Ruminations of a Stubborn Liberal Zionist


Here is my ruminating response to a friend who just read an upsetting book about Israel and what is happening in the West Bank: 

What can I tell you? On one hand (I hate to be so Tevyeh) there are still some amazing parts of this country and I still the believe until this day, that while this might not be the most normal place to live, it is certainly the most natural place to live if you are Jewish and if you are raising Jewish children…..This is in terms of language, culture, literature, media  and everything else that surrounds us here. In Israel public space- is Jewish space and having a public culture that is Jewish is one of the reasons we needed our own state (like all other peoples). But without a doubt the situation with the West Bank is a nightmare. But then again so is being surrounded by 250 million Muslims who would like to destroy us (and this is not just a metaphor) . So as you know it is all very complex. But as I tell my Birthright participants – it is easy to be ethical when you are powerless, it’s  much harder to be ethical when you actually have power….but to be without power in this cruel world means you are screwed (and of course we figured this out around 70 years ago).  I also feel that it is important  to remind  Americans that for better or worse- Americans  live in an EMPIRE. And like all empires,  America uses its military and economic might to ensure its strategic resources. Only a few years ago the US killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (that’s a lot of people) , and America continues to kill hundreds of people with drones every year and who knows what else…so  yes sovereign countries are messy. But no rock’n’ roll star ever boycotts playing a concert in America …. the market is simply too big. And few people ask you to justify being American.

 As for feeling like you were brainwashed to like Israel many years ago  -this might be connected to a time when everything seemed so clear and the narrative was simple. But the real narrative has never been simple here ….it has always been complex. So yes it is hard to find out that  the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are on both sides. And I am sure by now …. you have read about how we are now growing our own brand of psychotic religious fascists who will try to take everyone down with them. Eeek! 

So again the occupation sucks  and what  is  going on in the West Bank is not what  I wanted for this country …. and I am trying to change it – and  I probably could do more. Do I want my kids to serve in the West Bank in an occupation army? No! But I still feel that centrist moderate left wing people need to be part of the conversation/argument here and need to serve in the army and try to make a change (and need to make Aliyah). By the way I still feel we have a fighting chance to improve the situation here- but it’s hard to know when this will happen and it is hard at times not to lose hope or get depressed. And by the way … is not only Israeli leadership that is disappointing, Palestinian leadership has also proven itself disastrous for their people and for our people. They are so incompetent and so corrupt— it leaves me with little hope for what can actually come out of their side. I also assume that when  we leave  the West Bank, we will not be trading chocolate bon bons…it will  be a mess….like the Mideast usually is …but I would  be willing to take a chance as I want a Jewish democratic state because God forbid -if we annex the West Bank  – we will cease to be a democracy -which is simply unacceptable.  

So what can I say … I am one small rabbi with no great solutions. i know we could be a better country; but as of now we  have simply become like many other countries around the world – Again perhaps this is the price of sovereignty in a bad neighborhood. But I have no patience for BDS or the anti-Semites who deny our right to a homeland or to a political existence. And it seems that Europeans have baptized themselves in the blood of the Palestinians by watching Jews behave in a way that often times is immoral and mirrors injustices that Europeans did to us over the years (not including the Holocaust!)  BDS and most anti-Israel protesters don’t want to solve the conflict -they want to destroy Israel – which is a big difference.  

So I understand that many people are devastated when they see Jewish hands dirtied with the inescapable blood and guilt of operating in the world. How  we protect ourselves and maintain an ethical sovereignty…. is the ultimate question and test for the Jewish state. But for now our leadership seems uninterested in this question…..

 Your stubborn liberal Zionist,








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My Sukkah of Sublimation and Uncertainty

I have always enjoyed making fun of my adopted country by saying that “Even if Israelis are wrong, at least they’re certain.” However following this summer’s war, if there is one feeling that seems to permeate the mood here, it is a feeling of the utmost uncertainty. I used to feel that I had a good handle on the conflict; I knew where I stood and I was clear about what political party I supported. But after the war I have few moments of clarity and many more moments of opacity.

I haven’t even tried to make sense of this summer’s war. I have been off the grid for a while now and I am just walking around a bit dazed like everyone else, looking like I am a little lost and asking, “What the @#$%^ just happened?” We just finished the holiday of Sukkot, which has the name” Zman Simchateinu” the holiday of our rejoicing. However this holiday my inner core looked a lot like the sukkah we built in our backyard……it is holding up but as we know, it is a fragile structure. And this year I could not escape the duality of a holiday that both juxtaposes the commandment to be happy along with existential angst (can you get more Jewish than that?).

