Please allow me to introduce myself. Most of you know me as Audrey, or Rabbi Audrey, or simply Rabs. But my “old person” name is Ruby. And, because I love nature and the cool, breezy weather of this season, my hippie name is Windshine Moonflower.
My aura is yellow, a sign of my rational, intellectual nature.
If I were a character from the Bible, I would be Abigail – King David’s first wife and a woman of strength and integrity.
If I were a super-hero, I would be Iron Man – outgoing, charming, studious and a little full of myself. But my ideal superpower would be telepathy, which would allow me to connect with the feelings and thoughts of others. And if that’s just a fantasy, well, my real-life superpower would be the ability to make random things explode.
I know the state of Pennsylvania in general like the back of my hand but score only 93 percent in my knowledge of Pittsburgh. Although that’s really not so bad, considering I’m from Philadelphia.
If I were a past US president, I’d be the bold, brainy and witty Thomas Jefferson. And of course my canine companion would be Einstein from the movie, “Back to the Future,” since there’s nowhere in time or space that Einstein cannot go.
I’m a maven when it comes to the English language but my German needs work.
My alter-ego in the world of witchcraft is Albus Dumbledore (duh). And my archnemesis is Justin Bieber. I suffer fools not at all.
I didn’t know any of this about myself until recently. But it’s amazing how much self-awareness you can gain just by taking a handful of on-line quizzes.
If you’re on Facebook or some other social networking site, it’s hard to ignore them. They’re so tempting. They’re fun, they’re quick. They’re sharable.
The questions are sometimes way too easy. I mean, who can’t tell the difference between something attributed to Terry Bradshaw the quarterback and Carrie Bradshaw the character from “Sex and the City”?
Sometimes they’re way too pandering. When it comes to being a powerful woman of the past, of course I’d love to have been Mata Hari. But I’m guessing Tokyo Rose was not an option. And I don’t think anybody got US presidents Calvin Coolidge or Franklin Pierce, or a Biblical character like Korach or Lot.
Sometimes they’re just plain silly. I mean, I got a perfect score on my knowledge of cooking terms, scoring a ranking of Top Chef. But as you all know by now, I have no idea how to cook and should not be trusted near sharp knives. Or even dull ones.
And sometimes they’re just plain wrong. There is absolutely no way that the NFL I really should be rooting for is the Denver Broncos. I mean…no way.
But we all stop and take them. Why? Maybe we’re intrigued by the fact that we can so vividly remember that character from a TV show we haven’t seen in 40 years. Maybe we are curious about what aspect of our personalities make us more like Jefferson and less like Lincoln. Maybe the color of our aura really represents the way we express our attitudes and emotions to other people.
And so maybe these quizzes are an appropriate thing to ponder on Yom Kippur morning. After all, this is the time we take to ask ourselves: Am I really the person I think I am? Am I the person other people think I am? Am I capable of being person I think I should be?
Sometimes the person we end up being is the result of a seemingly random mix of the people and places and events that we bump into in life.
Don’s late friend Toby Balding was a horseman all his life – and a good one – in part because he came from one of Britain’s oldest, most famous and most respected racing families. But his son Gerald used the family’s interest in horses very differently. His great-great grandfather sold horses to all the circuses in Britain. Gerald ended up in the circus as a career. “Circus is a thing of magic,” Gerald wrote recently. “I realized that for two hours you could take people away from their lives and give them something totally joyful, without any angst or depression.” He could have said that about an afternoon at the racecourse. But his life just took a different direction.
Sometimes the person we end up being, is the result of other peoples’ expectations about who we should be.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Who Am I This Time?” a hardware-store clerk named Harry Nash becomes a local sensation as an actor in community-theater plays. But that’s because he doesn’t just act as the character – he becomes the character. He stays in character every hour, every day, for the run of the play. And then does it all over again for the next one.
