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Drash Where You Stand Depends Upon Where you Sit


Drash for Yom Kippur 5763

September 2000 By Jane Gilbert

Suspend reality……imagine you are a horse with four hooves and a long tail living in Brazil … you enjoy running in the fields, the smells and sounds of the pampas……now, imagine you are a horse connected to a human body from the waist up…..the horse part of you longs for grass, fields to run in…..the human part of you needs other nourishment - spiritual and cerebral. Now, go one step further and ….imagine you are Jewish.

This is the story told in the book entitled "The Centaur in the Garden"by Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar. It is about Guedali a Jewish Centaur. I would like to tell you about Guedali, and then, about ways in which we are all a bit like him.

Describing his birth Guedali says: "I am lying on the table. - a normal child from the waist up. …. …. From the waist down, I am a horse. I am - and my father doesn't even know the word exists - a centaur." Needless to say, the birth of a centaur to a good Jewish family an uncommon event……use your imagination… Despite this fact Guedali is brought up as a Jew…his father "decides to circumcise the child. A religious man he has to fulfill his obligations. It is necessary to introduce the boy to Judaism." The brith takes place…..And you can imagine what an event it was.

Guedali grows up playing with his sisters and brother on a remote farm. In Guedali's words, "little by little, sense of my own oddity germinates within me, incorporating itself to my very being, …..…this anguish is to crystallize, deposited permanently as it were in the marrow of my bones, in the buds of my teeth, in the tissue of my liver. But [with my family's love]…. the wounds heal, the disparate parts unify….I am a centaur, a mythological creature , but I am also Guedali Tartakovsky, the son of Leon and Rosa, the brother of Bernardo, Deborah , and Mina. I am a little Jewish boy."

At age 13, like any Jewish boy, he becomes a bar mitzvah. "Impossible said my mother when my father brought up the subject. Its not impossible at all said my father. Didn't I find a way to have him circumcised." And, of course, it happens…Guedali recounts "I read the passage from the Bible without a mistake, my voice firm, the fringe of the talit falling over my haunches and hindquarters, one front hoof pawing the ground - as it always did when I was nervous. Now said my father when I had finished, you are truly a Jew."

But Guedali loved to run and his inevitable confinement causes him to leave home. He meets a centauress and, of course, they fall in love. Though happy in a cloistered environment, they long to be normal bipeds. This longing increases and, eventually, they find an unusual Moroccan doctor who operates….who eliminates the equine half and converts these two to "normal." But now Guedali and lover Tita can move in the open. A Jewish conversion (to please his family) and wedding follow. Guedali and Tita live as others in urban surroundings…but they miss the fields --- the gallops.

And the unhappiness mounts…Tita falls in love with yet another centaur; (can you imagine three such characters in one book?) Guedali revisits the Moroccan doctor….expressing his longing to once more be a Centaur and requesting a reversal of the original operation. But, his trip is without success. He remains anatomically a man. He returns to his father's home and writes: " I wanted to find out things. Had Guedali the centaur boy been happy? Happier than the biped Guedali, or less happy? If less happy …then why my uncontrollable itch to gallop, why the incessant search for something that I couldn't even identify."

In his search , Guedali buys the childhood farm…now in disrepair. He describes his longing to be like a horse: "I wanted to walk barefoot,…..I wanted real hooves,…Four horse's legs, one tail. There a centaur…..Curious. The image I most frequently recalled of myself, as a centaur, was that of the bar mitzvah party. I saw myself wearing a dark suit, white shirt, tie, and skullcap. I saw the fringes of the prayer shawl falling over my equine haunches. Yes, I wanted to pray again. One of the things I intended to build on the farm was a prayer house…..I felt the need for the wisdom and consolation of religion."

And all of this from a Centaur - a Jewish Centaur at that.

Now…suspend reality again…for some this may be even more difficult. Imagine you are an elderly female, a White House volunteer…. a Bush volunteer….you live in a prominent DC suburban neighborhood and your husband is a well to do dentist. Now go one step further, imagine that your husband and his family are Palestinian.

On September 12, 2001, every patient that walked into my office seemed to need to talk…to pay tribute to the day before. And I did as well. It was almost as if we all needed to make sure we really saw what we did…that it was not some sort of isolated terrible nightmare or hallucination.

Most simply expressed shock, sadness and horror but one woman stood out from all the others. She was an older woman, well dressed and articulate….a White House volunteer and wife of a dentist. She of course expressed her sorrow but then she went further…ending her description of sadness with the words that "if the US had not supported Israel as it had during all these years, perhaps this all could have been avoided." Immediately I felt myself bristle as I did not share this view. For the next few minutes we discussed (somewhat heatedly) the situation. She told me that her husband was a Palestinian - their view of Israel was quite different from my own. Despite the fact that they live here and, in fact, live a normal suburban Washington DC (rather well to do) life their views were formed in another context. Like transformed centaurs they could not leave their past behind. They could not see this event in any context other than as a response to Israel.


As the intifada escalated this past year, yet another person I know well - a respected journalist - happened to articulate the fact that Sharon was responsible for the crises and that he had started the whole thing by going to the Dome of the Rock. He and he alone, she thought, had initiated this crisis. Had he lit the fuse on what was already a large powderkeg? Were there underlying hostilities? No, to this journalist he was the cause - he and he alone.

To many, Israeli military action is seen to be a response to Palestinian suicide bombing which is viewed as aggression - to this journalist and to scores of others - it is the reverse - the Palestinian bombing is the response to Israeli deeds. When the IDF was occupying Jenin, many viewed the continued suicide bombing as a just cause for Israeli occupation; my journalist friend saw the occupation as the very reasonable explanation for the suicide bombings...

Ted Koppel, earlier in the year held a town meeting in Jerusalem. At one session a child spoke…with only the type of innocent sound that a child's voice can have, this adolescent boy spoke with full conviction of his people's desire for peace and prosperity. He knew that Israel was the obstacle. He spoke of Israeli oppression and truly believed that the Palestine economy would have flourished but for Israel. His fate, his poverty, his plight and that of his people were all seen to result from Israeli action.

In this country most of us believe - no, lets go farther, we know - that Osama Bin Laden and Al Queda are responsible for the events of Sept 11. Not only do we believe - we know - that there were 19 hi-jackers from middle eastern countries who were the perpetrators. Apparently, tho, this view is not universal….According to information cited by Honest Reporting, the vast majority living in the Arab world believes - no, they know -- that Bin Laden had little to do with the events of Sept 11. And we have all heard that some think the event was masterminded by the Israelis. And this is not just a few…in is a popular view in some arenas. How can we account for all of this? For these different views?

Was the young child on the Ted Koppel show evil? Was he ignorant? Was the wife of the Palestinian dentist evil? Was she ignorant? And what about the journalist who certainly had access to large amounts of information? What about all the people in the Middle East who believe that Sept 11 was the result of a Jewish plot? Are they evil or ignorant? Or possibly insane? What about us - what about those of us who believe Bin Laden did it...are we evil or ignorant? Or misinformed or insane?

Like Guedali who saw the world thru his equine Jewish upbringing...these folks and many others - us included -- perceive events through veils ---veils formed by the fabric of our lives. We are able to see that which we have been brought up to see. An old favorite aphorism comes to mind - the eye beholds what the mind is prepared to see. As an American Jew, educated as a political scientist, brought up on game theory and war strategy…I could see the events of the past year one way…my patient, the wife of a Palestinian looking at the very same events saw them differently. The child living in the West Bank of course saw them differently still. We all hurt - we are all in pain -- but our perceptions of what had happened were different.

And how can we understand this?

There is the story (I am sure the psychiatrists out there know this one) about the patient who claims he is dead…when queried about whether dead men bleed he says "of course not." His psychiatrist then pricks him and he bleeds. With wide eyed amazement he looks up and proclaims "Whaddaya know? Dead men do bleed."

In the old days when I studied political science we used to discuss a concept called "cognitive dissonance" --- this referred to the observation of facts which contradicted a deep seated belief. The best example went something like this: suppose you are a Democrat but in a particular election you come to realize that the Republican better represents your political views.….this causes a problem…..in short it causes "cognitive dissonance" - you feel like and believe you are a "Democrat" as were your mother, father, brother and so on…..;but then you find the Republican is closer to your views. What do you do? Well, you could acknowledge that in this race, you prefer the Republican…..(i.e. throw away old beliefs and go with current observations) or, you could sort of misinterpret the positions of the Republican so that they were not so close to your own….sticking with your old "I am a Democrat" belief, or, better yet, you could not even read those Republican positions to know what was going on. … ..sometimes people faced with cognitive dissonance choose not to see that which is before them. They see only that which resonates with their current beliefs. Dead men do bleed.

