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Rabbi Seidel Drash | Israel Congregational Trip There Urban Garden Here


Rabbi Seidel Drash - Yom Kippur- 5774 (2013)
Israel, a Congregational Trip There and an Urban Garden Here


            Among the many interesting talks at Tifereth Israel this past year, my favorite was one delivered by Adi Kol, a recently elected member of the Israeli Knesset.  It's not every day a member of Knesset speaks at TI - but she was on a hastily arranged tour of America - more about that in a minute - and we at TI lucked out.

            Adi Kol, in real life - that is, before she was elected to the Knesset last January - was a law professor at Tel Aviv University.  She got her Law Degrees - including a Ph.D. - here in the states, at Columbia University.  Because she's a non-cynical Zionist (you don't meet many of them anymore - especially not in Israel), she returned to Israel to teach in Tel Aviv.  And she's not just a teacher: she's also a social activist: Adi Kol created a free-university program at Tel Aviv University, to enable those without the financial resources to study at a high level.  And, according to her CV on the Knesset website, she also created and led a program to help juvenile delinquents.   All this and she's just in her 30's!

            Among the many stories she told the crowd at TI that Friday night after dinner, I enjoyed the tale of how she came to be on the ticket of the new party, Yesh Atid in the first place.  As you may know, Yesh Atid is a brand new party that formed for this last election.  The party has an unusually broad range of members: from secular, to Orthodox, and lots in between, including even a secular scholar of Talmud.  Among their accomplishments - helping to pass new legislation that will gradually require all but a few of the men in the ultra-Orthodox world to serve in the army.  Anyway, Adi Kol, spoke of how she had had no political aspirations - she was happy to stay out of Israeli politics, hobbled as it is with its corrupt officials and vested interests.  Here's how she was lured in to Yesh Atid.

           Adi generously shares her tiny office at Tel Aviv University with those of her students who cannot afford their own computers.  And if someone calls Adi's office while she is out, the student who is using her computer answers the phone, and leaves her sticky notes with messages about who had called.  Sometimes, her students leave her silly, jokey messages as well.  Anyway, one day Adi returned to her office to find a sticky note saying that the nationally-known, and very handsome television personality, Yair Lapid had called.  Right, she thought.  Very funny.  So she threw the note in the trash.  But a few days later, Yair Lapid's name reappeared on another sticky note.  She threw out five separate notes before she began to realize that it might not be a student messing with her.  So she called, to find that Lapid had heard about all those good things she had been doing, and he wanted her to join his new party's list. 

            So Adi met with Yair Lapid, and she told him that she wasn't interested.  She was happy doing what she was doing.  Who needed the aggravation of being part of the K'nesset?  But Lapid was persistent, and eventually, she succumbed and joined up.  At the time, she never imagined that she, number 9 on a party list that was expected to get at most 5 or 6 seats, would herself get seated in the Knesset.  But Yesh Atid received way more votes in the election than anyone had expected - it got enough votes to send the first 19 of its list into the K'nesset - and Adi Koll found that she had become a politician.

            Adi Kol spoke to us about many things.  She noted how hard it was to make the political compromises necessary to govern, with Yesh Atid being part of the majority coalition.  In fact, the reason she was in America on this hastily arranged tour and we got to hear her speak at all, was because she was so disusted by the budget that the various parties had agreed to, and that her party had promised to vote for, that she was sent out of the country, so she wouldn't break ranks by refusing to vote for it.  And Adi spoke of another law that she was repulsed by - as I recall it allowed Israel officials to keep suspected terrorists for months and months without access to a lawyer.  But she had no choice - she had to vote for it.

            And yet, despite the frustrations and compromises that are an inevitable part of being a Knesset member, Adi Kol's excitement and optimism and conviction were palpable.  Her love of Israel, her belief that things could be done to improve Israel, were deeply inspiring to me, and to the others who attended this talk.  She talked of her Arab friends, and how difficult it was for her to visit them in Ramallah.  Passing through many checkpoints, getting all sorts of permissions - it took hours and hours to make the journey, though as the crow flies, it's only a little over 20 miles.  But she felt it was absolutely crucial to keep those relationships alive, to keep in her mind what life was like on the other side of the wall.