Truth is, Harry Nash is a boring guy living a boring life. Once he shakes off whatever character he is this time, he reverts to his own nervous, socially awkward self. He lives for the characters he plays. He lives in the characters he plays. Stanley Kowalski. Faust. Paris. Romeo. And since that’s what people expect him to do, he seems to think himself unworthy of having a life of his own.
But sometimes we have enough faith in ourselves, enough trust in the way God made us, that the person we end up being is the person we aspire to be.
The philosopher Martin Buber shared this short Hasidic tale:
“A rabbi named Zusya died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, ‘Why weren’t you Moses or why weren’t you Solomon or why weren’t you David?’ But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, ‘Why weren’t you Zusya?'”
Each of us has a bit of Zusya (and maybe a little of Harry Nash) in us: Capable of goodness, maybe even greatness, but limited in our self-confidence.
Maybe we think our lives up until now have been only a random jumble of people and places and things. But it’s possible that, if we look back, we might actually see that we’ve been traveling on a path all along, and that these interactions have been part of a plan to make us what we are. To put us in this place, at this time, for some particular Divine purpose.
Maybe we think our lives up until now have been all about other peoples’ expectations. But it’s possible that, if we look at where we are now, we realize just how much we have learned from our parents and teachers and mentors. And it’s possible that, by soaking in and synthesizing all that knowledge, we are now ready to make choices for ourselves.
In the end, that’s all God expects of us. That’s what God teaches us in this morning’s Torah portion. We are put on this earth to learn, to grow, to do – and to choose.
Rabbi Judah the Patriarch said: “Which is the right course for a man to choose? That which is an honor to him and gains him honor from men.”
We just need to have enough faith in ourselves, and enough trust in the way God created us. So that when we ask ourselves, “Who am I this time?” we can answer: “I am the person I aspire to be.” Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not in a month or a year – but sometime in our lifetime.
May we live each day with this aspiration. May we make the choices that lead us to this aspiration. May this be God’s will and our own. And let us say together: Amen.
©2014 Audrey R. Korotkin
The City of Berlin is a charming and vibrant place. The remnants of its past – from the Reichstag building of the Nazis to the Berlin Wall of the Cold War – live in harmony rather than juxtaposition with both the wide, elegant, alder-lined boulevards of earlier and more innocent times, and the ultra-modern, glass-and-steel apartment houses, public buildings and cultural centers of this generation. The arts scene is dynamic and the cost of living is manageable, by European standards. Along with young people from around the world, thousands of young Israelis have been drawn here in recent years, undeterred – and unconcerned – by the veil of memory that still hangs over this city.
The veil is often a mere wisp. The reminders are discreet. But they are unmistakable.
Rabbi Sally Priesand went looking for reminders in Berlin this summer. And she found much more than she bargained for.
Sally, who was the first-ever woman rabbi with seminary ordination, went on a remarkable journey to trace the history of one particular German Jew: Regina Jonas, the first woman ever ordained as a rabbi. Pretty much all most of us know about Regina Jonas was that received semicha at the hand of Leo Baeck, who left her in charge of the spiritual care of the community at a time when the male leadership of Berlin Jewry was being sent to the camps. She herself died in Auchwitz in 1944. One picture of her remains.
Accompanied by the other pioneering women rabbis of the other Jewish movements, Sally went searching for more. She found it in the Centrum Judaicum, the Jewish Center, which is now considered the heart of Jewish life in Berlin:
“Originally,” Sally wrote, “it was the site of the Neue Synagogue, a magnificent building of Moorish-Byzantine design with a golden dome similar to Plum Street Temple, which opened the same year, 1866. Men and women sat separately, and there were 3,000 seats. It was destroyed during the war, and the main sanctuary was never restored. Today the Centrum Judaicum is an information center housing, among other things, a German Jewish archives. This is where we saw the original papers of Regina Jonas, including her ordination certificate written in both German and Hebrew with the signature of Leo Baeck, who attested to the correctness of the wording. I was struck by the fact that all we know and have of Regina Jonas is the little box of papers. It reminded me all the more of how important it is to get my papers together!”
