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Rabbi Seidel Drash | Two Promised Lands

Rabbi Seidel Drash - Yom Kippur - 5775 (2014)
Two Promised lands

 

 

 

            Today, I want to talk about two promised lands.  Two Zions.  One is national, the other, personal.  When I say the national promised land, I mean, of course, the physical land of Israel, the stone and soil, the people and the culture of Israel to whom we American Jews are connected, each in our own way.  I was there for a month over the past year, as part of my sabbatical; I have a few stories to share from my time there.

            But I’m also going to talk about the idea of a personal promised land, a metaphorical place that you imagine was promised to you by God.  Or if that is too traditionally religious a formulation for you, think of a promised land you have always hoped or assumed would be yours, eventually.  A personal promised land that you have always worked towards, or at least wished for.

            I believe that both of these promised lands deserve your careful attention.  I want to suggest that you to take care not to neglect either of them.  And, in addition, I want to talk about the tension between these two promised lands - the way too much emphasis on one of them can come at the expense of the other.

 

            I often think about both of these promised lands, during my daily davenning.  It would be hard not to: Zion and Jerusalem are so frequently mentioned.  For example, let’s take a look at page 453 in your Mahzor.  I’m looking at the 5th paragraph up from the bottom in the Hebrew, which corresponds to the 4th paragraph up in the English.  This prayer is right in the middle of the daily amidah, in this case the evening amidah that we’ll say right after that last shofar blast after Ne’ilah, may it come speedily and soon. ולירושלים עירך ברחמים תשוב...

In Your mercy, return to Your city, Jerusalem.

Dwell there as You have promised; build it permanently, speedily, in our day.

May You soon establish the throne of David in its midst.

Blessed are You, Adonai, who builds Jerusalem.

On one level, this is about the real physical city of Jerusalem.  But it’s about more than than.  The fact is, as often as I think about the Jerusalem of our people, I also think about my own Jerusalem.  The promised land of my hopes and dreams.  The land I build, with God’s help, right here, out of my own life.  My family, my career, my friends, my hobbies, my garden - the good land that God has given me, the promised land I constantly till.

            This prayer reminds me: the good things in my life didn’t just happen.  And not just that, but this life of mine is constantly being built.  And it is not just me that is doing the building.  I’ve got a silent partner who is easy to forget about.  And if that heavenly partner doesn’t dwell in this personal promised land, it’s not a promised land at all - it’s merely a random life that I happen to be living, devoid of ultimate meaning.

            When I read: “May You soon establish the throne of David in its midst”, I think about the cosmic importance of my life.  Not that anyone in my family is the Messiah.  But maybe our family does have some small role in the Messianic process.  Maybe the affect I could have on the people I meet in the course of my life could contribute to a national, or even an international blessing.  Wouldn’t that be good?  And this prayer, when read symbolically, asks for just that: may my little promised land be part of something bigger than itself. 

            Now, this symbolic, personal reading of the prayer is not at all to deny the importance of the literal meaning.  I also try keep the real physical place of Jerusalem in my heart and in my  prayers.  More about that in a minute.  But first, another example of a prayer that resonates for me in this manner, reminding me of both the literal and the personal promised lands.

            In the bentsching we thank God:שהנחלתנו לאבותינו ארץ חמדה טובה ורחווה  - You have given a good, spacious, desirable land to our ancestors.  While I sometimes think of the actual lovely land of Israel when I say that, I have another thought as well: I think of that spacious land that I have been granted.  I think of the immense intellectual tradition I have inherited, just by being born a Jew.  This land, our Jewish Library, is so rich, so vast, I will never know it all.  This land feeds me, helps me approach God in an intelligent, creative way.  Our tradition, like the land of Israel, is a breadbasket full of goodies!  Thanks be to our Creator.

            This prayer reminds me of similarities between these lands we have been given - the physical land, and the textual tradition.  Both are inspiring, complex, and imperfect.  Sometimes they can be off-putting.  They take a lot of work to get to know.  In my role as Rabbi and first nudge of the community, I am here to champion these two lands you have had the luck to inherit.  The better you get to know them, the deeper a love you will be able to feel for them.

            So, here are some stories about my sabbatical, in the actual land of Israel.  Rachel and I spent the first 10 days or so together, traveling around, seeing Tel Aviv, Tzfat, and Jerusalem, among other places.  Tzfat is where I got this nice new Tallit.  It was a great trip, though, frankly I did not enjoy driving in Israel.  Of course, I don’t really enjoy driving in DC either.  In Israel, though, the fact that I did not know the roads well, nor the Israeli customs of the road, and the GPS system the rental car company had given us was barely functional - all that made it much harder.

            Here’s an inspiring and troubling story.  In Jerusalem, we stayed in the Towers Hotel, a skyscraper right downtown that was surprisingly reasonably priced, perhaps because it’s a bit past its prime.  Anyway, its location was perfect for seeing the sights, and it was close to the Old City.  Unfortunately it was rather far from Moreshet Avraham, TI’s sister congregation out in East Talpiot.  On Shabbat morning, we walked for an hour to get there.  I was really looking forward to being back in that shul - I had a number of old classmates from Rabbinical School who were members there, as well as some teachers.  And the Rabbi, Barry Schlesinger, is a hero of mine.

            Anyway, by the time Rachel and I made it there, we were tired, and sweaty, and thirsty.  We got some water, and sat down, thankful to be off of our feet.  But we didn’t see a single person we knew.  And what’s more, the service didn’t seem to have its usual spunk.  I was called for an aliyah, and as I came up I gave my name.  At which point the other gabbai turned to me and said “Ethan!?”.  It was an old professor of mine, Reuven Hammer.  I have no idea how I had missed noticing him before - it’s not that large a shul.  I don’t have to tell you how nice it was to see someone we knew, in a strange place.

            And as it turned out, there were a few other people I had met before, among them a relative of Nancy Roth who is very friendly.  And Rabbi Hammer invited us to a soiree after havdalah at his house that night, with some of his friends - all scholars of Judaica.  Which we went to - since it was after havdalah, we could drive to that party, and we had a fascinating time.  Some other time I’ll tell you about that party, but what strikes me in retrospect is that experience of first feeling out of place, and then recognizing an old acquaintance, happened time and again while I was in Israel.  Sometimes the old acquaintance was not a person, but maybe a landmark, or a truth about life I’d half-forgotten.  But I found myself regularly brought up short, experiencing a kind of cultural whiplash, throughout my trip.  I’d think: This is foreign.  And then, sometimes just moments later, “No, actually, it is familiar”.  Then a little later: “No, it’s really foreign”.  Foreign, and familiar.

            Back to Moreshet Avraham.  It turns out, the Rabbi who had run that shul so effectively was not there, because his contract had not been renewed.  And as for my old Rabbinical School classmates: one, I found out later, was now attending another Masorti shul nearby, Mayanot, that we heard had more energy now than Moreshet Avraham.  Another had divorced his wife - neither he nor his ex came to this shul anymore.  You know, I’m embarassed to say that it made me a little angry.  It didn’t seem fair.  I wanted my Israel just the way I left it!  But like any promised land, it is not static.  And like any promised land, if I’m not personally involved in building it, how much standing do I have to demand that it be one way or another?  Some standing, for sure.  Israel’s actions affect me, as an American Jew, so I feel I have the right to advocate for one position or another.  But do I know Israel well enough to make suggestions I can be confident are helpful and well-informed?

            This is not true with regards to my personal promised land, something I do know about.  It’s not a foreign country, built on foreign languages, and a number of different cultures.  My promised land is my life.  Sure, I’m blind to some aspects of it, the way were are all blind to crucial aspects of our lives.  But I know it as well as I know anything.  I have a general inkling about how much luck was involved to get where I am now, and how much hard work on my part is responsible.  I have at least a general sense of how I at times have been my own worst enemy.  I have a general sense of what might be good directions in which I should strive in the coming year; I know how much energy I have to work with.  In particular, here at TI, I have a sense of what programs might be attractive to congregants, and what programs, at least historically, are likely to fizzle.  My point - you’ve heard me make it before - is that it makes sense to invest most of my energy in projects close to home, about which I have extensive knowledge.

            Let me return to prayer again, to a text from the service we’ll daven in a few minutes.  During Musaf we will say: מפני חטאינו גלינו מארצנו - because of our sins, we were exiled from our land.  It’s on page 323 if you want to take a look at it.  This line is actually part of every yuntuv Musaf amidah.  The larger context is: God, we can no longer offer the ancient Musaf sacrifice, because the Temple was destroyed, and we were exiled from our land - we pray that you will return us to that promised land, and rebuild the Temple, so we can offer those sacrifices once again.

