Monday, June 22, 2009

Simple Kindnesses

Chassidic stories and the like have a legend of "hidden tzadikkim", good people who look ordinary but do very special work behind the scenes, when no one in particular is looking. Where does one find such people?

Well, we made a "simcha" this past weekend - my eldest son's Barmitzva. It was all wonderful, and we had much to celebrate. It is the first "simcha" that we have made beyond the rushed organisation of a "Brit." And so in our planning and running of the events, we discovered certain things, or maybe I should say, people, that we did not expect.

Planning the Shabbat of a Barmitzva is quite a feat. If one wants to avoid the inordinate cost of a full blown caterer, how does one manage? After all, one needs tablecloths, napkins and dishes, and one wants them to be elegant, colour coordinated and the like. Moreover, one may wish to eat of china rather than plastic plates. How do we do this for forty people in a cost effective way?

What we discovered is that our Yishuv (community) has a Gema"ch (free loan society) for family celebrations. They have a storage room with tablecloths in about 20 colours, serving dishes, decorative pieces for the table, every last detail including a board to cut the Challah, and a mirror on which to place Shabbat candles. and the amazing thing is that one can take all these things for FREE! (One has to pay to get the tablecloths laundered but that is the total cost.) The people who work there volunteer. I don't know who set it up, nor who donated all the beautiful things there. But what an amazing concept! Everyone has bar/batmitzvas, aufrufs, and other family parties. Why not have a central facility that helps everyone to have a high-quality upscale simcha for minimal running costs? The fact that all this is offered to the community without charge is astounding.

And after the Shabbat, we had leftover food. Friends informed us of a man in our community who distributes leftovers to needy local families. We took him the food. He ensured that needy families received it. This man has created a discreet network which ensures that he is informed of families in need, and he provides for their basic needs.

Once again, here is a shining example of exemplary work performed without fanfare or prestige but this is a service which, no doubt, restores dignity and hope (let alone nutrition) to many desperate homes.

And I am quite amazed that I have lived in this community for 15 years and I was absolutely unaware of these terrific public services. It would appear that certain acts of kindness are done quietly; so quietly that until a person stumbles upon them, one just doesn't know about them.

But beyond these special acts and institutions let me mention something even simpler. we received many phone calls: from friends abroad, family, my parents' friends, all wishing us Mazal Tov. It warmed our hearts. So many people cared to boost our simcha. It doesn't take much to pick up the phone and speak and listen for 60 seconds, but it made a powerful difference to us. I frequently forget to call people in these situations. Now I understand just how incredible it is. The sense that people who you care about are remembering you and celebrating together with you is deeply heart warming. so this has taught me an important lesson, of the power of joining with others in their simcha, the potent force of caring and expressing love to others. That nurturing a friendship and demonstrating concern for friends - not the needy but friends - is also an act which raises us up and make our lives happy, worthwhile and meaningful.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Notes on Parashat Korach

1. Korach's political slogan is כי כל העדה כולם קדושים ובתוכם ה in other words, the people are holy, sacred. Hence they are entitled to leadership. This seems like a wonderful democratic egalitarian argument.

I recall Yishayahu Leibowitz's comment when he notes that the paragraph that preced Korach is the parsha of Tzitzit where the people are also called holy:

"... in order that you may remember and perform all my command AND YOU WILL BE HOLY TO THE LORD."

Yishayahu Leibowitz puts it in the following way:

"The difference between these two perceptions of 'holiness' is the distinction between religious faith and pagan worship. The holiness of Parshat Tzitzit is not a given assumption but a task. There we are not told, "You are holy", but a demand is made to "become holy." But in the religious consciousness of Korach and his followers, "The entire congregation is holy." Holiness is something bestowed upon one.

The distinction between the two concepts is deeper still: ... In Parshat Tzitzit, holiness is expressed in the most sublime aspect of the life of faith and the religious mindset of man; that he is required to accept upon himself a task. Nothing is promised or assured. He is simply charged with a demand ... But, in the holiness of Korach and his group ... man frees himself from responsibility, from the mission with which he is charged and from the obligation to struggle." (Notes on the weekly Parsha pg.96-97)

2. Nonetheless, it is interesting that there may appear to be some truth in this egalitarian approach. I think from our modern perspective, we also have a difficult time understanding priesthood i.e. religious ritual leadership as restricted to a particular family or tribe. We value equal opportunity. Do we truly understand why the Kohanim and them alone, are selected as Aharon's descendents? Would a system of "bechor" with every tribe and family represented be so wrong - and don't we know that the priesthood was certainly open to corruption as was seen during 2nd Temple times.

