If I Am Not For Myself/If I Am Only For Myself: Rosh Hashanah Sermon

We are coming to the end of what has been a rough and tumble year, especially this past summer. Often it’s the hardships and the challenges that linger in our memories, overshadowing what was good. So I’d like to start this reflection by reminding us of the remarkable success of the courageous Market Basket workers. Their 40 day protest created hardships for grocery shoppers who could not afford the higher-end supermarkets. And it also created hardships for the workers themselves and their families. In the end, they succeeded in having their beloved Arthur T Demoulas reinstated as CEO. The stores are open again. We hope for their continued success in months to come.

Many have found lessons in this story. From the Harvard Business School to labor unions, everyone is talking about the power these workers used to gain victory. Among many elements of their success, I carry away a reminder why they did what they did. In a word, loyalty. Arthur T engendered loyalty in the workers, creating a family among everyone associated with the supermarket chain. Arthur treated the workers with dignity and compassion, paying them a respectable wage, offering real benefits. He also knew them personally and they knew him. He remembered birthdays and anniversaries, and acknowledged births and deaths. He showed the workers that they mattered in the world. And in return, the workers and shoppers alike showed him loyalty that extended beyond business hours to a 40-day vigil.

Loyalty to those who believe that we matter is the way we build a community of any kind. Good neighborhoods thrive on mutual assistance. Families become the safety net when we are in trouble. We learn who our friends are when we suffer pain, illness or loss.

But loyalty in the extreme can be dangerous. It can lead to blind chauvisinim. It can become corrupt. Sometimes loyalty can prevent us from feeling compassion for those we consider outsiders.

 And so, I’m reminded of Hillel’s teaching.

Im ein ani li mi li

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
ucheshe’ani le’atzmi ma ani?

And if I’m only for myself, what am I?

V’im lo achshav aimatai?

And if not now when?

Avot 1:14

 I felt so many tugs at my heart as I considered what I would speak about this year. Today is one of the few opportunities I have to address all of you in one place. And there is so much brokenness in our world. Domestic violence and child abuse. Ferguson and the racism that pervades this country. Terrorism and anti-semitism.  And not to forget the death of Robin Williams due to depression and its tragic outcome, suicide.

 HBT is a community proudly committed to tikkun olam, to repairing the world. I’m in awe of the personal dedication of our members, in your personal lives, your work lives, and in our congregational actions.

 And, I have also come to believe that before I can engage in tikkun olam, repairing, healing or reshaping the world as I wish it to be, there is an important prior step: tikkun halev, repairing the heart. When my heart is breaking, I may desire to change everything around me, to bring justice to the world, to protest injustice, to seek out the oppressors and root them out of my life. But that will not heal my broken heart, and sometimes may lead to more broken hearts. First, I need to change my own soul, to seek justice in my own actions, to protest my own flawed thinking, and to seek out the oppressors within me that may not be acting out of justice or what is right and true, but out of something less righteous.

 Before I set out to change the world, I remember the words of the early Hasidic master Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg, who taught: 

The Talmud tells us that if all the world were to repent, the Messiah would come. Knowing this, I decided to do something about it. Where to begin? The world? It was too large and I was too small. So I thought: Let me start with my own country. That, too, proved too much for me. My own town? I failed there as well. My neighborhood, my own family? Even there I did not succeed. Never mind, I thought, I shall work on myself.

We gather together here in the synagogue on these holy days, first to work on ourselves, on our own tikkun halev. So I want to share with you some of the struggles in my own soul these past few months, and the healing that I believe is not only possible, but necessary in order to reach our larger goal, tikkun olam. And so, I have chosen to speak today about Israel and Gaza, because this summer I was engaged in my own tikkun halev in hopes that this inner work would help guide me to a path of tikkun olam, to bringing healing and repair. If not to the world, then at least to our temple community.

 The war this summer prompted a constant and deep effort to search my own soul, as a Jew, as an individual and as a Jewish leader. As I wrote congregational messages, considered calls from parts of the Jewish community to join in solidarity with Israel and calls from other parts of the Jewish community to protest Israel’s actions, I remained keenly aware of my responsibility to our congregation. We are a community that celebrates our diversity and encourages debate, and, having led numerous discussions with individuals and in classes over many years, I am acutely aware of the strong passions about Israel that dwell here. We seek to make this a safe place to talk about Israel, We may not be there yet, but it is our pronounced intention.

Yet the events of this summer caused me more anguish over Israel than any I have known in my lifetime. I have been visiting Israel since my first summer trip in 1973, and I’ve lived on kibbutz, lived in Jerusalem, and traveled the country’s length and breadth, including the Sinai and the West Bank. When I lived on kibbutz as a high school senior in the spring of 1974, the tranquility of our small ulpan group was broken by news that terrorists had taken over 100 teenagers hostage in a school in Maalot, south of the Lebanon border, That attack ended with the death of 25 hostages, 22 children.  That was a terrifying time, though we felt safe in our quiet kibbutz home.

