Wednesday, September 14, 2005

What I’m Praying for This Rosh Hashanah

“May the year, and its curses, come to an end.” This terse Talmudic statement (meant to explain why the Torah readings of rebuke are read before Rosh Hashanah), represents a sentiment we all feel about the coming New Year. We hope to put last year’s calamities behind us, and look forward to a better future.

One of the curses of the past year was homelessness. In addition to Hurricane Katrina’s terrible death toll, there is also a continuing crisis of nearly a million people who are homeless. In Darfur, hundreds of thousand of refugees have fled an ongoing genocide. And, in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, perhaps as many as 5 million people were left homeless. These horrific events require serious action from each and every one of us. We must figure out how to remedy last year’s curses.

In particular, homelessness is a curse Jews are familiar with. We call it exile. Exile is not an archaic historical occurrence; it is part of our current events. In the last half century alone Jews have had to take flight multiple times. Along with hundreds of thousands of other Holocaust survivors, my mother left Europe to a start a new life in a safe place, the United States. More recently, Jews have fled the Soviet Union, Syria, and Ethiopia as well as other locales. (I recently met a Jew who had to leave Venezuela to flee the Chavez regime). Exile is a large part of Jewish history.

There is a debate among theologians and historians about meaning of exile. To some, exile is a black hole in history: it is an unwholesome state, and the years spent in exile are historically meaningless. Redemption is the only part of Jewish history that really matters.

Others thinkers take a different view. To them, exile is the iron furnace in which Jewish identity has been forged. They understand that exile is a crisis; but they recognize that the challenges of exile have helped Jews cultivate a gritty resilience as well as a profound sense of social justice. Their understanding of exile is based on the belief that every crisis contains the potential for renewal and transformation.

The connection between crisis and renewal is one of the messages of the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading. Immediately after the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, we are told about the birth of Rebecca, Isaac’s future wife. The Midrash explains that this reference indicates that the Akeidah crisis provoked a serious personal transformation. Isaac had nearly died at the Akeidah. While Isaac stood under the knife, he became aware that he was a thirty seven year old man who had neglected marriage and family. He resolved to immediately find a bride, who later turns out to be Rebecca. The crisis of the Akeidah reminds Isaac that he must grab a hold of life, and that he can no longer be the diffident bachelor, slowly awaiting the right woman.

The message of these last few verses of the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading is this: the New Year is not merely a fresh beginning, a time to forget the past year’s curses and crises. Rather, it is a time to reflect on how to use past crises to teach us the lessons of future renewal. Indeed, the Chassidic Rebbe Sefat Emet compares all suffering to birthpangs; within the very suffering, there is the possibility of rebirth and renewal.

While an awareness of the productive side of crisis is extremely useful, my message is not directed at the people of Asia or Darfur or New Orleans. For these victims, right now is the time for action, not reflection; and what they need are homes, not sermons. Rather, my message is directed at another homeless crisis, one that specifically affects the Jewish people: the disengagement from Gaza.

Politics aside, the disengagement was traumatic. The withdrawal included negative images most frequently associated with exile; families were forced out of their homes, and the synagogues left behind were defaced and destroyed. It is impossible not to feel a profound sense of sadness for the 9,000 newly homeless people.

These emotional scenes, mixed together with nasty political debates and the ever increasing divide between secular and religious, is potentially disastrous. This is Israel's “homeless” crisis, for in the aftermath of the Gaza evacuations, we now have a country divided between orange and blue, religious and secular.

The question the Jewish world has to ask itself is this: Will we use the Gaza crisis as a springboard to renewal? Or is Gaza the first stage of a Jewish civil war?

One of the great lessons of exile is the importance of Jewish unity. In exile, Jews recognized that were best off pulling together despite their differences. What the Gaza crisis has taught us is that this lesson becomes even more important now, when we are back home in Israel. A country without a sense of unity is bound to fall apart.

This Rosh Hashanah, I’m praying that we will be able to move past last year’ s curses and crises. In particular, I am praying that we, the Jewish people, will remember the importance of unity. And after the traumas of the past year, all of us, orange and blue, left and right, religious and secular, will find a way to renew our bonds.

Shanah Tovah!

Thursday, September 01, 2005

What God Wants Us to Learn From Katrina

The images of suffering are overwhelming. Watching TV coverage of Hurricane Katrina, you can feel the anguish of the victims of this awful disaster. An unpredictable confluence of circumstances brought about a “perfect storm” that killed thousands, injured scores of others, and left hundreds of thousands homeless. It is a true human catastrophe.