            Part of that prayer I feel close to.  Namely, our historical willingness to take responsibility for our tragedies.  Because of our sins, we were exiled from our land.  Even if that’s not the whole story - surely there were other nations that had some blood on their hands - it’s a healthy attitude to take, to assume responsibility for what happened.  Nations that nurse ancient grudges, that regularly blame other countries for their own mistakes - well it’s hard for a nation or an individual to make progress when they always blame others.

            So I like that part of the prayer.  However, other parts are a bit foreign to me - perhaps to you as well.  I’m not actually hoping for the restoration of animal sacrifices.  So I think symbolically of what those sacrifices might mean to me.  I ask myself what sacrifices I might need to make, to remain in my promised land.  What desires I have that might need to be sacrificed at work, at home, even while riding a bike, so that I can remain in this promised land. How, say, to keep the TI community healthy, might I need to change with the times, for instance, even though I really like the old ways.  How I might have to bike a little slower and safer than I’d really like to, in order not to maim myself or others.  This prayer helps me remember not to get mad about making sacrifices - they are a part of life.  Sacrifices help to insure that I can remain in the good land God has given me.

            And there’s another part of this prayer is a little awkward for me: the idea of the ingathering of the exiles.  Since I myself am making no plans for aliyah, a feel a little distance from that part of the prayer.  So I tend to think of my own promised land when reading those lines.  What is it that I do, that keeps me scattered, out of the promised land I have been granted?  What is distracting me from even appreciating the blessings I’ve been given?  How could I be gathered from these distractions, and returned to the place I was created to inhabit?

            I make this point because of a little problem we had with the TI listserve during this last month.  It was a problem involving both our national homeland, and our home here at TI.  There was concern about how we were discussing the state of Israel on line, a concern that some people may have been bullying or disrepectful of others in the discussion about Israel.  There were many emails on this point.  I felt it was an important discussion, if, perhaps, a little lengthy.  This was all about, after all, our promised land.  In the midst of the extensive back and forth about this discussion, I submitted an email to the listserve on another subject.  Here it is:

 

From: Rabbi Ethan Seidel [mailto:eseidel@tifereth-israel.org] Sent: Friday, September 05, 2014 11:52 AMTo: Tifereth Israel Congregation discussion listSubject: Need a place to go for an Erev Rosh HaShanah meal? Willing to invite someone?

If you expect to find yourself alone this Erev Rosh HaShanah and would like a place to go for a meal, let me know.

Conversely, if you would be willing to invite a fellow TI’er for a meal this Erev Rosh HaShanah, let me know.

I’ll be happy to match you up.

Rabbi Seidel

 

I got three responses from people who needed a meal.  I got exactly zero responses from people who were willing to open their house to someone within the community.  This in the middle of intense, passionate listserve traffic about our national promised land.

            Now, it’s not as bad as you think.  We do care about each other, here at TI.  It’s just that our listserve is not really about community building, in the way I wish it were.  Sure, some people, myself included, do get help from time to time: finding a roofer, a door repair person.  And that’s not nothing.  But it doesn’t feel like the amount of personal help a community could give each other, in, say, an idyllic promised-land version of TI.  We do have the helping hands website that Susan Catler organizes, and some of you are active with that, and that’s excellent.  But only 160 people are signed on for Helping Hands, while about 300 are on the listserve.  And, unfortunately, folks tend to be reluctant to sign up when they need help.

            There are other problems with our listserve.  Most of the newer members who have joined in the last few years - and thankfully, there are lots of people in that category - don’t sign up for the listserve.  So they didn’t even get that email.  Sure, we do have an announcement email once a week that goes out to many more people, but that is not interactive, and so less able to help us build community.

            Where does that leave us?  We are eager to discuss the pros and cons of our national promised land, and we’re even more eager to have a debate about exactly how we should discuss those pros and cons.  But what about our local community, the local version of the promised land we are trying to create, the local scene over which we have so much more control than the state of Israel?  Could it be that our preoccupation with the occupation has distracted us from mitzvahs that are nearer at hand?  Could it be that our focus on events far away has made the listserve not a support for our community, but a distraction from community?

