Thursday, June 24, 2010

Waiting for the Carob to Bloom

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh, Summer 2010.]

There's a Talmudic parable about the carob tree. According to the rabbis (who were clearly not botanists), it takes seventy years for a carob to flower. When asked then why he was planting a carob tree when he'd never live to see its fruit, the farmer in the story says that he enjoys the fruit of a carob tree planted for him by his grandfather; similarly he is planting a carob for his grandchildren.

Planting a carob is not one of those highly touted "random acts of kindness." It's rather a deferred one - a blessing that will blossom only later, with no benefit accruing to yourself.

So what are the carob trees that were planted for us? The ocean voyages of long-gone grandparents looking for a better life, if not for themselves, then for those who would come after? The love of learning implanted in our psyches 70 generations back? The desire for community felt by Jews of central Sonoma County twenty-five years ago, many of whom are no longer part of this congregation or this county but whose imprints we still feel? Or the clubhouse built by the dedicated women of the Cotati Ladies' Improvement Club, none of whom we knew and none of whom could have foreseen that this home built to house their vision of a better world would someday nourish this holy community?

And what are the carob trees that we are planting now for our future generations? When we make decisions for our children, are we remembering to think of the future adults they will be and what they will pass on to their children? When we make decisions for our synagogue and our community, are they just about this year's programs and improvements, or are we also setting the stage for future waves that we might never know? When we think about our relationship with the Earth, do we keep in mind our posterity (if not our biological grandchildren, then our spiritual heirs, once or twice removed)?

I always try to notice the carob trees that feed me and shade me. The seeds planted in my youth by parents, teachers, great- grandparents and my groovy lakefront aunties. Some of those seeds have, thanks to this community, had a chance at last to bear some fruit, chewy and unripe though it still might be. I'm grateful for those who planted the seeds without knowing the outcome. And I will try to follow in their footsteps, planting my carob, sowing seeds without certainty, but with certain hope.

And as we begin to move toward the High Holy Day season I leave you to ask yourself: "what are the seeds I am planting?"

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Parashat Chukat: Talking to the Rock

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, June 18, 2010]

We’ll start with a quick confession. I talk to trees. I talk to plants. Every day on my way up and down the mountain I certainly greet the cows with a “ladies.” I talk to the cats, but that’s not considered odd. I talk to the goats next door but no one sees me. I might talk to the clouds from time to time, or to a particularly breathtaking landscape. Any object of wonder that takes me by surprise gets a “well, hello there.”

This week we read Parashat Chukat, in which Moses and Aaron are instructed to speak to a rock, and they fail.

But that’s not the first thing to happen in the parashah. We start instead by learning about the ritual of the red heifer – a rite of purification after contact with a dead body.

From there we go on to experience a most painful death. Miriam dies in the wilderness. This is now near the end of the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert. She was no longer a young woman. But her death stings and her absence is immediately felt. In the very next verse the people are thirsty. Quenching thirst was, as you recall, Miriam’s special talent. As Rabbi Shefa Gold says in her Torah Journeys book, “Miriam had a way with water.” There was a magical well that would follow her like a familiar and open at her command or at her request. The mouth of this mysterious well was created on the eve of the seventh day of creation for the sole purpose of slaking the thirst of the Israelites many generations or maybe eons later, or so goes the midrash. Whether there was a magic well, or whether she had a sharp divining skill, or whether Miriam satisfied a kind of spiritual thirst that the people mistook for physical, we don’t know. But when she dies, the people are immediately parched.

The people, in their desperate thirst, rise up against Moses and Aaron, once again asking why they were taken out of Egypt to die in a barren wilderness, the same complaint that has dogged Moses’ footsteps since the Red Sea closed behind them, barring the way to second thoughts. Moses and Aaron go to the tent of meeting and fall on their faces. God makes Gods presence known and tells them to go speak to a stone – an enormous, fixed boulder, a cliff, in full view of the people – and it would give them water.

Moses takes his staff and assembles the people. “Listen up, you rebels,” came Moses’ challenge, “shall we draw water out of the rock for you?” And he strikes the stone, not once, but twice, until water gushes forth, a mighty flow capable of sating all the people.

The next thing that happens surprises us. God is angered at Moses and Aaron. Lo-he’emantem bi l’haqdisheni l’eyney B’nei Yisrael. “You did not believe in Me,” God says, “enough to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Israelites.” You did not believe in Me. God announces a punishment: Moses and Aaron will not lead the people to the Promised Land but will, like the rest of their generation, die in the wilderness.

What was the source of God’s anger? Wasn’t the end result what God wanted – that the people should drink? Rashi says it is because of Moses’ words to the people. Ramban says it is because he struck the stone.