That’s it. One little box of papers belonging to one of the great pioneering women in Jewish history. That is all we have to remember Regina Jonas by.
But many Jews of Berlin were not so fortunate as to leave behind even that remnant. We would never have known about them, in that wisp of memory that hangs over Berlin. But Sally found their remembrance right at her feet.
“Today,” she wrote in her diary, “began with a visit to the old Jewish Quarter with Hartmuth, our guide, who was excellent! As we walked along, every now and then we would stumble and notice a small, square plaque in the midst of the cobblestones. On it, the name of a Nazi victim, the date of deportation, and the concentration camp where the person died. These stumble stones, as they are called, are found everywhere in Berlin and throughout Germany. They are placed in front of the house where the person lived before being taken away and murdered, a powerful reminder that the victims were human beings.”
The stolpersteine – the stumbling stones, which now number in the tens of thousands – were the creation of Berlin-born artist Gunter Demnig. Demnig was searching for a different way to commemorate the Holocaust – by remembering individual people where they lived, people whose very existence had been forgotten in the accumulated horror of the Shoah.
“I think the large Holocaust memorial here (in Berlin) will always remain abstract. You have to make the decision to visit it,” Demnig said. “But not with the stumbling blocks. Suddenly they are there, right outside your front door, at your feet, in front of you.”
Think of it. Individual memories right in front of you. Memories that almost try to trip you as you pass by, so that you must pay attention.
It seems to me that each of us has our own set of stolpersteine. And each individual stumbling stone represents a repressed memory, something we would rather forget. Here’s one for that time we didn’t think before we spoke and really hurt somebody’s feelings. Here’s another for a time we didn’t think before we acted, and put ourselves in hot water. Up ahead, one for the time we abandoned a project we’d promised to finish, and left other people to clean up our mess. And just there, out of the corner of our eye, one that represents when we neglected a friend at a time of loss, though we always meant to pick up the phone and call.
Around the corner, we stumble over one that reminds us of when we criticized our child for failing to live up to our expectations when what she needed was encouragement to work through her own doubts. And barely two steps later, for the time when we snapped at our spouse because we simply came home in a bad mood. And on our own doorstep, we trip once more, this time over a reminder of the time we blamed somebody else for failing us, when, all along, it was we who owed them the apology – because, let’s face it, pointing out other people’s faults is a whole lot easier than acknowledging our own.
I have this image that each of us hauled a big pile of stumbling stones on our backs, entering the sanctuary on this night of Kol Nidre. Our intention was to leave them here, thinking: “I’ll just rid myself of these memories and leave them for God to deal with.” And then we heard the words for which we were somehow, once again, unprepared: “For sins of man against God,” we were reminded, “the Day of Atonement atones. But for sins of one person against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone unless they have first made peace with one another.”
And then we realize: Our personal stolpersteine are still underfoot wherever we walk, still tripping us up, still reminding us of what we have left undone and what we have left to do before we can be free of them. And then we realize: that’s why God gives us Yom Kippur.
If, instead if constantly tripping over them, or avoiding them, or trying to dump the whole lot of them all at once, we stopped and took a good, long look at each of them, and answered the challenge of each of them, we might just be able to lighten our burden one stone at a time, one memory at a time.
And in order to do that, we must recognize that the stolpersteine, and the memories they hold, are meant – not to hurt, but to heal.
Throughout these past few months, I have spoken frequently of what I call “The art of remembering.” Back in March, I was struggling with the vicious onset of dementia in my Aunt Bobbi, who has always been my friend, my confidant, and my number-one fan. I had just spoken to her on the phone the previous weekend, and after few minutes, she stopped and asked me, “Who am I talking to again?” I realized we’d never again be able to share a laugh over sneaking rum-soaked birthday cake to her dog, or my awkward effort at being a flower-girl at her wedding, or celebrating together just two years ago at my nephew’s bar mitzvah.
