Shimon Peres z”l

Right before our Advancing in Hebrew class this past Tuesday night did I see the news that Shimon Peres, a giant in the history of Israel, passed away.

Peres was Israel’s senior statesman who emigrated from Poland with his family during the British Mandate, helped build the state alongside David Ben-Gurion, served in many senior positions including Prime Minister and President and became, after contributing to the build up of Israel’s military, a leader in the quest for peace by (among other things) secretly negotiating the Oslo Accords. It was for this that he, along with Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Unlike Rabin, who was killed for his move towards peace, Peres was able to live out his very long life. Yet he still was not able to see a time of true peace. And his legacy may just be that—not looking back on a particular milestone or achievement, but a lifetime of service in pursuit of peace. In 2005 Peres was quoted as saying, “Optimists and pessimists die the same way. They just live differently. I prefer to live as an optimist.”

When I traveled to Israel on my interfaith trip with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs last May, one of our first stops was the Peres Center for Peace in Yafo, an NGO founded by Shimon Peres in 1996. Here, in a beautiful spot overlooking the Mediterranean, many programs were born that sought to build connections, relationships and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. The one we specifically heard about that morning was the medical program, which provided means for Palestinians living in Gaza to get medical help in Israel, and for doctors to participate in training across the border. Fascinating and powerfully important work.

Peres’s legacy, like anyone who spends a lifetime in government service especially at the upper levels of leadership, is going to have its highs and lows. Biographers and historians will continue to analyze this. But my one personal take away, realized after walking out of that building that bears his name, is that it will be programs like the one I learned about that will that will truly bring about peace.

Governments and leaders can negotiate borders and sign treaties. But it is the people on the ground forging real relationships that will allow for peace to take hold. For what peace truly needs is the ability for people to see one another as whole and holy beings, worthy of love and respect, who must have their rights respected and their basic needs met.

Ken yehi ratzon. May it be so.

Enough

rabin mural

One of the most moving parts of my trip to Israel a few months ago wasn’t even a part of my official itinerary. Once my program of Interfaith Partners for Peace ended, I spend a few days on my own which included a visit to Yohanna’s uncle Eli and his family in Ramat Hasharon, outside Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv is a place I haven’t spent much time, so I was glad to be able to spend a “Tel Aviv Shabbat,” which, since it is the capital of secular Israel, does not involve synagogue and prayer but beaches and socializing. Eli said he would take me on a bike ride, and so we got in the car and drove to a park close to the beach. There we rented two public bikes, much like they have in Seattle or New York, and we set off on a trip into the city.

We rode to the beach and along a promenade, dodging the masses of people walking along the boardwalk or sitting in cafes. We rode along hotels, down city streets along the beach and into Yafo. We then turned and rode deeper into the city, through historic neighborhoods, past landmarks like Independence Hall, where the State of Israel was declared by David Ben Gurion, and the Habimah theater.

It was then I realized that we would be passing Rabin Square, and my heart started to swell. Rabin Square is the large open public square where, following a speech given at a peace rally (it was then called Kings of Israel Square, Kikar Malche Yisrael), Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. That was November 4, 1995—20 years ago this coming Wednesday.

Rabin’s murder is one of those events that I remember where I was when I heard the news. Still buoyed by the hope of the Oslo Accords, the handshake on the White House lawn, the promise of mutual recognition and peace, Rabin’s killing was a shattering blow. To know that it was perpetrated by a Jewish extremist who was against the peace process made it even worse.

Since that time, while I had visited Rabin’s grave in Jerusalem, I had never had the chance to travel to Tel Aviv to be at that spot. When Eli and I rode our bikes, we drew closer to the square and approached from the southern end. We then rode the length of the (large) square to the northern end, under the balcony where Rabin spoke to the steps he descended where he was shot and where a memorial stands today. rabin site

The place where he died is a memorial of misshapen stones. Small bronze circles mark the position of Rabin and the shooter and others at the time of the events. A bust of Rabin overlooks the site, and a memorial wall is just to the north on an adjacent building. It was very moving.

Rabin’s assassination is all the more tragic because in the 20 years since, we have not seen the realization of peace. We have seen increasing cycles of violence, including a rise in attacks very recently.

