Thursday, July 31, 2014

Looking for Good News

Looking for good news? Me too. For the past few weeks, the brokenness and meanness in the world have dominated the news. At home and abroad, it seems that people of good will are in short supply. Not to mention the floundering Red Sox. (Are they really trading John Lester?)

If we are to follow Rev Nachman of Bratslav’s exhortation “do not despair” then we need to hear more hopeful news to carry us through these dark times.

And so, I bring you a smattering of good news stories.
  • A few years ago we befriended Thaer Abdallah, a Palestinian artist who spoke at Human Rights Shabbat about being a refugee. Thaer shared his artistic work which illustrated his journey as a Palestinian refugee fleeing Iraq. He managed to survive the Syrian war and emigrated to the United states, got married and fathered a son. Yet he was grieved by the estrangement from his mother, who remained in the Middle East. After a great deal of effort, his mother arrived in Boston on Tuesday, meeting her grandson Yusef for the first time.
  • This week I also received an update from Hand in Hand Schools in Israel. Some members may recall several years ago when the Chaverim School contributed our annual tsedaka collection to the schools, whose mission is “to create a strong and inclusive shared society in Israel through a network of Jewish-Arab integrated bilingual schools and organized communities.” The schools are located in five areas, including Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and the Galilee with 1,100 Jewish and Arab students and more than 3,000 community members.

Sunday night, the two principals (Jewish and Arab) of the Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem discovered anti-Arab graffiti scrawled on the school’s entrance. With the help of Jerusalem’s mayor, the graffiti was erased before the children arrived the next morning. The principals responded to this cowardly act, not with fear or anger, but with the following statement: “Our school will continue to educate towards love of our fellow human beings, mutual listening and true cooperation between Jews and Arabs." The pictures are worth a thousand words, overpowering the effect of the graffiti itself.

I also found more thoughtful and balanced sources for all of us to ponder and share as we are united as a community in finding an end to violence. I continue to urge you to seek out ways to bring people together, rather than tear us further apart. As my sister wrote to me from her home in the West Bank, “Please thank your congregants for their prayers and support. We don't have to agree on the solutions, we just have to love one another.”

For twenty years, Brian and I have subscribed to Eretz Magazine, a glossy Israeli publication in English, highlighting the beauty, history and culture of the Land of Israel that we love so much. I want to close by sharing the message that came in our subscription renewal letter that arrived in the mail this week:
“As violence erupts once again around Gaza, with missiles flying and canons (sic) roaring, the real question is not who or what started this round of fighting, but where are the wise, brave leaders who can end the cycle of violence.”

With pain in my gut and hope in my heart, I pray that we all may be privileged to contribute to that vision and help see it come to fruition.

B’ezrat Hashem / Insha'Allah
Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Thursday, July 10, 2014

From Zealot to Peacemaker: The Still Small Voice

A still small voice.
A soft murmuring sound.
A thin voice of silence.

Whatever the translation of kol d’mama daka (I Kings 19:12), this is a sound that in our raucous, fast-paced, over stimulated society, we rarely get to hear. Yet this sound is one of the most powerful weapons against zealotry and violence.

This week, as we carry the burden of the raging violence between Israel and Gaza, and as we mourn the deaths of innocent young men, Israelis and Palestinians, I am searching our holy texts for guidance and comfort.

The Torah portion for the week, Pinchas, and its accompanying haftarah portion rose to the challenge. Pinchas was an Israelite whose violent act of zealotry earned him not only the lasting title of this portion but also a “covenant of peace” – brit shalom. What an astonishing juxtaposition!

Likewise, the haftarah recalls the prophet Elijah’s escape from the murderous rage of Queen Jezebel, who pledged to annihilate all of the prophets in Israel. Elijah, like Pinchas, is a zealot, who angrily chastises the people because, “I am moved by zeal for the LORD” (Numbers 19:14). Yet we remember Elijah at the Passover seder as the harbinger of Messianic times when all people will live in peace. Another astonishing juxtaposition! 

A zealot is someone who is willing and eager to fight for what they believe. Some commentators, equate Pinchas and Elijah, as if they are the same person. Both Pinchas and Elijah exhibit dangerous, even violent, tendencies out of devotion to their principles. Pinchas upheld the stringent ban on cohabiting with the Moabites, which had kindled divine anger, causing a plague. He prevented the complete annihilation of his people. But Pinchas acted rashly, without consulting Moses or anyone else.

Elijah also adhered to a rigorous understanding of right and wrong, accusing the Israelites of sinning against God. He successfully defended the Israelite God against the priests of Baal, then ran away in fear for his life. Full of despair, Elijah escaped to the wilderness and, in a reckless moment, asked God to take his life. 

Is it possible to have compassion for the zealot? As we mourn for all victims of extremism, of uncontrolled hatred and rage, can we find room to understand people like Pinchas and Elijah?

What appears as anger and hatred may have its roots elsewhere. When we read carefully, we learn that both men acted out of fear and despair. Pinchas feared for the lives of his people; Elijah feared for his own life.

Yet both men become men of peace. How is that possible?

When the Torah says that Pinchas received a brit shalom, a covenant of peace, some commentators describe this as the antidote to his violent nature.  

When Elijah flees into the wilderness, he looks for God to console him over his victimization. He quickly learns that, while he served God in anger, God’s own desire is for calm. After looking for God’s Presence in a wind that shattered rocks, and an earthquake, and a fire, Elijah hears the kol d’mama daka, that barely audible voice. When he isolates himself from the people who threaten him and from the forces that seek to do him harm, Elijah discovers a quiet place, a place where he can listen. This is the beginning of his transformation from zealot to peacemaker.

Jews have a tradition that Elijah appears at the celebration of brit milah, the covenant of circumcision for every newborn boy. It is customary to display a decorative kiseh shel Eliyahu (Elijah’s chair) as part of the ritual. (Progressive Jews today would extend that to the naming celebrations for girls as well.) The Midrash explains that the self-righteous prophet needs to witness the arrival of every baby and to be present with the parents, family members and friends in order to cultivate his forgiveness. Since he angrily charged all of Israel with sin, he must train himself to become more open-hearted, since all of us are imperfect. That is the real transformation.

In the current situation there’s not a lot that we can all agree on. As David Horovitz wrote in The Times of Israel on July 7:
They started it? They’re worse? They all hate us? Well maybe they did, and maybe they are, and maybe they do. But those arguments don’t help us. Those are not arguments that are going to save our society.

No matter how we interpret events or who we blame, those words cannot bring peace. We need to recognize that within each of us lies a Pinchas/Elijah, a soul filled with pain and horror, blindly devoted to our most fundamental beliefs and principles. How can we enter into a covenant of peace if our hearts remain closed?

Which leaves me with this simple human plea: listen for the still small voice. Listen to the Other. Listen with compassion to your enemies, whether they are enemies within or without. Listen and don’t speak. Listen.

The times call for constructive acts. The times call for real human contact. Pay attention to the extraordinary acts of kindness between the grieving families. Pay attention to the courageous words of shared sorrow between enemies. These will not make the headlines, but they are the only hope we have to create a groundswell that cries “Enough!” Listen.