Friday, September 21, 2018

Yom Kippur 5779: Is This the Fast I Desire?

The 19th Century Chasidic Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt once said, “If it were in my power, I would do away with all the afflictions, except the afflictions of the bitter day Tisha B’Av, for how could one eat on that day? and the afflictions of the holy and awesome day, Yom Kippur, who needs to eat on that day?” 

Fasting is a central part of today’s practices. Perhaps it is a little mean of me to focus on it at this point, or else we are completely misunderstanding what fasting is all about. Very often we will hear the greeting, tzum kal, which means, “have an easy fast.” Perhaps we should be saying tzum mashma’ut, “have a meaningful fast.”

The practice of fasting comes from Leviticus 16, often part of the Torah reading on Yom Kippur afternoon for more traditional strains of Judaism. “…you shall practice self-denial; and you shall not do any work….” Self denial has been translated into a general non-care of the body, including not bathing, not wearing jewelry, not engaging in marital relations, and of course, fasting.

But what is self-denial really supposed to be? We get an explanation of it in this morning’s haftarah, from Isaiah 58. Isaiah begins the passage by chastising the people. The Israelites are told to call out like a shofar, but not for their own sake. For the sake of the entire world. He critiques that the Israelites’ fast is false because they are focused on how they can improve personal gains instead of how they can improve their own behavior and the state of the world. Isaiah implies that our fast is a facade, and recounts what a real, true, meaningful fast is all about.

Isaiah 58:6-9 reads:
Is this not the fast I desire—to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke; to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved?Is it not to share your bread with the hungryand to take the homeless poor into your home, and never to neglect your own flesh and blood?

It would be pretty powerful if, in the middle of services, a loud voice could be heard from the middle of the sanctuary, yelling out how we should really be fasting as we recount the past year.

Like when the most recent article of Time magazine features cover stories of teachers being underpaid and overworked.
“To break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke.”

This past Thursday, seven police officers and 26 civilians were arrested for human trafficking, having run a prostitution ring in New York for over two years.
“To let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved.”

In Orange County over 300,000 people are at risk of hunger each month, including one in six children of the total population. 
“Is it not to share your bread with the hungry…”

2016 was reported as having the highest number of homeless deaths in Orange County in several years. Then it was overtaken in 2017, and this year is on track to overtake the record again.
“…and to take the homeless poor into your home?”

Earlier this year in Riverside, a husband and wife were charged with abusing 12 of their 13 children, including chaining them to beds and inflicting malnutrition so severe that two fo the girls will never bear children of their own.
“…and never to neglect your own flesh and blood.”

A poem by Hermann Hagedorn describes a man’s face-to-face encounter with God. Its last few stanzas say:
I hastened to reassure Him, “There’s nothing the matter with me. It’s the other fellow that’s the trouble, a hundred and thirty five million of him.” “I know all about the hundred and thirty five million,” said the Lord, and I thought He seemed a little tired as He said it, “but I don’t at the moment seem able to see anyone but you.”
“My Lord?” I said, “How odd! I’m sure you must be mistaken. There’s nothing about me that need give you even a moment’s uneasiness.”
Silence rose out of the ground, straight, hard, and thick as a wall. Rose like a wall between us, between the Lord and me. And my nose flat up against it, and the Lord on the other side….
The wall was so cold it sweated and I began to sweat, too. “You know all about it, Lord. I’ve run my business by the Golden Rule…Fought in a dozen good causes. Not an awful lot happened, but then You know how things are in this world.” 
The wall got higher and thicker and colder and wetter. I had to shout to make sure that the Lord could hear me at all.
“You can’t do this to me! I’m a pillar,” I cried. “I’m a corner stone! I’m not a materialist, a scoffer. I’m one of those…that hold the social structure together>’
The Lord said not a word, but space began to speak. Space spoke in icicles pointed like knives. Icicles dropping on me ’til I froze and bled. “I’m a good man, Lord!” I called, “I don’t get the idea!”

