Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Rosh Hashanah Sermon--Adonai Yireh

This past summer, the scandal in the Penn State football program rocked not only the world of college sports but the entire nation. Coach Joe Paterno and other Penn State officials displayed unbelievable negligence in protecting Jerry Sandusky. The NCAA issued against Penn State what is arguably the most severe punishment in collegiate sporting history, and I think rightfully so.

However there’s one aspect of the NCAA’s penalty that I find troubling: the decision to strip the football program of all of its victorious since 1998. This is troubling for two reasons. First, it punishes the players for the crimes of their coaches. And second—and for me more importantly—it pretends that history can be rewritten.

Going back in the record books and changing a few stats doesn’t actually change anything. Taking away Joe Paterno’s victories doesn’t undo his wrongdoings, nor does it refute his winning record. Whether Paterno is or isn’t the winningest coach in NCAA history doesn’t remove the trauma that Sandusky inflicted on so many young boys. And even if Paterno was a terrible coach and role model, it doesn’t change the number of times his team scored more points than their opponents. Even in this viciously perverse story—and no matter how much we’d like to undo this cruelty—the past cannot be rewritten.

Rosh Hashanah calls us to open the books of our lives and see what we have written there. Where have we been this past year? What were our greatest successes and our greatest failures? “Our days are like scrolls,” teaches Bakhya, the medieval Jewish philosopher. “Write in them only what you want remembered.” How often do we write in the books of our lives things we wish we could strike from the record? How often do we lose our patience with a loved one, only to immediately wish we could take it back? How often do we share that tiniest piece of gossip, with the full knowledge that it can’t be unsaid? How often do we put our work first at the expense of our family, only to find ourselves, years down the line, wishing that we could have one more Saturday afternoon together? How often do we wish that we could rewrite history?

This morning, we read the binding of Isaac, the most well known and perhaps most troubling episode in Abraham’s life, one that I imagine Abraham himself wishes could be rewritten. As a sign of devotion to God, Abraham takes his son Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah with the intention of making him a human sacrifice. Thankfully, an angel of God intervenes, and Abraham is unable to complete the task. And as a sign of thanks to God, Abraham decides to rename that place “Adonai yireh / The Lord sees.”
The naming of places is a classic literary trope in the bible and often holds the key to unlocking any particular story’s central message. In decoding the binding of Isaac, Jewish commentators throughout the centuries have offered a variety of interpretations for why Abraham chooses to name this place, “Adonai yireh / The Lord sees.” I’d like to briefly present you with two, and then focus on a third.

Rashi, a medieval French commentator and one of our most prolific sages, argues that the name change points to the centrality of sacrifice in ancient Israel. The name means: “Adonai yireh / The Lord sees that through sacrifice, the people of Israel demonstrate their devotion.” A second interpretation comes from Radak, who lived a century after Rashi. Radak argues that the name refers to an earlier passage in the story. When Isaac had asked his father, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham replied, “Adonai yireh / God will see to the lamb.” In the end, God does see to the lamb by providing one that is stuck in the bushes, pointing to God’s benevolence and grace.

A third interpretation comes from the Midrash, and is particularly appropriate to Rosh Hashanah. In our tradition, Abraham is associated with hospitality and with loving-kindness. And yet, glaring in the middle of his otherwise praiseworthy biography is the binding of Isaac, an act of inhumane zealousness. According to the Midrash--which is our collection of fables based on the Torah narrative--Abraham will eventually come to regret his actions. The Midrash points out that the very next event in the bible is the death of Sarah, Abraham’s wife and Isaac’s mother. The Midrash imagines that upon hearing the news of what her husband almost did to her son, Sarah goes into a state of utter shock and dies. Abraham put God before his own family, and this Sarah cannot take. The Midrash also points out that after the incident on Mount Moriah, Abraham and Isaac never speak to each other again. Abraham’s blind devotion to God distances him from his son until the two are completely estranged. In proving himself to God, Abraham loses that which should have been closest to him, his wife and his son. The binding of Isaac is, for Abraham, a blemish on his record, a dark spot in his history, an irremovable weight on his conscience, and out of his regret, Abraham renames that place “Adonai yireh / The Lord sees that which I have done.” Shameful though Abraham may feel, he will forever be remembered for it. God sees, and Abraham can not rewrite history.