As unpredictable as this hurricane may have been, the human reactions to it are all too predictable. Immediately, there is finger pointing. On the political front, President Bush is blamed for a variety of failures ranging from a slow response to the disaster to having caused the global warming which lead to the hurricane. Religious authorities with agendas of their own come to speak in God’s name and blame the catastrophe on their opponents. A group called Repentance America said it was God’s retribution for New Orleans being a “sin city”. Repentance America did not issue any explanation why somehow, the hurricane managed to miss Las Vegas. On the internet, a popular Israeli Rabbi is sure that this catastrophe is retribution for American support for the disengagement from Gaza. As proof, he notes that the hurricane hit Condoleeza Rice's home state of Louisiana. (Actually, she's from Alabama; but why let facts cloud the issue!) I found this opinion curious; the sobbing woman I watched on CNN who lost her daughter and was searching for her missing sons didn’t strike me as a supporter of the disengagement. An of course, radical Islam couldn’t miss this opportunity to dump on America either. A high-ranking Kuwaiti official, Muhammad Yousef Al-Mlaifi, who is director of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Endowment's research center, said: “It is almost certain that this is a wind of torment and evil that Allah has sent to this American empire.” This confident explanation was issued by Al-Mlaifi a day after hundreds of Muslims in a religious procession were stampeded to death in Iraq.

These finger pointing explanations are not only deeply flawed, they are also deeply insensitive. The Talmud says that anyone who gives a grieving person an “interpretation” explaining that the victim’s sins caused his own suffering has violated the prohibition of verbal abuse. Many Jewish philosophers wrestle with the question of theodicy (why bad things happen to good people), and some explanations consider man’s culpability. However, what is misunderstood is that their explorations are meant to defend God’s goodness, not to torment victims of suffering by blaming them for the crime.

In fact, even the entire project of defending God’s goodness is suspect. First of all, God does not need a defense attorney; He can make a case for himself. And God continues to make a case for himself in every sunrise, every leaf, every breath we take. Furthermore, any explanation we can offer will seem meaningless to sufferers. Those who are suffering feel their pain on a personal, existential level, and fancy, abstract explanations will in no way alleviate their pain.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik offers a very different view of a Jewish response to suffering. He says the “why” question, why bad things happen to good people, is unfathomable. It’s like trying to appreciate the beauty of a tapestry from the reverse side; you simply cannot make out an intelligible design. Any exploration of the “why” question is simply a dead end. Even worse, any answer offered will imply that we should passively accept our fate and assume that God did everything for the best. Soloveitchik points out that on the contrary, Judaism actually refuses to make peace with death and tragedy. When someone dies, Halacha requires that we mourn bitterly and tear our clothes. This is because Judaism demands that we be enraged by tragedy.

To Solovietchik, the real question that has to be asked is the “how” question: How do I respond to tragedy? We do not know why the world contains unexplained evil; however, we can endeavor to make the world a better place. Our obligation in the face of a catastrophe is to act: to comfort and aid those who have suffered, and to use human ingenuity to prevent future catastrophes. The only Jewish response to tragedy is tikkun olam, rebuilding the world.

The tikkun olam response to this tragedy is to join hands rather than point fingers. The most important lesson of any large scale disaster is the commonality of all human beings; we have all have the same vulnerabilities and the same aspirations. Most importantly, we are all created in the same image of God. It is up to us to learn how to live together as brothers and sisters, and help each other with their burdens.

I am hopeful that besides the noisy figerpointers, most people will respond properly to this catastrophe. In the past, I have witnessed how disasters have the unique ability to unite anyone, even antagonists, in a common cause. Last January, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists gathered together in my Montreal synagogue for a service on behalf of the victims of the Asian tsunami. Representatives of the warring Sinhalese and Tamil communities both attended, and a representative of the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, thanked the Jewish community for their efforts on behalf of the disaster victims. People who normally do not talk to each other joined together in common cause. And just today, students at Montreal’s Hebrew Academy, moved by the news reports they have heard, have began mobilizing fundraising and letter writing campaigns for people they have never met, the victims of Katrina.

I am too uncomfortable to issue prophetic statements. But if I have to guess what God wants in the wake of Katrina, it is a recognition that every human being shares God’s image, and that every person, whether they live in Indonesia or New Orleans or Kuwait or Israel, should learn how to join hands rather than point fingers.

here's a link to it in JPost: