Friday, August 22, 2014

Blessings and Curses

“Thank you for coming.” 

Those were the first words we heard from everyone we met during three days in Israel this week. We 
heard it from shopkeepers and waiters, from politicians and military leaders, and from people on the right, 
left, and center of the political spectrum: “Thank you for coming,” they said. “It means a lot that you’re here.” 

This was my second solidarity mission to Israel this summer. It was a 72-hour visit sponsored by the 
Masorti Movement, the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. There 
were 50 of us, including rabbis, cantors, synagogue presidents, executive directors, and concerned Jews 
from across North America. 

If I had any qualms about dropping what I was doing and heading back to Israel just a few weeks after 
a previous trip, they were eradicated when we spoke to Israelis and heard their gratitude. Don’t get 
me wrong: Israelis are coping with this latest onslaught with their usual determination and resilience. 

Still, they have seen the world’s reaction to the conflict – the anti-Semitism that’s been unleashed, the 
protesters comparing them to Nazis, the usual United Nations condemnations and more. And they feel 

One of my colleagues said the reaction to our visit recalled the story in the Torah of the Israelites facing
off against the Amalekites. As the battle rages, Moses watches from a hilltop with his arms raised high. 

Strangely, all goes well in the fighting until Moses becomes fatigued and lowers his arms. The Israelites 
start losing. But Moses is not alone: Aaron, his brother, and Hur, his brother-in-law, hold up his arms for
the duration of the battle, and the Israelites are victorious. 

And that’s what we were doing for Israelis – lifting up their arms, standing with them when they’re mentally and physically fatigued. That's the definition of solidarity.

One of the people I met was a young father named Nir. Nir lives in Ashkelon, and his summer has been 
tough. He and his wife have had a hard time getting to work because the camp their daughters were to attend closed due to rocket fire. Worse, however, is how the two little girls have reacted to the violence. 

When it’s time for a bath, they tell their parents not to take more than 30 seconds. Why? That’s how long they’ll need to get to shelter if there’s a rocket siren. When their mother or father is in the bathroom, they sit outside, knocking on the door and asking when they’ll get out. Think about it: two little girls learning that people want to kill them.

What has given the family a modicum of normalcy this summer is the day center being run at the local 
Masorti synagogue, Kehillat Netzach Israel, which fortified its bomb shelter during the last Gaza conflict. The center, open to children from the entire Ashkelon community, lets Nir and his wife go to work knowing that people are taking care of their girls’ physical and emotional well-being. Every Masorti synagogue we visited had similar programs, caring for children, the elderly, and others who need respite, who need hizuk (strengthening) – physically and spiritually – people to lift up their arms. And I was reminded: here and in Israel, that’s what sacred communities do. 

We heard from a range of military leaders, politicians, and thinkers, from across the political spectrum. They, like Israelis generally, were convinced that the country was engaged in a war of necessity, not choice, and that the military must do it all it could to protect the country from Hamas. (Yes, say Israelis, we live in a lousy neighborhood. But ein lanu eretz acheret – “we don’t have another country.”)

Several talked about the civilian casualties in Gaza. All were troubled by them, perhaps most of all the military and security leaders faced with agonizing moral calculations around every potential target. The message: Israel feels it must show Hamas leaders they will pay a heavy price for rocket attacks while trying hard to limit the cost in civilian lives. We heard tremendous concern about the rise of radical Islam and the resulting unlikely shift in regional alliances, with countries like Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority as concerned as Israel about Hamas and what’s happening in Iraq and Syria. 

During the trip, I heard a beautiful drash from Arie Hasit on parshat Re'eh, which we read this Shabbat. The parshah opens with God telling the Israelites: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.” These words are typically understood to mean that we have a choice, that our actions, right or wrong, will determine which we’ll reap, blessings or curses. Arie, a rabbinical student and the spiritual leader of NOAM, Israel’s Masorti youth movement, says no, there is no choice – life is always both a blessing and a curse. Our job is to live with that tension, to reap joy from the blessings even as we know they won’t last and not to forget that even within the darkest times there remains the possibility for healing, for beauty, and for change. 

This is the tension Israelis live with. At this moment of darkness, our visit with them was a blessing. We pray that there will be more. And from the darkness will come opportunity for a brighter tomorrow.

Ken yehi ratzon.

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