Thursday, March 29, 2012

My Fifth Question

Every year I study one or two new commentaries on the Haggadah to enrich my seder.  This year’s Haggadah is one of the best commentaries I have ever read and one that really resonates with me after our Israel seminar.  I can’t recommend highly enough Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s Haggadah.  The religious lessons he gleans from the tradition text truly moves me. 

The Maggid section of the Haggadah begins with “Ha Lachma Onya.”  This paragraph ends: “This year we are slaves – next year, may we be free.”  Rabbi Sack writes:

There are two words for freedom in Hebrew, chofesh and cherut.  Chofesh is ‘freedom from’.  Cherut is ‘freedom to’. Chofesh is what a slave acquires when released from slavery.  He or she is free from being subject to someone else’s will.  But this kind of liberty is not enough to create a free society.  A world in which everyone is free to do what they like begins in anarchy and ends in tyranny.  That is why chofesh is only the beginning of freedom, not its ultimate destination.  Cherut is collective freedom, a society in which my freedom respects yours.  A free society is always a moral achievement.  It rests on self-restraint and regard for others.  The ultimate aim of the Torah is to fashion a society on the foundations of justice and compassion, both of which depend on recognizing the sovereignty of God and the integrity of creation.  Thus we say, ‘Next year may we be bnei chorin,’ invoking cherut not chofesh.  It means, ‘May we be free in a way that honours the freedom of all.’

After reading his understanding of cherut, I couldn’t help think but about the some of the social justice issues I confronted during mystay in Israel as part of the Leadership Institute.  I visited kav le’oved (an agency that protects the rights workers whether they be Israeli or migrant workers and works to help women out of white slavery) and my group also learned about the asylum seekers from war torn Africa like the Sudan and Eritrea.  Our speaker took us on a walking tour to South Tel Aviv where these asylum seekers sleep out doors in the park no matter what the weather might be.  Besides no housing, hunger, employment, education, and other necessities of life which lead to human dignity are sorely lacking or at best inadequate.

The Israeli government certainly isn’t living up to the ideals of our Torah as taught in the Haggadah by creating a society built on the foundation of both justice and compassion.  Instead of giving these people refugee status which would guarantee them certain legal rights, they have no rights at all.  Instead of creating refugee camps or other living facilities for them, Israel is building a 10,000 bed prison to house them because the government has enacted laws that make the trek to safety and freedom a crime.  Thank God, individual Israelis are stepping up in lieu of the government.  But more needs to be done.

I don’t have solutions, but Passover, the Haggadah, and Rabbi Sack’s commentary challenges me.  What should I be doing to alleviate their suffering so to honor the freedom of all?  That’s my fifth question for my seder.

If you are more interested in learning more about these asylum seekers and the daily problems and challenges, I encourage you to read my friend Allen Katzoff’s blog, Seven Months in Tel Aviv.  Allen is a past director of Camp Ramah in New England and is now in Israel while his wife Joan Leegant teaches literature and writing at the Bar Ilan University.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Purim, Revelation, and Tel Aviv

Purim, Revelation, and Bus Routes in Tel Aviv

One of the literary threads that tie Megillat Esther together is “Nahafoch Hu” or reversals.  Let me share just two examples of this literary device.  Haman plots to kill all the Jews and at the very end he, his 10 sons, and all of his supporters are put to death.  One night when sleep evades King Achashverosh, he asks that his book of records be read to him.  He learns that nothing had been done to reward Mordechai for saving his life.  Who should be in the court but Haman to ask permission to hang Mordechai.  The King asks Haman “what honor should be done for a man whom the king desires to honor.”  *(6:6)  Haman thinks the king is speaking about himself and advises him to dress the honoree in the king’s clothing, be ridden around town on the king’s horse, and let them shout before the honoree “This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor.”   To Haman’s utter shock and dismay the king said, “Quick, then! Get the garb and the horse, as you have said, and do this to Mordechai the Jew who sits in the king’s gate. Omit nothing of all you have proposed.” ()