On Rosh Hashanah we affirm that “Adonai yireh,” that the Godliness inside of each us sees all that we have done this year, that the divine spark within calls us to bear to witness to our own actions. It is the day upon which we see the history of our lives displayed before us, and rather than boasting with pride or shrinking with regret at what is written there, we simply read. This can be terrifying. Sometimes the truth can hurt. But often, when we bring it out into the light, the truth becomes less scary. As rabbi and author Alan Lew puts it, “We know we can stand the truth. It is already here and we are already enduring it.”

I recently had a disagreement with a loved one in which we were forced to examine the truth of our history. Deep-seated relationship dynamics, engrained in us over decades of a close, loving relationship, were finally acknowledged. The conversation was uncomfortable. But it was honest. We weren’t able to change, or forget, or bury, or rewrite anything about our history. But we were able to examine it. And in doing so, we were able to see ourselves and each other more clearly.

It is exactly for this reason that Rosh Hashanah has another name: Yom HaZikharon / The Day of Remembering. Remembering the past enables us to do self-improvement. When we boldly remember the truth that the past holds, we no longer serve it, as a blemish on our record, but rather it serves us, as a beacon of right action.

This morning, we recited Unetaneh Tokef, one of our tradition’s most stirring and powerful prayers. The prayer was written in the 11th century, but it borrows its language from the Talmud, written 500 years earlier. This earlier version declares that our acts of self-reflection will cause God to ma’akir / tear-up God’s judgment of us. This is a God who can rewrite history, a God who, with proper persuasion, can cause any event in our past to just disappear, as if torn / ma’akir out of the pages of history. Five centuries later, the author of Unetaneh Tokef envisioned a different kind of God. The author declares that our acts of self-reflection will cause God to ma’avir / transform God’s judgment of us. This is a God who calls us to recognize our past, to face it boldly, and in doing so, allows us to ma’avir / transform ourselves and our understanding of the story of our lives. This is not a God who tries to rewrite history; this is a God who sees. Adonai yireh. This is a God who calls upon us to see.

So I don’t think Joe Paterno should have all of his wins torn from the record books. This would not be in the spirit of Yom HaZikharon / The Day of Remembering, but rather in the spirit of forgetting. And we learn nothing by forgetting. Instead, let’s remember a football giant who was so good at winning, that he risked the safety of dozens of youngsters and ruined his own reputation to do it. That story has something to teach us.

As for ourselves, let us open our eyes this Rosh Hashanah to see the truth of our past, which cannot be changed, our failures along with our triumphs, that we may remember them—and learn.Adonai yireh, oh God who sees, give us the vision to see your holy spark which lives within each of us, that it may illuminate our dark places, that it may guide us to good action, that it may take that which we’d rather tear out of history and transform it into a source of blessing.

Kein y’hi ratzon. Be this God’s will.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Tisha B'Av and Tabasco Sauce

I love spicy food. I love salsa, jalapeños, hot wings, and jambalaya. I love curry, spicy noodles, paella, and chili. On Passover, my friends and I used to see who could pile the most horseradish on his Matzah without crying. I just can’t get enough of the heat. And yet, every time I scarf down a plateful of Kung Pao chicken, somewhere in the back of my mind I know that in two hours I’ll inevitably be lying on the couch rubbing an upset, full belly. And I’ll vow never to do it again.

It often seems that life presents us with the same pitfalls time and time again. Yesterday, on Shabbat morning, we found the Israelites standing for a second time overlooking the Promised Land. Moses recounts their previous experience in this place. Forty years earlier, the previous generation had stood in the same location, about to cross the Jordan River, and they balked. Fear of the unknown overcame them and they failed to seize the opportunity. God, in frustration, banished the Israelites to wander in the desert for 40 years. It is easy to imagine why Moses chooses to retell this particular story now. It is a sort of remembering, an acknowledgement of past failure, in hope that the Israelites will this time fulfill their destiny.

Today, Jews all over the world observe Tisha B’Av, a fast day remembering the many failures and tragedies of Jewish history: the destruction of the First and Second ancient Temples in Jerusalem, the unsuccessful Bar Kokhba revolt, and countless expulsions, massacres, and pogroms. Tisha B’Av also marks the informal beginning to the High Holiday season. A full seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah, this day of remembering—of acknowledging—sets the tone for this time of deepest self-reflection. On Tisha B’Av, we collectively and as individuals revisit that business which is as yet unresolved, that tripping wire upon which we continually stumble, those destructive tendencies that we again and again habituate, that border to which we always return but are seemingly never able to cross.

Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, taught that true teshuvah—true repentance—has occurred only when a person finds him or herself in the exact same situation in which he erred, but this time chooses to behave differently. Similarly, Tisha B’Av represents not only remembrance and destruction, but also the opportunity to begin rebuilding. Today, as we turn towards the High Holidays, let us all strive to acknowledge and take ownership of our own shortcomings, of our own destructive tendencies, in order that we may begin the work of reconciliation. Otherwise, we’ll continue to find ourselves lying on the couch, rubbing our full bellies.


Saturday, May 19, 2012

End of Year Wrap-Up!

Well folks, it's been quite a journey since we first moved "Straight to Yerushalayim." Thanks for following our adventure. (Sorry for the three month posting-hiatus this spring.) For our final post, we'd like to share this toast we offered our classmates at the last Shabbat together. Enjoy! (Words are below the video.)

With love,
Leah and Daniel

It's time for reflection
And deep introspection
On our class's connection
We've made here at school.

We started rehashing.
Ideas starting flashing.
We wrote this while crashing
the King David pool.

We arrived in July,
Expectations were high
When we landed, I cried.
I admit, I'll confess.

After one week of ulpan—
Our books on the shulchan—
We realized the school
Conned us into this mess.

But with trips to the wall
Shabbas sounding her call
We were destined to fall
With an image ideal.

And what's not in your guidebook
Will give you a side look
No starry wide-eyed look.
This city is real.

Headlines we're digesting
Are so interesting
Ha Am is Doreshing
Tzeddek Chevrati

The news that took shape here—
Did you not buy the paper
On the day of escape
For one Gilad Shalit?

We went over the green line
In order to refine
Or perhaps even define
What "pro-Israel means"

You can't quite explain it
Though we've heard a refrain that
It's more complicated
Than everything seems.

The polarization
Of our Jewish nation
So much fragmentation
It does us no good.

Mechitzas divide us
But what unifies us
Can help us to rise up
And that's peoplehood.

On Shabbat it's no problem—
Barechuni l'shalom—
A minyan to daven
Is just down the street

A day that's been blessed
To give money a rest
But you walk into Resto
It's all HUC.

If you want a waffle
Babette's isn't awful
You're talking falafel?
We're talking top tier.

If you're looking to nom
On the best hummus stam
Ben Sira's the bomb.
Hey, you can't say that here.

Our time at the College
Is building our knowledge.
We all feel enthralled with
Our liminal space.

And although the classes
Have beaten our asses
The truth is the staff is
The heart of this place.

Dave and Jeremy's framing
And Helen's emailing
Nancy deals with complaining
They make this place flow

And we garner respect
From the students at Schechter
Our program director
Wrote "Pharaoh, Pharaoh."

We've finished our classes
Paid Arnona taxes
And all made our last
Shabbas shop at the shuk.

Our time here is waning
But don't start complaining
The memories worth framing
Are on the Gimbel's Facebook

So if you'll please raise a glass
To one hell of a class
And we'll toast to our last
Shabbas meal as a group

From Eilat to Haifa
This year's seen some strife
But l'chaim, to life!
To our year in Yerush!

Friday, May 11, 2012

A New Zionism

This post is by Daniel

In June 2010, Peter Beinart published an influential article in the NY Review of Books called "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment." His central claim was that the old method of Israel advocacy—"No matter where I stand, I stand with Israel"—has failed to inspire a young generation of American Jews. Liberal Jewish college students, he argued, are unwilling to check their democratic values at Israel's door. Thus, they've grown increasingly distanced from a picture of Israel that can do no wrong, contrasted with media headlines and world opinion that indicate otherwise. Beinart argued that in order to engage young American Jews, the establishment must craft a new Zionism, one that isn't afraid to tackle Israel's very real problems head on. The suggestion sparked a fierce debate in the Jewish world about what exactly it means to be pro-Israel.

This debate raises many challenging questions: When Israel is threatened, to what extent does this threat implicitly extend to world Jewry? When Israel makes foreign or domestic policy, to what extent is it incumbent upon world Jewry to give their unwavering support? When world Jewry critique Israeli policy, to what extent is Israel obliged to listen? And when Jews are critical of Israel, what are the implications for non-Jews' perception of Israel?