For me the war moved from completely manic to deeply depressive. The manic part of the war was because of my role as the director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Youth programs in Israel. This summer I was faced with the daunting challenge of not giving-in to terror, while ensuring a safe, meaningful and fun summer for 1300 young adults visiting from North America. Navigating these young people between Palestinian riots, Bedouin riots, Hamas rockets, mortars from Lebanon and the FAA shutting down all flights in and out of Israel (talk about fun) felt like the work of five summers packed into one. In addition, there were nonstop phone calls, emails and updates to hundreds of concerned (and at times hysterical) parents 7 days a week/24 hours a day. And yet in spite of the sirens, in spite of the news reports back in the States and in spite of madrichim having to leave for army reserve duty, only 3 participants left the trip. The fact that the Union for Reform Judaism supported the program and did not close it down (which would have been far simpler for them), and the fact that the parents of our participants trusted us with their children, showed us that in difficult times Reform Jews hang tough. This summer was exhausting and because of my preoccupation with keeping these 1300 young adults safe, It was only after the last participant went home did the reality of the war began to sink in.

I don’t live near Gaza and so I did not come close to what our fellow countrymen in the South suffered during the war. I live in Jerusalem and as much as there were rockets and sirens, which have their psychological impact, we were fine. But if Gaza could not totally succeed in sending their rockets into Jerusalem; unfortunately hundreds of families in Jerusalem suddenly found themselves sending their kids into Gaza. This summer I watched my community at Kol HaNeshama, a Reform Jewish congregation, which is made up of predominantly immigrants from English speaking countries, deal with the brutal reality of their sons going into Gaza. These parents who had watched their highly motivated children make it into elite combat units were suddenly confronted with the reality of their children going to war. It was a moment that every immigrant to Israel has thought about at one time or another. It is a dilemma shared by many of us who have moved here from relatively safe countries, or at least countries that have no military draft. In addition to bringing our AD Gordon, Ahad HaAm and Ber Borochov ideology with us in order to make the Jewish homeland a better and more just place to live , we also moved here with the knowledge that at some point our children would have to serve in the army. And when we thought about the risks:
A. Many of us thought that by the time our children would have to serve in the army there would be peace.
B. Many of us were not willing “to not” make decisions, like moving to Israel, based on fear.
But the truth of the matter is that no one is ever ready when their child gets called up for war . And this summer I watched my friends grit their teeth and not sleep –and rightfully so.

Our daughter is a soldier too, and she serves in the Givati Brigade training base South of Gaza. Among other responsibilities, she trains new immigrants who are combat soldiers how to use their weapons. But it was one afternoon during the war that within an hour of coming home, she switched from her civilian clothes back into her uniform and she was visibly upset. She jumped on a bus back to her base because one of the soldiers from the Givati brigade was reported kidnapped in Gaza. In the end it turned out that three soldiers from her base had been killed and one of them was a very good friend. My daughter and her friends went to three funerals in 24 hours for their peers at the age of 20. I know that every generation in Israel is shaped by a war, but I guess it is still so shocking to be in the role of the parent watching your kids go through this.

After this war ended it felt like we moved straight into the Yamim Noaraim (Days of Awe) when we are supposed to look deep into our personal and national inventory. And yet I could not help but feel the tension between our obsession with introspection and our longing for denial. On one hand Israel is one of the most introspective countries around. Not only between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do we Israelis reach deep into the bottom of our souls in order to understand what is happening with us; the truth of the matter is we do this every day. Here in Israel it feels like every time we hear the news, we try to figure out who we were, who we are and more importantly who do we want to be. Conversely there is another paradoxical piece to the Israeli psyche, and that is our uncanny talent for denial, which seems to be a survival mechanism because of the sensory overload we experience due to non-stop existential threats. It is this denial that seems to allow us to move on with life. So we are if you will…. a type of “push me – pull you” country, where we are both mercilessly contemplative about our situation and yet we belittle everything at the same time. As I have discovered the Israeli life doesn’t lead to paradise, it leads to paradox.

Last Shabbat we were at a friend’s house sitting in the sukkah when the young people who had been in the army started talking about the war and suddenly it became an impromptu forum for dealing with post-traumatic stress. And there we were, all of us processing and yet at the same time not wanting to deal with the heaviness of the reality that surrounds us. For Israelis who just finished celebrating the holiday of Sukkot, no one can miss the irony with regard to the precarious structure of the Sukkah. We are commanded to live in this flimsy booth for seven days, take out our finest china, our nicest cutlery and our most precious linens and hope that in spite of all this uncertainty………..the Sukkah will somehow hold up.