The Rabbis have always loved Megillat Esther. They taught: “The truth of the Book of Esther is like the truth of Torah…just as the Torah requires interpretation, so does the book of Esther.  (Jer. Talmuld Megillah 1:1)  The Book of Esther was given to Moses on Sinai, but since there is no chronological order in the Torah, it appears after the Five Books of Moses.  Rabbi Yochanan said that the Prophets and the Writings will one day be annulled, but the words of the Torah will not…Resh Lakish added that the Book of Esther will also never be invalidated. (Jer. Talmud Megillah 1:5)

They saw an even deeper connection and more between Purim and Torah which bears on the current situation in Tel Aviv.  “And they stood under the mountain.” (Ex. 19:17). Rav Avdimi ben Hama ben Hasa said: “This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain and suspended it upon them like a barrel and said to them: “If you accept the Torah, well and good, but if not-there shall be your burial!”  Rabbi Aha ben Jacob observed: “This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah.” (i.e., a blanket excuse for nonobservance of a covenant ratified under duress). (The same principal is being applied when art work is being returned to survivors and their descendants since the sale of these paintings were not volitional but coerced by the Nazis.) Said Rava: “Yet even so, they accepted it again in the days of Ahashverosh, for it is written: ‘They confirmed and they assumed, the Jews, upon themselves’ (Esther 9:27); they ratified (with the institution of Purim) what they took upon them long before (at Sinai).” (Shabbat 88a) 

Because accepting the covenant at Sinai was under duress, Jews could now nullify the agreement. Rabbi David Hartman extrapolated an important lesson from this Gemarra. “What began at Sinai as an externally imposed system of norms had become a successful internalization of those norms when Purim was identified as the celebration of the free acceptance of the Torah.  (A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Tradition Judaism, page 219)  I understand this to mean that Judaism can only be meaningful and valid if it is accepted voluntarily and not coerced by God or the Rabbis.

All this Purim Torah made me return to reflect upon the first Shabbat in Tel Aviv of our Leadership Institute seminar in Israel.  Jews generally gravitate to Jerusalem for Shabbat because there is a shul on every corner as well as the opportunity to daven at the Kotel, the Western Wall, in the Old City.  On the other hand, Tel Aviv has the reputation of a secular city that never sleeps.  We were asked to reflect upon our Shabbat there because Tel Aviv isn’t a usual Shabbat destination. 

As my small group walked to Yakar, the shul we chose to daven in, I was amazed how few cars were on the road and how few stores and restaurants were opened. I came up with two possible reasons.  One, perhaps there are more traditional Jews in Tel Aviv than I suspected. Or two, everybody was still sleeping in from the previous night’s revelry at the numerous night clubs that rock until dawn.

Later on the trip the newspapers reported “Green light, red light: Tel Aviv okays buses on Shabbat, fears brakes to be put on plan   Resolution needs approval by Transportation Ministry, which city officials consider unlikely to come through." The municipality will submit a detailed request to the Transportation Ministry to operate essential [bus] lines on Shabbat," states Monday's resolution, which passed in a 13-7 vote and was sponsored by city council member Tamar Zandberg (Meretz ). "This is out of a desire to allow public transportation from neighborhoods in the north, the south and Jaffa to the center of town, the sea and recreation venues." Zandberg said maintaining the existing religious balance was not adequate justification for keeping residents from using public transit. (Ha’aretz published Feb. 21, 2012)

Of course, the Orthodox religious political parties came out decrying this change of the status quo.  In response, I truly feel like a Purim Jew who has gone through “Nahafoch Hu.”  I love the quiet Shabbat atmosphere in Israel when cars are off the road and businesses are closed.  It truly is a taste of the World to Come. Nevertheless, for Shabbat to be a meaningful part of one’s life, its observance can’t be compelled.  For all those who love Shabbat we need to persuade others of the beauty and need for a Shabbat in one’s life and act as positive role models.  Our message can be heard as proof of the thousand secular Jews joining in prayer on the beach of Tel Aviv each Shabbat as we learned.  Even though I am a traditional observant Conservative Rabbi, if I were on the Tel Aviv City Counsel I would have voted with the majority to allow buses to run on Shabbat.  Let those who want to ride, ride and those who don’t, don’t.