Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Where We Pray. Torah and Wisdom.

Where We Pray
In the Los Angeles, one prays to the east. In North Carolina, one prays to the east. A while ago, one of my teachers gave me a tip for cloudy days or hotel rooms in strange cities when you might not know which way is east : to carry a compass in my tefillin bag. But in Jerusalem, one doesn’t need a compass; one needs a map. From my apartment in Baka, I need to pray north and a bit east, towards the Old City. In the Old City, one needs to find pray towards the Kotel (the Western Wall) and, a little known fact is, when one is at the Kotel, one should pray facing slightly to the left, towards the Dome of the Rock (the mosque with the gold roof) which contains the “Foundation Stone” and which sits, according to most scholars, directly on what was the spot of the Holy of Holies in the ancient Temples.

Of course, one prays not to a wall, nor to the Foundation Stone, nor to the Holy of Holies. Rather than ignoring our bodies, or trying to get beyond them, in Jewish life we enlist our bodies in the service of God. We sanctify Shabbat by uttering a blessing and drinking wine. We celebrate Sukkot by shaking a lulav and etrog. We bow and sit and stand and turn our bodies towards Jerusalem and the Holy of Holies in prayer to increase our kavanah, our focus and intentionality. But we do these things not because God is physically located somewhere, but because we are located. We are spatial beings.

Rabbi Issac Meir of Gur explains the verse, “Do not climb up to My altar by steps,” (Exodus 20:23) through a parable: Two blind persons wished to reach a rooftop, and tried to figure out how to do it. One of them got himself a ladder, and the other got himself a long plank to serve as an inclined ramp. Both of them ascended. But the difference between the two of them was this: The one who climbed on the ladder knew at each step exactly how much higher he was, and exactly how many steps he still had to ascend. But the one who ascended by the ramp – as long as he was not at the rooftop, he had no idea where he was situated and just how high he was. Similarly here: “Do not climb up to My altar by steps,” that is, do not look about you, just continue to do good works and to engage in the service of God. The altar was a physical place for the service of God. Like the rooftop, it was a spiritual destination, a place of encountering God. For Rabbi Meir, we are all blind in our search for God and, for this reason, the Torah warns against using steps to “arrive” because they cause up to imagine we are closer, or farther away, from “arriving.” The altar is physical and, because it is, it is a metaphor, a tool we need because we inhabit our bodies, but one we must always remember is just a tool towards encountering God, but not God.

We use our bodies in prayer because we are embodied creatures; our bodies are part of who we are. We use them to pray. In the words of the Psalmist, “all my bones will say, “Adonai, who is like You?” Yet to believe God is in Jerusalem risks idolatry, one of only three sins one should, according to Jewish law, rather die than commit. And yet. Benjamin asked me at the Kotel this afternoon, “why do people kiss the Kotel?
There is something risky in the air of Israel. It is called, “kedushat ha’aretz” – the holiness of the land. It is the reason that the seventh Zionist Congress rejected an offer by the British to found a Jewish state in Uganda. It is why there is a special mitzvah to make aliyah, to come live in Israel. It is why when people come to live in Israel, it is called “aliyah,” which means “ascending,” and why, although it is less “pc” to use this phrase these days, leaving Israel to live elsewhere is called, “yerida,” meaning “descent.” A few nights ago, Jen and the boys and I walked up Yehudah Street, crossed four lanes of traffic on Derekh Hevron, picked up a pizza to go, and walked to the tayelet to watch the sunset. Kedushat Ha’Aretz is why, as we sat there looking at the valley between us and the Old City, I told Benjamin that what he was seeing could be the very path that Abraham took with Isaac between Hevron and the Temple Mount on his way to the Akedah that we will read about on Rosh Hashanah next week. As we ate pizza, I explained we might be seeing the sunset from the very spot Abraham and Issac watched the sunset thousands of years ago. I told this to my children knowing that kedushat ha’aretz, the reason we are here and not in Uganda, the source of the beauty and mystery of this place, also risks making an idol of the land. Yet I must teach my children and children don’t learn cerebrally; they don’t fall in love with God and Torah and the Jewish people and Israel only by learning ideas. They fall in love with smells and sounds and tastes and stories. Maimonides taught, “Torah nitna b’lashon Adam” – “The Torah was given in the language of human beings.” God was a great teacher; God spoke to us in a language we could understand. We need a land, for we are people who need to express our relationship to God not merely in the dank smell of an Eastern European yeshiva, or the shell of memories of agricultural holidays. We have a State. It is imperfect and messy. It is theologically wrong to kiss a wall, dangerous for where it might lead and what one becomes willing to do for the wall and the land, forgetting that all these are tools towards something greater. Yet there is something beautiful in kissing the wall.

