Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Last Year Chayei Sarah - A Zionism for 2009

Parshat Chayei Sarah – 2008
“Reflections on Return from Women’s Mission to Israel -2008
Shabbat Shalom. At the beginning of this month I was blessed to travel to Israel with the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance Women’s Mission so before I begin with some reflections I want to thank the women who came to join us this morning from the mission – they are each remarkable women – committed to the continuity and growth of the Jewish people. It was my honor to be with them as both a participant and in their terms a “spiritual advisor” – and of course a heartfelt thank you to the Jewish Federation and several members of our own AAE community for making this trip possible and finally Rabbi Bernhard for holding down the fort without me.

We were in Israel for 10 days – give or take some people who came early or stayed late. As most of you know that is not nearly enough time to see and do everything but the trip was packed. While we travelled there I had little time to reflect on the journey- between the 6:00 am wake up calls and the dinners that lasted often until late into the night and perhaps with a bit too much wine I was so busy or so tired from being busy I did not think much on the trip about how I might reflect or process what we had seen. I remembering feeling elated, sad, and moved and I definitely remember feeling a sense of urgency and purpose – a sense of mission. However, I couldn’t quite identify what the feeling was until of course that long and painful plane ride home – most of you have done it hours and hours with a crowded flight, a baby crying and bad airplane food. On the way there you have Israel to look towards but on the way home – well I had some time to think. So I pulled out my Chumash my Torah and took a look at this week’s Torah portion – Chayei Sarah and I very quickly came upon a strange and difficult text.
“Then Abraham rose from beside Sarah who had died and spoke to the Hittites, saying, "I am a ger toshav among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial."
The problem with the text is the two words I left un-translated ger and toshav. Now one might sound familiar to you because the word ger is the modern day word for convert – or as was suggested to me on our mission one who embraces Judaism by choice and not by birth. The word here though does not mean that, instead it means stranger in biblical Hebrew – as in one who does not fully belong. Then the second word toshav means resident, one who dwells in a particular place but is not a citizen. They are opposing descriptions – resident stranger? Is Abraham a stranger or a resident? Isn’t it impossible to be both? Why would he describe himself in this contradictory way – unless he was saying something about his relationship to the land? I left the question unanswered as I fell asleep some place over Europe and woke up again in New York.
Zionism and the complex nature of our relationship with Israel is something I have not really spoken about here at shul. Not because I do not believe it is important but because we in the American Jewish community descend quickly on these issues into heated and often disrespectful political discussions which have little if any practical applications. I am more interested in discussions about Israel which lead us to questions of religious and spiritual life and religious and spiritual action in the world. Instead we often find ourselves arguing over questions of military decisions and nation-state assessments. We see our relationship with Israel as a political statement. It is a country under siege – both from its neighbors and all who seek its destruction – I need not tell you how often your children or grandchildren need to defend Israel on college campuses. So we focus on those aspects which often need defending. The complex relationship between Jews and the Land of Israel has yielded a series of political questions and though those questions are important to some degree for me they yield little fruit in how our Zionism should be articulated and I would say re-born. So more interesting for me as a rabbi and instructive as a Jew who considers herself ohevet zion and a Zionist are the moral quandaries a true and deep relationship with Israel creates. In addressing these issues we often lose sight of some very important moral dilemmas and socio-economic woes which plague Israel and with which we might actually have the influence and power to create change.
In our relationship to Israel we have a choice we can choose to develop either a narrow or expansive vision of what "Zionism" is, weighing the relative importance of living in the land per se on the one hand or on the other hand questions about our responsibility towards the way we build a society and conduct ourselves on that land. We in the American Jewish community seems to believe that a relationship to Israel means arguing and developing opinions of what we believe Israel should do about its neighbors and enemies. So perhaps, a radical suggestion – this does not a relationship make. These are important discussions – ones we should have but we should also understand have their limitations. This may be stating the obvious, but we do not live in Israel or vote in Israel or serve in her army. And in reality we have every right to opinions and ideas but these discussions have very little impact on daily life in Israel. Relationship is about impact, about being engaged and when it comes to issues of national security, safety, borders and refugees our influence our opinion should simply be a small piece of our engagement – we should use our knowledge, beliefs and information on these issues to defend Israel to her critiques here in America and all around the world but internally inside our own communities, our own congregations and amongst its supporters where Israel right to exist is not in question we must be developing and engaging in a new form of Zionism; doing work on the ground to make a difference in the lives of Israelis.