This year in Israel, I've frequently found myself walking the line between loving and critiquing. On the one hand, I am moved to tears that for the first time in Jewish history since antiquity, our people—and I among them—have had the opportunity to live in the Jewish state. Being in Israel this year has often felt like having front row seats to some great Jewish event. I have the newspaper from the day Gilad Shalit was released. I made pilgrimage to the Kotel on Pesach. I stood at attention as the whole country fell silent for an entire minute on Yom HaShoah, the low whir of the memorial siren the only sound in the city, like some sad, ancient shofar. This is the Israel I've loved. This is the Israel that has deepened and textured my Jewish identity in ways I never dreamed possible.

And on the other hand, I am moved to tears by the missed opportunities, the poor decisions, the injustices I've seen this young country commit. An eight-year-old girl in Beit Shemesh was spit on and called a whore for being dressed "immodestly." There are streets in Hevron that are segregated between Jews and Arabs. The bilingual Jewish-Arab school that my fiancée works at was graffitied with the words "Death to Arabs." This is like no Israel I could have ever imagined.

I agree with the deputy editor of the Jerusalem Post, Caroline Glick, that "the fate of the Jewish people in Israel and throughout the world is indivisible." It is for exactly this reason that Israel gives me so much pride. It is also exactly for this reason that I feel compelled, even required to critique Israel when I sense it is going astray. In this way, Israel and world Jewry are like family: some times we have to give each other a little tough love.

Moment Magazine recently published a symposium of more than 20 leading Jewish thinkers, scholars, and influentials on what it means to be pro-Israel today. The article closed with the following wisdom from Amos Oz: "Just as there is more than one way to be Jewish, there is more than one way to love Israel." No one way is right. No one way is wrong. But they are all important.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Winter Medley

There's no snow in Israel, but these songs feel like winter. Check out this small project we've been kicking around since New Years. Enjoy!

A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square
What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?
Someone to Watch Over Me

Follow this link to view the video on YouTube.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

What Does it Mean to be Pro-Israel Today?

"There is more than one way to love Israel, just as there is more than one way to be Jewish"
-Amos Oz

A friend of ours recently shared a fascinating and insightful article from Moment Magazine. The article provides a sweeping range of perspectives from leading thinkers on the Arab-Israeli conflict regarding the question: "What Does it Mean to be Pro Israel Today?" It's well worth the read.

Here are some of the commentators that most resonated with us: David Shipler, Michael Lerner, Dan Sierdaski, Jeremy Ben-Ami, Aziz Abu Sarah, Eric Alterman, Cecilie Surasky, and Robert Rifkind.

We welcome your comments below on which perspectives resonate with you.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Light Unto the Nations

This post is by Daniel and Leah

“I love Israel not for what it is, but what it could be.” –Rabbi David Hartman

Before we came to Israel, the Arab-Israeli conflict was a theoretical, political issue that we experienced primarily through the lenses of the Jewish community and world media. Since arriving in Israel, the conflict has become a tangible part of our daily lives, which has much less to do with politics and much more to do with the human stories on the ground. We’ve learned that the conflict is not a story of two competing sides, but rather a complex, dynamic situation with many layers, individual voices, and unfolding narratives. In this way, trying to understand the conflict is like looking through a kaleidoscope: every time you look at it from a new angle, the colors move and a different picture emerges. No one angle can show the complete picture. The best we can do is try and see as many angles as possible to uncover a more whole image of a conflict that’s constantly in motion.

Last week, we set out to add a new angle to our understanding of the conflict. We went on a two-day Encounter trip to the West Bank to meet with Palestinians and look through the kaleidoscope with their eyes. It would be impossible and overwhelming to encapsulate our whole trip in one blog post, so we’ve decided to share one encounter that was particularly eye-opening and challenging.