Torah and Wisdom
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef is a great halakhic authority, by which I mean someone who possesses an extraordinary breadth of knowledge of Jewish legal texts. He is indisputably knowledgeable and, in an era when haredi authorities heap stringency upon stringency, R. Yosef is often refreshingly lenient and flexible. He also has a history of being politically moderate. Since the late 1980s he has stood in stark contrast to many Orthodox authorities and used the principle of pikuach nefesh, in which all commandments except three are superseded if one can save a life in danger, to advocate first for ceding the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt in the context of a peace agreement in 1979, and later by supporting Yitzhak Rabin’s government during the Oslo process. But theologically, he is an idiot.
In 2000, he said, “The six million Holocaust victims were reincarnations of the souls of sinners, people who transgressed and did all sorts of things that should not be done. They had been reincarnated in order to atone.” Following hurricane Katrina in 2005, Yosef said, “There was a tsunami and there are terrible natural disasters, because there isn’t enough Torah study... Black people [in Hebrew, Yosef used the word “kushim” – a racial epithet in modern Hebrew] reside there [New Orleans]. Blacks will study the Torah? [God said], Let’s bring a tsunami and drown them... Hundreds of thousands remained homeless. Tens of thousands have been killed. All of this because they have no God... Bush was behind the [expulsion of] Gush Katif, he encouraged Sharon to expel Gush Katif... We had 15,000 people expelled here [in Israel], and there [in America] 150,000 [were expelled]. It was God’s retribution... God does not short-change anyone.”

Such comments are so stupid they are unworthy of response. As was his latest comment about Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, said on the eve of the first direct negotiations with the Palestinians in years: “Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this world...God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians.” Yosef’s comments were so stupid, they even merited official condemnation by a U.S. State Department spokesman.

Just because both Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and I both have the title, “rabbi,” I am not worried that someone will associate his views with mine. So why do I care? I care for the same reason that I have not stopped thinking about the yeshiva students who responded rudely and arrogantly to the flight attendant when she asked them to show their tickets for the seats they were sitting in on our USAir flight from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv. I too carried tefillin with me in my carry-on bag and rose to put them on as the sun rose during our flight to Israel. Like Rabbi Yosef, I too see the world through the lens of Jewish texts such as Maimonides and the Shulchan Arukh and Rashi and Nachmanides. Much of their Torah is my Torah; we share much more than we differ, and that Torah should make us better people, not better than others, but better than who we would be without it. The Talmud teaches that the mitzvoth were given to refine our character. What if the cause and effect proves not to be true? The yeshiva students I will soon forget. But when someone of such undeniable learning such as R. Yosef says such hateful, stupid things, our tradition calls it a hillul hashem – a desecration of God’s name – because it undermines the validity of the equation: study of Torah = wisdom. Yosef does not make me doubt the equation; he makes me believe how desperately Israel needs different, wiser rabbis.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Moment at the Beach and Shabbat after Ramah...

And then there are moments when being here is just perfect. We rent a car – a small car, the Hyundai “I-10” or “I-Eser” as the rental car people called it, a car smaller than any I would ever put our family of five into in the United States – and plunge down “Kvish Echad” (Highway 1) from Jerusalem, dodging and weaving all the way to the beach in Herzliya north of Tel Aviv. The water is like a bathtub, soupy warm and salty. The sand is fine under one’s feet. We arrive in the late afternoon; the humid heat of mid-day is breaking and a cool breeze blows off the water. I have been to this beach before. Between Yom Kippur and Sukkot last year, Alon and I came to Israel together so I could officiate at my cousin, Smadar’s, wedding. Our family took an apartment for a week in a high rise next to the beach so we went out to swim almost every day. That week, there were days when the water was so still, I swam for a mile along the coastline like swimming laps in a pool, gently bobbing up and down calm waters that stretched to the horizon. Other days that week, the water was like it is today; a 3 to five foot surf with a rip current even the best swimmers must respect. After a few minutes of riding the waves, you look towards the beach to find out you’ve been moved several hundred feet down the shore.

Jen watches as Ranon and Benjamin play in the shallow water near the shore. Alon and I venture out into the bigger waves. Rami calls over to me; he is worried about Alon being out so far. Who is Rami? Rami lives on a moshav, finished a business meeting in Herzliya, and came out for a swim. I’ve never met him before but he begins to tell me about how strong the waves are and how I should keep a careful eye on Alon – in Israel, everyone’s family. Soon we are talking on the shore and Rami is telling me about all the best beach spots I should be sure to take our family to during the year.