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Waxing Over My Bar Mitzvah ……

 (Parashat B’Chukotai Leviticus 26:3-27:34)

 Like most people if you just look at the Pshat – the SIMPLE way of looking at the Torah – the Torah portion this week,  B’Chukotai really is not all that inspiring. That is of course why we also have the Remez, which is the Hinted meaning of the text on a deeper level. And of course the Drash, which helps us find the extrapolated meaning of the text. Finally there is the Sod which is the secret meaning of our Torah. At this moment in time I am in more of a Pshat mode …. a Simple mode; so I thought I would try to stay with the simplicity of the text.

But the truth of the matter is that whenever I look at this text, I am forever stuck within a far more complicated context. For me, every time I read this Parsha…. I do not think of the rules and threats that the Lord God makes to the Children of Israel, but rather I think about being stuck in a leisure suit (they were very poplar when the Six Million Dollar man was on TV), a mouth full of braces and a haircut that made me look like one of the younger Hudson brothers. Yes this is my bar mitzvah portion. And it takes me back to the 1970’s and a time when Conservative Judaism ruled the day. Perhaps this is what Freud calls a screen memory, but I also remember there being a sense of certainty about Jewish life – when Jewish kids were sent to Hebrew school to suffer and sat there bored and confused in their Little League Baseball uniforms. I remember my Bar Mitzvah teacher Cantor Lazar Wax (that really was his name and for years I was so confused that his name sounded like a cleaning product). Cantor Wax came from Poland, he survived Auschwitz and probably had little patience for a snot nose suburban kid like myself, who – like the young man in the film, “A Serious Man” (I did not like the movie nor do I like the Coen brothers very much) – I too probably wanted to watch “F Troop” more than practice for my Bar Mitzvah. I remember Cantor Wax’s frustration with my atrocious Hebrew. And how he yelled and rolled his eyes. His greatest line was when he looked at me and said that I was “as dumb as the desk.” This was not the kinder gentler days of Hebrew school… this was “War of the Worlds”… literally two worlds colliding and not understanding each other. Lazar Wax had been a Yeshiva Bucher and Hazan prodigy who lost his entire family and survived WWII and I was Gilligan. Only now do I appreciate the man who taught me my Torah portion and only later did I understand the rich world that he had lost. I don’t think he understood me or the rest of my gang. I was scared of him but I fought him tooth and nail and was incredibly irreverent; it is still mortifying to think about my behavior and the way I spoke to him. And yet I have never forgotten him nor the Torah portion he taught me.

And here I am in the NFTY Office in Israel racing around like mad to build programs that bring young Jewish people not only to Israel but also programs that bring young people to where Cantor Wax came from: Poland. We of course bring young people to Poland to teach them about a Jewish world that was lost – the world of Cantor Lazar Wax. In a strange way Lazar Wax and I were having a Jewish conversation, a Jewish argument, connecting and not connecting- we were generations that simply did not understand each other. I have no idea where he is, but in a strange way my work in Jewish education has been about bridging the gap between Cantor Wax and me. This Parsha is about covenant and remembrance. Cantor Wax turned out to be the person who helped bring me to the covenant through reading Torah and I remember him. Perhaps Nachman of Bratslav put the conversation between Cantor Wax and myself best:
“Two men who live in different places, or even in different generations, may still converse. For one may raise a question, and the other who is far away in time or in space
may make a comment or ask a question that answers it. So they converse, but no one knows it save the Lord, who hears and records and brings together all the words of men, as it is written: They who serve the Lord speak to one another, and the Lord hears them and records their words in His book (Mal 3:16)”


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Achmad & Rich Not to be confused with Akbar & Jeff (for all you Matt Groening Fans….….)

It’s a long story but my brief relationship with Achmad began when I decided to build an office in my house in order to stop having to work with my laptop on the kitchen table. Our small Jerusalem apartment is crowded and most of the space is dedicated to books- actually two different genres – books on Judaism and Film and or books on Film and Judaism. It was then that I realized that I was going to have to build more of a “micro” office, closer to the size of what we called back in the day – a phone booth. But at least it would have a computer with a giant screen (my eyesight has gone) and lots of drawers and cabinets that were much needed.

And so began my search for a carpenter in Jerusalem which lead me to the quite normal and unsuspecting Achmad. For me finding a carpenter, an electrician and or any type of handy man in Jerusalem is not as simple as it sounds. This is because of my American accent. Even after ten years of living in Israel, it’s not that my Hebrew is so horrible (in spite of what my children say) but it is the unmistakable American accent that encourages every workman who comes into my house to overcharge me by at least 25%. I have become an obsessive comparison shopper, and have learned to trust absolutely no one in the Holy Land. Actually it is times like these when I do miss living in the Midwest when a nice well mannered Protestant plumber or other professional named Jim would come to my house, fix the problem, clean up and offer me a fair price. But those days are long gone. So I go about interviewing at least ten carpenters for this project. And although I am just looking for a carpenter – like many aspects of life here in Israel – the Mideast conflict comes knocking at my door.