The poem ends there. He doesn’t get the idea, but hopefully we do. The thing that rises up like a wall to our doom is our inability to acknowledge our own part in the sins of the world. When we refuse to see our own responsibility, when we are complacent or indifferent, we are culpable. Like the shepherd letting each individual sheep go one by one under the staff, God only sees us when the question is asked, “Where were you when it was time to act?” 

At this very moment there are injustices being done around the world. One need only peruse a paper momentarily to see children being starved or kidnapped, our environment being neglected, and the signs of hatred all over our political discourse. It has become normal to take and take and take, without regard to who else might be in need. It has become normal to tweet insults and respond with more hatred. It has become normal to make excuses. It has become normal to lie and deny and cover up. It has become normal to tout what we have built rather than who we are.

“Is this the fast I desire?” asks Isaiah.

No, we should answer. It is most certainly not.

Our fast should be a fast from consumerism, from hatred, from believing whatever our own echo chambers repeat. Our fast should be a realization that this is a holy and awesome day as the Chasidic Rabbi Heschel believes. It is a day when we make Tshuvah, and truly turn from all of the trappings of our own downfall and start to rebuild our world.

Let the next headlines we read be about the positive changes our fast is bringing about in the world.

May we read that a multi-racial, inter-religious, international group sat down to understand one another.

May we read that a task force made the perpetrators of sex trafficking see the victims as their own daughters and sons.

May we read that a politician apologized for a mistake they made. And may we read that it was simply accepted.

May we read that restaurants stopped throwing away their leftovers to feed the hungry.

May we read that affordable housing and reasonable loans were provided to make homes for thousands of Southern Californians. 

May we read that this is the year we start seeing each other for who we are and not for what we have.

Tzum mashma’ut, May we all have a meaningful fast.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Rosh Hashanah 5779: Israel in the Era of the Nation-State Law

As of this year, Simon Kindleysides is a marathon runner.

Marathon runners these days are a dime a dozen, especially with “Couch to 5k” programs to get people running, but this British citizen is a unique marathon runner.

Simon Kindleysides is paralyzed from the waist down.

With the help of a company called ReWalk, Kindleysides ran with a robotic exoskeleton in the London Marathon, and he finished the 26.2 mile race in 36 hours. Just a few hours faster than I can do it.

Medical company Check-Cap has created a method of detecting abnormalities in the digestive system. Without the need to go for a colonoscopy or even to fast, patients need only swallow a capsule and await results. The capsule emits a very low dosage of x-rays, and sends information via an app to physicians who can identify polyps or other abnormalities.

Amaizz develops affordable, energy efficient products that dry, refrigerate, disinfect, and safely store crops, resulting in 50% less food waste for farmers. Their innovations use solar energy, portable storage units designed for harsh climates, and cooling units made from recycled materials. They were chosen to pilot a program in India this year to help farmers there minimize their food losses.

If you haven’t guessed, ReWalk, Check-Cap, and Amaizz all have one thing in common: they are companies based in Israel and run by Israelis.

You have probably heard it before, and it is still true. A country the size of New Jersey should not be as scientifically advanced, as medically forward-thinking, nor should it be the world’s leader in Nobel Prize winners per capita. Israel has long been the standard-bearer in medicine, economics, biotechnology, computer hardware, mobile device technology, robotics, chemistry, mathematics, defense, and more. Even in entertainment, an Israeli musical, The Band’s Visit, took 10 Tonys this year. Israeli binge-worthy phenomenon Fauda has been on Netflix since 2016, and in addition to the upcoming third season, Fauda’s lead actor Lior Raz will be in the upcoming Operation Finale with Ben Kingsley. Netta Barzilai dominated this year’s Eurovision Song Contest with Toy, and Gal Gadot, former Miss Israel who filmed Wonder Woman while five months pregnant, was recognized as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for 2018. 