I reflected on how sad it was that young people seem to care so little about remembering that they use apps like Snapchat and Hangouts and Instagram – which share conversations and images that are designed to disappear. At the time, we were beginning our reading of the book of Leviticus, and I remarked that all of Leviticus is really about the art of remembering. We don’t read it to prepare for the rebuilding of the temple and the reinstatement of the priesthood and sacrifices on the altar. We read it to understand how our ancestors used these institutions, and later the memory of them instilled in our prayers, to bind themselves to each other as a people.
Then in August, I reflected on the day trip that Don and I took to the Martin Guitar factory. We recognized how the displays in the museum reflected the history of the founders, maybe not as it really happened but as the heirs and successors wanted and needed to remember them. The trip coincided with the beginning of reading the Book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses recounts the stories of Exodus and Numbers. His account differs from the originals in order to seal his legacy, because Moses needs God, and the generations of Israelites who followed him, to remember him as the most faithful and most zealous man of his time.
Tonight, I’m trying to harness and synthesize all these lessons about remembering. And here’s what I think:
First, I think that memory is a gift.
One of my colleagues posted in the rabbi chatroom last week that she was spending the holy days in her hometown and was being given the chance to get a tour of her old childhood home. She wondered if she should, or if it would just mess up the memories she had. Colleagues weighed in on both sides. Some said, no, you don’t want to see what other people have done to the home. Others said, go for it, because the memories there are happy ones. All of them, of course, were speaking from their own experiences of their own childhoods and how they would deal with those memories. Only she could make the choice.
In the end, she did go, and she was so glad that she let those memories just wash over her. The best part of it, she reported, was the backyard and thinking about all the crazy stuff they got into back there, she and the gang of close friends she had. It was better than any movie reel she’s watched of those days, she said, and something of a miracle that they’d all made it to adulthood.
The art of remembering is knowing when to take the chance that the memory will not be what you thought it would be.
Also, I think that memory is a gift even when the memories are painful.
My dad’s been gone for a dozen years now. I sometimes still expect to pick up a ringing phone and hear him say, (sighing), “Hi Aud, how are you?” I wish he was a Facebook friend so that I could overshare everything with him. I get a twinge when I think we won’t go fishing for bluegills or listen to our favorite songs or eat pizza together anymore. And his birthday is a particularly hard day, even now. But I have a lot more happy memories than sad ones. And I know I’m lucky that way, to have had someone in my life who supported me and encouraged me to be my own person, from the day I was born.
Several people in our congregation lost a mom or dad in the past year. Some of you had complicated relationships with parents who could be, in turn, supportive or judgmental, appreciative or critical, independent or much less so. But with the passage of time often comes a softening of memories – not so you will forget who they were, but so you will accept them for what they were.
The art of remembering is knowing when to let a memory go when it holds on to you too tightly to help you move on.
And finally, I think that memory is a gift that we cannot refuse.
I mentioned all those young Israelis flocking to Berlin, about 15-thousand now, many attracted by the promise of German citizenship for descendants of German Jews killed by the Nazis. They make up a left-leaning, creative, artsy intelligentsia that crowds into theaters and coffee houses and nightclubs, and stakes out their own claim with falafel stands and Hebrew-language internet cafes.
They consider themselves more than Jews, more than Israelis. They want to be known as citizens of the world. And more than a few get irritated when Germans attach the memories of the Shoah to them – or as one young woman put it, they do not want to part of the “German-Jewish” story.
But they are. Berlin is, in fact, the one place where they cannot escape the memory of the Holocaust. What I remember about Berlin from a rabbinic mission there some years ago – at a time when there were very few Jews in Germany – were the subtle but ubiquitous reminders to Germans that all but spoke the words “Never again.” Memorials built into the middle of streets with eternal flames stoked from below marked the sites of Nazi book burnings.
Signposts above our heads pointed to long-destroyed sites in the old Jewish quarter along Oraienburg Strasse. Others enumerated the dates and the details of the countless laws from Hitler’s ascendancy in 1933 onwards, which gradually refused Jews their livelihoods, their education, their right to serve their country, their right to own a car, their right to live where the wished. And, eventually, their right to live at all.
