The Walls in Our Lives
Let’s talk about walls. Let’s think about the walls in our lives and the walls in our world. Whether the wall with the southern border of the US, the Kotel, or the security wall in Jerusalem. We have seen how walls can unite us but we also have seen how walls can divide us.
I recognize that people might have different ways of thinking how to solve some of the policy implications surrounding these walls. Some of us agree and some of us disagree. That is not what is on my mind as we enter this new year, together, as a community.
What I want to consider, using the issues that these walls raise, is the following: What are the Jewish values that we must grapple with as we see and hear about these walls? Now, you might be thinking, why is she talking politics in a synagogue. The truth is, I don’t want to talk politics. I want to talk Judaism. And Judaism has a lot to say about the world in which we live. The world where we have relationships. The world that we struggle in.
So since we are all here today, let’s take a moment and think about what are we doing with our own walls? Why do we put them up between ourselves and others, in a way that can’t enable reconciliation, but perpetuates discord? How can we use these days of repentance to think deeply about the walls in our lives. Are we able to look past them, over them, through them, even for a minute, to understand where others might be coming from? I believe that each of these walls forces us to confront what it means to be Jewish, or human for that matter, our two identities which intersect on Rosh Hashanah. Each of these walls raises issues but the wall itself is not really the issue, but a symbol for a broader challenge that we must discuss.
As we think about this, this morning, I want us to find a way to elevate the discourse, recognizing that we most likely won’t solve the world’s problems by 1 pm.
Let’s begin with the Kotel. The Western Wall in Israel is a symbol of Jewish freedom, Jewish sovereignty, and Jewish spirituality. We take time each summer on Tisha B’av to mourn the destruction of the Temple, since, having a centralized place of worship has always been one of our core values. However, a greater value was that of Jewish sovereignty and the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 symbolized that loss. Fortunately, since the miraculous victory of 1967, Jews, can now pray, as Jews, at our wall. And so, we have to think of the sadness of what this wall has come to represent and the challenges that we are faced with as American Jews and as members of the Non-Orthodox community.
While I have certainly enjoyed wonderful moments at the kotel, and have been with so many of you on trips, there have been difficult moments for me as well. I remember when I was 16 years old, I arrived at the kotel to pray shacharit, the morning, prayer, just after arriving in Israel from Poland, when an ultra-orthodox man came over to my USY group to start yelling at us for engaging in mixed prayer. Our sin? Praying like we do here. My reaction? Is it possible that I felt freer to pray in Krakow or Warsaw than in Jerusalem. And twenty years later, in 2013, things had gotten worse, not better. No longer was I a teen with a USY group, but I was your rabbi, in Jerusalem, studying. It was Rosh Chodesh Av. I, along with thousands, went to the kotel, not even to daven in a mixed group, but just as women, women who led prayers-wearing tallit, tefillin, kippot, with the desire of reading the Torah. You know what happened-you have heard the stories. Jews. Our fellow Jews approached us-called us Nazis. Threw eggs at us. Whistled at us through our prayers. And then just this summer, in 2018. I was back at the kotel, but this summer, was different. I was just a little bit south. At Ezrat Yisrael, Willing to move aside a bit to be there in full egalitarian prayer. But still in a place that wasn’t being given that kavod, the respect it deserves, because the Israeli government reneged on a deal. A deal that Natan Sharansky, the hero of the Jewish people helped create. How crazy was this? This wall, is a symbol for the way that you and I and others aren’t valued the way we should be in Israel. But my dear friends-as your rabbi, I refuse to walk away and disengage from Israel. All of us here need to understand what is going on right now. We need to talk about how the soul of our Jewish state is being run by only one group. And we need to support institutions like the Masorti movement in Israel which reflects our values.
But the issue that I am raising today is not only about a wall-It is about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ability to reneg on the negotiations by capitulating to a certain group. It is about the rejection of the value of all
ALL JEWS BEING RESPONSIBLE FOR EACH OTHER.
IT IS ABOUT THE REJECTION OF SEEING EACH PERSON CREATED IN GOD’S IMAGE.
