It is a cacophonous and intense time to be here in Israel. The three kidnapped boys. War in Iraq. My niece’s bat mitzvah. Syria. Netanyahu and Abbas. The World Cup. Seeing old friends. Waze. Shopping malls, Israeli hospitals, Mahane Yehuda, the (superb) Rabin Museum. The Presbyterian vote to divest. Masechet Ta’anit. Everything higgledy-piggledy, one experience jarring upon the next.
Against this background, I have no great wisdom to offer – certainly succinctly ☺.
But I note that many of us living in comfort and peace have afforded ourselves for a great while – without being fully aware of it – the gifts of irresponsibility and unseriousness. I include within this a whole raft of things: not reading serious newspapers (including, especially, those with which we disagree); allowing our attention spans to shorten; polluting our inboxes and thus indirectly our souls with nonsense and vapidity. Stepping back from civic engagement.
Being in Israel is a good antidote to this. The multiple lessons of the Torah and of Jewish history are that subtle and fragile artifacts of human creation – culture, community, education, law – accrete over time, but fracture, relatively speaking, in moments. Aleppo, Baghdad, Damascus – these have been thriving cities since the kings of Tyre and the days of Bavel. A traveler 120 years ago would not have seen much difference between any of them and Jerusalem, except perhaps that Jerusalem – less vital to trade than all the others – was in those days a little more faded, a little poorer. (All four cities, of course, had substantial and ancient Jewish communities.) The differences between them today are not because a supra-human tornado hit some but not others. We create communities and frames – both legal and cultural – that enable and encourage us to hold difference and to restrain our worst selves; or else we break apart, and – in an extreme – we kill each other. I should add: this Shabbat is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. “Just” two people lost their lives, but a chain of causation began which led to the Great War. When the last gun was fired, four years later, more than ten million had people had lost their lives; another 10 million were wounded (my Zayde amongst them.)
That is why we should not take peace and relative stability for granted. The seemingly inexorable centrifugal forces of contemporary culture need a conscious centripetal commitment on the part of each one of us. The key concept in shacharit, the morning prayer, is cefiyat yetzer – focusing the will. That is, in a sense, what Jewish tradition is about: not just going with the flow but counteracting it, challenging it, challenging oneself. Committing to making a better world, in whatever ways we each can effect.
The process of engaging, by the way, whilst serious in intent, need not be serious in form. Thickening community counts. Reading, learning, talking, eating together. Switching off our machines and getting outside and walking and riding. Advocating. Voting. Cooking from first principles. Growing from first principles.
And in this vein I would add, more prosaically, a few things for your calendar:
This Sunday, Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, June 29. If you’ve never tasted a kosher locust – this is your chance! (And to see that you can have great fun whilst engaging with some of these topics, check out this superb video from Gefiltefest in London.)
Labor Day weekend. This will be our 14th year. If you want to do just one thing that is energizing, engaging, and world-changing, this is it. A chance – variously – to get in shape, meet great people, celebrate, learn – and do real good in the world, via the fundraising. (The fundraising, by the way, is not a reason not to do the Ride – it is actively and positively a way to make a difference. Monies from the NY Ride have fuelled the growth of Jewish CSAs in this country, the Adamah program, and a slew of other great projects.) And if you’re in NYC this Sunday, join us for a great fun ride.
The Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah – this year September 20th – we, by tradition, say penitential prayers. This year that will be followed, on September 21st, with a major Climate March in New York. We have much for which to be penitential; and the Maimonidean lesson is that we cannot merely pray or do teshuva, we must change our behavior. Dr. Mirele Goldsmith, who runs our Jewish Greening Project, is helping to coordinate what we hope, expect, and intend will be a significant Jewish presence that day. If you want to help her, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Food is an amazing prism through which to learn about and engage this country. Please join us October 29 – November 3.