deep sadness at the heart of the book’s narrative.  It stems from the bitter, unendurable, and yet necessary and seemingly eternal entanglement of the Israelis and Palestinians.  Like Jacob and his angelic antagonist in Genesis 32, the two sides both wrestle and embrace at the same time, pulling one another closer and closer, unable to disengage even when both are damaged in the process.  The difference between a strong hug and a smothering is only a matter of degree.  A fine line indeed.

And in that kind of world, with that kind of pressure, with that much at stake, both personally and nationally, how is it possible to maintain one’s moral equilibrium?  Is it possible for anything to stay pure and true, can anything – a people, a land, a sacred promise – escape corruption?  Even a child?  Perhaps particularly a child?  Or does life, by its very definition, require moral compromise.  And if so, where are the lines?  When does the compromise take you too far, so far that you can’t ever find your way back?

And so, ‘to the end of the land.’  To a place of no return, to a place where the land itself, or perhaps the meaning of the land, is no longer what it once was.  ‘Tiyyul’ in Israel is a powerful idea, to this very day.  It captures the idea that the land should be walked, experienced, slept on, lived in, worked.  And Grossman’s writing beautifully captures that Israeli sensibility with its vivid descriptions of the dusty dirt roads, of the spare and beautiful flowers that bloom in the arid wilderness, of the ancient mountains and biblical landscapes.  The ancient Israelites walked the land, and the modern Israelis are still at it, still absorbing its essence in the most physical way possible.  The land IS sacred, soaked in Jewish history, the place where Israelite kings ruled and Jewish scholars recreated their faith and Jewish soldiers fought for freedom and a Jewish nation was born anew after two thousand years.

At the same time, what the land demands is so high.  The loyalty and sacrifice, the difficulty and determination, the toughness and moral compromise.  The Hebrew title to Grossman’s novel is strikingly different from its English counterpart – אשה בורחת מבשורה – A Woman Flees from News.  The book’s protagonist, Ora, walks into the wilderness of Israel as a way of escaping from what might happen in the real world.  But in the end she must of course return.  The ideal, mythic land of Israel exists only in imagination and religious text.  It can be visited for a time, but the real Israel is where one’s day to day life must be lived.  And the real Israel is like any other place in this world.  It is both breathtakingly beautiful and filled with dust and debris, glorious and delicate, but at the same time dreary and difficult.  It can rip one’s heart away, and make one’s heart sing.  Grossman’s wonderful, poignant, powerful novel is exactly the same way.

 

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An Ambassador to Israel

This a text of my Shabbat sermon from 12/17/16 –

It has been interesting in the weeks since the presidential election to watch President Elect Trump fill the various cabinet and diplomatic posts that are required of a new administration.  And I have been waiting with particular interest to see who Mr. Trump would tap to be the US ambassador to Israel.  That question that was answered this week when he asked David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer from Long Island, and also the son of a Conservative rabbi, to fill that post.  Traditionally the ambassador doesn’t have any policy making power – instead, his or her role is to carry out the policies of the current US administration, while at the same time keeping an ear to the ground for what is happening in the host country.

That being said, the choice of ambassador is often seen as an indicator of where the current administration might be leaning in terms of how it intends to relate to the host country, in this case Israel, what policies it might hope to put into place, what strategies it intends to emphasize.  And if this is the case, it is worth spending a few minutes thinking about who the new ambassador is, and what his known views on Israel are.  And although David Friedman has never been a diplomat, he has for many years now been very involved in Israel and Israeli issues, and has written a series of columns for prominent Israeli papers about the peace process, the settlements, the West Bank, a two state solution – if there is a controversial political issue in Israel, particularly regarding Israeli – Palestinian relations, then David Friedman has written about it or spoken publicly about it.

What is immediately clear from even a cursory examination of his writing and public speaking is that he is a hard line Hawk, so much so that many of his positions bring him to the right of the Netanyahu government, considered already to be a Hawkish administration.  He believes in the idea of a ‘greater Israel,’ that there should be full Israeli sovereignty over the entire territory of David’s kingdom as described in the Bible.  He has helped over the years to fund the Israeli settler movement, establishing Jewish outposts and small villages in Palestinian areas, and he is on the record as saying it is within Israel’s rights to annex sections of the West Bank.  He has also publicly said that he does not believe in a two state solution, and he has demonstrated a particular talent for overblown rhetoric, recently publishing an article in which he called President Obama an anti-semite.  In that same article he wrote that Jews who insist on supporting positions on Israel that he views – David Friedman views – as radically to the left are worse than Kapos, the Jews who worked with the Nazis in WW II.