Maybe there is some truth or sanctity here in the argument of the 250? And indeed certain fringe elements of the story do indicate that theer is at least some substance to their acts in that the firepans (of the 250) are "raised" (17:2) "for they are sanctified." Their act did have some residual sanctity. It was not all blasphemy. It was holy! Does this signify a kernel of truth in their motivation, their cause? See the Netziv who suggests that the group of 250 were Tzaddikim and their motivation was pure (if mistaken.)

3. Why did the 250 leaders agree to the ketoret (incense) test at ENTRANCE to the Mishkan? Why not INSIDE the Mishkan? Is it not a recipe for failure? After all the Ketoret is brought inside the Mishkan!
Two possibilities:
a. They were fearful of the inner chamber of the Mishkan. They were concerned not to enter inappropriately such as the acts of Nadav and Avihu. This was an exercise in caution.
b. Their bringing ketoret OUTIDE is a reflection of their call for access, for deregulation, for lowering the entry requirements and quotas. Their aim is to bring the Ketoret to the nation! Bringing the ketoret in the "hidden" chamber is an insult to the nation. They don't want to separate from the nation. They want to be connected. Bringing the ketoret OUTSIDE is precisely what they are about.

4. Moshe and Aharon's role and conduct in the parasha is nothing other than outstanding. They have suffered incredible personal attack and yet, twice in the parasha , God offers to destroy the nation (see 16:21 and 17:9) and Moshe and Aharon, despite the fact that they may have felt hurt by all the wranglings, refuse absolutely to "allow" God to decimate the nation. TWICE God tells them that they should remove themselves from the sinning throngs. each time they refuse.

Moshe and aharaon show themselves as the true champions of the nation, rather than Korach and his group who each seem to have a personal agenda clothed in idealism.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Obama's Perspective

Much has been said and written about Obama's Cairo speech. I am going to add a couple of thoughts of my own. (For some other responses, see here and here)

Let me begin by saying that Obama's speech was an attempt to be balanced, sophisticated and intelligent about the Middle East, respectful and generous about Islam. From an American perspective I think it was a good speech. From our perspective however, Obama's attempt to embrace the Muslim world isn't such great news for the Jews. We certainly drew the short straw. To quote a summary from the (London) Times:

"His toughest message was reserved for Jewish settlers on the West Bank, whose communities he termed illegitimate. He added that Jerusalem, claimed by Israel as its capital, should be a home for Jews and Christians and Muslims."

I should add that I support Obama, I like him, and his general approach. I should also add that I am frequently despondant that our leaders, both Left and Right, seem to be in an impasse as regards the Peace Process. The Right ignore the Palestinian's Rights, the Left seem unrealistic as to the threats of the enemy and the need to address and cultivate the Jewish soul of Medinat Yisrael. New ideas ARE needed. Israel is crying out for solid and final borders and a solution to the stalemate so that we can apply our energies to other things. Nonetheless, it is not fun to have the American President put us on the spot and effectively point the finger primarily at Israel as the major culprit or hindrance to Peace.

I have two comments.

1. There is no doubt whatsoever that Obama has shifted the U.S. administration's attitudes towards Israel. (I wrote about this months ago - link). And this shift is uncomfortable from the Israeli perspective.

One feels that Obama is picking on us in particular, day by day. I cannot help feeling that the pressure that he is applying regarding Israel is excessive. After all, Obam has repeated at least five times over the past 3 weeks as to how Israel must stop settlement activity, Clinton has also driven the message home, and so has Biden. what happened to being "diplomatic" in the sphere of diplomacy? This is a very heavy handed approach.

And one wonders, is settlement activity the most heinous crime in the region?
why is this policy in particular being singled out? - Is it the most dramatic obstacle to a two-state solution?
And whereas I feel that he is treating Iran with kid's gloves, we are feeling the heat.