The Chasidic master, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, says that those two views are not different views at all, since Moses’ speech to the people led inexorably to Moses’ striking the rock. According to Reb Levi Yitzchak, the world was created for the People of Israel. And when the People of Israel become mindful of their connection to the divine, become re-aware that their life force comes from the holy throne, then nature will provide for them of its own accord.

The idea that Creation came into being for our benefit is a central belief in the Chasidic world. Of course we see the world differently. Not created for the People of Israel. Not created for People at all. Still, we are the centers of our own existence, and we insist on living. So we struggle to find a balance between hubris and humility; between asserting our right to survive on the planet and the caution to mind our place. (We are reminded of the insight of the Chasidic rabbi Simcha Bunam, who said everyone should have a piece of paper in his right pocket saying, “For my sake the world was created” and a piece of paper in his left pocket saying, “I am but dust and ashes.”)

Levi Yitzchak describes two kinds of leadership in his analysis of the punishment God places on Moses and Aaron. Someone who is worthy of leadership will appeal to people’s highest selves. Such a leader will remind those she leads of their loftiness of spirit and the source of their lives in the divine. Her leadership will raise the people’s sights and the level of their actions. It will, in turn, inspire Creation itself to do what it was meant to do – to provide for us – of its own accord.

But when one leads with words of harshness or with shaming, one’s intended followers are not inspired, nor is Creation. The subjects of such a leader must be coerced. And so must nature itself.

For this reason, once Moses spoke harshly and shamingly to the people, his striking of the stone was inevitable, because the stone would not be moved to give. But God didn’t tell Moses to speak to the people or to strike the stone. God told Moses to speak to the stone. Had Moses said to it, "for this you were created, to give water to a parched people in a time of need, a holy people whose source is the same as yours," the stone would have gushed water in a great fountain. But Moses bypassed this opportunity, and the stone gave only because it was coerced.

And so perhaps God’s anger was not that Moshe had disobeyed an order, but because the whole event was meant to be theatre – a demonstration to the people that everything comes from God’s power. That speaking and listening to all of Creation will result in your receiving what you need. (As the other kind of stones, the rolling kind, might have said: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you talk to the rock, you’re gonna find you’ll get what you need.”)

But Moses messed up the theatre. He instead taught that nature may be compelled, bent to our will. And that remains how our culture views the world around us. If you strike the rock hard enough or drill it deep enough, something will gush forth, even if it’s not what or when or how you wanted it.

So perhaps there is a lesson here about who we are in the world and how we might relate to Creation around us. But I think there is something else here also, something hinted at by the fact that the story immediately follows the description of the purification ritual after a death. There is something here about grief and about the return to the flow of life.

The Children of Israel in the story were thirsty not only from the dryness of the desert, but from the loss of their prophet Miriam and all she had come to mean to them. And Moses and Aaron, burdened with leadership, are also in a state of deep grief that may have undermined their natural leadership instincts and destabilized their sense of their place in Creation. Doesn’t grief do that?

Deeply afflicted, having lost in Miriam a prophet, a counselor and a sister, Moses and Aaron were quick to anger. They acted out. I understand this. I remember once, eight months after my father’s death, bursting into anger uncontrollably over some trifle, or maybe not a trifle, I can’t even remember what it was. Anger until I was crying. My grief had destabilized me.

Or maybe it wasn’t exactly blind anger that Moses and Aaron were driven to. Maybe they felt powerless in the wake of Miriam’s loss. Their words: “Listen, rebels, shall we draw water from the rock?” is ambiguous. The word “rebels” is spelled in Biblical Hebrew identically to the name “Miriam.” By re-voweling it, the sentence could just as easily mean, “Listen, are we Miriam that we can draw water from the rock?” They feel their inability. They feel it so deeply that they don’t even recognize that God’s instruction, “talk to the rock” might specifically be a revelation of Miriam's method for drawing water!*

Either way, they are obviously hobbled by grief. So shouldn’t we – shouldn’t God – cut Moses and Aaron some slack?

Maybe not, if the point of the whole exercise was to teach something about responding to grief and loss. After all, God could have had already had the tap running when the Children of Israel arrived. The unnoticed miracle of pre-running water! But instead, the scene is set so that some sort of demonstration has to happen. But instead of a demonstration about water, it is a lesson about grief.

Because grief is a rock. And grief is a deep thirst.

When we grieve, we are dry as stone, heavy, immobile. Maybe God’s intended lesson here was that you can’t overcome grief by hacking at it, by coercing it, by overpowering it. All we can do is talk to it. Hello grief, I know you come from the same holy source as life itself. You are the flipside of my joys. When I look at you, my grief, I see myself. I see who I have become, who I wanted to be, and maybe who I may yet become.