Every year around the anniversary, I turn back to Rabin’s words. The former military general turned statesman had the power to inspire not just because of who he was, but also because of what he said. On the lawn of the White House in 1993 the day he and Yasir Arafat signed the Statement of Principles, he said in his gravelly voice:

Let me say to you, the Palestinians: We are destined to live together on the same soil, in the same land. We, the soldiers who have returned from battle stained with blood, we who have seen our relatives and friends killed before our eyes, we who have attended their funerals and cannot look into the eyes of their parents, we who have come from a land where parents bury their children, we who have fought against you, the Palestinians – We say to you today in a loud and a clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough. We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred towards you. We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free men. We are today giving peace a chance, and saying again to you: Enough

It is impossible to tell what would have happened had Rabin lived. Historians and commentators can debate whether or not we would have seen the realization of a lasting peace if he had lived. But we can continue to grasp onto the spirit of his words, a spirit that focused not on the past, but on the future. Not on what was but what could be. Not on hatreds but on hopes.

This week’s Torah portion includes the famous story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. Abraham is told by God to sacrifice his son on the top of a mountain as a sign of devotion to God. At the last minute, after the altar has been built, after Isaac has been tied down, after Abraham raises the knife to do the deed, an angel calls out, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him.” (Genesis 22:12) The killing is averted, a ram is sacrificed in Isaac’s stead.

In other words, the angel calls out: “Enough!”

Let us remember, on this the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, this one word: Enough.

Enough of hatred and violence.

Enough of injustice and dehumanization.

Enough of fear and terror.

Enough of the sacrifice of children.

Enough.

I’m Going to Jerusalem. And Ramallah.

In one of his last gestures before leaving his position as Government Affairs director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, my friend Zach Carstensen put in my name for a trip run through a program called “Interfaith Partners for Peace.” The idea behind the trip is to pair up rabbis and ministers from the same geographic area to travel to Israel and learn together.Jerusalem

Aside from visiting Jewish and Christian holy sites, the majority of the trip is visiting with organizations and individuals who are working on various projects of peace and understanding, mutual recognition and concern. Projects that seek to build connections between Israelis and Palestinians in order to help bring about reconciliation and a better future. We travel to Tel Aviv/Yaffo, the Galilee and Jerusalem. And we travel to Ramallah and Bethlehem.

I’m very excited for this opportunity.

[Also excited to meet and travel with my partner, Stephen Crippen, an Episcopal Deacon in Seattle. Zach paired us up, we have never met. However, we did work together when we both served on the Faith Cabinet of the R-74 campaign which brought marriage equality to Washington. We know each other by conference call and Facebook.]

It has been a long time since I was in Israel-12 years ago, while I was in rabbinical school. During seminary we spend a year studying Hebrew and Jewish studies. It was a wonderful year for me and Yohanna and one-year-old Ozi, travelling a lot, spending a lot of time with Yohanna’s extended family all over the country.

And it was a difficult year as well. It was during an intifada, and there were many attacks and bombings of public places. I remember hearing some from our Jerusalem apartment, including one evening when we were reading online about one attack only to hear another go off nearby. And that year a young man serving in the IDF who lived in our building was killed during an attack at a checkpoint. His name was Erez.

It was that year (2001-2002) that lead to the building of “the wall”-the separation barrier that creates a physical division between the Israelis and Palestinians. Since I have not been back, I have not seen it. It is one thing I am anticipating experiencing, along with the many other changes that have taken place in the past 12 years. (A newly redesigned Yad Vashem/Holocaust museum, for example. Cousins who were once kids are now adults, for another.)

I’m reflecting on this upcoming trip following the elections earlier this week. While Netanyahu’s Likud party won the most seats in the Knesset, there is still the need to form a government. And while the Israeli electorate on the one hand affirmed the status quo, the Arab joint list made new gains and the Orthodox party suffered greater losses than they had in the past. I don’t know what the political environment will be in two months when I am there.

I don’t know a lot about how things will be. But I do know that both Israel and I have changed in the past 12 years. I go with an open heart and an open mind, expecting and hoping to be challenged and, hopefully, inspired.