            Adi noted how most Israelis don't actually spend much time nowadays, thinking or worrying about the Palestinian issue.  People in Israel, like people everywhere, live their lives, and whatever is bothering them that day is what they worry about.  In Israel, it's the impossibly high cost of housing, the poor state of public education up through High School, the bureaucratic nightmare the of Israeli government, all of which combine to make daily life challenging.  Who has got the mental energy to worry about people you do not mingle with, people you would have to go to a great effort to visit even if you wanted to - such people don't enter your consciousness on a daily basis.  She worries that the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians occupies more mental space among American Jews than it does among Israeli Jews.   

           Adi also talked about how in the Knesset, there had never been any attempt at serving constituents.  This is not surprising, given that in the Israeli electoral system, there is no regional representation.  Everyone just votes for a party, and the more votes a party receives, the more members of Knesset they can seat.  But someone living, in say, Haifa, does not have a member of Knesset whom Haifa as a city voted into the Knesset.  And therefore, there is no member of Knesset who has motivation to look after Haifa in particular, and to answer phone calls from Haifa residents, and to help solve their problems.

           Anyway, Adi noted with pride how Yesh Atid, perhaps for the first time in the history of the Knesset, set up a system where Israelis could easily contact members of Yesh Atid in the Knesset.  The 19 members of Yesh Atid just arbitrarily divided up the county into sections, and each of them handled calls and inquiries from "their region".  It's hard for us Americans to imagine, how this could possibly be a radical new idea.  But in Israel, it was.

            Adi took questions from the 100 or so people in attendance - about half of whom were TI'ers, with the other half no doubt brought in by J Street's advertising.  And surprisingly, the questions from the audience were good - I was worried, because questions in such a setting often turn into mini-speeches.   I tried to set the right tone - I introduced the question and answer session by saying that if I called on someone, and that person, instead of asking Adi Kol a question, started making some long-winded self-important pronouncement about Israel, I'd cut the power off to their microphone immediately and we'd just move on to the next questioner.)  Well, whether my harshness was the cause or not, people asked great questions.  There was a Palestinian Grad student in the audience, who got into a very productive and mutually reinforcing dialogue with Adi Kol for a few fascinating minutes.  And my favorite question was the last: the questioner wanted to know "How are you going to keep your idealism alive?  How will you keep from becoming just like the corrupt politicians that your party replaced?"

            Adi did not duck the question.  In fact, she admitted it was a problem she worried about.  Among the things she said:  I'm going to need to keep close to the common people that I'm representing.

            I guess what struck me most about Adi Kol was her belief that by becoming more involved in the system, she could do something to improve the lives of her fellow citizens.  She was resistant - we're all resistant - to getting involved, but she allowed herself to be convinced.  Hearing her speak, I was more optimistic than I have been for awhile about Israel.

            And now I ask myself, why was that?  Why had I become so pessimistic about Israel?  After all, I keep up with the news about Israel.  I read the Jerusalem Report - which I recommend to you all, by the way.  I read its "newsworthy" articles, pieces defending the different political positions.  And of course I read about the scandals.  And I read the articles about Israel in the Washington Post, and regularly get myself in a lather about what I see is their continuing anti-Israel bias.

            It occurs to me that reading all of these articles is precisely why I get pessimistic.  "Newsworthy" reporting is always going to be focused on the negative - that's what readers, myself included, sadly, are most likely to read.  But what life is really like, life as lived on a daily basis - that you rarely get from the papers.  And if there is such an article in the papers about daily life - well frankly, I'm quite likely to skip it in favor of something more sensational.  Even reading the Jerusalem Report, which is an Israeli -produced magazine, and an excellent one at that - even that cannot give me a real feel for life in Israel.