It may frustrate or annoy or anger the young Israelis. But they’ve plunked themselves down into the one place from which they cannot ever escape memory. The veil is often a mere wisp. The reminders are discreet. But they are unmistakable.
The art of remembering is knowing when it is your responsibility, sometimes whether you like it or not.
And since I’ve been there, of course, Gunter Demnig has created the stolpersteine to force us to look down and remember each victim. I think it cannot be accidental that Demnig used a phrase with such Biblical resonance. It is, in fact, in tomorrow afternoon’s Torah reading from the so-called “Holiness Code” of the Book of Leviticus, that we read the Divine command, וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל – – “Before the blind do not place a stumbling block.”
The context in Leviticus, as you’ll hear tomorrow, is that God is enumerating the many ways in which we can infuse our lives with holiness, whether at home or at work or in a public place. Like all of the other mitzvot compiled in these verses, this one speaks to the respect with which we must treat other people. We do not lay traps for them, to tease them or laugh at their distress. We do not curse a deaf person, who cannot hear our hurtful words. We do not deliberately trip up a blind person, who cannot evade the obstacle.
But let’s suppose we are not talking about an actual blind person. Let’s suppose we’re talking about somebody who has lost sight of ethical behavior. Someone who is trying to evade responsibility for what he has said or what she has done to another person. To place a stolperstein in front of such a person is to make him stop, and look, and consider. To make sure he can no longer evade the consequences of his own behavior.
That’s exactly what Demnig has been trying to do with his stolpersteine, not only in Berlin but throughout Germany – in fact, throughout Europe, wherever Jews were driven from their homes and sent to their deaths. And that’s exactly what we need to do tonight.
The physical stolpersteine are antidotes to the ubiquitous collective monuments to Shoah victims, because they are so intensively, and even uncomfortably, personal. The emotional stolpersteine with which we are confronted on this Kol Nidre night take that bag of burdens with which we entered the sanctuary, and break them down into intensely, and even uncomfortably, personal transgressions. Like the physical stumbling stones, they force us to face the facts – the people, the events, the locations – that mark our transgressions.
The stumble-stone verse from tomorrow’s reading from Leviticus is immediately followed by the phrase, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה, “So shall you approach your God, with fear and reverence. I am Adonai.”
And that, after all, is the ultimate goal on Yom Kippur. To approach God, each and every one of us, knowing that we will be judged by our acts in the past year. Knowing that we are always given the choice to do better.
Tonight, let us be guided by the gift of memory, however difficult it might be. Let us face our individual stumble stones with confession, with remorse, and with repentance. And let us say together: Amen.
©2014 Audrey R. Korotkin
The following scene was related by journalist Thomas Friedman writing from Jerusalem in the late 1980’s:
“I once bought a tape recorder— radio in Jerusalem that came with a one-year warranty. After about nine months the radio broke, and I brought it back to the shop for replacement. The shop owner knew me well, as we had done a lot of business together. I put the radio and the warranty on the counter and said to the owner, “I need a replacement.” He checked that the radio was dead, read over the warranty, and then just shook his head.
‘Mr. Thomas,” he said, “if the radio had broken after one month, or maybe three months, okay, we would have replaced it. But nine months? I’m sorry.’
‘No, no, you don’t understand,’ I said. ‘This radio has a warranty of one year. One year means one year. It is not optional. It is not at your discretion.’ He just shook his head again. He did not understand one year. His mind could not see that far, no matter what the Japanese manufacturer had told him.”
Friedman wrote that he understood what the shopkeeper was really saying to him: It wasn’t just about the radio. Israel, too “is a country with a one-year warranty – that no one is sure will be honored.”
So many Israelis, whatever their background, feel that they are living on borrowed time. That just beneath the surface of day-to-day life is another holocaust, another abyss, another dark time in the history of mankind when the earth could, at any moment, open again and swallow them up.
