Friday, December 9, 2011

Lights, Camera, Israel

(Parashat Vayishlach – Genesis 32:4 – 36:43)

Like a good movie, Israel evokes a variety of emotions within us. In fact, the poster for the 1994 Israel Film Festival (IFF) reads: “Passion, Triumph, Danger, Tragedy, Suspense, Miracles, Conflict, Ecstasy, Israel.” When I asked Meir Fenigstein, founder and director of the IFF, why he chose these particular words, he said, “These are the ingredients that produce a good film, and these also happen to be the emotions that best capture the story of Israel.”

Fenigstein was referring to the modern State of Israel, but I would argue that these words have portrayed the story of Israel from its very inception. Actually, the very first time the word “Israel” was pronounced, the scene was one of danger, suspense and conflict; its outcome could be tragic or miraculous; and the passion that ensued produced a feeling of ecstasy and, ultimately, triumph.

It was a dark, lonely night when “Jacob remained alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Genesis 32:25). Jewish commentators are divided as to what exactly took place that night. Who was this mysterious “man” that suddenly appeared and wrestled with Jacob all night? Was he an angel or a real person? If he was an angel, who and what did he represent? Was this a real physical event, or did it take place in the realm of the supernatural? Was it a prophecy, a dream or a combination thereof?

No matter what answers the commentators have suggested, the outcome of this wrestling match is even more compelling than the above questions. Just before the break of dawn, when the “man” saw that he was unable to defeat Jacob, “he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was dislocated as he wrestled with him.” He then implored Jacob “let me leave, for dawn is breaking.” Despite his injured thigh, Jacob still overwhelmed the “man,” and refused to let him go until the “man” would bless him.

“What is your name?” the man asked.
“Jacob,” he replied.

The “man’s” answer to Jacob is the turning point in Jacob’s life, and marks the dawning of a new nation destined to spend its eternity much like Jacob spent that night — alone, often in the dark, struggling with God, wrestling with enemies, injured … and triumphant. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29).

The medieval Bible commentator and grammarian Rabbi David Kimchi (Radak) teaches that the Hebrew word for “striven” — sari-ta — has as its root the word sarah (not to be confused with the name Sarah), which means “to contend,” or to “struggle toward victory.” This explains, according to Radak, the choice of Jacob’s new name — Israel. Built into the word “Israel” is the root sarah, which means that built into the word Israel is the character of struggling — with “beings divine and human.” Much like the patriarch Israel spent that night — and much of his life — struggling with the complexities of God, family, sibling rivalry, morals and ethics, parenthood and relations with neighbors, so, too, his descendants — the nation of Israel — were destined to spend their existence struggling with God, with each other, and with those that surround them.

The Talmud teaches: “The deeds of our forefathers are a sign for their children.” Never was this more applicable, especially to contemporary Israel, than the moment when Jacob — now named Israel — walked away from his wrestling match triumphant yet limping, permanently scarred from his battle wounds. This image conjures up the many instances in Israel’s modern history when Israel triumphed, but the wounds of battle rendered the triumph bittersweet. From its rebirth in 1948 on the rebounds of the Holocaust, to the many valiant battles fought by the IDF, to the miraculous victory at Entebbe marred by the loss of one soldier, to the elated feeling of seeing Gilad Shalit home again with the sobering reality of the price for his release, Israel — like its namesake — continues to walk off of its many battlefields with her fists raised in triumph, despite her injured legs limping away.

The words on the Israel Film Festival poster continue to ring true: Passion, Triumph, Danger, Tragedy, Suspense, Miracles, Conflict, Ecstasy, Israel. Like a good movie – and like Israel the patriarch -- Israel’s wrestling matches are passionate, filled with internal conflict, wrought with suspense and danger from enemies, and when we experience the ecstasies of Israel’s triumphs, we are compelled – like David Ben-Gurion said -- to believe in miracles.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Beatles Passover

Last night my family and I went out with some friends to the Pantages Theatre, where we took a musical journey back in time. For over two hours, the Broadway production of “Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles” took us through the tumultuous 1960’s and the great Beatles songs that came to define that decade. From the innocence of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to the provocative “Revolution” and the contemplative “Let It Be,” we danced, laughed, cried and “Twisted and Shouted” to the sounds and sights of a unique era in time.

Throughout the show, I could not help but reflect on the depth and meaning of the Beatles lyrics, and how relevant they still are in our generation. Themes like “All You Need Is Love” and “Give Peace A Chance” are not limited to the 1960’s, but are relevant to all people at any time who seek a life filled with love and peace. To put it in Beatles terminology, the themes and lyrics of Beatle’s songs are not just about “Yesterday,” but they are also about “today and tomorrow.”

So, too, with the upcoming Passover holiday and the Seder that we sit down to with our families this coming Monday night. The themes of Passover – freedom from slavery and oppression, faith in God through thick and thin, and the power of storytelling – are meaningful and relevant to all generations of Jews everywhere in the world. Recounting the Exodus from Egypt is not limited to the “Magical Mystery Tour” of the Ten Plagues and the Crossing of the Red Sea from our Egyptian past. It’s also about “The Long and Winding Road” of Jewish history – from Medieval Spain through 18th Century Poland, and from Nazi Germany to the Rise of Modern Israel – where we have experienced “Slavery and Freedom” again and again. We use the Exodus story as a framework for a narrative to tell and re-tell our collective history and our own stories to our children, hoping to inspire them to carry our traditions, ideas and values into the future.

In Every Generation” – these words appear all over the place in the Haggadah. They are the “tagline” to the whole Seder experience, conveying the relevance of the Passover story for all Jews at all times.

In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as if one had gone out of Egypt” – In this instance, the Haggadah seeks to include everyone seated around the table, openly declaring that the Passover story belongs to all Jews, irrespective of background or age group. It belongs to my ancestors that I have never met, it belongs to my parents, it belongs to my children, and it belongs to me – today, at the age of 46, and even 18 years from now, “When I’m 64.”

“In every generation our enemies try and destroy us, but the Holy One Blessed be He saves us from them” – This grim reality is a testimony to our survival. It’s a tribute to our willingness to overcome our enemies, even under the most extreme of circumstances. As my good friend Amos Oz pu it, “The Jewish people have survived for thousands of years because millions of Jews, over dozens of generations, have made personal decisions to uphold their identity. It’s also a reminder that we have gotten by with “a little help from Hashem.”

Chag Pesach Kasher V’Sameach

Thursday, March 17, 2011

My Personal Purim Miracle

It was Purim, 1985. The surroundings seemed so strange to me. From childhood, Purim always meant Megillah reading, noise from noisemakers, loud music, lively dancing, people dressed up in different costumes, lots of good food, exchange of Mishloach Manot gift baskets, and a little “l’chaim” to top things off. That was exactly the Purim I had in 1984, 1983, 1982…all the way back to 1964, the year I was born.

This year, it just wasn’t the same. There was no Megillah available to be read. There were some occasional loud noises, but they did not come from kids cranking noisemakers. There was no music to dance to, and nobody was really in the mood to dance. Not only were people not dressed up in costumes, but everyone was actually dressed exactly the same. The food was the same type of bland food we had eaten the day before, and the only exchanges were wishes of “Purim Sameach (Happy Purim),” with the sad and sarcastic response being “Yes, this is really Sameach (Happy), isn’t it?” If we said l’chaim – to life -- it wasn’t over a drink; it was a sincere hope that we will come out of this alive.

Purim 1985. Southern Lebanon. A lonely platoon of IDF soldiers, stuck in a small fortress. Not a very friendly place to be. The noise of gunfire, not the rhythm you would want to dance to. Young boys dressed up in khaki uniforms. Neighbors who were not interested in receiving Mishloach Manot. Strange, surreal. “During the month of Adar, we increase in joy” says the Talmud. Not here. Not in this place. No joy, nothing to celebrate. Just long shifts of guard duty, and patrols that really warranted the wishes of “l’chaim.”

That night of Purim is one big blur to me. Same with the morning – a total blank. All I could remember is the same exact things I could remember from any other day in Lebanon. But I will never, ever, ever forget the afternoon.

I was standing on guard duty with Moti, my sergeant who I had become very close to ever since basic training was over. We always did guard duty together, often talking about life, big dreams, and great hopes for the future. We would take turns looking through the binoculars, as there was this one long road we had to watch over. All sorts of traffic passed through this road. Lebanese delivery trucks, civilians driving from one town to the next, IDF convoys, ambulances. Due to the rise in suicide car bombs in Southern Lebanon, the IDF declared a rule that any vehicle that had only a driver and no passengers would immediately be suspected as a suicide bomber, and the IDF would open fire towards it. We had the dubious honor of watching over this road.

Moti was staring through the high - powered binoculars, and he told me that an IDF convoy was on its way. “I see some IDF vehicles approaching us,” he said, “and there is some other non-IDF van with them, but I can’t recognize what it is from here. Take a look.” I looked through the binoculars, and the convoy of jeeps and armored personnel carriers, still quite a distance away, was indeed accompanying a white van, but I could not make out the writing on the van. I looked and looked and looked, until the writing on the van suddenly became clear to me.

“Oh my God, I can’t believe my eyes,” I said in English. “What, what is it?” asked Moti. My eyes stared in amazement through the binoculars at the writing on the van: Chabad. That’s right, this IDF convoy was accompanying a Chabad van.

The convoy pulled up to our fortress, and my friends guarding the gate opened it up. In drove IDF jeeps, armored personnel carriers, and a van carrying Chabad rabbis and students. Like a mirage in the desert, the van stopped, and out came four Chabadniks. One of them held a Megillat Esther. Another had an accordion slung over his shoulders. Another had a bag filled with small megillot, Purim cards from kids, and blessing notes from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Last but certainly not least, one of them brought out several bags of hamentashen, various other sweets, and, of course, a bottle and shot glasses for a true “l’chaim.”

Just like that, out of nowhere, in the middle of a war zone, this little IDF fortress suddenly came alive with the spirit of Purim. Now it was really surreal. From the bleak picture I described above, I could suddenly see somebody reading the Megillah from a parchment scroll, with people following in small paperback megillot (I have mine to this day). I now heard joyous accordion music, and I could see people dancing with big smiles in small circles. People were eating hamentashen, and l’chaim was not about a patrol, but instead was a good shot of vodka. We were all taking turns guarding the various posts, as everybody wanted to share in this sudden outburst of Purim joy. Purim was here, alive and well, in an IDF fortress in Southern Lebanon! Here we were – religious soldiers, secular soldiers, simple soldiers, officers, mechanics and cooks – together with these four Chabad angels, who brought us the purest sense of joy and the most sincere expressions of solidarity, support and unity I have ever experienced.

There is not one single mention of God’s name in Megillat Esther. Rabbinic tradition interprets this as the Purim story being an example of the “hidden hand of God,” where miracles happen behind the scenes.

I wasn’t in Shushan 2,500 years ago, so I can only rely on what the Megillah tells us. But there is one thing I am sure of: on Purim Day, 1985, for my friends and I in an IDF fortress in Southern Lebanon, there were no “hidden miracles.” God’s name was in the air, and the miracle of Purim was out in the open – in the most unlikely of places -- for all to see and hear.

Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Spirituality of Civil Law (Parashat Mishpatim/Exodus 21:1-24:18

What do laws about personal injury, personal damages, holes in the ground, damages due to negligence with fire, paying employees on time, borrowing items from a friend or lending money have to do with Judaism? After all, isn’t Judaism – like all other religions – all about ritual observances, holiday and lifecycle celebrations and prayer services in a house of worship? Why would a religious book like the Torah contain legislation in matters of what society typically calls “civil law”?

The answer is that Judaism is not a religion, but a way of life. The Torah is not a collection of “Jewish rituals,” rather it’s a guide on how to live life – everywhere. The 613 commandments in the Torah are as much concerned with how life is conducted in the work place as with how services are conducted in the synagogue. In fact, prior to legislating any laws regarding houses of worship, sacred spaces, High Priests and sacrifices or prayers, the Torah spends a great amount of time legislating how to set up a fair system of civil laws that will help resolve disputes, protect vulnerable members of society and create a society that puts social justice as it’s highest value.

In last week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard God’s voice speak directly to them. In ten powerful utterances (popularly known as “The Ten Commandments”), God outlined a vision for how a Jewish society would look and act. As the sound and light show at Mount Sinai came to a close, the Jewish people – completely frightened and overwhelmed by having heard the Divine voice – asked Moses “You speak with us, but let not God speak directly to us, lest we die.” The Torah then describes “The people stood far off, but Moses drew near into the thick darkness where God was.” It’s at this point that this week’s Torah portion begins, with God speaking “face to face” with Moses on Mount Sinai.

“And these are the rules (Mishpatim) that you shall set before them.” With this verse, God begins to legislate the detailed version of the Ten Commandments. The word Mishpatim refers to civil ordinances, and by beginning with these particular laws, God sends a very powerful message about what it means to be a truly “religious” community. Most people looking to create a “religious community” would begin by building a house of worship. In the Torah, God sees things differently. As the Jewish people are in the initial stages of building their own “religious community,” civil laws governing relationships between people are legislated before the laws on building a house of worship. Courts and judges come before tabernacles and High Priests. The message is that the first definition of being “religious” is how one behaves at work, in business, and how one treats his/her fellow human being. God knows that it’s much easier to behave “religiously” inside a temple or synagogue. The true challenge is maintaining that religiosity in the workplace and at home. It’s less of a challenge to perform the ritual commandment of prayer than it is to make sure that your employee is paid fair wages, and that the payment is made on time.
Contemporary society is engaged in a renewed “search for spirituality.” Judaism has joined in that search. A recent Jewish periodical devoted an entire issue to “Orthodoxy and Spirituality,” implying, perhaps, that they are independent of each other. This is probably due to the misguided and limited understanding of the term “spirituality” as almost exclusively a form of prayer or meditation. Is there “spirituality” in solving a dispute in court? Can one experience God when standing in the presence of judges who are charged with carrying out justice?

In reference to God, the Book of Psalms teaches: “Righteousness (Tzedek) and justice  (Mishpat) are the base of Your throne” (Psalms 89:15). On this verse, the 13th century Sephardic Talmudist Rabbeinu Yonah comments: “Whoever upholds justice (Mishpat) upholds God’s throne, and whoever perverts justice defiles God’s throne.”

Spirituality is “Mishpatim,” that is, the creation and maintenance of a just society that brings the glory of God’s throne into civil life.