All of this to give you a taste of David Friedman, and you can see he is strongly opinionated, controversial, and also seems to have no tolerance for views which do not agree with his own.

Now again, the job of the ambassador is not to set policy, but rather to carry out the policies of the administration he or she serves.  The question is will the Trump administration adopt the same views of their ambassador?  Or to take the question one step further, is David Friedman’s appointment an indication that the administration is already adopting those views?

As we let that question settle into our minds, let me turn our attention for a moment to this morning’s Torah portion.  I know that the President elect is not a religious man, and does not read the Bible, but David Friedman is an Orthodox Jew, and I would guess first of all he is in shul this morning, and second of all is very well familiar with the narrative in this morning’s sedra, the story of the patriarch Jacob wrestling with a mysterious unknown attacker.  I am sure you are also familiar with the story, one of the best known in the entire Bible.  Jacob is returning to the land of Israel after a 20 year absence.  While away he has grown wealthy, become a husband and a father.  But he is afraid to come home because he knows he will have to confront his brother Esau, from whom he stole the blessing and the birthright two decades ago.  He knows that Esau is coming to meet him at the border, and he takes a series of precautions – dividing his possessions, his children, and his wives into different groups with the hope that if one group is attacked the other will survive.  And then Jacob does something curious – he waits, alone, in the dark, on the far side of the border.

It is at that point that Jacob is attacked by a mysterious ‘ish’ – the Hebrew for ‘man.’  The man seems to become an angel, but the text is very obscure, and commentators have for centuries debated about the identity of that ‘ish.’  Who was he, and what did he really want with Jacob?

Many answers have been given over the years, but the one that interests me this morning understands the mysterious man to actually be Esau, the brother that Jacob fears.  Let us imagine for a moment that it is indeed Esau who crosses the river under darkness, and attacks his brother.  This is the language the Torah uses to describe that moment – ויאבק איש עמו – the man wrestled with him.  It is a curious term to say the least – so much so that the only the time the word is used in the entire Bible – the whole Bible! – is in this story.  Why didn’t the man sneak up on him in the dark and attack him with a sword or knife?  Or shoot him with an arrow?  All of these are forms of combat the Bible was familiar with – so what is this business with the wrestling?

Here is one answer from the biblical scholar and commentator James Kugel – “In wrestling the limbs of the two antagonists become so entangled that one does not know for sure which belongs to whom.  Wrestling simultaneously seeks closeness to and control over.  The loser does not die or leave;  though he must acknowledge defeat, he remains present, even near, in the continuing embrace of the victor.”

Jacob and Esau wrestle in the dark because they have become so entwined, so entangled, they they cannot figure out a way to separate one from the other.  They know that even if one of them is victorious the victory will be only temporary.  The other will still be there, perhaps damaged, perhaps injured, but still standing, and will not be going away.  They may not trust each other, they may even hate each other, but they are compelled to come together, time and again, limbs intertwined, foreheads touching, muscles straining, with neither able to achieve a clear victory.

When you think about it that is not a bad description of the Israeli Palestinian conflict.  And it might be one that David Friedman, and by extension President Elect Trump, might want to spend some time mulling over.  There is no magic spell that will make the Palestinians somehow disappear in the darkness.  And there is no moral path to making them go away.   And the more settlements you build, the more entangled you will be with them.  That is the reality the next American ambassador to Israel will be facing, and the president elect’s administration will be dealing with.  Wishing otherwise will not make it go away.  So I hope they recognize that reality soon, and I wish them the very best of luck in dealing with one of the most difficult diplomatic dilemmas of modern times –

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One Upon a Time

sermon text from Shabbat services on 10/17/15

I want to first let you know this morning that our women’s group in Israel is doing fabulously well. If you’ve followed their escapades on FB at all then you have a sense of what they’ve been up – meeting Israeli women who are important leaders in their communities; repelling down the side of a cliff in Israel’s version of the Grand Canyon, called Mitzpeh Ramon; and spending a couple of days at one of Israeli’s most elegant spas in the Negev. The group is in high spirits, and although they have made some minor alterations to their itinerary, they are all grateful and proud to be in Israel, especially during this difficult time, by their presence supporting our brothers and sisters in the Jewish state, and affirming the connections between Jews that bind us together as a world wide community. This Shabbat they are in Jerusalem, and they’ll be back Wednesday, richer for the experience, and even more deeply connected to one another, to Israel, and to their Judaism.