I interview countless carpenters – and one thing becomes exceedingly clear – Arab Palestinian carpenters are just cheaper than Jewish Israeli carpenters – and by a lot. This brings up a number of issues for me. Hey I know what you are thinking …….AH HA!!!! After ten years of living in Israel the rabbi who used to work with “Rabbis for Human Rights” has finally become a racist!!! And I ask myself…. what exactly is going on here…and then I realize …. Any time I have interactions with Palestinians (and for the most part I don’t) I am conscious – I mean hyper conscious about the conflict – which as we all now know, is a conflict with no end in sight. Israelis and Palestinians can maintain a dysfunctional “non-articulated” understanding with one another, personally and professionally but as long as there remains a national conflict, we will always have a simmering hostility that boils close to the surface.

I remember the day when a bunch of very nice Palestinian workmen were fixing the roof of my apartment building and I was helping them find the source of a broken water heater. Here we were, all of us on the roof bending over trying to fix this water heater and this is on the same day that we were all listening to the news on the radio about how Hamas sent 23 rockets into southern Israel and Israel retaliated by hitting the Gaza strip. And there I am on my roof playing in water with a bunch of burly Palestinian workmen while Palestinians and Israelis are killing each other down south. This is one of those times to smile and say – “Yes in fact I am a Reform rabbi and yes I do vote for Meretz (Left wing party in Israel). I must confess that when I was leaning over the roof surrounded by my Palestinian pals, I was immensely conscious that their lives are much worse than mine because of the conflict, because of the occupation, because of home demolitions, etc…and that there was no reason for them to have any great love for me (military occupation will do this). I too have issues with my Palestinians neighbors. Hamas is insane, cruel and fascist. And the leadership in the West Bank is corrupt and incompetent.

All of this is in my head as I interview carpenters. Do I go for the Israeli Jew who will rip me off; or do I go for a Palestinian carpenter who is half the price, but brings a certain uncertainty into my home (whether real or perceived). Where is Jesus, a well known carpenter in the Mideast, when you need him? In the end I decide on a guy named Achmad (what an unusual name…) I get some recommendations, he seems like he does quality work and of course he is half the price of the Israelis I considered. And so I meet with Achmad. We review everything, we take measurements and I hire him for the job. Then of course I need to give him a down payment to buy the material. I give Achmad a fairly large amount of cash. However he has no formal receipts, no business card and he just scribbles out something in pencil. I know that he has worked for other friends of mine but still I am uneasy. And so before he drives away I surreptitiously take a photo of his license plate.

Three days later Achmad is not answering his phone, only a recording that says the phone is not in service. Eight days later still no word from Achmad and the phone has the same recording. Like a schmuck I just gave this guy thousands of shekels and he drove away giggling and cursing his Zionist enemy and probably laughing with his friends in Beit Lechem- where I will never be able to find him. And then I realized of course he took my money and ran. Didn’t I read Ari Shavit’s book “My Promised Land” didn’t I read that part about Lydda and what we did to the Palestinians in 1948 (by the way they would have done the same to us and worse but they lost..). How can I forget about check points, and home demolitions and house searches, the Second Intifada, suicide bombers and more than a hundred years of war between Jews and Arabs in this land. That son of a bitch took me in and stole my money! And I realize that at this point in time, we simply cannot work together, we cannot be friends, there is too much hate, too much anger, too much history, why should I expect anything else given the context we are living in between Israel and Palestine!

And while I am seething in my tirade….. I get a phone call.

“Hi Rich it’s Achamad, everything is ready, I’ll bring the desk and cabinets to your house tomorrow morning.”

To which I reply, “Oh great thank you so much Achmad …..”

My office is great.

But the conflict SUCKS.



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And So Ahad HaAm Said……Public Jewish Culture: Davka Something Israel got Right

So it is 6:00 am and I am in my car freezing while driving to the Jerusalem Pool on Emek Rafaiim Street. The pool is not exactly a mikveh, but what won’t I do to surround myself with a bunch of old naked guys kibitzing in Yiddish, Russian and Hebrew in a locker room on a cold Jerusalem morning. And as I am driving to the pool, I turn on the radio and lo and behold it is the Kriy’at Sh’ma prayer being read by the radio announcer. And it is both kitsch and moving at the same time; and it is probably the reason why I live in Israel.