And not only am I different, but I will experiencing Israel in a way I haven’t before. I will be experiencing Israel in part through the eyes of Christian leaders, who have their own relationship with this Holy Land. And I will be learning from those who are committed to creating a new reality through mutual understanding and co-existence, though an understanding of the differing narratives and through the refusal to create divisions, “sides” or “the other.”

Some may remember on Yom Kippur I spoke about “What About Palestine!?” While it started as graffiti on our synagogue’s building sign, I reflected back to us that this is a question that we as Jews need to address. We need to care about both Israelis and Palestinians. I look forward to this (one, not the only) opportunity  to engage again with this question myself and to bring back what I learn.

Only Prayers

There is an interesting passage in this week’s Torah portion, Mattot. We are coming to the end of the book of Numbers in our weekly Torah reading cycle, and the Israelites are poised on the eastern side of the Jordan river ready to enter into the promised land. Their years of wandering are over, they have come almost to the end of their journey. (Deutoronomy is essentially one long speech of Moses, in the narrative the Israelites stay put.)

At the end of this week’s reading, the heads of the tribe of Gad and Reuben come to Moses and the other leaders of the community with a request. They are cattle ranchers, and they noticed that the land they have just come to settle in, on the eastern side of the Jordan, is perfect for cattle raising. Is it possible, they ask, to be assigned this portion of the land as their territory? In other words, could they stay on this side of the Jordan and not enter the Promised Land with the rest of the Israelites?

Moses considers this request and agrees on one condition: they first enter into the land with the rest of the Israelites, and once the land is settled they can return to the other side of the river and settle there.

On the one hand, an anthropological reading of the text can say that this story comes to fill in the back story as to how certain tribes wound up living where they did, especially that certain tribes are outside the land that was talked about in the text.

Reading this story now symbolically, two things come to mind: The Gadites and the Reubenites were part of the larger community of Israelites, and even though they wanted to live in a geographically distinct area away from the Israelites, they needed to still be mindful that they are part of a larger whole, and they needed to support the other tribes. Or, in other words, single communities separated by geography need to support one another. This motivation is what perhaps drives our connection to Israel-we are geographically distinct yet feel a bond through our membership in the Jewish people. And this is why the pain over what Israel experiences and what Israel does is that much more acute.

The evil dark side is that Jews everywhere are being held responsible by others for what is happening right now. John Lloyd, writing in Reuters, notes:

…There’s a very large, and often very rich, Russian community in London – and there are no attacks on Russians or their mansions, restaurants or churches because of the Russian seizure of Crimea and sponsorship of uprisings in eastern Ukraine.

People from Sri Lanka didn’t live in fear when their government was pounding the Tamil Tigers into submission, with thousands of deaths. Chinese visitors are undisturbed by reaction to their government’s suppression of dissent in Tibet and its jailing of dissidents. And quite right, too. Who knows what Russians, Sri Lankans or Chinese abroad think about their governments’ actions?

Jews, by contrast, are held responsible by large numbers of non-Jews in Western democratic countries for Israeli actions. That’s all Jews, whatever their views on the Israeli response to the rockets fired on Israel from Gaza. Sometimes, the reaction goes much further than disapproval.

Lloyd notes the increase in seemingly unchecked anti-Semitism, including riots and a fire-bombing of a synagogue in France. This has been just as horrifying to watch as what is happening in Israel and something we can not take lightly.

A second understanding of the Torah story this week  is that sometimes separation is what is necessary in order to move forward, and that an original vision sometimes needs to be amended. In the Torah the original vision of all the tribes living together in the land needed to be changed to allow for the fulfillment of the request of the Gadites and the Reubenites. But this was perhaps a necessary step for the Israelites to continue.

Etgar Karet, a noted Israeli author, wrote a powerful op-ed about “peace.” That word is probably doing more harm than good he writes, because it take the human actors out of the mix. Reflecting on both an interview he conducted with Prime Minister Netanyahu and on his son’s second grade class, he writes,

It turned out that Netanyahu, a courageous former officer in an elite combat unit who had faced impossible odds in battle, thinks like my son and his classmates do when it comes to peace. I don’t want to spoil the mood of my prime minister or a class of second-grade kids, but I have a strong gut feeling that God won’t be giving us peace any time soon; we’re going to have to make an effort to achieve it on our own. And if we succeed, neither we nor the Palestinians will receive it free of charge.

