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Standing for Something Profoundly Human

(July 30, 2014 / 3 Av, 5774)

Standing for something profoundly human

As soon as I got home on Friday from my remarkable two-week stay in Israel, I came across an article in Haaretz that fed the d’rash I would give to my congregation the next morning. It was an interview with the edgy Israeli writer Etgar Keret. A reference was made to his wife, the filmmaker Shira Geffen. She had premiered a new film the previous week for an Israeli audience amidst the first days of the Gaza ground operation. She began by asking the audience to stand in silence to acknowledge the deaths of four Palestinian boys killed on the beach by errant Israeli fire.

As best I could tell from the interview, Ms. Geffen had made it clear that the killing was an accident, acknowledged by Tzahal (the IDF) as such, and profusely apologized for. She also said not a word negating Israel’s need to be there in defense of its own rocket-weary population. Still, it was tragic, and it had happened at the hand of our own people.

The thrust of my d’rash was obvious. We need to do what is necessary to save ourselves. That’s im eyn ani li mi li (If I am not for myself, who will be?). But even when we are protecting ourselves, we must allow ourselves to weep for the other. That’s u’ch’sheani l’atzmi mah ani (but if I’m only for myself, what am I?). If we stop protecting ourselves, we will cease to be. But if we stop caring about the consequences of our self-preservation, we will cease to be the Jewish people, which may be tantamount to ceasing to exist altogether.

I expressed my gratitude to my congregants for allowing me to speak from the heart without having to adjust my message to fit whatever politics might prevail in the prayer hall. Some may have wanted to hear me offering measured criticism of Israel’s actions, while most no doubt wanted me to be giving strength to a community desperate to hear good news about our sisters and brothers sacrificing themselves in Israel. I could offer both, because I feel both. And they understood that their rabbi, returning from one of the most intense adventures of his life, needed to talk about the complex truth of what he saw and felt, and not about what his audience wanted him to say.

I spent most of my days in Israel with my Reconstructionist rabbinical colleagues, a mission brilliantly recounted by Toba Spitzer in T’ruah’s last Letter from Jerusalem. I also had the joy of being accompanied by my twenty three year old son Yoni. Yoni is precisely the age of the kids who are fighting and dying on the Israeli side of the battle. Every new announcement of a death or serious wound reminded the two of us that we ourselves were hardly “heroes” for simply showing up in Israel and not canceling or high-tailing it home. Yoni brought a sobering perspective to every place we went, and to every speaker or teacher we heard. He and my other children know Israel (and Hebrew) well, though they never knew the fragile Israel we grew up with in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. They take for granted Israel’s humanistic mission, as well as its long history of both achieving that mission and falling tragically short of it.

But in my kids’ many trips to Israel, they had never heard a siren and headed for a shelter (or heard the Iron Dome interception boom that leaves one no doubt that this is no theoretical game). Now Yoni heard a ton of them. “Still,” he would say to me, “we have the luxury of the siren, the shelter, the Iron Dome, and an army who considers us family. Imagine the fear of a kid my age in Gaza right now. No warning, no shelter, no interceptor technology, and an army that allows you to suffer for its own cynical interests.” When he would make such observations, I felt proud that I’d raised not only a Zionist, but a Jew.

Perhaps because of the war and the challenges it brings, I find myself looking forward to Tisha b’Av. Not the fasting, though I’ll be doing it as always. Rather, I’m anticipating the opportunity to reflect on the fact that despite the dark episodes of our history, including the one we’re now living, we persist in standing for something profoundly human.

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