            Distraction is among the biggest issues we face, as we try to face God honestly.  Our culture now has so many distractions, with new apps, and even platforms coming online every day, that it’s amazing we can get any work done at all.  And of course, we now also have the Nats in the baseball playoffs to compete against today.  In a way, I’m less concerned about Jews being distracted from introspection by these playoffs, than some of our other distractions.  Not that I think people should miss Nei’lah so that they can watch the game, God forbid.  But at least the Nats is something local, something positive, something that really helps, in its own way, to bring a community together.  True, endless discussions about baseball and what particular players and managers should have done can feel (to me at least) much like endless discussions about Israel.  In a way, it’s a form of entertainment - second guessing decisions you have no control over.  And entertainment is a good thing, up to a point - it’s healthy to have some distractions.  But when entertainment becomes such a distraction that it trumps Yom Kippur, when discussion of Israeli politics becomes a more popular pastime than, say, acutally working to form and energize an Israel committee here at TI, or than providing a meal for a lonely congregant - well that’s not right.  And that’s what I think the prayer is speaking of, when we ask God to gather our dispersed selves from afar.

            Speaking of distractions, I’m increasingly worried that the topic of Israel has become a distraction not just for American Jews, but for the entire world.  Of course, this is not a new phenomenon.  The United Nations has used Israel as a distraction from getting their work done since the 1970’s at least - 1975 was when the infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution was passed by the UN General Assembly.  And though that resolution was retracted in 1991, imbalanced focus on Israel seems to be a permanent feature of the international scene.

            An article by Matti Friedman in Tablet makes this point very strongly.  Some of you may have read this piece: it was one of the articles we debated on the listserve.  While I wasn’t swayed by every detail of that article, some of what he says is undeniable.  Here’s a sample:

When I was a correspondent at the AP, the agency had more than 40 staffers covering Israel and the Palestinian territories. That was significantly more news staff than the AP had in China, Russia, or India, or in all of the 50 countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined. It was higher than the total number of news-gathering employees in all the countries where the uprisings of the “Arab Spring” eventually erupted.

To offer a sense of scale: Before the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, the permanent AP presence in that country consisted of a single regime-approved stringer. The AP’s editors believed, that is, that Syria’s importance was less than one-40th that of Israel. I don’t mean to pick on the AP—the agency is wholly average, which makes it useful as an example. The big players in the news business practice groupthink, and these staffing arrangements were reflected across the herd. Staffing levels in Israel have decreased somewhat since the Arab uprisings began, but remain high. And when Israel flares up, as it did this summer, reporters are often moved from deadlier conflicts. Israel still trumps nearly everything else.

The volume of press coverage that results, even when little is going on, gives this conflict a prominence compared to which its actual human toll is absurdly small. In all of 2013, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed 42 lives—that is, roughly the monthly homicide rate in the city of Chicago. Jerusalem, internationally renowned as a city of conflict, had slightly fewer violent deaths per capita last year than Portland, Ore., one of America’s safer cities. In contrast, in three years the Syrian conflict has claimed an estimated 190,000 lives, or about 70,000 more than the number of people who have ever died in the Arab-Israeli conflict since it began a century ago.

            End quote.

            Why exactly does the world press corps focus on Israel so relentlessly?  Among the several answers proposed in the article, I was most persuaded by the answer that is applicable to our lives.  Reporters focus on Israel at least partly because that is a lot easier than focusing on more dangerous places.  It takes a very unusually brave - maybe even foolhardy - person to report the news from Syria, or from the Congo.

            We all have this bias.  It is so easy to convince ourselves that the easier job is what really needs doing.  We tend to distract ourselves with easy jobs - arguing about what the state of Israel should do - and we put off the hard jobs - say, actually visiting Israel, or reaching out to a lonely soul in our own community.  Reporters are no different than anyone else, in this regard.  Though I did find last Sunday’s (9/28/2014) front page article in the Post a little more unselfaware than usual.  The headline read:  “In Congo, trapped in violence and forgotten”.  It was an excellent article, an unimaginably painful description of life in a small village there over many years of horror.  Here’s a quote from the second page, after some of the awfulness had been described:

And yet the war remains invisible to most outsiders, who have grown weary of the unending cycle of violence. Today, relief groups have trouble raising money to help Congo as more publicized upheavals in Syria, South Sudan and elsewhere grab the world’s attention. [end quote]

And whose fault is that, Washington Post, that so little international coverage focuses on the Congo?  And why mention the South Sudan as grabbing an unfair share of the world’s attention.  When it comes to hogging front page space, surely it’s Israel, more than the Sudan that is the problem. Is the reporter trying that to avoid the fact that his newspaper is distracted by the relatively minor flaws of the Jews?  When the rest of the world begins to think (as, we are told, the average European thinks) that the Israelis are the main source of trouble in the Middle East, we have a very big problem in the making.  When the world uses the Jews to distract themselves from the real issues facing them ... well, do I even care to finish that sentence?

            But it’s what is distracting us, that is my main concern today.  How do we balance a concern for our brethren in Israel, with attention to our own personal promised land?  I find it helpful to remind myself how the physical and the symbolic Jerusalem resemble each other.  For example: I know how unpredictable anyone’s personal life can be.  Sometimes things are good, and you live up to your highest ideals.  Sometimes you get lazy.  Sometimes bad random-seeming things happen that are out of your control, and you don’t feel like you’re living in a promised land at all.  What’s important to remember is that all this is true of our national promised land as well.  The state of Israel is not perfect.  It does amazing things, it does stupid things.  It is set upon by forces outside its control.  Sometimes you go there and you feel God’s presence; other times, not so much.

            Among the high points of my trip there were the last three days, during which I hired a guide to walk with me in the Negev.  We walked, and talked - I ended each day completely exhausted, having walked for miles and miles, and seen amazing sights of natural beauty.  Our last day was especially hectic - I was to fly back home at the end of the day, at midnight, and the guide was trying to cram in as much as possible: we crawled through caves used in the Bar Kochba rebellion, we visited a little beer brewery and sampled the wares, we had dinner at a fancy Georgian restaurant in Jerusalem.  And  and then I did the most scary thing I did my entire time in Israel: driving the rented car back to the airport late at night, having left Jerusalem an hour later than I had planned, in thick traffic.  Anyway, among all the things we did that last day was also this: I said I wanted to see the separation wall.  It was weird I hadn’t seen it up to that point, after having driven hundreds and hundreds of miles all over Israel.  Zach, my guide, found us a little rural neighborhood outside Jerusalem from which we could view it.

            Even from a distance, it was big, and frightening.  I make no criticism of it - it seems like it has really cut down on the suicide bombings.  But it’s sure as hell not pretty.  And one can only pray for the day when it is not necessary.  But there it was, a reminder of what is not right in the promised land.  I saw in that wall, however, also a reminder of how, in any promised land, even in my own, there can be walls of separation, barriers that one must not allow to become permanent.  I was reminded how easy it is to travel in one’s little sphere, and never see the barrier, never realize that there is still much to be done.  We idealize our own lives at the peril of forgetting what is left to do, just like when we idealize Israel, we cease to love the real thing.  Real love for Israel is a messy business, like, say, love for one’s family.

            We’re about to finish our yearly reading of the Torah.  A week from Friday, we’ll read the very last few chapters of Deuteronomy.  In the very last chapter, God gives Moses a glimpse of the promised land.  It’s a lovely passage, Moses climbing up Mount N’vo, seeing the low country, the hill country, all the way up to the north.  I like to think that the land Moses sees is as beautiful as he had imagined.  And I’d like to think that in that moment, Moshe realizes that what he’d worked so hard to achieve for his people, this promised land, was worth it.  Lucky Moshe, with no air pollution, he must have seen the entire lovely land.  No separation barrier, no wars, no strife of any kind - just the beauty. 

            We who know the rest of the story know that since that first splendid vista, things have never been picture perfect in the promised land.  It was only perfect when Moshe saw it for the simple reason that we hadn’t yet arrived.  As lovely as the ideal was, the later books in the Tanach are an unending story of human frailty, and the consequent societal upheaval.  But at that moment of Moses’ death, it all feels pristine.  I love that moment, and that pristine feeling.  Kind of like how I feel at the end of Yom Kippur.  But it’s not an end, it’s a beginning.  The promised land is a holy dream leading us forward, towards a better life, a better year.

 

לשנה טובה תיכתבו ותיחתמו