 I have also joined with Israelis numerous times to protest government policies. A few days after Brian and I arrived in Jerusalem in 1984 for a year of study while I was a rabbinical student, we joined thousands of Israelis in the Galilee town of Uhm-al-Fahm, the largest Arab town in Israel. Jews and Arabs stood side by side to protest the racism of right-wing Jewish extremists and to fight for the rights of Israeli Arabs.

 Brian, Aviva, and I also lived in Israel in its most peaceful era, arriving in the summer of 1993, just a month before the famous handshake on the White House lawn between Yitzchak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. For two years, we lived in the halcyon days of Oslo. As a token of our happiness and hope, we named our newborn son, Yonah, the dove of peace.

 This past summer I could not escape the sense that everyone I know was in turmoil, in pain over the war in Israel and Gaza. I spoke to a hundred different people this summer about the war and heard a hundred different views. Even people I thought I agreed with 100% saw events differently. Perhaps you still feel that pain, even as I say the words “Israel” or “Palestine.” My biggest fear was that our Jewish community, safely ensconced here in America, sheltered from the rockets aimed at Sderot and Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and well-protected from air strikes on Gaza’s cities, that we, in our comfort, could no longer talk to each other. That is the pain that I seek to assuage as we enter a New Year. How can we continue to even speak of Israel, in a Jewish community? How can we hear one another’s personal pain?

 The divisions among us signaled to me, that this war was different.

 For the first time, I myself felt paralyzed. I was on a rabbinic retreat when word came that the bodies of the three kidnapped students, Naftali Frenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar, had been found. Even among other rabbis and cantors, we all felt torn. These were innocent sixteen-year-old boys, not soldiers, brutally murdered. For many of us, it felt as if they were our own sons. On the other hand, I was aware that the Israeli government had known for some time that the boys were dead. I was grateful that the parents would be able to lay their sons to rest. And all of us were terrified at the violence that was bound to erupt.

 The next day, word of the gruesome murder of a Palestinian boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, brought additional horror. What kind of Jew would commit this brutal act? Again, it felt like he could be one of our own. Fortunately, the Jewish suspects were quickly captured and the Israeli leaders vehemently condemned those who called for Death to Arabs.

But then the rockets started. And the air strikes. We saw the destruction in Gaza on the news and heard about Palestinian children being killed. And despite the laudable efforts of the Israeli military to send warnings to people in Gaza, it was hard to imagine where those people might go.

 And suddenly I was hearing from my friends, tourists and citizens alike, about the Code Red, and having 15 seconds to run to bomb shelters. I learned that little children at summer camps near Gaza were being kept inside bomb shelters all day long, because there was not enough time to safely bring them inside to the shelter every time a rocket fell.

 And so I would read one account that attacked the Israeli government, and then another that convinced me that the military was doing all it could to defend Israeli citizens while seeking to avoid killing Palestinian civilians. All I could feel was pain, pain for every victim. And it paralyzed me.

 Then we learned about the tunnels. Tunnels that Hamas built with the concrete that could have been used for constructing an entire city of homes and schools. Tunnels that were built to terrify the Israeli people. Tunnels filled with explosives, provisions, tranquilizer guns, and Israeli army uniforms to kidnap soldiers or to murder civilians. From that point on, I felt that this war between Hamas and Israel was different from the others in the past eight years. And while I felt deep compassion for the Palestinians, I became convinced that Hamas was also responsible for making victims of both residents of Gaza and residents of Israel.

 Through all of my own experiences in Israel, I have never heard so much fear from so many Israelis. And I have never taken their fear so seriously.

I was moved to tears by pleas from multiple Israelis, including many progressives, people I know in the peace camp, wondering why American Jews had not reached out to them? Why we haven’t asked how they are doing? Why we stayed away. Didn’t we know how their children were suffering, how frightened they were? How much they needed us? And I moved from paralysis to guilt.

My connection to Israel, from the time I was a teenager until today, has always been anchored in relationships. Much as I love the archaeological sites that connect me to our history, much as I am in love with the Hebrew language and the music and culture that have blossomed in the modern State of Israel, much as I delight in hiking in the land and being part of a landscape reminiscent of biblical times, it is the people I have come to know who make Israel a meaningful place for me.

 On my first visits to Israel in 1973 and 1974, I grew close to my Israeli cousins, Thea and Issy and their four children. We are related through Thea’s father who left Russia two generations ago with my own grandfather. Thea’s father first immigrated to South Africa and later made Aliyah to Israel. Issy made Aliyah from Egypt as a child. His father had been a prominent newspaper editor in Cairo and when anti-Semitic persecutions began in Egypt in the early 1950s, he had to escape in secret with his family, leaving everything behind.

During our year together in Jerusalem, Brian and I made friends with both secular and religious Israeli Jews. On Christmas Eve our friends in Interns for Peace invited us to the home of an Arab Christian family in Nazareth for their holiday dinner of hummus and salads. Throughout the year we welcomed new immigrants from Ethiopia arriving in Israel for the first time in centuries.

Spending two years in the Jerusalem Fellows program in the 1990s, I studied with Jewish women and men from Russia, France, South Africa, Argentina, England, America, and Israel. We came from very different religious and secular backgrounds. We argued about Jewish identity and Jewish settlements. Our families shared intimate moments, births and deaths and bat mitzvahs together. It is only in Israel that I have experienced these bonds of Jewish peoplehood that cross international borders.