           Imagine if you lived in Israel, and only knew about Jewish life in the DC area from reading, say, the Washington Post, and the Washington Jewish Week.  You would conclude that there was really only one thriving shul in the DC area: 6th and I.  Ok, I exaggerate.  But I hope you take my point: you have to be hands-on to really understand something you care about - reading about anything second hand is nothing like being there.

           There's another angle to all this.  The fact that Tifereth Israel rarely makes the news should not be either surprising, or dismaying to you.  Remember what Miss Manners says: a well-bred lady should appear in the papers only three times: at her birth, her marriage, and her death.  Admittedly, that saying is a bit out of date - we now see it as another way to say that a woman's place is solely in her home.  But I see this aphorism as a guide not just to women of a previous generation, but as a guide to all of us, today.  Maybe the bulk of anyone's life - man or woman - should properly be lived outside the public eye.  Even in this age of Facebook.  I would even apply Miss Manners saying not just to individuals, but even to some groups, as follows: most of the activities of a good shul are probably not newsworthy.  The daily help and support we give to each other, the way we honor each other in times of loss and times of celebration - these are really internal affairs, and if you really want to know about them, you have to participate.

            It is precisely in these rich and complex internal affairs where life is really lived.  If you get a chance to talk to an Israeli, especially one like Adi Kol, you'll get a much clearer picture of Israel than you will from the media.  But this is a bigger issue than how can we know about Israel.  The question is not just "How can we be alive to life in Israel?" as important as that question is, but "How can we be alive to life right here?"  How can we avoid living lives second-hand, as it were?  How can we live lives enriched by direct experience, as opposed to lives informed mostly by second hand learning, lives mediated by machines and electronic media.

           Along these lines, you may have seen that quote in my packet, from Wallace Stegner's Big Rock Candy Mountain:

            "They could swim, fish, putt around the lake in the motor boat. The boat had a mast step in it, and in a few afternoons Bruce cobbled a mast out of a cedar pole, got an old sail from a camper down the lake, and improvised a rig. He was no sailor, but it was fun to come ghosting into the bays over the water that shifted cobalt to emerald, and to hear the silence along the forested shore. A motor was all right, it was a lazy man's way to go boating or fishing... But a sail, even a clumsy and inefficient one, was better. The more labor-saving the machinery the less the pleasure. [end quote]

            It's that last observation that seems so right to me: "The more labor-saving the machinery the less the pleasure."  The primitive, inefficient sailboat, which enables you to "hear the silence" - that's the way to go.  But it is not the way we do in fact go, at least not much, in our society.  We feel the need to get places fast, and so we feel the need machines to get us to those places.  Even vacations and weekends are often lived at high speed.  As Gandhi is often quoted: "There is more to life than increasing its speed."  But we do not heed this advice, and as a result, the homemade bread gives way to the store-bought, the homegrown food is superseded entirely by food from a factory farm, the once home-kept lawn is now managed by a company, with generous applications of pesticide, and the bicycle rusts away in the garage, while the car, even on the nicest day, is king.

            This same process is at work here, in our little shul - this same retreat from experience threatens the liveliness of our community: We don't feel the need to chant from the Torah - others do it for us, and they do it so well.  And why should we learn to lead services - others can take care of that too.  And why serve on the Ritual Committee - it's a lot easier just to grumble to your friends about the services.  Who has the time to cook for the Kiddush (or the Yom Kippur Breakfast) on Thursday evenings, or help out in the TI office - there are others who will do all of this, so you can sit here, relax, and enjoy the show.

            But can you enjoy the show, when all of your involvement is passive? If it's really just a show, sure.  Like a good play, or the circus, or something on TV, or a concert.  But the enjoyment one gets from just observing cannot compare to the pleasure of participation, even if the end product of your hard work is not a professionally slick production. I'm not saying that no labor saving machine should ever be used, or that we should only eat what we grow, or that just relaxing and enjoying the show is never the perfect way to spend some time. Sometimes, the automobile is the best way to get where you're going.  I'm just noting that the less of yourself that you put in, the less you get back.