I am back in the water for a few minutes on my own. I swim out beyond where the waves are breaking, lie back in the water and watch the setting sun dance on the waters of the Mediterranean, what the rabbis called, “Yam HaGadol” – the Great Sea. Typically Israeli, there is still a touch of belagon – chaos – even to this serene scene. One area of the beach has signs restricting it to jet skiers; signs that many people absorb so that there are jet skiers zooming out to sea and back to land as others play in the surf. Still American, we obeyed the signs and walked further down the beach towards the part reserved for swimming. Out in the waves, this area is a mix of a mass of surfers, a few boogie boarders, me and Rami. I try to ask a few surfers whether they are surfing up the shoreline and or down, but it’s of little use; a few times I just have to dive to 6 feet to the bottom of the sea, hold on to the sand, and hope not to get clipped by the surf board overhead. Still, the whole scene is, for me, paradise. I think of studies that show that it is not until the second week of vacation that we really begin to rest from the stress of work. I have not been gone from work that long and the transition from Los Angeles to Jerusalem has hardly been stress free, but this moment is, for me, a taste of paradise. I am lying back being held by the waves, my amazing wife and our children are playing in the water and sand, and we are in Israel.

As I type this back in Jerusalem, Shabbat is approaching. It is our first Shabbat of the summer not at Ramah and I can think of no better way to compensate for the loss of not being there than being here. Like at Ramah, here, Shabbat happens. Our children are showering; a meal is prepared. Soon a siren will sound over the city and we will join literally thousands of people walking to shul and then heading home for Shabbat dinner. One of my kids just asked which bottle was shampoo and which one was conditioner; so I helped him read the Hebrew on the bottle; ulpan in the shower.

I cannot finish this entry before Shabbat without noting that tomorrow, as we are in shul and then enjoying a scrumptious meal with friends, Gilad Shalit will turn 24 years old. I talked with my son, Alon, about this today as we walked by the tent outside the Prime Minister’s home set up by his parents to continue to remind the country, and the world, that we will not rest until Gilad is set free. Against international law and standards of human decency, Gilad has been denied even the most basic visits and comforts. This will be the fifth birthday he spends in captivity. Five birthdays. More than five years. To send Gilad a videotaped birthday card that will be screened in the protest tent, send it to: shalit.birthday@ynet.co.il.

To read more, go to

May God bring Gilad, and all those wrongly imprisoned, home soon.
Shabbat Shalom and Amen.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Crossing the Street

August 25, 2010 / 15, Elul 5770
1521 days, Gilad Shalit in Captivity

I strapped on a helmet and pads and went to do battle, in an Israeli bank. I waited in three lines until, exasperated, I sat with the bank teller, Alon, who admired my son’s Kobe Bryant jersey and, as he explained the intricacies of transferring dollars to a shekel account from an American bank, asked about the LA Lakers and told me, “perhaps after 10 months, you’ll decide to stay?”

“It’ll take me ten months before I get out of this bank,” I thought.

Benjamin and I are crossing Derkeh Hevron, a large street, on the way back from the bank. No traffic engineer would have set out to create the system of lanes on Derekh Hevron. Jerusalem is a city whose streets were clearly laid out well before thought went into traffic patterns. On Derekh Hevron, outside lanes are for regular traffic. But inside the outside lanes are lanes for buses and taxis so that they can travel faster. What this means for pedestrians is that to cross the street, one must cross 4 lanes of traffic, stopping at 2 different islands along the way, each of which are fenced off from the ongoing rush of cars, trucks, buses and taxis. We have already given our sons opening lectures on crazy Israeli drivers and on the importance of always waiting for the “green man” who tells you that it’s okay to cross and, even when the green man is there, of being on constant alert for cars. A green man appears. Benjamin and I obey and cautiously cross lanes for taxis and buses. A bus has stopped halfway into the crosswalk so we move in front of it and scurry towards the second island. Someone crossing the opposite direction walks closer to the bus and, as he does, whacks his head on the mirror of the bus. He stumbles backward, regains his balance, walks around towards the entrance of the bus, and starts hitting the door and screaming at the driver in Hebrew, “Why are you blocking the crosswalk?! I hit my head! Idiot!!!” The driver stares forward and says nothing. People on the bus seem a mixture of disturbed and amused at this unnecessary outburst.

“The bus shouldn’t have been stopped in the crosswalk,” I explain to Benjamin. “But he probably doesn’t need to scream and hit the bus, does he?”

We’ve all had days when we’ve hit our heads and, rather than laugh it off or remain calm, we just lose it. When we do, it’s rarely because we hit our head, but because other things are bothering us and hitting our head sets us off. As we wait for the next green man, the experience of being in Israel begins its work on me and I begin to think about why this man may have lost it, and the man on Derekh Hevron becomes (quite unfairly) a symbol in my mind of the state of the Israelis in the state of Israel. Are Israelis frustrated? Why?