I note with interest about my own reading habits that I do choose to read those op ed articles that I suspect will support my views -- Given two op ed pieces in the paper - one by Joe Lieberman and one by a person of Arab sounding name…which do you read if you have time for only one? Most of us who are Jews would probably read the Lieberman piece (tho some of us are clearly perverse enough to read the opposing view first); most who are Arabs would probably read the piece written by the Arab. This is not evil and it is not ignorant…it is not to say that some of us, some of the time, don't try to read the other, the opposing views …it is simply reality ..…we usually read and therefore see that which agrees with our prior positions. We seek support for our own beliefs. We try to avoid cognitive dissonance. …I do believe we see what we are prepared to see….we push away that which is difficult or jarring…that which calls into question our basic beliefs…that which would cause us to change underlying attitudes. The Palestinian, the Israeli, the reporter, the American Jew - we can all read the same story…..but because of who we are, where we have come from, we come away with different facts.

Where we stand depends upon where we sit because where we sit influences what we see.

Last week Rabbi Seidel spoke about half truths and partial stories and claimed that all he wanted was to be told the whole story….but being told the whole story is not sufficient. Regardless of what we are told, most of us would not be able to see it all…our views are limited by where we sit.

There are so many, many examples...the attack on Pearl Harbor...we now know that there was much intelligence pointing to this attack...a fleet of planes was known to be flying towards Pearl Harbor...but since an American fleet was expected later that day, the assumption was made that it was the American planes coming in early. There was much "chatter" around the time of 9/11...it couldn't be put together in the pre-September 11 context. One could say the intelligence community was inept but another possibility is that they were simply evaluating information within a context that did not include the disasters that came to be.

And what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with Yom Kippur?

At this time of year we are called on, by the very nature of the day, to reflect on where we have been and where we might be going. For me, this past year has been a difficult one as I cannot make sense out of where I have been. I cannot make sense out of where we have all been together. My life, my experience, does not prepare me to understand the events that I have seen. Like Guedali, I keep searching for something that I cannot even identify...

But, we have to ask (and this is the key point), is it ever possible to make sense out of the previous year. If, as I have tried to suggest today, our vision is limited….can we ever see where we have been? can we ever accurately assess the past year? Can we ever truly evaluate our own behavior? Do we see enough? Or do we see only that which resonates with our pre-existing inner beliefs? Are we truly capable of challenging ourselves…of afflicting our souls? of looking at ourselves from afar. And, if we are unable to evaluate our past, how much less capable must we be of envisioning a future that goes beyond current boundaries and in which we are better human beings. How can we make it so that the eye beholds more than it is prepared to see? How can we organize a search to find that which we don't even know we are looking for?

I have no good answers...

Possibly...read a book by a new author...read an op ed article by somebody you have never heard of...take a walk in a strange neighborhood...take a vacation in a new place and talk to the people who live there finding out what they are like...how they live. At home, turn to a new person at the synagogue - someone you don't ordinarily talk to and introduce yourself. Visit a new neighbor you haven't gotten to know. Read a newspaper you don't usually look at: they are mostly on line...Israeli, French, British...even Arab. Explore a new hobby...learn to scuba dive (the undersea world is different and the people who love to share it have a different perspective on life)...choose a new Tsedakah project...not one you have done before. Take a class...learn French or Italian or how to paint. Do something to expand your horizon...to meet people who sit in diffent places...

And what if we fail? As we inevitably must? What if we are unable to expand our vision? What if we can't see more next year ? What if when we repent we can only think of the same old sins that we repent for every year? Have no fear…. like the Jewish Centaur we can be comforted with the wisdom and consolation of our religion which has anticipated this dilemma of perception so well.

In the Al Cheit, we ask to be granted atonement for many sins…many many sins….but, third in the list we ask for atonement "for the sin which we have committed before thee unknowingly." It is anticipated … even if we don't see the past clearly…even if we don't see all the sins for which we should atone...we acknowledge this and ask forgivness.

I would like to conclude with a prayer of my own.

G-d help us to open our eyes, to expand our horizons; help us to see what we are usually unable to; help us to look outside the veil that covers our eyes; help us to understand the views of those who live differently from us and who themselves see the world differently . Help us to see those transgressions that we often commit unknowingly so that we may avoid them in the coming year. Help us to see what we need to see so that we can help to establish and live in a world of peace.