Rabbi Art Green once said that the only way that the Jewish people can survive intact will be through the family connections that bridge our many differences. One of the most important relationships I have in Israel is with my younger sister, Devra, and her family. Devra was married and made Aliyah immediately following graduation from college. For the past twenty-five years she has lived beyond the green line in two different Israeli settlements.  Devra and I share a deep love of Judaism and the Jewish people and we are about as far apart politically as we can be. And yet in all these years my love for my sister has opened my eyes to the perspectives of people I would never have known, much less understood. Our growing trust and respect for one another, despite our stark differences, has taught me more about compassion than any relationship in my life.

So I come to my own tikkun halev, the personal healing that I have pursued in these many weeks. All summer I swung back and forth, wondering what “side” I was on. In those first weeks when rockets were aimed at my friends and family, I could not bring myself to reach out to them. I realized that I had abandoned my own people, people I love, and I felt ashamed.

We all feel compassion for some people more than for others. That’s human. It is the way we build families and communities of trust. I love my children, my husband, my siblings in a way that compels me to be there for them before anyone else.

 Yet, that love does not prevent me from feeling compassion for others.  Ideally, it is our first and deepest experiences of love that become the template for loving people beyond that inner circle. It’s not a given. It is not always easy. Sometimes we are so protective of our loved ones that we lose sight of everyone else.

 Here is the tikkun halev that I offer to you, coming out of this summer’s turmoil.

 To increase our compassion, to open our hearts to the humanity of people we disagree with, even those among the Jewish people and even our greatest enemies, is the spiritual challenge of our day. It is the great spiritual challenge of all time.

 That is why I turn back to Hillel, who also lived in a time of turmoil, in the early first century when the Jewish people disagreed, sometimes violently, about how to respond to the Roman occupation of Jerusalem.

 Im ein ani li, mi li…

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
ucheshe’ani le’atzmi ma ani?

And if I’m only for myself, what am I?

V’im lo achshav aimatai?

And if not now when?

 As a Reconstructionist, I believe that what unites us as Jews is our peoplehood. Our ancestry, our history, our heritage. We may disagree about Jewish values, we may argue over texts, we may even argue which texts to argue over. But this is what connects us. As Mordecai Kaplan once wrote, “A people whose adherents are aware of their mutual need for spiritual well-being, self-perpetuation and destiny is, in the truest and deepest sense of the term, ‘a people.’” When my people are under attack, when they are hurting, it is my obligation to open my heart to them in love and support. If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

And yet, I also hold in my heart a desire for peace and a call for justice for Palestinians. I am not blind to the poor decisions made by the Netanyahu government that led up to this war. I am not sure that Israel did everything it could to prevent civilian death in Gaza. These are important issues to debate and investigate now that the ceasefire is in place. We cannot move forward without looking backward and learning from our mistakes. And when I say we, I include plenty of Israelis who understand this, including people who live on the border with Gaza. If I am only for myself, what am I?

 I have not lost hope. The future of relations between Israel and the Palestinians, between Fatah and Hamas, between Hamas and Egypt, the future of the entire Middle East today is cloudy. The possibility of peace may seem more of a dream than ever before. But being a student of history, especially Jewish history, I understand that solutions take time. That does not give us permission to give up. It should impel us to help find just and reasonable solutions. If not now when.

 What I believe needs to change is the notion of either/or: either we care about the people in Gaza or we support Israel. Either we are loyal Jews or we are universalists. Either we are afraid of our enemies or we love all humanity equally. What Hillel teaches us is it’s not either/or, it’s both/and.

 Im ein ani li, mi li?

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
ucheshe’ani le’atzmi ma ani?

And if I’m only for myself, what am I?

V’im lo achshav aimatai?

And if not now when?

 

How can we hold two competing realities at once?

That is the crux of the matter; how we cherish what is ours in particular and how we also share the universal human experience. Is it a dialectic? Is it a paradox? It is both. I draw comfort from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,”

 “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

 For me, the balance that I continually seek, through pain and anguish, through divisiveness and anger, is a balance that I come to through the mystery we call God.  God is the unifying force that is far beyond any one human’s capacity to understand, because in God, we can embrace a world of paradox and contradictions.

 Though I’ve been speaking specifically about the Gaza War, the idea of holding competing ideas can be a practice for any difficult conversations or challenging relationships in our lives.

 My colleague, Rabbi Les Bronstein of Bet Am Shalom in White Plains, shared the following thoughts regarding discussing Israel and Palestine, and I urge us all to heed his charge as a call for more compassionate listening in our lives:

“Let’s listen at least as much as we talk. Let’s think through our responses before we castigate even those opinions we’re sure are dead wrong, even while we proudly stand up for what we know to be morally sound positions. …let’s pray for the wisdom to distinguish between enemies and friends.”

 In this New Year, may we all find the wisdom, the courage and the compassion to hold the contradictions and to hear the divine truth speaking through them. Ken yehi ratzon.

 Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Rosh Hashanah 5775

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Posted on September 28, 2014 .