I know that in the larger Jewish world we are obsessed about the on- going saga and struggle for a sovereign Jewish state. Clearly Jewish sovereignty, which is the ability for the Jewish people to control their own political destiny, should not be taken lightly. And the only reason that any of us are here (or that I can go to a pool on a cold Jerusalem morning) is because every day, 24 hours a day, we have our young people serving as soldiers surrounding this country and making sure that we are safe. Books, articles, commentaries, documentaries, radio shows etc concerning Israel are primarily obsessed about one thing- our ability to survive. And if we aren’t focusing about the struggle for survival and sovereignty; then we are wrestling inside and outside with the idea of “ethical sovereignty.” Ethical sovereignty” –meaning now that the Jewish people are back in their land, can we justify the way we came back?  And if we aren’t ruminating about the origins of the Jewish State, we are pondering how we can justify our behavior as a Jewish state in light of some very difficult situations, if not difficult neighbors.

These are important questions and worth our perpetual Machlakot l’Shem Shamayim- Arguments for the Sake of Heaven (we hope). However I often feel that there is an elephant in the room, an elephant in the conversation regarding Israel. And that is because there is so much more to Israel than just the realm of sovereignty, and/or the conflict. In fact most of the time that Israel is the topic of conversation, we tend to forget about what it was we were fighting for in the first place and we miss what we actually have here. Don’t get me wrong – I am grateful to Herzl and political Zionism and I take being a Jew in the Jewish state as a historical privilege and at times I am amazed at living in the Third Jewish Common Wealth. And I know this as I am on my way to the pool.  I also think about my own kid on these mornings who is in the army on a base down in the desert next to the Egyptian border. Nevertheless it sometimes astounds me that for so many people, both inside and outside Israel, we miss time and time again – the elephant –and that elephant is one of the more remarkable achievements of the Zionist revolution (there…I said it…the word…Zionist).  One of the main benefits of living here and in fact visiting here, is that this is a country like no other because simply said…the public culture is Jewish.

I first learned about the power an importance of public culture from my friend and teacher Michael Brooks at the University Michigan Hillel. Michael wrote this definition about Public Culture seventeen years ago in “Sh’ma-A Journal of Jewish Responsibility” and his definition still resonates with me today:

“Public culture is that rich and complex matrix of things, both substantive and symbolic, which informs our understanding of what membership means. It is the fabric upon which all of us sit but which few of us are consciously aware and it shapes our feelings about whether we want to be connected in the first place.”

Israel is a public culture that is Jewish, and that alone is one of the miracles of the Jewish state “but which few of us are consciously aware.” In fact when the public culture is so successful it often makes it more difficult to define. Somewhat like living in Ann Arbor, MI, where no one would dare ask you, “why are you going to the football game?,” because going  to the football game it is just what you do in Ann Arbor, MI. Here in Israel no one would ask you, “why are you running around the supermarket like a nut late Thursday night or why are you racing around like a madman on Friday after noon?”- Getting ready for Shabbat is just what everyone does. Defining Public culture can be illusive. However over ten years of living in Israel there have been more moments than I can recount when a type of Heschelian awe has over took me and the Jewish public culture that takes place here has simply amazed me about the place I call home.

The idea of Israel and Jewish public culture first dawned on me during a linguistic incident. Years ago, when I was a rabbinic student in Jeru­salem, a friend of mine, a sabra who was serving in the army, claimed to me that he was Jewish because he spoke Hebrew, served in the Jewish army, and lived in the Jewish land —and that was enough. I was always pointing out that he was completely ignoring the religious component of our identity. One day, as we sat in his kitchen, we saw a long line of ants crawling on the floor. I immediately said, “What is this, a stampede?” That word, stampede, was my first instinct, having grown up with cowboy TV shows (apparently my inner narrative is that of a cowboy…a cowboy from Long Island that is…. ). However what did my friend, the anti-religious Israeli say? “Ma zeh, Yitzitat Mitzrayim?”“What is this, the Exodus of Egypt?” It was then I realized that even the most chiluni (secular) Israeli is far more connected to Jewish religious tradition than we often realize.