I lived in Israel a decade after Friedman, and I had a similar situation. In my case, I needed to buy a round-trip plane ticket on British Airways in April, for a flight to Israel in early June, and a return the following May. Trouble was, the Brit Air computer system wouldn’t let me buy a ticket with a return date more than 365 days in the future. So I booked the return for the latest day possible, and the booking agent put a note in the computer system allowing me to reschedule my return trip to the correct date, once I got through that deadline.
Don was in Israel with me for the month of August, so one day we took a stroll to the British Air office in downtown Jerusalem to make the fix. This time I was dealing with Israelis, not Brits. And for the life of them, the Israeli agents could not understand why in the world I was concerned in August about a trip that would not take place until the following May. What could I possibly have been thinking?
During that year, I learned to both admire and fear the way that Israelis compartmentalize their lives. How do you get on the Number 18 bus to work today when it was blown up last week? How do you go for coffee or falafel or shop at the shuk when you know there was a shooting there last month? How do you, on one day, mark Yom ha-Zikaron, the day of remembrance, with silent commemoration of Israel’s war dead, then at midnight go out into the streets with noise-makers and silly string and dance for hours in celebration of Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Day of Independence. How do you do that?
But they did. They do.
And really, what else can you do? On the one hand, if you don’t compartmentalize, you would be totally consumed by “ha-matzav,” the Hebrew euphemism for the “situation” with the Palestinians. That sense of bravado would be overcome by the sense of pending doom. You would not be able to get through a day. Not one day.
On the other hand, you could just try and ignore the situation. I hear this a lot from the international media: Oh, Israelis are fairly comfortable these days, so they just pretend the Palestinians don’t exist. Well, maybe from the outside, that’s what it looks like – but not from the inside. The borders are too close, and the wounds are too fresh, and the memories are too strong.
Fast forward another 20 years, and it turns out the Israelis we knew were right all along.
From beneath you it devours. There’s no way to compartmentalize “hamatzav” from the rest of your life when the earth literally does open up again and swallow you up.
This time, it was not some Biblical cataclysm, like the rebellious Korach and his followers being consumed in a fit of Divine anger. This time it was man-made. Slow and methodical, deliberate and deadly. This time it was the incredibly elaborate and expensive labyrinth of tunnels dug by the terrorists of Hamas deep beneath the border between Gaza and Israel.
The plan was supposed to be triggered today. Today, on Rosh Hashanah, one of Israel’s holiest days of the year, Hamas had planned for two hundred men to wind their way through the tunnels, emerge near a half-dozen communities in Israel, and wreak death and destruction. Today, Hamas was determined to slaughter Jews and kidnap others, to hold them as ransom bait for their mass murderers to be released from Israeli prisons. Today, Hamas had hoped to so terrify Israelis that they would be willing to give Hamas anything it demanded.
We saw Hamas try this several times before and during the Gaza incursion last month. We have aerial footage of bands of terrorists sneaking out of tunnels near kibbutzim that sit a few short miles from the Gaza border. But now we know these were not isolated incidents. Now, we know that they were trial runs for what was supposed to take place today.
Hamas terrorists who were captured in Gaza apparently made no secret of the plans. They bragged that they had spent years creating these tunnels 25 meters deep, where they could not be detected.
They were proud of the way they had diverted tens of millions of dollars of building materials and concrete – which the European Union insisted Israel allow into Gaza, but which the EU then failed to account for.
Hamas was easily able to use it, not to create an infrastructure of roads and homes and hospitals and schools to bring prosperity to the people of Gaza – but to create a warren of dens from which terrorists launched their attacks in the midst of those homes and hospitals and schools. And because of which the people of Gaza have endured untold suffering.
From beneath you it devours. Israelis knew this in 1948, and in 1967, and in 1973, and all the years in between. Here is what we have learned from Operation Protective Edge: That in this generation, like all the preceding generations, Israel is no closer to a state of normalcy, to a state of peace. There are only periods of calm, during which one can and must compartmentalize the terror in order to survive. But there has been no end to the fight against genocidal forces that refuse to acknowledge Israel’s existence and threaten her very being.