In a sense at the center of that connection is the Torah itself, the sacred scroll that we take from the ark each week. It speaks to us of the history of our people, of our origins, of the aspiration that we’ve had for thousands of years to have a land of our own. Israel right now is 7 hours ahead of the US time wise, so it is about 6:30 in the evening there, and Shabbat is just ending. But the women’s group went to shul this morning, and when the Torah came out of the ark in whatever shul they were in they rose, just as we did here a few minutes ago. And the story they read from that far away Torah in Israel is the same one we read here, Parshat Noach, the famous story of Noah and the flood.

That is a story that I’ve long understood as a myth, a story placed in the Torah not because it describes real people and real events, but rather because it comes to teach us important ideas about the world God wants human beings to make, a world free from violence and hatred. We know the arc of the story well. (Pun intended) God comes to believe that the earth has become corrupt to the extent that it is no longer reparable, and God decides to destroy the earth, in essence throwing out the first try at creation for a second attempt. But God sees enough in Noah and his family to believe that they can form the new line of humanity, and God chooses them to survive the flood.

Noah builds the ark, loads it with his family and with the animals, all at God’s command. The waters of the flood come, the terrible rains, waters flooding up from the ground, the oceans and rivers expanding until the entire earth is covered with water. The flood lasts for how long? 40 days and nights! And then the waters begin to recede, and Noah emerges from the ark, with his family, with the animals, and they begin to repopulate the world. The story ends beautifully, with God establishing a covenant with Noah, and with God promising that never again will humanity be destroyed. And God even gives Noah an eternal sign that this promise will be fulfilled – what is it? The rainbow.

And I’ve always felt that the Noah story, with its pounding rain and flooding, with its ark and its animals marching two by two, with its rainbow ending, almost reads like some ancient fairly tale. We all remember fairly tales from our childhood, with their princes and princesses, with their kings and queens, with their dark forests and high castles of light. Almost all of the fairy tales my parents read to me when I was young began and ended in the same way – the first phrase, the classic fairly tale beginning, was – ‘once upon a time.’ And at the end of the fairy tale was another memorable phrase. What is it? And they lived happily ever after.

Those phrases would work well with the Noah story that we read this morning. Imagine the beginning of the story like this: Once upon a time there was a man named Noah, who lived in a far away place. One day God came to Noah and told him that a great flood was coming. And the story would go on from there. And then at the end of the story, after God made the covenant with Noah, after God promised to never again destroy the earth, after God placed the rainbow in the sky as an eternal symbol of that promise, the very last line of the narrative could so easily be ‘and they lived happily ever after.’

But if we wanted to use those fairy tale phrases we’d have one problem, which is this: this morning’s portion doesn’t end with the end of the Noah story. After God’s promise, after the covenant, after the rainbow, there is one more story in the portion. The story of the Tower of Babel. It is tacked on, just 9 short verses, but it serves as a cautionary tale. The earth cannot be fully healed. Human pride and arrogance, human jealousy, these things cannot be eliminated from the world, cannot be excised from human beings. And so God scatters humanity, giving each group a different place to live, a different language to speak, different goals to achieve – and with that one act God places into the world, perhaps forever, the suspicion and distrust that all too often mark human interaction. And so we cannot say, with this tale at least, that they lived happily ever after.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the Torah chooses this path. The Torah always seems to find a way to reflect human reality, the real human experience, and of course we all know that in real life, in the real world, there is no line at the end of every story proclaiming ‘they lived happily ever after.’ If anything we get to live happily for a time. But inevitably, in real life, challenges arise. Difficulties confront us. We have our share of happiness and sunshine, but also our share of sadness and doubt and darkness. That is true for every person who has ever lived. As someone once said, life is not a fairly tale.

And neither is the State of Israel. It is a great country, one of the greatest in the world today, but it is not a myth. It is a real land, with real people, beset with real challenges and dangers, challenges and dangers that have seemed daunting over the last weeks. If you know anything at all about Israelis, you know they are pragmatists, and at the very same time they are dreamers. They know that life in Israel can often be hard, that times like this when you feel afraid to walk in the street or to send your child to school will inevitably arise. And yet they walk in the streets. They send their children to school. They get up and go to work and drink coffee in the cafes and laugh and gather together for dinner. That is their pragmatism. They know from their experience that even in the hardest of times they can still live their lives with meaning.