            And I think, on one level, we Americans know this.  Deep down, we don't feel great about being mere consumers.        There was an interesting article relating to this topic in the New Yorker on July 1st, an article by David Denby about the movie World War Z. For those of you blissfully oblivious, that was one of the many recent entertainments featuring zombies.  I didn't see that movie - in fact, I confess I've never seen a zombie movie.  And though I love reading Jane Austen, I never even got around to reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  I'm still not 100% sure what a zombie is.  Probably many of you share my blissful ignorance.  But while the movies themselves may be uninteresting, the fact of this plague of zombie movies - that is of interest.  What in our culture is causing the zombie theme to be so popular?  Here's a passage from that New Yorker article that addresses this issue:

            Vampirism, as everyone says, is about sex and violation. But what is the fascination with the hungry undead about? The origins of zombie lore in Africa and the Caribbean-voodoo, witch doctors, reanimated corpses-have long been appropriated by the modern media. The undead really do keep on coming; they are taking over our bookstores, our movie theatres, our cable channels...  Are they what we fear we might become if we let ourselves go-soulless vessels of pure appetite, both ravaged and ravaging? Do they represent our apprehension of what hostility lies behind all those blank faces in the office, at the mall, across the dinner table? [end quote]

           I think that we, in America, are deeply ambivalent about direct experience.  On the one hand, we are coming to prefer experiences that are mitigated by machine or social media.  And yet at the same time, we are worried that we are becoming zombie-like consumers.  One the one hand, many of us roll our eyes when we think of the people who make their own pizza crust, or who keep chickens in their back yard, or who are liable to bicycle when they need to get somewhere, or who make their own rugelach, rather than just buying them at Costco like a normal person.  "These folks - they feel so good about themselves, but they're really just part of the latest fad", we murmur to ourselves.  And yet, at the same time, we are nervous about our own uncontrolled consumerism and dependence on social media, which has led to an existence more like undeath, than life.  We worry that we are well on our way to becoming "soulless vessels of pure appetite".


            So, along these lines, I've got two projects I'd like you to think about this morning, amidst everything else you are thinking about on this important day.  Two projects that require you to get involved in a hands-on way, projects that involve not just you, but the larger community.

            The first project - a congregational trip to Israel.  It's been 6 years since our last congregational trip, in the summer of 2007 - if we go in the summer of 2014, that would make a nice even 7 years between trips.  Now I realize many of you are very familiar with the land of Israel, and that you make regular trips there.  I applaud you, but am asking you not to tune out just yet.  Yes, I think a congregational trip would be designed largely for those who have never visited at all.  But I would like to include on this trip not just the regular sights, but also sights not so easy to visit, the sights even regulars don't get to see.

            The regular sights are amazing.  And you really have to be there to get the sense of these wonders.  And that's not just because a photograph is not the same.  It's because you need to meet the people that live there.  The people who are holding down the fort, who are doing the day to day work that is part of being a sovereign nation in its own land.  You need to get a sense of the personality of the different cities: Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv, of course, but also Tz'fat, and Haifa.  You will feel a part of yourself come alive that you didn't even know was there. 

            Sort of like the Monarch Butterfly that travels from the East coast of North America, returning to the hills of Mexico to overwinter.  As you may know, these butterflies take four generations to make it from here all the way to Mexico.  So the particular butterfly that flies into Mexico has never, itself, been to this Mexican Monarch reunion - the last in its family to visit was its great-great grandmother.  So the returning butterfly has not been home, but its kind has been.  And it is a homecoming all the more powerful for never having seen this home before.

            Speaking of places we have not visited in awhile, on this Israel trip I'm proposing, I'd like to spend a few days visiting the territories.  Not as a propaganda tool, to sway people one way or the other.  Not to perpetuate simplistic positions like: "Israel is a brutal occupier", on the one hand, or "The Palestinians are all out to kill us!" on the other.  Just to go there, and get a glimpse of what life is like on the ground.  Somehow, a visit to Israel without seeing what everyone is talking about seems a little weird to me.