Lest you think this is only a Conservative movement issue, IT IS NOT:
Last month, Rabbi Seth Farber, penned the following in the opinion pages of the NY times. I am an Orthodox rabbi dedicating my life to breaking the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over Jewish life in Israel.
I have not been detained by the Israeli police on my way to morning prayers, but I am preparing for that eventuality. That’s the new reality of life in the Jewish state for those of us who publicly oppose Jewish fundamentalism.
Just ask my colleague Rabbi Dov Hayoun.
On July 20, Rabbi Hayoun, a prominent Conservative rabbi, was awakened at 5:30 a.m. by the police at his home in Haifa and taken to a station for questioning. What was his alleged crime? Performing a Jewish wedding in the Jewish state.
This is the kind of creeping fundamentalism that we must try to stop, Rabbi Farber says.
So: WHAT ARE THE JEWISH VALUES HERE that we must hold up on these days of Rosh Hashanah?
Rabbi Farber continued: More than 3,000 years ago, Judaism introduced a radical idea into the world: Human beings are all created in the image of God. Unlike other ancient near-Eastern creation narratives, which speak of man as being created out of battles between the gods, the Torah insists that human beings were created out of a divine decision to bring goodness to the world. … With the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, David Ben-Gurion and others transformed that biblical vision into modern reality. Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that the state “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
It is a stirring vision worthy of our people’s storied and painful history. But Israel still has a long way to go to realize the vision of the prophets of Israel — and to address the needs of the world’s 14 million Jews.
The divide, the metaphorical wall between the Orthodox and the liberal elements in Israel is growing as well as the divide between US and Israeli Jews..the American Jewish Committee survey released this summer reveal sharp differences of opinion between the world’s two largest Jewish communities on President Trump, U.S.-Israel relations, and Israel’s security and peace process policies. On Jewish communal issues, such as Jewish religious equality in Israel, the surveys confirm fissures between American Jews and Israelis. These divides are not insurmountable but the walls only grow higher if we can’t engage with one another.
Rabbi Farber concluded: I am cognizant and grateful for all that Israel has done for the Jewish people and for democracy in a region that desperately needs it. But it is precisely because of this love for my country and my people that I am waging this battle. I am spurred to action when I see that the path Israel is taking — continuing to promote a singular, extreme brand of Judaism — threatens to undermine the support of Jews around the world and its role as a “light unto the nations.”
Israel should embrace the challenge and the honor of being a homeland for the whole Jewish people. If it does, the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Zion will be redeemed in justice, and those who return to her, with righteousness,” will be realized.
The Second wall in our lives, is the potential wall with Mexico. And I know that there are different views on this wall and on the plight of immigrants to the path to citizenship, even if there should be a path at all, for those people trying to come to America. Some in this room might view their plight as genuine-for many are fleeing for their lives and since America was founded on a value of being open to immigrants, it is time that we work on that path. Some of us might disagree. Why they are trying to come? Why they should be allowed in? But I hope we all can agree that the policies of this summer, of separating families, was one that was outside the bounds of our Jewish and American values. So we are sitting here today, immersed in our Judaism reflecting on the walls in our lives, we need to ask, “what does Judaism say about this?” Do we as Jews have an obligation to the other? The Jewish answer is ‘YES.’ 36 times in the Torah it says we were strangers and we must welcome the stranger. Does the Torah give a policy manual for how to do that? No. But we know that by and large the immigrant story, which is all of our stories, is a generally a story of success. We need to build a path to citizenship. We need to build bridges not walls.This is not about open borders. This is about living our values. We must demand that our lawmakers find a way to make this better. Putting children in cages is not what it means to be American and it certainly isn’t what it means to be Jewish.
And then there is the security wall in Israel, the wall that has saved and still saves so many lives. This is a wall that was built after 2002, a year when I was in Israel, a year when I knew of so many suicide bombings, a year where so many Israelis were killed, a year where I was fearful to walk anywhere beyond my apartment to my school in Jerusalem. I appreciate the need for that wall. But the construction of the wall and the protection of Israelis does not give us the permission to turn away from who is on the other side of that wall.