So what would this look like? How should we be engaging as North American Jews – with a deep and powerful relationship with Israel and her people? Here is where I want to return to the verse from this week’s Torah portion – ger v’toshav to be a resident and an alien. Abraham feels and understands something specific and unique about our relationship to the land of Israel and her people.
Abraham's connection to the land becomes essential in the opening of this week’s Torah portion. Over and over again in the last several weeks we are told he can only thrive morally by having his survival and that of his descendants assured. That assurance comes in the form of God's promise that Abraham will lay claim to this particular land, with guarantees of divine protection and prosperity. Yet it is Abraham who must establish this claim for himself. As the parashah begins, Abraham purchases the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite as a grave for Sarah, the transaction between the two is especially revealing. Ephron repeatedly offers the land to Abraham for free, expressing that it would be an honor for him to do so. But Abraham flatly refuses the offer, insisting that he pay the full price. By acquiring the land at a premium, Abraham establishes not only a claim on the land but a responsibility for what happens in the land. And it is here in this description of the transaction when Abraham refers to himself as ger v’toshav. Our tradition makes a big deal out of the fact that Abraham, reeling with grief over the death of his life-mate, negotiated at length with Efron and purchased the Cave and the adjoining field at full market price, rather than just helping himself to that which God has promised him. Witnessed by the entire the community, Abraham approaches Efron with great respect and formality and calls himself a ger v’toshav, a stranger and a resident.
Resident and stranger – so what if this description and its natural consequence is a model for how we where to see ourselves, as American Jews in our relationship to Israel as both residents and strangers?
We are strangers and residents of Israel – this is not contradictory for us, this is very real and Israel’s growth, success depends on our recognition of this description. To be a stranger means to go into a place, into a land and understand the sacrifices of its citizens, the daily danger they place themselves in and to tread cautiously with opinions and assumptions of rights and wrongs. Instead of assuming he/she knows best the stranger – studies, looks, assesses and stands back to watch, to learn and to grapple with the people, the land and the problems. The stranger is not quick to try and solve – the stranger knows they are a bit of an outsider, that they must take there cues from the insiders from the people of the place – from Israelis. The stranger watches – patiently assessing what is happening inside the intimate lives of the people of the country. This is where we should stand – watching, studying and seeing what is happening inside of Israel.
So we are strangers but we are also residents – not citizens but residents who visit and send our children there, who write checks and who study there –we are strangers and we are residents ger v’toshav.. We have friends and family who we visit and support, we read newspaper articles from afar and wonder how Israel will do it, we fly there in crisis to show support and so we are residents too along with being strangers. Residents who want so much to do something to help Israel grow and yet often feel helpless – we do not vote or serve in the army and so we are unsure what to do but know we must help. This is the role of resident to role up our sleeves and help, to find a way, a path in to the daily life of the Israelis that is helpful and constructive and not a role that is unhelpful and lacks power and force. So if our new Zionism asks us to be both humble, to understand our role and to act on behalf of the development and growth of Israel what should we be doing?
Our mission spent so much time – painful and important time looking at some of the domestic socio-economic problems of Israel. Problems that I believe highlight this new Zionism I referred to, the Zionism we must have in order to ensure Israel’s growth and flourishing. The situation is bleak – Israel has the largest gap between rich and poor of any developed country, it has taken in thousands of African refugees from war torn regions like Darfur who face severe emotional trauma in addition to culture shock and economic desperation, the foreign workers who are filling the shoes of Palestinians who can no longer come to Israel for work – from Thailand, from Eastern Europe and the old Soviet Bloc, from South America or from Africa are creating a second class citizenry who are illegal. Then of course there are the children – children who live impoverished lives – Jewish children who live in war ravaged cities like Kiryat Shemonah on the Northern Lebanese border and in Sderot – who face not only issues of trauma but tremendous poverty. Or children who have been abused and neglected and whose parents are unable to care for them safely. So if we are both strangers and residents of the land – a part of it and separate from it – our impact is made more powerful and meaningful if we engage in works which impact the type of society being created in the land. There are many issues and many projects to highlight but I would like to focus on three areas we should be working on: education, poverty and young leadership.