            Of course there may be some danger, though I expect it will be minimal.  But there is also great danger in our having no direct experience about what is happening on the other side of the green line, of what life is like for Palestinians.  And if, in researching the itinerary, we find that the danger is not minimal, then we won't include the territories - it's a congregational trip after all.  I'm reminded me of a trip our son Alex took 10 years ago when he was in his teens, a USY sponsored outdoor adventure trip to Costa Rica.  Alex had a wonderful time, but not all of his fellow travelers were up for it.  Alex told us about a little whining emanating from some of his more pampered fellow campers.  They complained about the spotty electricity, and how they couldn't blow-dry their hair.  Alex said: well, what did you expect, this is Costa Rica!?  To which they replied: But it's USY!  Similarly, this is to be a congregational trip, and people are entitled to a reasonable amount of safety and comfort.

           Now maybe you think: well, we're hoping that the territories will eventually be a separate state for the Palestinians, so if it's not really fully Israeli territory now, and eventually will be gone, what's the importance of visiting it?  Well, besides the obvious issues of there being no peace treaty after years of trying, and who knows what will happen in the future, there is another issue.  These territories contain many of the most important landmarks mentioned in the Torah's history of our nation.  Hebron, Sh'chem (called Nablus by the Palestinians), Shiloh - these are not easy places to visit now - will, in some two-state future, they be accessible at all?  I hope so, but I'm making no bets.  As Jews, there are places we should visit: both to experience the present reality, and to be reminded of the ancient past.

            Of course you're not going to learn enough about Israel as a tourist on a 10-day trip to make confident pronouncements about the Israeli-Palestinian situation.  But you will then at least know you don't know.  And you will have some sense of what it is you don't know.  And that, I say, is the beginning of connection, even of love - appreciating the complexity of the other.  Let me know if you might be interested in this trip.

           And if you're not, that's ok.  But if you're not going, then you really must consider a purchase of Israel Bonds.  You'll get a chance to make a pledge at the end of this talk.  But I'll say it again: an actual trip, a hands on experience, is a lot more fun than investing money, as important as Israel Bonds are.

            Ok, here's my second hands-on project.  I spoke of this one for a bit once this year during a Shabbat drash.  This project involves urban gardening.  As it turns out, there is very small plot of land, a waste place that has been bare for years, just 4 blocks from here, in Shepherd Park.  No one has paid taxes on it for over 50 years, and a non-profit - TI, say, could acquire this land for the last year's back taxes, about $250.  We could farm this land - with the help, perhaps of our neighbors in Shepherd Park.  We could put up a sign over the little farm, a quote from the Passover Haggadah: Kol ditzrich, yaytay v'yaychul. Well maybe the Aramaic is a little obscure - we'd better include the translation: Let all who are hungry come and eat.  There's even a piece of the land that is covered in concrete - it's the foundation of a garage that fell down years ago.  I originally thought about tearing that up, but now I realize, we could build raised beds on that part, so that the elderly, and people in wheelchairs could weed and plant and harvest. 

            The plusses of such a project are many: beautifying an ugly part of our neighborhood, working with our neighbors, teaching kids - both our own, and other kids in the area - where our food comes from.  We could donate much of the produce to the Community Food Bank.  We could use the farm to teach about some of the ancient agricultural laws from the Mishnah.  But most of all, we could become not mere consumers - could live life in a more experiential way, back to our roots, as it were.  Let me know if you're interested in this project.

            What is it that we're asking from God at this time of year?  "Zochreinu l'hayyim", we sing - remember us for life, "Cotveinu l'hayyim", inscribe us for life.  Though there are a number of ways to understand what exactly it is we're asking of God when we ask for life, one of my favorites is: God, may this year be lively.  May it be a year of creativity, not passivity, a year in which the talents you have given me are used to enhance my life, and the lives of all around me.  May it not be a year merely of undeath, but rather, may it be a year of really living.

            This is my prayer for us this morning, this year.  May our hearts be opened up to something new, something we have never tried.  May we be privileged to get our hands dirty in this business of living, in the business of serving the Divine, in the experience of the world God created.  As Adi Kol is doing, in the Knesset, so may we too, in our world, be open to the vividness of life's possibilities.