Peace, by definition, is compromise between sides, and in that kind of compromise, each side has to pay a genuine, heavy price, not just in territories or money but also in a true change of worldview.

That’s why the first step might be to stop using the debilitating word “peace,” which has long since taken on transcendental and messianic meanings in both the political left and right wings, and replace it immediately with the word “compromise.” It might be a less rousing word, but at least it reminds us that the solution we are so eager for can’t be found in our prayers to God but in our insistence on a grueling, not always perfect dialogue with the other side.

True, it’s more difficult to write songs about compromise, especially the kind my son and other kids can sing in their angelic voices. And it doesn’t have the same cool look on T-shirts. But in contrast to the lovely word that demands nothing of the person saying it, the word “compromise” insists on the same preconditions from all those who use it: They must first agree to concessions, maybe even more – they must be willing to accept the assumption that beyond the just and absolute truth they believe in, another truth may exist. And in the racist and violent part of the world I live in, that’s nothing to scoff at.

These words are very powerful. It strikes me that this conflict is one that is being waged by those on both sides who have a greater-almost messianic-vision of how things should be. These visions will only perpetuate conflict and not bring about a resolution. “Compromise” is a better word than peace since it is more realistic and descriptive of what needs to happen. What needs to happen is that people need to give up the visions of what they think things should be, and instead see where they can compromise and give up and separate from, in order to move forward.

How we get there, I don’t know. But here is one thing.

In Israel and all across the world this past Tuesday Jews and Muslims were getting together to break the Muslim fast of Ramadan and the Jewish fast of the 17th of Tammuz. The joint fasts were to be seen as “hunger strikes” against violence and as prayers for life and peace. The initial effort was organized by a colleague of mine from Rabbis Without Borders who lives in Israel.

We didn’t have a big event here in Olympia, but I did head over to the mosque at the end of the day to join in prayers and iftar, the breaking of the fast. It was a small scale opportunity to share an experience and join together in common cause and friendship.

I don’t normally fast on the 17th of Tammuz. It is a minor fast day, and there are even some authorities who say that in times of peace and security the fast will be optional. That is definitely not the case this year, and with the added kavannah (intention) mentioned above, I took on the fast this year.

It was truly a compelling experience. In another sphere of my rabbinic life and learning these days I have been reflecting on the nature of prayer. I will be sharing more on that later, but for now I can say that the fast itself-which unlike Yom Kippur we undertake while we go about our normal daily business-was a type of prayer. A continuous beseeching of God throughout the day.

What was my prayer?

Please, God, let us

End the violence

Be kept from hatred and scorn

Stop creating false divisions

Learn to know when we need to pull back and compromise

See the death of all children as a fundamental tragedy

Deeply hear and understand each other’s narrative.

There is more to pray for I know. But for now, I’ll just leave it at that.

 

Peace Fast

My heart has been heavy this past week reading the news coming out of the Middle East.

Beginning with the kidnapping and murder of three young Israeli yeshiva students, followed by the horrendous revenge killing of an even younger Palestinian boy, we are witnessing a deepening round of violence. As rockets land in Israel and airstrikes hit Gaza, a cease-fire is broken and we have spiraled into another round of violence. Extremism and violence has once again won the day.

While there are moments of hope and light-the families of the IsraeIi and Palestinian youths have reached out to eachother and both publically denounced the violence and hatred which led to the death of their children-that is overshadowed by the darkness. I grieve for the loss of life, the fear which grips all who live there and the zealotry that has led to this result.

I chose that last term purposefully because it brings to mind this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas. We are reading this week in our Torah reading cycle in the book of Numbers. Our portion actually picks up in the middle of a story begun last week: The Israelites while wandering in the desert began to associate with (and have sexual relations with) the Moabites. This then led the Israelites adopting the Moabite gods. God becomes incensed at this sinful behavior, and orders Moses to carry out a punishment.