Our Palestinian neighbors are the people with whom we need to dialogue and be in relationship with, if we can expect to find a path to peace in the region. Earlier this year, Yossi Klein HaLevi wrote a NY Times Bestseller, “Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor:” He started the book with the following:Dear Neighbor, I call you neighbor because I don’t know your name or anything personal about you. Given our circumstances, neighbor may be too casual a word to describe our relationship. We are intruders in each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home. We are living incarnations of each other’s worst historical nightmares. Neighbors? We live on opposite sides of a concrete wall that cuts through the landscape we share. I live in a neighborhood called French Hill in East Jerusalem, and my apartment is in the last row of houses, which you see as steplike structures built into the hillside. From my apartment I can just barely see the checkpoint you must cross-if you have a permit at all-to enter Jerusalem. But i sense the checkpoint’s all-pervading presence. Sometimes my early morning routine of prayer is disrupted by the honking of frustrated drivers lining up before the checkpoint. How do you manage? if at all, to preserve a measure of normal life? The ongoing disparity between your hill and mine challenges my deepest self understanding and moral commitments as a Jew and as an Israeli. Ending that disparty is one reason that I support the 2 state solution….
But is there hope? Will that solution happen?
I saw the wall up close…This summer I spent time in Bethlehem and Ramallah, where a group of senior level American Jewish leaders met with various Palestinians. We met those who work for the government and those who live in villages where their families have lived for 400 years. We met with those living in refugee camps and those who are engaged in programs of reconciliation. We had dinners with Palestinian-Christian families who are just living their lives. We heard stories of growth and joy and we heard stories of deep pain. I went to the other side of that wall, fearful that I would leave angry at Israel. I didn’t leave angry. I understand why Israel often has to do what it does but I also learned where the everyday Palestinians are coming from. And I learned that everyone can do better. It is true-the Palestinians cannot keep a claim to never ending, generational, right of return. It is true that there are some w/in the Palestinian government who aren’t telling the whole story. But it is also true-and hear these words-Israelis need to stop denying the story that Palestinians have a connection to their land.
One day I met Abu Ibrahim. He and his family have lived in an area of the west bank for 400 years. Because of the way the laws currently work, his village needs to apply to the Israeli municipality to build a school. These requests keep getting denied and here is the problem. As Jews we often lament those Palestinians, especially those in Gaza, are given $ and instead of building schools, build terror tunnels. Unfortunately, there are people who want to build schools, and they are being shut down. I clearly am not the Israeli government. I don’t know why this is happening. But I know that something is wrong. SO, I am not advocating for a complete withdrawal at this moment. What I am advocating for is, how do we look at those on the other side of that wall as members of humanity. As our cousins, long separated.
In Yossi’s book, he writes, “My protection is your vulnerability, my celebration, your defeat. The inverse can also be true. Sometimes my misfortune evokes joy among some of my Palestinian neighbors. When missiles are launched by Hezbollah on Israeli towns in the north, or by Hamas on towns in the south, celebratory fireworks light up your hill. …Tragically each side has tried, at different stages, of the conflict, to deny the legitimacy of the other’s national identity, to rationalize the other out of existence. Some Jews continue to try to “prove’ that Palestinian national identity is a fiction, that you are a contrived people.
Of course you are.
And so are we.
All national identities are, by definition: contrived:
At a certain point, groups of people determine that they share more in common than apart and invent themselves as a nation, with a common language, memory, and evolving story….
We need to respect each other’s right to tell our own stories….Neither of us is likely to convince the other of each sides’ narrative. Each of us live within a story so deeply rooted in our being, so defining of our collective and personal existence, that forfeiting our respective narratives would be a betrayal. But we need to challenge the stories we tell about each other, which have taken hold. …Can we instead, see each other as two traumatized peoples, each clinging to the same sliver of land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea, neither of whom will find peace or justice until we make our pace with the other side’s claim to justice?”