Biblical Hebrew metaphors are just part of our daily life and they seem to roll off of our tongues in the oddest places. In Israel the Hebrew Bible just doesn’t take place in the synagogue or the Beit Midrash, it happens everywhere. Like the morning I was driving my oldest daughter to school (she was in 5th grade at the time) and on the radio the news was reporting about a scandal in the Knesset (what’s new) and the phrase they used was “Aitzat Achi TofelThe Advice of Achi Tofel.  Achitofel was a counselor who deserted King David (Psalm. 41:9; 55:12-14) and espoused the cause of Absalom (2 Samuel 15:12) and my daughter without missing a beat said – oh that’s from Sefer Shmuel – the Book of Samuel, and I nearly crashed the car. There is a wonderful synergy here in Israel where we take the holy and bring it into the mundane. There are other events which just make me smile. Like when you see the basketball team -Maccabee Tel Aviv play against the National basketball team from Greece on Hannukah and the snack food at the arena during half time is jelly donuts. It is like when my second oldest daughter was in the play “The Sound of Music” and the nuns sang in Hebrew – that was when I definitely knew I was in a Jewish country. It is like when my son plays me an Israeli heavy metal band (I hate heavy metal) and the chorus is Avinu Malkenu (seriously).

Whether it is theater, cinema or literature the context is a Jewish one, and not forced, but organic. Even the comedy movie Zohi Sdom, about Sodom and Gamora, begs knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, otherwise it is not funny. From the rhythm of the work week and school week that starts on Sunday to the nightly news, “Jewishness is the fabric upon which all of us sit.”  Even when you enter the country as you walk out of the baggage claim, you pass through two small walls of cascading water, symbolizing you have crossed the Red Sea and are entering the land of Israel. Simply said, being Jewish is in the details of everyday life. And because it is the dominant culture, even people who are not Jewish cannot help but soak in Jewish culture. Our Arab cousins (they also call us cousins in Arabic) speak beautiful Hebrew and better than many Zionists. The Arabs in Israel know most of our customs and traditions. In fact I actually had an argument with an Arab man in the supermarket about whether something was Kosher for Passover or not, and he knew the Halacha (Jewish law) better than I did. The issue here is that the more time one spends in Israel the more time one can soak up this Jewish culture that surrounds them and “it shapes our feelings about whether we want to be connected in the first place,”  and over time most people want to be connected.

It sometimes strikes me as ironic that the two most difficult issues in Israel, sovereignty and religion, have captured our attention more than any other. Maybe because there is so much work to be done in these areas.  Coming back home after two thousand years of exile we have absolutely no idea about the role of religion and state. Actually we do have ideas, but thousands of different ones. Do you run the electric company on Shabbat? Do buses run on Shabbat? Which buses? Who is a Jew? And who is a rabbi? Let’s face it it’s a mess.

Davka the religious aspects of the Jewish state did not bring me here nor do they keep me here. Nor am I always crazy about the political realities. I am not particularly militant but everyone in my family knows the importance of serving in the army. And I could not imagine living in a country where I would not be willing to be a part of that country’s national defense. The lessons of Jewish power and powerlessness are part of who we are when living in this country. And granted it is easier to be ethical when you are powerless, and of course the real test of ethics comes each and every day now that we actually have real power.

I understand the importance of Herzl, Ben Gurion, The Rav Kook (who I could live without); however if you ask me Ahad Ha Am may have gotten it right. And in the words of this prophet of cultural Zionism (oops I said that the “Z” word again) “Only through national culture for its own sake can a Jewish state be established in such a way that it will correspond to the will and the needs of the Jewish people.” And it is this aspect of a national Jewish culture that is consistently undervalued but it is really one of the best things we have going for us in the Jewish state and it is the best reason for living and/or visiting here. When you are in Israel you are surrounded 24 hours a day by Jewish time and Jewish space and this is like no other place, except for maybe Jewish summer camp for 2 months a year. Here public space is Jewish space. And Jewish public culture is davka something Israel got right.

And as I am thinking about all of this as I am driving early in the morning to my Jerusalem pool. The word for pool in Hebrew is Breicha which sounds like Bracha -the Hebrew word for blessing…as in the blessing of the Sh’ma prayer. And so I go from Bracha to Breicha – recontextualizing the holy into the mundane.  What can I say, here…even the pool is Jewish.


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Parshat Tetzaveh: On Siblings and Sublimation

Exodus 27:20-30:10

So what do we have here in this week’s Torah Portion of Tetzaveh? Unfortunately we have a very long and not a very interesting description of the High Priest and the clothes he is about to wear before ordination. We have instructions for building the Altar and finally we have in-depth details regarding  the gore of the sacrifices that seem something like out of a Quentin Terentino film( Pulp Sacrifices ?).

 For example Exodus 30:1:

“A cubit shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof; foursquare shall it be; and two cubits shall be the height thereof; the horns thereof shall be of one piece with it.”

 But wait ………before we panic and throw up our hands with the cry that this is boring and irrelevant ……we need to remember that Torah study has never been easy and maybe it shouldn’t be easy. As Jews who  love Torah, we know that if we just look at the Pshat (The simple and  plain meaning of this Text) we are  toast, we are like a bad football team tackled on our own  2nd yard line ( I am writing this on Erev Super Bowl and thought I would try to throw in some type of sports metaphor; although I have not followed pro football since Roman Gabriel played for the LA Rams.) Our  job is to be “Jews for Exegesis” (sorry….) and when we encounter a text like this ….our first response needs to be —- that we will dive down deeper into the layers of the text and into the deeper meaning . This is a Torah portion that begs us to go  beyond the vivid descriptions of the clothes and the costume of the Kohane HaGadol  (The High Priest) , and asks us to see the man under these priestly garments. And if there is  one thing we should know about the High priest in this Torah portion,  is that  he is Aaron, the brother of Moses. This is not and should not be  a minor detail. We all know the importance of family relationships and how they are determining influences in our own lives and the lives of the leaders of our people . And the Torah knows this too; which is why the Torah narrative begins with the story of the Jewish people starting out as a family – yet  sadly this narrative tells the story of a very….. dysfunctional family.

 Let us review:

  • Cain Kills Abel
  • Abraham banishes Ishmael and Hagar into the desert for almost certain death
  • Abraham nearly kills  Isaac to show his devotion to God  -Remember the Akkeda (the binding of Isaac)
  • Rebecca lies to Isaac
  • Jacob tricks Isaac
  • Jacob steals Esau’s Birthright
  • Esau tries to kill Jacob
  • Laban fools Jacob into marrying the wrong daughter Leah
  • Dinah is raped by Shechem and is forced to marry the man who rapes her
  • Shimon and Levi ask Shechem and his people to circumcise themselves as a gesture of being part of Jacob’s family
  • Shimon and Levi then kill every man in Shechem’s  town while they are recovering from their circumcision
  • Joseph’s brothers want  to kill him
  • Joseph’s brothers sell him into to slavery
  • Joseph’s brother lie to Jacob about Joseph being killed
  • Joseph slowly tortures his brothers and enslaves Benjamin before revealing his real true identity to his brothers in Egypt

 Let us face it—it takes a whole book in the TANACH (Hebrew Bible) to figure out how to become a semi functional family. Only when we get to Joseph’s sons at the end of the book of Bereisheet (Genesis) do we get some kind of familial normalcy in terms  of how brothers need to treat each other, like with Ephraim and Menashe. According to tradition – Ephraim and Menashe treated each other with respect and fairness. This is why we give the blessing on Erev Shabbat (Friday nights)  to boys  “ישימך אלוים כאפרים וכמנשה “ You should be like Ephraim and Menashe” as opposed to saying “You should be like  Cain and Abel” or “You should be like Jacob and Esau”-which would be awkward.

 Only after we figure out how to be a family at the end of Bereisheet (Genesis) are we ready to learn how to become a nation in the book of Exodus. However even as we are becoming a nation in Exodus, the Torah portion does not forget some of the key lessons from Bereisheet (Genesis). When looking back at all of the horrible ways siblings treated each other in Bereisheet – this Torah portion  is incredibly beautiful within the context of the relationship between Aaron and Moses. Take note from the wider story of how Moses who was the more exalted of the two brothers, lovingly helps dress Aaron in the clothes of the Kohane HaGadol  (The High Priest) . In contrast to Jacob, who dressed in his brothers clothes,  in order  to deceive his father Isaac and steal his brother Esau’s Birthright. Here we have two bothers who deeply care for each other and who help one another (I learned this nice insight from Rabbi Levi Weiman Kelman one Shabbat morning at Kol HaNeshama –see Levi I am paying attention….. ). This is a wonderful but difficult arc that is brought to a close with two brothers creating a Tikkun (a correction) for what their forefathers did to one another and an important Kavanah underneath the fanciful descriptions of the clothing of the Kohane HaGadol  (The High Priest).

 However there is more than just a beautiful tikkun here, but in fact there is a thoughtful balance of power as reflected in the roles of Moses and Aaron. Moses is the leader of the people, the one who  received the Torah on Sinai, but he does not need to be the  Kohane HaGadol (The High Priest), rather it is given to Aaron. In this Torah portion there is a separation of religion and state, there are checks and balances in the Torah. There is an appreciation for sharing power and there is an acknowledgement of the importance of moving from a functional and healthy family to a functional and healthy nation.

 But perhaps one of the most fascinating parts of this Torah Portion is to zoom out and ask the question about the actual need for Kohanim and Levites in the first place . Why would the people of Israel need to single out the Tribe of Levi to be Koahnim (High priests) and Levites (the helpers of the Kohanim) to attend to the sacrifices and eventually watch over the Temple in Jerusalem? Apparently this goes back to our stories from Bereisheet (Genesis) about siblings and brothers and about Shimon and Levi. Shimon and Levi ( the name sake of the two tribes) killed every man in a town in revenge for the rape of their sister Dinah – Breisheet 34:25  . These actions by Shimon and Levi showed an affinity for violence if not rage. Even if you look at the story of Moses when he comes down from Mount Sinai and sees the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf in Exodus 32:28, he kills 3000 people (we usually do not hear about this story,  but it’s there). The Torah makes clear that the Tribes of Shimon and Levi had some major anger management issues. And in a brilliant safe guard for the people of Israel there is a decision made regarding Shimon and Levi. If you ever look at the maps of the Tribes of Israel, you will see that although Shimon gets a portion of  Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) it is a portion of land entirely surrounded by the Tribe of Judah. As if to say, we trust your tribe,  but only so much , and just to make sure you behave, you will be surrounded by the tribe of Judah. For the tribe of Levi (the tribe of Moses and Aaron) because of their history –they are not given any portion of the land of Israel but are in a way made God’s “special helpers.” Just like the kid who misbehaves in class, there is an attempt to take their anger and channel it into more healthy and productive venues. And remember what ultimately the Kohanim do; they cut up animals all day (thank you my chevrutah at Grand Café on Derech Bet Lechem ). Call it reaction formation or sublimation, but there is something fascinating about taking the most violent brother/tribe and making them the priests.

 And so Aaron, Moses’ brother the Kohane HaGadol (The High Priest),under all of his priestly vestments, is thinking to himself,  “here I am Aaron …..coming from this  crazy family that somehow made things better, trying to figure out how to manage power that is effective, efficient, smart and fair. How do I to acknowledge all of this burning anger and all of this rage that is a part of my family? And how do I direct all of this into something that is worthwhile and meaningful.” And at that moment Aaron looked up and saw his brother Moses, and knew he would be okay.

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Tuesday the Rabbi Was Not A Friar: When Sirens Sound Across Israel

This morning was one of those mornings I dread living in Israel because I had given in to my wife’s demand that it was my turn to take the car to the garage and get it fixed. This is always the moment of truth when I know the essence of my manhood will be tested. A virtual auto motive Akedah (the binding of Isaac) if you will…. where I am forced to go up a mountain in Jerusalem (actually Talpiot where all the garages are) and hand myself over as an offering-  if not an actual sacrifice to my auto mechanic -Amnon. I am not mechanical and never will be…hey, I from Woodmere, Long Island. And any time men get together to talk about power tools or automotive matters …I try to switch the conversation to an interesting and sensitive midrash. Now when I was living in the States it was bad enough, but here with my fellow Jews speaking in the holy tongue of Hebrew  …it brings up my issues about actually living up to the Zionist dream. Here in Israel is where we were supposed to be workers of the land, here we were going to take the Jew out of the exile and the exile out of the Jew. And here I am a supposed to be a Gever (the Hebrew word for a man’s man). But as soon as I arrive at my mechanic, I never know what he is talking about and I just cannot help but flash that sign on my face that says “deer in the head lights” or in Israeli terms FRIAR! A FRIAR is the last thing that anyone wants to be in Israel, A FRIAR is somebody’s sucker or in this case – paying way more than you actually should. The Israeli national pastime is to prove why everyone else is a FRIAR and that you are in fact no one’s FRIAR. But when my mechanic Amnon told me that I needed a boxer  to change my joont….my goose was cooked and it was clear that I had no idea what he was talking about. Apparently he was telling me that I needed a special wrench to take off the wheel of my car so it could be fixed. What language was this? Boxer…….Joont they didn’t teach me these words when I studied at Hebrew Union College. And then I was sent all over the city to find his buddy “YiItzhak the Tire Guy” who really has the tools to fix it. And the whole time that I am racing around Jerusalem, I am determined that when I get to Yitzhak’s I will come off as a Gever (a man’s man) and more important not as a FRIAR (a sucker, a patsy, etc..)!   

So I arrive at Yitzhak’s Tire place all puffed up ready to present my automotive challenge when a siren goes off in Jerusalem (and around the country). And then I remembered that this was the morning that everyone has to go through a test run in case Iran decides to fire Inter Continental Ballistic missiles at us. I also made a mental note that we made sure to tell our kids (ages 15, 12 and 9) that there was going to be a drill today and not a real war. A few months ago during the War in Gaza, the siren in Jerusalem actually went off by mistake and my children went running in a panic down to the bomb shelter in their school. These experiences are not without their emotional and psychological impact. And so while I am racing all around Jerusalem intent on not being anyone’s FRIAR, the Jewish State was simply trying to make sure- we won’t FRY.  




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