But to be an Israeli is also to be a dreamer. To dream of a fertile land rising from the desert. To dream of a great nation where none existed 67 years ago. To dream of a time when לא ישא גוי אל גוי חרב ולא ילמדו עוד מלחמה – where nation shall not life up sword against nation, neither shall they make war any more. To dream of a world of peace. We’ve kept that dream alive for more than 2000 years. We will not let it die now. And with that dream will be hope, will be faith, will be strength and courage that a better and brighter day will soon arrive for all –

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Strangers in a Strange Land part 3 – Israel’s ‘National Unity’ Law

It is all connected. The fire set by Jewish extremists at the Yad b’Yad school where young Arabs and Jews studied together. The periodic arson attacks against various mosques within Israel. Even the killing of the Palestinian teenager this past summer. And yes, the proposed National Unity law. There is something fetid in the air, in the atmosphere, some combination of nationalism, racism, hatred, and without question fear – fear of the stranger.

What is the ‘national unity’ law? The truth is we don’t fully know at this point. Various versions are being proposed, negotiated, written and re-written. Defenders of the bill say it will create a legal shield for Israel, ensuring that the state will remain Jewish. But you have to wonder – this is the plan? This is the wisdom of Israel’s leadership, this the solution to Israel’s Palestinian problem? Really? Israel has backed itself into a corner where this is the only option? To pass legislation that would delegitimize any citizen of Israel who is not Jewish? Israel has always worked hard to balance its identity as a Jewish state and a democracy. A bill of this nature is a blow against Israel’s democratic values and identity, and would do little if anything at all to ensure Israel’s Jewish identity. In fact one could – and some are – arguing that this bill would diminish Israel’s Jewish identity because it so blatantly disregards core Jewish values like the fundamental idea that all human beings are created in the image of God, and are therefore deserving of equal respect and dignity.

But people are afraid. Afraid of the stranger in their midst. Who can blame them? You can’t feel safe waiting for a bus or a train. You can’t feel safe in your shul, during services, your t’fillin and tallit can not shield you, cannot protect you from harm. The psalmist tells us “you will not be afraid of the darkness, or the arrow that flies by day.” But there is a growing fear. And one natural reaction to fear is to strike out, even blindly. Not literally blindly, but without thought, without wisdom, without clear vision.

Of course the problem with that is when you strike out blindly, you never can be sure where you will wind up, what the consequences will be in the end. You swing with your fist, and then you open you eyes, not sure of where you are or how you got there. The unity law is a blind swing in the dark, born of frustration, of anger, of a need for revenge, and of fear.

Is there a better way? Another path? And if there is, who can find it? Again, from the psalmist, we wait for the answer to that question “like watchmen wait for the dawn.”

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Strangers in a Strange Land

What a provocative phrase! It comes from Exodus 2 (verse 22), and is Moses’ explanation of the name he chooses for his son, Gershom. ‘Ger’ – stranger – and ‘shom’ there. In that one word is an expression of Moses’ particular dilemma, representative of every Jew’s dilemma, and the dilemma of the Jewish people as well. To be a stranger in a land not your own, an outsider in a place where you dwell but are not fully connected. To be other. We come from Abraham, the ‘Ivri,’ the one from beyond.

The Torah does not shy away from this core fact of Jewish life, in fact it uses this idea as a constant reminder to us to care for those less fortunate. Time and again the Torah tells us we have a special responsibility to watch out for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger “because we were slaves in Egypt.” We know what that feels like to be other, to be the stranger, and so should be extra-sensitive to those who share that experience.

Over the last week or so a series of stories that have been in the news remind me of how difficult the issue of the stranger is in our culture still today. The killing of Michael Brown, the young black man from Ferguson Missouri, is at least in part a story of what can happen when we fear what we are not, when we are afraid and estranged from the other. At its heart, racism also comes from that kind of fear, and the Michael Brown tragedy is deeply connected to issues of race.

Fear of the other is also at the heart of a ‘nationalities bill’ that is making its way through the Israeli political system, having been approved by the Israeli cabinet this week. As currently constituted, the bill would create a licit distinction between Jews and Arabs, with a two tiered citizenship structure that favors Jews. There are many ways to let the stranger know he is unwelcome, and giving him a different legal status is one tried and tested method.

Finally, there is the issue of conversion to Judaism, which has become contentious particularly in the Orthodox community over the last number of years. A NY Times column this week by a brave Orthodox rabbi about making the conversion process more open and less exclusive and intimidating will raise some hackles in the Orthodox world.

Over the next few days I’ll write a short blog about each of these stories – Michael Brown, the Israel ‘nationality bill,’ and conversion to Judaism. In each case the perception and fear of the other plays a central role. We were strangers in Egypt. I am wondering how well we remember that experience, and the lesson it is supposed to teach us.

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