When we hear these things about Israel and Israelis, we feel a sense of satisfaction that our people turned this barren wasteland into a productive, prosperous first-world nation in less than a century. That pride is a part of the social capital I spoke about last night. We are connected to Israel because we know that the people there are just hard working Jews like us. Add that to the tzedakah that many of us regularly give to the State of Israel, and it is more than just pride. We helped make the desert bloom. We built Israel.

When Israel was founded in 1948, it fulfilled the Zionist dream of creating a Jewish, democratic state. David Ben Gurion once told journalist Edward R. Murrow that Israeli civilization would be based on the ideals of the Jewish prophets of the Bible, and on modern science. In that statement he declared a commitment to a careful balance that from the beginning Israel strove to maintain. Its Declaration of Independence says:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it 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 will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
Israel has no written Constitution. Another section of the Declaration of Independence says that an assembly should have prepared one by October, 1948, but they didn’t, so instead they have what are known as basic laws. When a law in Israel becomes a basic law, it is stronger than a law and considered a guiding principal for the government. The foundations of Israel’s government and the rules that establish individual rights are laid out in these basic laws, which serve the purpose of a constitution without being quite as immutable.

Last month I spoke about a new law that was approved by the Knesset called the Nation-State Law. At the time I said I did not know how I feel about it, because at first read it seems like it just reiterates the policies that were already in place. Having studied about it a bit more, I have come to understand that the Nation-State Law upgrades these policies to basic law, meaning they have gone from behavioral to foundational. 

It was a hotly debated law, first being proposed in 2011, and at its final reading was approved by a vote of 62 to 55, with 2 abstentions. Symbolizing for some a long overdue declaration about what is Jewish in a Jewish and democratic Israel, and symbolizing for others a long feared deterioration of what is democratic in a Jewish and democratic Israel. Journalists, pundits, and scholars all seem to agree that the law is mostly symbolic, but is it symbolic of a renaissance of zionism or its collapse? That is the challenge.

Israeli journalist David Horovitz, founding editor of The Times of Israel former editor-in-chief for both The Jerusalem Post and The Jerusalem Report says “Most Israelis and citizens of Israel are delighted that, since we do not have a constitution, we now have a basic law that establishes Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.” Allison Kaplan Summer, award winning journalist for Politico, Ha’aretz, The Jerusalem Post, and The Forward, says “We’re all against this law, and we’re against it for some of the same reasons.” Don Futterman, Program Director for the Moriah Fund and columnist for Ha’aretz, says, “This law is so superfluous, so unnecessary, that you have to ask: why is it being past, and who is it really targeting?”

That’s Israel—clear consensus does not exist. Israel lives up to its name of struggling with the Divine, and many things about life there can be challenging at best.

Most of the new law sounds fine to me. Actually, most of it sounds like things that were already in place. The symbols of the state, the ingathering of exiles, memorial days, holidays, and Shabbat observances have long been understood, and even covered in laws, although perhaps not basic laws. But a couple of points are phrased in a such a way, and a few items have even been removed since its proposal that will make it legal to do things that previously were not allowed, even if they were done anyway on the sly.

There is a section about Connection to the Jewish people. The third statement is, “The state shall act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people among Jews in the Diaspora.” It sounds great, but the language was altered at the last minute by Shas, the Ultra-Orthodox party. They demanded that the phrase “in the diaspora” be added to that item or they would not have supported the bill. With a seven-vote difference determining the success of the bill, the phrase was added. We in the diaspora might think it’s great. Israel will support Judaism outside of Israel! 

But the phrase has a different import for the Ultra Orthodox. To them, it means that they can maintain the lack of support for cultural and religious heritage of Jews in Israel. It means they can take more and more control over secular Israelis’ lives, because there is no language in the law that could be interpreted as limiting their power over Jewish lives within Israel. One example of this in action is that as soon as the law was signed, the police were sent to arrest Conservative Rabbi Dov Haiyun for the heinous crime of officiating a wedding. As Reform Jews we have already had many ups and downs when it comes to our treatment at holy sites like the Kotel, where we lobbied for years for an egalitarian worship space which was funded, legalized, and then had its support withdrawn. Opponents of the law are afraid that the phrasing of this section gives the Ultra Orthodox more power than they already had.