Hamas may, however, have misread the Israeli psyche just a little bit. Far from terrorizing Israelis, or sending them scattered in all directions, their relentless rocket fire had the opposite effect. It brought Israelis together.
It united them politically – with even the far left supporting the government’s powerful incursion into Gaza.
It united them physically – with Israelis of all ages and backgrounds crouched in shelters and stairwells, helping the elderly and disabled to get to safety.
It united them emotionally – with young Israelis supporting their brothers and sisters and friends and colleagues who were called up for reserve duty in the tens of thousands.
There was no compartmentalizing the situation. There was no ignoring it. And there was no surrender to it. Not this time. Not when the existential threat was so real that the earth really was opening up.
From beneath us it devours. Not just in Israel, as it turns out. In these past weeks, the hellmouth has opened in Berlin and in Paris and in Antwerp and in Sydney, Australia, and in New York City, and in Boston, and in Calgary, Canada. And what emerged from the darkness was not the terror of Hamas but the terror of virulent, ugly anti-semitism.
Demonstrators carrying signs and chanting slogans that all Jews must die, that Hitler should have finished the job, that Jews must be gassed. These were not people protesting the political decisions of the current Israeli government. Nor were they marching in support of the civilians in Gaza. This was pure, unadulterated Jew-hatred, cowardly faces hidden behind wrapped layers of kefffiahs and Palestinian flags, terrorizing Jews at prayer, and Jews rallying to support brothers and sisters in Israel, and Jews simply walking in public places.
And yet not all Jew-hatred is this obvious. Some of it is subtle. Some of it is wrapped in the arrogant condemnation by Western nations of Israel’s actions in Gaza, as though they would not have done exactly the same thing to protect their people from rockets and bombs and bands of cut-throats. Some of it is wrapped in the speech of “proportional damage,” as though Israel is to blame for building an Iron Dome to protect its people, while Hamas erects human shields to protect its rockets. Some of it is wrapped in the diplomatic language of Israel-Palestine, as though the two are not only morally but practically equivalent.
Yair Lapid, Israel’s Finance Minister, gave a speech at a Holocaust Memorial Site in Berlin a month ago, in which condemned the Western world’s response as what he called “a fatal blind spot for sheer evil” just as the Nazi extermination of Jews had been. Here’s part of what he said:
“Here in Europe, and elsewhere in the world, people sit in their comfortable homes, watching the evening news, and tell us that we are failing the test. Why? Because in Gaza people suffer more. They don’t understand – or don’t want to understand – that the suffering of Gaza is the main tool of evil. When we explain to them, time after time, that Hamas uses the children of Gaza as human shields, that Hamas intentionally places them in the firing line to ensure that they die, that Hamas sacrifices the lives of the young to win its propaganda war, people refuse to believe it. Why? Because they cannot believe that human beings – human beings who look like them and sound like them – are capable of behaving that way. Because good people always refuse to recognize the totality of evil until it’s too late.”
Lapid warned then what we know now is so true…that Israel may stand at the front of the line facing this evil, but that they will not stop there. Hamas. Al Qaida. ISIS. They will go after Europe. They will go wherever they need to go, to spread their brand of evil. It is not just Israel living on shaky ground. This evil recognizes no borders. The entire world is on notice: From beneath you, it devours.
There is another truth that seems to have eluded much of the Western world – the news media and the politicians alike. And that is, that it didn’t have to be this way between Israel and Gaza. Dennis Ross, who has represented the US in the Middle East in various capacities since the Clinton Administration, wrote recently that he himself laid out the path to Hamas that would have led to peace and prosperity. And they simply chose the alternative.