Education – the public school system in Israel is a disaster. It is over crowded and underfunded. It is a rife with challenges and needs our help; our expertise, our money and our support. We visited a school there, the Ragozin School in south Tel Aviv, one of Israel’s poorest neighborhoods and spent time with a principal working tirelessly on issues of identity, poverty and parental involvement – she needs our support with our educators and psychologists, our money and our physical presence. She has students from all over the map, some with parents who are illegal – some native born Israelis and her community is working hard to prepare these children for the real, harsh world – of army service, university or work. Ger v’toshav – stranger and resident with responsibility to build a just society, to take ownership like Abraham did – to buy the land for himself and to own what goes on inside of it.
Young Leadership – Israel has for many years faced an absence of young leaders interested in and involved in growing the land and committing to lives of service. Slowly a small group of young people are beginning to change that and they too need us, our support and wisdom and our presence. The best example of this is a group called Ayalim – dynamic young Israelis just out of the army who are creating new communities in periphery areas in the Northern and Southern parts of Israel. After completing their army service these young people go to school full time and commit to hours volunteering in local underdeveloped areas – building care centers and after school program, parks and play grounds. They choose instead of Hebrew University or Tel Aviv to live in Kiryat Shimona or the Negev where services are minimal and social interaction is limited. They make this choice because of their growing social activism. They volunteer to work with underprivileged youth and change the shape of their commitment to the land by literally helping to bring forth non-existent communities. They help to strengthen communities which are in desperate need of role models for children, safe places to gather as a community and support networks for families in need.
Finally, poverty just one statistic “one Israeli child out of three lives below the poverty line” – every third child in Israel lives below the poverty line. The poverty is so pervasive and deep that parents, Israeli parents find themselves unable to care for children. These children are often neglected and in some cases abused – now this is not only a problem of wealth but often the neglect begins in communities where parents become desperate because they are unable to support their children materially. We visited a home in Netanya called Bet Elazraki where over 200 children live who have been taken from their homes from neglect or abuse – Israeli children. The work of director and his staff is remarkable the opportunity to give these children a home, a chance to be loved and care for, place which is warm and secure. This is am Yisrael –the nation of Israel taking responsibility for the ills at the heart of our nation Israel, our country and our homeland.
Ger v’toshav for us as much as for Abraham is not about one's citizenship status, as it were, but a description of a religious attitude towards life itself. As American Jews it is possible to view our relationship with Israel as simply protecting it from external threats – or it is possible to take the rhythm of the heart of its people, its struggles and align them with the beat of your own heart and soul. The Israel of today is what we have and it is struggling – with devastating poverty, lack of leadership and a mediocre (at best) education system; we are "residents" of our homeland – that is what makes it a homeland and therefore, we must be committed to the improvement and betterment of her communities and societies. Our hearts must beat with rhythm of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem of Katzrin and Netanya. We can't just say, "oh, I'm just passing through, it's not my problem, I don't care, and what's the use? I don’t live there" and we should not only say “I believe in the fence or I hate the fence – we should give up the Golan heights or we should not” we must say something more, more powerful and profound – my heart rests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, in Katzrin and in Netanya – we belong there because we are willing to role up our sleeves and deal with the poverty, the education, the leadership – the hope and the despair and to make a difference. If you are ready to say ger v’toshav ani – I am a stranger and resident then you stand with me ready with your muscles and your check books to commit to a new kind of Zionism, a Zionism for 2009 – a Zionism which creates an Israeli society of which we can all be proud. Shabbat Shalom.