On the first day of our trip, we went on a tour of the Israeli West Bank barrier (also known as the Security Fence, the Separation Wall, and many other politically charged terms—as we’ve said many times before, everything here is complicated, even naming a wall). Following the violence of the second intifada, the Israeli government erected the barrier as a means of preventing would-be terrorists from crossing into Israel-proper from the West Bank. Since that time, suicide bombings in Israel have been prevented almost entirely. Yet the barrier remains highly controversial and politically charged. Critics of the barrier point to its system of checkpoints as a means of restricting the free movement of Palestinians throughout the West Bank and greater Israel. Additionally, critics claim that the barrier is Israel’s attempt to set the borders between Israel and any possible future Palestinian state. Over the course of our two days in Bethlehem, not one Palestinian we spoke to questioned Israel’s right to secure its borders. Their problem is that, from their perspective, the placement of the barrier has less to do with security and more to do with Israel expanding its borders: 85% of the barrier lies within the pre-1967 green line. The barrier is more than twice as long as the ’67 border, and stretches well into the West Bank to encompass Israeli settlements.
Graffiti on the barrier

In Bethlehem, the Palestinian side of the barrier is covered with colorful political graffiti with messages like: “Love wins,” “This wall may take care of the present, but it has no future,” and “Refuse to be enemies.” It is worth noting that most of the graffiti is done in English by the international community in solidarity of the Palestinian people.

The barrier continues to be constructed and its location is hotly disputed. In the village of al-Walaja, we met a farmer named Omar. Al-Walaja is wedged between the Jewish settlements of Gilo and Gush Etzion. Omar’s house and farming property lie on the edge of the village, outside the proposed route of the barrier. For several years the Israeli government has tried to convince Omar to sell his property so the barrier can be constructed as planned. He refuses to leave the home his father built and his children grew up in. Instead of rerouting the barrier to include Omar’s property, the state of Israel is spending 5.8 million shekels (approx. 1.5 million dollars) to surround Omar’s home with an electric fence and build a tunnel to connect his house to the village. The barrier will dramatically restrict his access to his farmland. Whereas he once had 500 olive trees, he will soon have access to only 10.

Omar and the tunnel that's being
constructed from his house to the village
Critics of the barrier point to cases such as Omar’s to argue that the placement of the barrier has less to do with security and more to do with land grabbing. (It should be noted that on more than one occasion, the Israeli Supreme Court has overturned the placement of the barrier, rerouting its construction.) Omar’s situation could easily be solved by rerouting the barrier to the valley between al-Walaja and Gilo. By placing the barrier on the proposed site, Israel forcibly stops future expansion of al-Walaja and allows for potential growth of Gilo and other settlements. While Israel rigorously controls settlement construction, it is essential to note that all Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law. The status of the settlements will be a major point of negotiation in all future peace talks.

For us, Omar’s story was the most challenging encounter of the trip: the solution of moving the barrier is painfully obvious in the face of the absurd inconvenience and outrageous cost of building a tunnel, not to mention the fact that Omar and his family will be fenced in. We’ve been struggling with the injustice of this situation and its implications for Israel and its policy regarding the barrier. The Ministry of Defense might argue that encapsulating this corner of al-Walaja would prevent militants from shooting across the valley into Gilo. However, at present there’s no barrier and no violence.

Omar’s is not the only disheartening case we saw on our brief trip. While it is impossible to negate that the barrier has increased Israel’s security, it is impossible to ignore that it has done so to the detriment of the Palestinian people.


We love Israel because it’s a place where a Jew can be a Jew. We love Israel because here our people and our tradition were born. We love Israel because its very existence engenders important Jewish conversations. One of those conversations must be an honest dialogue about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Such dialogue must include an attempt to understand the Palestinian narrative. There are multiple realities on the ground and sometimes they just don’t reconcile. And that’s okay. But it’s our responsibility to strive for a more complete picture. And often the more complete picture is more complicated. And that’s okay too.

We can no longer allow ourselves to merely dream of what Israel could be. Rather we must invest ourselves in making that dream a reality. It requires the hard work of facing the facts on the ground. It requires us to open our eyes to the things that need changing. It requires us to look into the kaleidoscope and be brave enough to turn the wheel, to see another angle, to step into someone else’s reality.

We believe in an Israel that can be “a light unto the nations.” But before we can do so, we must shine a light on our own dark places. We can no longer be afraid of our shadows.

We’ve talked in this blog post about complexifying our understanding of Israel. We’re both taking a class on the History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and have made plans to tour Jewish neighborhoods in the West Bank, spend Shabbat with a Haredi family, meet with Bedouins in the Negev, and tour the Jewish towns in the south that suffer from rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. If you have suggestions for other trips, books, news sources, or organizations we might want to explore, please send them our way!