You talk to grief. And then you wait, in a slow plodding of time that feels truly geological. Until the water begins to trickle – when even a trickle had been inconceivable – and then flow and then gush. Your grief was created for you. To hold your sadness and your longing, to mirror your love, and ultimately to become a source of holiness, a source of sweetness to rival even the salt of your tears.

May we all learn to speak to the stone. To speak to nature around us. And speak to our own natures. May we trust that speech. So that all of Creation – every rock, tree, creature and every one of us – may spout forth with holiness.

* I am indebted to Ari Kamiti for this breathtaking and compassionate insight.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Shlach Lecha: On Grasshoppers, Giants & Flotillas

[Drash for Congregation Ner Shalom, June 4, 2010.]

I was in Boston early this week for a Bar Mitzvah – the son of my oldest, dearest friend. It was a Monday morning event (which can happen in communities where Torah is read also on weekdays).

I was somewhat of an honored guest it seemed, so they asked me to participate in the service. Being nothing like shy, I of course said yes, offering to sing or improvise something – the kind of thing I would normally do here in our community. But the night before the Bar Mitzvah, my friends told me that they’d slated me in the program to read the Prayer for the State of Israel. It was already in print.

I took a deep breath and thanked them for the honor. Now if I were being asked to create a prayer for the State of Israel, this would have been an easy request. Israel is always in my prayers. But I was being asked to read the words in the Conservative siddur, which step slightly beyond a plea for safety, survival and peace:

Chazek et y’dey m’giney eretz kodshenu
va’ateret nitzachon t’atrem…

“Strengthen the hands of the defenders of our Holy Land and crown them in victory.” Of course, I could understand nitzachon, “victory,” in metaphoric terms, but the prayer doesn't seem to. Victory here is an unqualified absolute, giving the prayer an undeniable military flavor that does not easily roll off my tongue. Nonetheless, this was my assignment in a ritual not of my making.

Monday morning I woke up to dress for the Bar Mitzvah and learned that during the night Israeli soldiers had boarded a ship headed for Gaza, in international waters. A peace convoy, some would say. A provocation, others would say. Predictably, it had all gone terribly, terribly wrong, leaving nine civilian activists known dead and Israel once again as the focus of the world’s scrutiny.

I tried to collect myself. I was filled with sadness and anger and a feeling of betrayal. How can the Israel that I love – and I do love it even when I am outraged by its actions – let this happen? My anger is understandable to most of you in this room; we are generally progressives in this community, and often critical of Israeli policy. But the internet war had already begun. YouTube videos of uninterpretable scenes were being posted, and emails started arriving in my inbox telling me to wait for all the evidence to be in (which was reasonable) and urging me to defend Israel against those who would slander it – and that “slanderer” part felt, as it always does at such moments, aimed at me.

I tore myself from the news and, heavy hearted, went to the Bar Mitzvah. I sat down in shul and listened to my friend’s son’s fluent chanting of this week’s parashah, Shlach Lecha.

In Shlach Lecha the Israelites are preparing for the conquest of what will become the Land of Israel. God tells Moshe to send margalim – “scouts” - one from each tribe, up into the land to determine if its inhabitants are strong or weak, good or bad, if the cities are open or fortified, if the soil is rich or poor.

The margalim return, famously reporting that the land is flowing with milk and honey. Two of the scouts, Caleb and Joshua, are confident about their military prospects. Caleb, says, “Let us go up and gain possession of the land, for surely we can overcome it.” But the other scouts dissent. “We cannot attack, for the people are stronger than we. The country devours its settlers. The people are giants – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so must we have looked to them.”

These words spread through the camp and the Israelites lose their nerve. They beg to be brought back to Egypt. God is angered and punishes the people by declaring that the older generation would die in the wilderness. Of all the people assembled, only Caleb and Joshua, with their great confidence in the strength of Israel would be allowed to enter the land.

I sat and listened to the parashah, thinking how we, all these years later, have possession of that very same real estate. So which are we now, I wondered, grasshoppers or giants?

It seemed to me that as possessors and not the dispossessed, it would be easy to cast us in the role of giants. Certainly much of the world paints Israel that way. But I’m beginning to think that after two thousand years of relentless conditioning, however we might be perceived by others, we still don’t know how not to be grasshoppers.

To a grasshopper, every encounter with the greater world involves the risk of being crushed underfoot. And hasn’t this been the Jewish experience over the last two and a half millennia? The risk of annihilation at every turn? We tell our tales of exile and pogroms and close escapes and failed escapes. We pray for peace; we pray to God to confound the counsels of those who would do us harm.

But nothing in our tradition has taught us how to hold power. How to be giants. Instead, we’re left to be giants who think like grasshoppers, or grasshoppers who have grown to gigantic proportions. And it is that constant, deep fear of being crushed underfoot that has informed and, arguably, poisoned so much of our policy in Israel.