Another troublesome section is on Jewish Settlement. “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.” Again, this does not change the policy of Israel, it only legalizes its very controversial practice of building settlements in disputed territories. In fact, the original language of the law suggested that any settlement could be created with ethnic boundaries, but the wording was changed to make it clear that the state only supports Jewish settlements. 

We cannot know how the law will change governance in Israel. We can be pretty sure it will have no impact on daily life, at least until the courts need to use this basic law as a principal. As a basic law it will not have deference over the Declaration of Independence’s statements that Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions,” but it will be used in partnership with the Declaration of Independence when the high courts make their decisions. As supporters of Israel, we can only hope that the Judaism and democracy upon which the state was founded will continue to have equal footing in Israel’s decisions about its own legislation.

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the new Jewish year, 5779. We celebrate with apples and honey, we hear the call of the shofar, we listen to the beautiful music sung by Jenna and our choir, we read the liturgy from our new machzor, we dress in our best, sit with people we love, share a meal with family and friends. It should all put us in the mood to repent, redesign, and realign ourselves. To make a new and better version of ourselves for the coming year.

We might not be creating exo-skeletons or x-ray pill or building agro-tech, but we have our own challenges to endure.  Perhaps we are trying a new diet or exercise regime to work on our health and physical appearance. Perhaps we are meeting with a new therapist or peer group to improve our mental state. Perhaps we are learning a new skill, starting a new job, attending a new class, or doing any number of things that will help make us better people. Perhaps we will come to CBT more often to improve our social capital. 

Whatever it is we are doing, we may be successful, and we may not. We hope that the results will be what we imagine, and many times they are when we stick to our plans and really make a new habit instead of a new fad. Sometimes we are just reinforcing the bad habits we already have. Occasionally what we try backfires and makes us worse than before.

No matter the results, no matter the end game, we try. We experiment, test, and make attempts at self-improvement. We work hard, sometimes alone but preferably with support from friends and family, and we make the best effort we know how to make the new year a good year. The Nation State Law seems to be an attempt to make Israel a better place. Perhaps Israel is trying to become a better version of itself, just like we are doing for ourselves.Israel is a reflection of the Zionist ideal, brought to life in the desert that they have made bloom with their innovation and creativity.

And yet there is something distant about it. If we have never been to Israel or even if it has been a long time, we might not know exactly how magical and wonderful a place it is. But you have heard me talk about what I think about it. I want to share what some of the people who went with us this spring think about Israel, and the trip we just took.

In the words of Faith Hershler:
One of our activities [on our eighth day] was to [help] Ethiopian Israeli youth and families with the Ethiopian National Project (ENP). ENP seeks to improve the quality of life for new immigrants who have arrived in Israel in recent years. Seated at my table were several Ethiopian high schoolers, boys and girls, who introduced themselves to us. We played a game with them that involved moving our pieces around a board with questions on the spaces. When they landed on a question, they spoke about their lives, their hopes, and their aspirations for the future. The students amiably answered our questions until it was time to end the game – too soon. What a wonderful experience!

Mike Tucker said: 
Our last trip to Israel has changed my vision. Israel my home has grown up and in doing so has the same problems that we do as adults. Out trip has pointed out to me that what we now see is a new reality. Our trip has opened my eyes to my homeland dealing with these issues. When we met the Bedouin woman who has adapted to a new way of life in Israel, I felt proud that we Israelis are learning about the right way to handle immigrants—with compassion and kindness and allowing those souls to adapt to what will eventually be familiar surroundings at their own pace. It gives a new meaning to the word shalom, peace.

And finally, according to Jay Seiden:
Most important and meaningful was just the overall trip and being with so many loving and caring friends. Being able to try to do our part to make Israel better with our many social action opportunities was meaningful and everlasting in our memories. When I have told co-workers and friends the things we did they were amazed, and that made me feel even better about myself and our CBT community. My one worry about the trip not being "touristy" enough for a first time trip to Israel was alleviated by our pretty much daily events to places like the Tel Aviv marketplace, the Ramon Crater, the Old City and Wall in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, Masada, and the Dead Sea. I guess my favorite single moment was probably going to the “Dying Sea.”* It was certainly a different experience and the camaraderie amongst our group while floating in the water was definitely special.

*A quick note about what Jay meant by “Dying Sea” is that we learned the Dead Sea is evaporating at the rate of about a meter, or three feet, each year. (While the sea’s salinity level will eventually mean it will eventually reach an equilibrium and never completely dry up, the shrinking Dead Sea shore line is an indicator of global climate change as well as a danger to nearby farmers because of the sinkholes the receding shoreline creates.)

You can hear how special Israel is to all three of them just by the words they use: wonderful, special, home. Israel is a wonderful, special homeland to all the Jewish people, and it carries a special enough place in our hearts that I speak about it every year during the High Holy Days. 

During these Days of Awe, this period of cheshbon nefesh, our accounting of the soul, we should commit to a rejuvenated dedication to Israel. We can do this by learning on three fronts: Locally, Nationally, and Globally. 

Locally, there are many opportunities to participate in Israel education. We invite speakers from Israeli organizations through AIPAC and JNF, and whenever we hear of an opportunity to hear from an Israel educator with enough time to organize it, we try to arrange it. We put it at the forefront of the 4th and 5th grade curriculum, and Ms. Adi does an amazing job engendering a strong passion for Israel in our students. Shelves and shelves of books have been written about Israel for all ages and all points of view. Feel free to contact me for a recommendation or even to borrow one of the many that have their home on my shelf. However you choose to learn, there are plenty of ways to keep ourselves educated about Israel from the comfort of Orange County.

Nationally there is one great way to invigorate our connection to Israel, and that is to attend AIPAC’s Policy Conference in Washington, DC. AIPAC, the American Israel Political Action Committee, advocates for the relationship of Israel and America. Each March thousands of AIPAC activists gather in Washington to learn about the issues and to lobby Congress. CBT is often represented by one or two people, and I would be more than happy to organize a trip for a larger group if there is interest. After a weekend of amazing speakers and presentations, on the last day of the conference we visit our congressional representatives in their offices. We become part of the process of seeking the support of the American government for Israel. This year’s conference is March 24-26, 2019, and again I urge you to use me as a resource if you are interested in attending.

Globally, the very best way to engage with Israel is to go there. Faith, Mike, Jay and any of the others who joined us this April can attest, there is nothing like being in Israel. If you happen to be 18-26 years old, you are eligible for Birthright, and you are in the generation that you need no more from me except to say: Google Birthright and register for the winter trip. Participation in a previous Israel program no longer exempts you from this amazing gift of travel to Israel with peers who will become fast friends. So no excuses—it’s a free trip to Israel! Find Birthright on line and register today!

If you are outside of that demographic, please mark your calendars for June of 2021. I have been speaking with other local rabbis, and we are hoping to send over 100 Orange County Reform Jews to Israel on a Mega-Mission. We are currently looking for sponsorship from Federation and a few private sources, but our goal is to provide an affordable, multi-synagogue, multi-generational, multi-interest trip to Israel that will be unlike anything that has been done before. More on that in the years to come, but start saving now and we will make history in Israel together.

On Rosh Hashanah we set the stage for an entire year. Let’s all make the commitment to have Israel at the forefront of our thoughts. As Israel makes its own changes, may we learn by its example and keep changing ourselves for the better. As we challenge ourselves in 5779, I challenge us to support Israel locally, nationally, and globally.