At some level, this single minded focus on settlement building feels simplistic and shallow, easy pickings. But there are so many other factors to this crisis, not least amongst them, Hamas's ongoing refusal to recognise Israel, that one wonders how Obama can see settlement restriction as the panacea to a 100 year war.

2. And possibly this second point will help us understand how Obama sees things. See this quote from his speech:

"Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding."

To understand Obama, one must realise that the civil rights movement, the oppression of the blacks in America and their eventual equal rights, is a force that animates his perspective. (Just read his book. It is at the centre of his consciousness.)

In this passage he explains something simple. From his viewpoint, Israelis are the whites, the oppressors, and the Palestinians are the oppressed, the blacks. For me this may explain why Obama feels so passionate about this issue. It also helps me understand why we shouldn't anticipate Obama to sympathise with our perspective. The way he sees things, the Palestinians are an oppressed nation. They are his brethren and they should be freed from their slavery. It's not a Muslim thing; it is deeper and more emotive than all that. His heart lies with the Palestinians. we are the rich, white slaveowners.

Now that doesn't look to good for our prospects over the coming years.

It's going to be a rough ride.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Silence of Israel's PM

I am jealous of the US. I am jealous of them because they have a leader who communicates. Obama's weekly YouTube video communications may be a gimmick, but nonetheless they express a deep respect for the electorate and a significant commitment to the spirit of democracy as he engages with the nation directly, explaining and inspiring, informing and sharing. These video communiques allow the general public to hear his messages and to understand his policy, to comprehend how their country is being run, on a regular basis.

And how about us here in Israel? Silence! - Bibi is supposed to be the great Communicator, the media genius, the TV wonder kid. And yet, we don't hear him. Except for a snippet or two at the start of a cabinet meeting, or a 5 second soundbite from a conference speech, I don't feel that my PM is communicating with me.

This is a problem at a number of levels. The first is that I don't know his plans: not on health, education, energy, let alone the Peace process and the problem of Hamas and what have you. Sometimes, one has the feeling that policies are invented at the last minute, that it is all very Israeli, patched together, off the cuff. Tell us the game plan, demonstrate that there is a plan, a strategy.

Second, there is the question of the national mood, the sense of leadership. Talking, imparting a message, communication is vital. It allows a leader to instill a sense of mission and common purpose in the nation. To share enthusiasm and passion, to have the nation embark on a journey together, to get everybody on board.

We need this desperately here in Israel. With so many challenges, some vision and hope are in short supply. If the PM were to address the nation regularly, we might be able to join together to address in unity certain key national objectives. The PM doesn't even need to reveal his Peace strategy (although it might be nice.) He could simply discuss topics less in conflict eg. Clean energy, Higher Education, the Zionist endeavour of settling the Negev and Galil, and outline thoughts on the more complicated and controversial policies too. we would like to hear his thoughts, his values, his ideas, hopes and fears. If ideas are shared, if thoughts are transmitted then we can truly work together.

And furthermore even when we disagree, if policies were expressed, presented and explained, it could foster a sophisticated discussion, rather than the awful political climate of shallow slogans and empty platitudes.

Why don't Israeli Prime Ministers talk to the people?

Sharon made silence and art form when he realised (or his spin doctors) that words just lose votes. He made silence a virtue when it came to electioneering, allowing images and a slogan or two to do the talking. Olmert followed in his footsteps talking little in election campaigns. and the result is that Israelis are not shocked when Prime Minister's make completely unpredictable policy shifts, light years from their election promises. Israelis are unfazed. as if to say... what do you expect?

But politicians are answerable to the nation. We simply know too little, we have not heard the leaders articulate their policy, we - the citizens - do not understand the views and proposed actions of our leaders , the directions in which they are leading us.

Go on Mr. Netanyahu. Talk to us! You are the Communicator. Tell us what is on your mind. Include us in the debate, in the conversation. Outline your plans, share your views, your policies and dreams. Let us share your vision. Let us begin a conversation. Let's get it out in the open. Enough feeling that all the decisions are made, ad hoc, behind closed doors, in dark shadowy rooms by faceless nameless advisers and aides! Enough of feeling that everything is a political compromise. We need more transparency. We need more inspiration, more vision. Talk to us! You will only win friends that way... and you may even convert some enemies.