I should footnote here that I say “our policy,” not “their policy.” I think it’s important both to say and to let ourselves actually feel the “we.” It is important that even when we oppose Israeli governmental policy – especially when we oppose Israeli governmental policy – we reaffirm our connection as Jews. It is what makes our voice of opposition powerful and meaningful; it is also how we support Israelis who are working for peace. Our inclusion is what we were promised by the Zionist dream when we were young. We were promised that this would be a joint venture. We should not now cede that promise only to those who agree with Israeli military actions. In other words, more than I want to disown Netanyahu, I want Netanyahu to be stuck with the likes of us.

I also need to offer the obvious but very real disclaimers. I do not live in Israel, although I have in the past and many of my loved ones do now. I’ve never had to fear suicide bombers on a daily basis and I’ve not experienced the relief of knowing that a wall currently stands between me and that particular danger. I’ve never had to dodge the bullets; nor have I been required to fire them. I am not a politician or an expert. I cannot speak from the depth of Israeli experience. But that doesn’t mean I have nothing to say.

I also don’t know what happened on that ship. Time will (or won’t) tell who did what to whom first. But I do know that it was a no-win situation, as long as we were in a position where a humanitarian action against us was necessary. Yes, the flotilla was at least as much or more a public relations mission as it was an aid mission, as some people hasten to point out. But so what? Sit-ins at lunch counters in the 1960s south were public relations stunts also. That is how public opinion is swayed, it is how one appeals to the hearts and consciences of the world.

Using deadly force against a public relations mission is the sign, to me, of government by grasshopper. To Israel this flotilla looked like another shoe about to crush us. Everything looks like a shoe about to crush us. Give a grasshopper a gun, and what will it do? It will shoot. If not today, then tomorrow.

A giant, on the other hand, well, giants are perhaps underestimated. A giant who understands and trusts its own power can afford a far greater range of responses to seeming threats. The use of force would only be one possible response among many.

In an Op Ed column on Tuesday, Israeli author and peace activist Amos Oz wrote, “[D]uring Israel’s early years, prime ministers like David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol knew very well that force has its limits and were careful to use it only as a last resort. But ever since the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel has been fixated on military force. To a man with a big hammer, says the proverb, every problem looks like a nail.”

Defenders of Israel’s actions this week point to the rise of Hamas in Gaza. This is true and I do not suggest that Hamas is not a danger. But we are also smart enough to know that those whom you besiege do not become your friends. When you starve a people you cultivate a population with nothing to lose. On the other hand, in a prosperous, flourishing Palestine, how sexy would Hamas actually be?

Defenders of Israel’s actions also point to the fact that Gaza has two borders – one with Israel and one with Egypt. And Egypt was not opening its border either. In other words, it is unfair to hold Israel to a higher standard than other nations. Perhaps that’s right. The world does not have the right to hold Israel to a higher standard. But we do. Jews do. We are not accountable for Egypt. But for Israel we are. Again, it’s part of the agreement.

So I seem to be mostly talking about our right, as Jews, as people who want Israel to survive, to dissent. Because that no longer feels obvious. But I’d intended to talk about grasshoppers.

And so, young grasshoppers, courage is required. Not the courage to use force. But the courage not to. The courage to dream up other paths and to actually risk taking them. The courage to engage in peacemaking – real, non-grudging peacemaking – and earn back the world’s trust. The courage to help our neighbors and former enemies prosper. Maybe we can’t put down the guns entirely at this moment. But surely we can move our fingers off the triggers, even if just a little.

It will take more courage not to use force than it does to use it. It will take greatness. And I still believe we are capable of greatness; of the greatness of giants. We are already giants in military might. Let us soon be giants in wisdom and compassion and vision and patience.

You may wonder what I did about reciting the prayer for the State of Israel on Monday. I thought of some language I could add, like I might naturally do here at Ner Shalom. I was asked to deliver it in Hebrew so I thought, well, who will notice? I got up on the bimah and began the prayer. But this was a community where everyone prays in Hebrew. With my first word they joined me and recited with me, every word. I was walked down the path of this text, accompanied on all sides, with no chance for a detour. Which is exactly how it should have been at that moment.

But now I’d like to return the Prayer for the State of Israel, not how it was written in that siddur but how I wish it were written.

Avinu Shebashamayim,
Rock and Redeemer of the People Israel; 
Bless the State of Israel. 
Enrich it with Your love;
spread over it the shelter of Your peace. 
Guide its leaders and advisors
with Your light and Your truth. 
Help them with Your good counsel. 
Strengthen our hearts and hands,
so that we may not be devoured by the land; 
so that we may not be devoured by fear. 
Crown us with courage
so that we may be giants of wisdom and compassion. 
Bless us with vision, so that through us
and all who are touched by your spirit, 
there may be lasting peace and joy in the land
and throughout the world. 
And let us say: Amen.