SO HOW DO WE CONFRONT THIS CHALLENGE OF US AND THEM-WHOMEVER THE US IS AND WHOMEVER THE THEY ARE:
This summer, I went to a session with Tal Becker. Dr. Becker has been part of several of the Israeli negotiating teams with conversations with the Palestinian leadership-In his session to a group of 180 rabbis called Moral Purity vs Moral Compromise-he reminded us that there are values embedded in how we approach conflict. It is the texts that I want to teach today, so that we can understand that if we only look at the walls, and we don’t confront what these walls mean or who these walls affect.
First, we studied from Rambam’s Mishnah Torah:
Should a gentile arise and force a Jew to violate one of the Torah’s commandments at the pain of death, he should violate the commandment rather than be killed, because [Leviticus 18:5] states concerning the mitzvot: “which a man will perform and live by them.” [They were given so that] one may live by them and not die because of them. If a person dies rather than transgress, he is held accountable for his life.” What does this mean? This means that the mitzvot are there to elevate our lives, not take our lives. We should observe them but not at the expense of living.
Further, we must live, even if we are in conflict with others, if that conflict is unavoidable. The teaching in Talmud Bava Metzia says:
“If two are travelling on a journey [far from civilization], and one has a pitcher of water, if both drink, they will [both] die, but if one only drinks, he can reach civilization. The Son of Patura taught: It is better that both should drink and die, rather than that one should behold his companion’s death. Until R. Akiba came and taught: That your brother may live with you (Leviticus 25:36) – your life takes precedence over his life.” Now, this seems harsh. But no one is at fault here. And since this was your water, and the result is both will die anyway, it is ok, at least ethically, that you live.
BUT THERE ARE LIMITS: Back to the Mishnah Torah When does the above apply? With regard to all mitzvot, with the exception of the worship of other gods, forbidden sexual relations, and murder. What does this mean? with regard to these three sins, if one is ordered: “Transgress one of them or be killed,” one should sacrifice his life rather than transgress. You see, if we get to the point where we are acting in a way that has already stripped us of humanity, then we don’t deserve to live. If we stop looking at others as human than we don’t deserve to live. Morality must remain on the table when we have these conversations. This summer we hosted Br. General Bentzi Gruber to our congregation. Br General oversees 20,000 Israeli troops and he runs an organization called Ethics in the Field. He made it clear to us that the IDF has the ability to be the most moral army in the world, and it is. And he trains other armies because of it. However, in giving an example where an IDF soldier shot and killed an already wounded Palestinian who was no threat to anyone, a line was crossed. And Gruber said, the day we start permitting those actions, is the day we close Israel.
He said: don’t give up our humanity. Remember the humanity of others. We don’t hold guns to just kill. We only have guns to eliminate the threat. There is a difference and this is where morality comes in.
The walls in our lives-be it the kotel, the southern border, the security wall, the walls in our relationships with others in our families, the wall within ourselves, have the ability to corrupt our souls. They can create tunnel vision in a way that we don’t experience the pain of the other. We don’t need to be in pain and we certainly must live. As Tal Becker said, it is a mitzvah to live. But if we forget the humanity of the other, life as we know it is not worth living. So, It is about finding solutions where we look at the person across the table as family. Not only as our enemy. It doesn’t matter if we have our state, or we have our wall, or we have our country, if we don’t have our soul.
Rosh Hashanah. Our soul is crying out. In the Torah reading on these two days of Rosh Hashanah, we see how our ancestors are tormented. We listen to the Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac-one that didn’t result in death but in alienation. We read about the Abraham’s dismissal of Ishmael to a place unseen. Fortunately, we know that they find a way to live and to reconcile at the funeral of their father. But they are symbols. They are the other who are a part of our lives. They are Jews and Non Jews. They are Men and Women. They are the people that make us who we are. By the end of the stories, they are redeemed. They were redeemed. We too must be redeemed. Let us look beyond the walls. They us recall the values of our tradition.
Let us see the humanity in one another.
Let us welcome the stranger.
Let us feel a responsibility towards each other.
And let us begin the new year committing to what can be, not what has been.