The most realistic explanation is the heat. The heat, of late, is stifling. We arrived to Jerusalem – a good 15 to 20 degrees cooler than the rest of the country – on a day that locals tell us represents a break in the heat. It is 32.5 Celsius, 90.5 Fahrenheit. In Eilat and the North, it was 46 degrees Celsius in the shade – that’s 115 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to make anyone hit a bus! I heard rumors Eilat hit 49 degrees. But I wonder for a moment if the man hit the bus not because of the heat, but because part of the experience of being in Israel is frustrated hopes and dreams.

As we taxied for takeoff on the flight here, my 4-year old delighted the woman in front of us with his barely controllable enthusiasm, “soon we’re going to fly to Israel!!” A few weeks ago, Benjamin remarked to a friend about our upcoming year, “we’re not going to visit. We’re going home, because Israel is home to all the Jewish people.” Israel in their minds is a paradise, a place of hopes and dreams. That is perfectly appropriate for children, but it does not last. What must Benjamin have thought as he turned around and, in his first few hours in Israel, he witnessed an enraged man hitting the bus and screaming in Hebrew at the bus driver?

I pray his love will evolve. That he will learn the language and learn to feel at home. That he will remember not only the enraged man banging on the bus, but the fact that in the first moments of our arrival, someone already invited us over to their home for seudah shlisheet (a late afternoon Shabbat meal) and many people have stopped by with offers for help. That a friend filled our refrigerator with food so that when we arrived, we would already feel at home. That another friend arranged for David and Uri to meet us, not only so we wouldn't get taken by strange taxi drivers, but so that we'd be taken care of in the first few hours of our year in Israel. I pray Benjamin remembers how a neighbor lent us a dining room table. That other neighbors, perfect strangers, helped us move our 15 bags from the taxicabs to our new home. Perhaps he already forgot the man hitting the bus, or the bus driver who couldn't be bothered that someone hit his head. But if not, I pray after a year that Israel will not be a fantasy but will be real, both sour and sweet, and that his love will grow deeper.

Walking DistanceWe have no car yet; I like this. We’ve walked to the pizza place, to the grocery, to the pool, to school. I brought a bike and got it reassembled. Having it will broaden my horizons, make a few other parts of the city accessible – though biking in Jerusalem must be done carefully (see the part about crazy Israeli drivers above). But we live walking distance to the boys’ schools. Walking distance to shopping. Walking distance to Mandel where I will study. In Los Angeles, there was always something freeing, truly restful, about walking on Saturday while the rest of the world drove by. Walking reminds you how large the world really is because it takes so much effort to go just a short way; how much effort is required to carry groceries. Walking humbles.

Grassy Parks in the Middle EastThose of you who know Jerusalem will remember that near Pardes (near Emek Refaim and Pierre Koenig) there is a set of old train tracks. Those tracks are being ripped up and the area is becoming a long stretch of park to sit and enjoy. The area is still under construction but some of it is done and it will eventually be really great; a stretch of open space in a city with too little. As I saw this project for the first time, I noticed that it is being done with grass and I thought to myself how the use of grass reflects a European sensibility since grass uses too much water for the Middle East and that large swaths of grass don’t really belong here (like the golf course in Caesarea). But I also thought, “it’s a small enough area. You have to live too. And a park in Jerusalem is a good thing for the soul. Perhaps that man would feel a bit less rage if there were more parks to enjoy. Beauty. Places to play. These things too have a place when building a State, even if there are more efficient uses of water.”

Israel Reading in IsraelI was too busy running camp over the summer to read much. So I collected a bunch of articles to get caught up on. On the last stretch of the flight I started an article from the Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/09/the-point-of-no-return/8186/) called, “The Point of No Return.” It seems to have been making the rounds amongst folks who follow Israel and is one of those articles it is important to have read. It is about the Iranian nuclear threat and the prospects of a pre-emptive strike against Iran by Israel or the United States. At 5am this morning, our four year-old and I are up together as the sun rises over Jerusalem. He watches Backyardigans in Hebrew with a mixture of pleasure at having found a familiar TV show and confusion at the fact that it’s in Hebrew. As he watches TV and my wife and other children sleep, I am struck how reading such articles in Jerusalem is a different experience than reading them in Los Angeles. I always care deeply about politics in the Middle East; having an emotional connection to the news is not new for me. But consider the following sentences:

“The Iranian leadership’s own view of nuclear dangers is perhaps best
exemplified by a comment made in 2001 by the former Iranian president Ali Akbar
Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who entertained the idea that Israel’s demise could be
brought about in a relatively pain-free manner for the Muslim world. ‘The use of
an atomic bomb against Israel would destroy Israel completely while [a nuclear
attack] against the Islamic countries would only cause damages,” Rafsanjani
said. It is this line of thinking, which suggests that rational deterrence
theory, or the threat of mutual assured destruction, might not apply in the case
of Iran, that has the Israeli government on a knife’s edge.”
Reading those sentences while you are here, where the missiles would strike (God forbid), sharpens one’s attunement to the news.