This meeting took place in the winter of 2005 in Gaza City, just before Israel unilaterally withdrew its troops and settlers and left Gaza in Palestinian hands. Here’s what Ross told an audience of about 200 Gazans, including a number of senior leaders of Hamas:
“This was a moment to promote Palestinian national aspirations,” Ross said. “If they took advantage of the Israel withdrawal to peacefully develop Gaza, the international community and the Israelis would see that what was working in Gaza could also be applied to the West Bank. However, I then asked rhetorically: If Palestinians instead turn Gaza into a platform for attacks against Israel, who is going to favor an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the creation of a Palestinian state?”
“Much of Palestinians’ history might have been imposed on them by others, I said. But this time they had the power to shape their future. If they made the wrong choice, they could not blame the Arabs, the Europeans, the Americans – or the Israelis. . . . Unfortunately, we know the path Hamas chose . . . For them, Palestinians’ pain and suffering are tools to exploit, not conditions to end.”
Ross suggests a path that many others, including Israelis, have suggested: If the enemy of my enemy is at least my partner, Israel must cultivate partnerships with those who are threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Hamas must be discredited and eventually disarmed as a requirement for the rebuilding of Gaza. The Palestinian Authority must be supported, so that its rule in the West Bank gives Palestinians a credible alternative to Hamas. Israel and the PA must work on conflict management skills, especially when it comes to land agreements on the West Bank.
And finally, Prime Minister Netanyahu must declare that Israel’s settlement construction will NOT take place on land that it thinks will eventually be part of a Palestinian state. That, says Ross, would allow Israel to offer a credible two-state solution and make it easier for Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates to work with Israel more openly.
The destruction this summer has been so devastating, and the air-raid sirens so ubiquitous. The issues seem so intractable, and the death-wish of our enemies seems so incomprehensible. Sometimes we forget what it’s like for individual Israelis who have to deal with all of it every day of their lives. Who find themselves compartmentalizing the situation – because if they did not, how could they go on?
This Sunday, our Temple Teen School students had a chance to SKYPE with a young Israeli woman named Shani Raviv, whose aunt and uncle are Nancy and Andy Gurman. She and her fiancé Uri had planned a beautiful wedding in early August on the kibbutz where they live, and the whole family was to come to Israel to celebrate their chuppah.
But then Gaza happened. And Shani and Uri, and all their friends, who all serve in the IDF reserves after they do their full-time service, were called up. Uri was on the Gaza border, because he’s an engineer whose expertise involves blowing up tunnels. Shani, the intelligence specialist, was sent north to the Golan, where the Syrian civil war in all its ugliness was spilling over the border. They wanted to keep her there indefinitely, but Shani said, Look, I just got out after seven years. I have a wedding to plan. In the end, the couple was delayed only two weeks, and Andy was on hand to dance at his niece’s wedding. But can you imagine any young couple in our community facing the same situation?
It shouldn’t have to be this way. Young Israelis, who are willing to put their lives on the line for their country, shouldn’t have to delay their weddings because rockets and tunnels are threatening their country’s survival. They shouldn’t have to put on their uniforms year after year, to face an enemy with black hearts and blood on their hands.
It shouldn’t be this way. It didn’t have to be this way. But it is this way. From beneath them it devours. Today, even with the incursion over, it eats away at the lives of our brothers and sisters, in the land where we have longed for peace for so long. Today, as every day, Israelis feel the ground beneath them shaking and shifting.
We must not shrink from this ultimate evil. We must face it, and we must demand that the world face it and name it and destroy it. Israel may be on the front lines, but it must not stand alone. For the sake of the world, whose birth we celebrate today – the world God gave us to tend and protect – for her sake and for the sake of God’s name, it must be so.
The Babylonian Talmud records this petition of Mar, son of Ravina, with which he would conclude his prayers, and with which I will end my remarks this morning:
“My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking falsehood. Let me remain silent before those who slander me. Let me be as humble as dust before all. Open my heart to Your Torah, and may my soul pursue Your commandments. Deliver me . . . from all evils that come storming into the world. As for all who plot evil against me – speedily frustrate their designs, make nothing of their schemes! May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer!”
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2014 Audrey R. Korotkin