Just then an Israelite takes a Midianite woman and has sex with her in the Tent of Meeting, in the sacred central gathering space. Pinchas, a priest, takes a spear, goes in after them and kills them both by impaling them with the spear through both of their torsos. With that act a plague, which we can assume was a punishment for the previous idolatrous behavior, ends. And at that, last week’s portion Balak ends.

It is a bit of a cliffhanger. While we know the plague ends, what of Pinchas? Is there any more fallout from his act? This week’s portion opens with God offering Pinchas a blessing, recognizing that it was Pinchas’ action which ended the punishment. God offers Pinchas and his descendants a place in the priesthood and a brit shalom, a pact of peace. The Torah appears to condone his act.

The term zealot because that is the term usually invoked to describe Pinchas and his act. Pinchas was a zealot, who in his passion and zeal kills two people in the name of God. Is Pinchas rewarded for his act of zealotry? Is the Torah telling us that violence in the name of God is a good thing?

Its not quite clear. What is a brit shalom? What is a “pact” or “covenant” of shalom? One way of understanding this-an as some translations bear out-is God is making a special relationship with Pinchas, a “pact of friendship” in which, presumably, God has Pinchas’ back since Pinchas had God’s.

But why would God offer a pact of shalom? Maybe this is not so much a reward for Pinchas’ behavior as a check on it.

A colleague of mine from the CLAL Rabbis Without Borders program, Rav Hanan Schlesinger, writes,

Rabbi Naftalie Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, known by the acronym Netziv, answers by way of a deep psychological insight. Violence, even when justified, leaves an ugly scar on the soul. The seeds of callous disregard for the preciousness of human life are implanted by every act of aggression, not matter what the context. A little bit of one’s humanity is lost.

God’s ‘covenant of peace’ is an antidote to the pernicious effects of Pinchas’s zealotry. It is a promise that he will be spared the almost inevitable lot of all perpetrators of violence. The Netziv reminds us that violence of all types eats away at us from within, and a counterweight must be quickly provided to prevent the damage from spreading. It is true for the individual and it is true for the collective.

Another way of looking at this is that blessing one who demonstrated anger and violence with “peace” can be understood as disapproval-Pinchas needs more shalom in his temperament for his natural inclination is to act violently. Pinchas in his extremism demonstrated the opposite of shalom, so God blesses him with it.

A hint at this meaning is found in the text itself. Based on an early medieval tradition, in the Torah scroll, the vav in the word shalom is written broken:

Here too is a criticism of Pinchas. As one Torah scribe put it, the authors of the scroll “must have been shocked by the violence of Pinchas’ action as they made his blessing only partial through the broken vav which explains that true peace cannot be brought about through violence and that the two concepts are incompatible.” (Thanks to Toby Shulruff for this cite.) Or maybe another way to put it is to say that Pinchas, through his act of violence, is broken or scarred.

Peace brought by violence is broken. Zealous behavior leaves physical and emotional scars. Revenge is not the way. Acts of zealotry is driving this conflict. Acts of compassion and control can hopefully end it.

This upcoming week, on Tuesday, is the 17th of Tammuz. In our tradition it is a fast day, a day of mourning, remembering the time the Babylonians breached the wall of Jerusalem during their conquest in the 6th century BCE. The day ushers in a period known as “The Three Weeks” leading up to Tisha B’Av-the Ninth of Av-a day of mourning to commemorate the destruction of the ancient Temple.

The 17th of Tammuz is a minor fast day, both in the technical sense of being a sunrise to sundown fast (as opposed to a 24 hour fast like Yom Kippur), but also in the sense that it is not widely observed outside of traditional circles. Maybe this is the year to make an exception.

Noting that we are also in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a month marked by day-long fasting, Rabbi Schlesinger (an Orthodox rabbi) is part of an effort to make this Tuesday a joint day of fasting-for peace and non-violence. Rabbi Arthur Waskowalso notes such a project. By using the fast day to focus our spiritual energy in this way, then perhaps it can be the “brit shalom” that is so desperately needed right now.

This Tuesday we can fast for peace. So we can hopefully have peace fast.