Monday, April 30, 2012

There is nothing new underneath the sun. (sigh)

There is nothing new under the Sun 

Marathon Jewish Community Center’s library has a lot of hidden gems on the shelves.  I came across one just the other day. It was Harry Golden’s book Your Entitle’, and contains his columns syndicated and distributed by the McClure Newspaper Syndicate.  If he were writing these columns today, they would most likely appear in his blog.

Kohellet’s famous line, “There is nothing new beneath the sun. (1:9)” in the Biblical book Ecclesiastes came to my mind when reading his column “The conscience of Mr. Goldwater” ( page167)

The English conservatives recently won an election with promises to expand the program of the Socialists.  Like his British cousin, the American conservative whose own programs remain in vacuo finds his strength in the existence of such liberal programs as the New Deal, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and social security.  His strength is a strength by nostalgia.  Senator Goldwater opens his book, The Conscience of a Conservative, with the statement, “The ancient and tested truths that guided our Republic through its early days will do equally well for us.”  But the conservatives has no intention of abandoning or repealing the Securities Exchange Commission, the Tennessee Valley Authority, or social security, which are certainly no ancient and tested truths.  Thus they speak of the great “conservative” South, but let us see a minute.  In my State (North Carolina) there are one hundred and seventy-five thousand conservative Southerners who would not have electricity, telephones, refrigerators, washing machines, or television sets were it not for the “radicals” who instituted the rural electrification program.  Rural homes and farmhouses light up today for the simple reason that privately owned power companies could not possibly have stretched their lines to them without doing grave injustice to their stockholders.  For electricity and power stations these conservative Southerners were perfectly willing to let the Federal Government encroach upon their States’ rights.  The conscience of a conservative is no more than a dream, the same sort of dream that nourishes the segregationist, a dream of a past that cannot, and should not, be recalled.

Basically, the primaries are over.  Mitt Romney will be the Republican candidate facing President Barak Obama for the 2012 elections.  But after reading Golden’s article I saw that the more things change, the more things stay the same. Truly there is nothing new under the sun.

The Republican Party has lurched to the right led by the Tea Party.  Their strength is the strength of a false nostalgia. They have the ability not to confuse the issues with the facts. Remember some time last year at a Tea Party rally, some person held a sign that read, “Don’t touch my Social Security” not realizing that Social Security was one of the governmental programs the “radicals” put in place.  Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare helps those Tea Party members as well as almost every citizen of our country.

Despite the absence of any statistically significant voter fraud, Republican controlled states have enacted strict voter id laws.   In states like Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio new laws dampen the ability of citizens to vote.  Getting newcomers into the electorate has gotten more difficult. A required photo ID, shorter windows of opportunity for voter registration, and more complicated rules are regular features of these ID laws.  Of course these laws primary affect minority voters’ ability to exercise their constitutional right to vote. The only logical reason to prevent these people from voting is the fact that they would most likely vote for the Democratic Party candidates.  Under the banner of states’ rights, freedom is being perverted.   ID legislation doesn’t lead us to the dream of a better future, but the return of the nightmare of our past.

Monday, April 16, 2012

I shall not hate

Yesterday we said good bye to the Egyptians.  On the 7th day of Passover, the fleeing Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds after it split and never looked back.

Our tradition is amazing.  After all that Joseph had done for Pharaoh and Egypt, the new Pharaoh didn’t remember him and enslaved the Jewish people. If Israel had reasons to hate any nation, it would expectably be Egypt.  Nevertheless, God commands Israel “You shall not abhor an Egyptian for you were a stranger in his land.” (Dt. 23:8)  Rashi explains that even though they threw the males into the Nile to drown them, we owe them a debt of gratitude “for they were your host at a time of pressing need (i.e., the time of the famine in the days of Jacob and Joseph) therefore (we’re not to hate them.). Ha-Emek Devar (Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893) elaborates in his commentary that God wanted to elevate our souls by recognizing the good and not become base people by denying that good.  Consequently, the Holy one wanted us to internalize this commandment.  Thanks to my time in Israrel, I was introduced to a modern role model from the ranks of the unexpected.

After the official Seminar was over, I remained in Israel instead of rushing back home.  I joined a colleague and her friend, a college professor who had studied at the Albright Institute in East Jerusalem, and went on an explore of East Jerusalem.  Being academics all, of course, we had to stop at several bookstores.  Those bookstores were eye openers for I saw volume after volume of books which you never see in Jewish Jerusalem.  They presented a completely different narrative of the Palestinian-Israeli story.  One book caught my eye, I shall Not Hate by Izzeldin Abuelaish so I bought it.

Izzeldin Abuelaish was born and raised in Gaza.  He was the first Gazan physician admitted to a residency program in Israel.  In Dr. Marek Glezerman’s introduction to the book, he writes, “In 1995, at about the time I moved on to a chairmanship at another hospital, Izzeldin was admitted to the residency program in obstetrics at Soroka Medical Center.  It was an individually designed residency, not aimed at board exams but at completion of the curriculum.  He completed against all-odds-all the different departments and rotations, with schedules.  For instance, if you don’t show up, someone else has to pitch n for you on short notice, and nobody likes to do that.  Depending on what was happening at the border, there were times when Izzeldin, along with other Palestinians from Gaza, were not allowed to enter Israel.  Sometimes after night shifts when the border was closed, he couldn’t get back home to his family in Gaza. But he never called it quits.  He completed the six year program, he acquired full command of the Hebrew language, and he became a skilled gynecologist and obstetrician.” (page x)

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish details the deprivations, problems, and hopelessness of the average Gazan in his book.  Tragedy struck his family during the Operation Cast Lead in 2009 when Israel invaded Gaza to put an end to the incessant shelling of Sederot and other Israeli communities.  Three of his daughters and a niece were killed when an Israeli tank fired point blank at their third floor room. Dr. Abuelaish is a well know Gazan who has repeatedly spoke out for co-existence and against terrorism both in Gaza and in the Israeli media.  His address was well known by Palestinian and Israelis.  The death of his daughters and neice was a needless tragedy of the greatest proportions.  Once again Dr. Glezerman writes that the Ministry of Defense has responded by stalling and evasion to the growing number of Israelis demanding a formal and independent Israeli investigation. (page xiii)

Dr. Abuelaish does not hate and still speaks out for peace and reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  His words are worth reading and actualizing.

Revenge was on the lips and in the minds of most people I talked to in the days after my daughters and niece were killed…We struggled together, my children and I, and I tried to respond to the chorus of people calling for Israeli blood to atone the deaths of my girls.  One said, “Don’t you hate the Israelis?”  Which Israelis am I supposed to hate? I replied.  The doctors and the nurses I work with?  The ones trying to save Ghaida’s life and Shatha’s eyesight? The babies I have delivered?  Families like the Madmoonys (Israelis) who gave me work and shelter when I was a kid?

Still, the cries for reprisals didn’t stop.  What about the soldier who fired the deadly volleys from the tank?  Didn’t I hate him?  But that’s how the system works here: we use hatred and blame to avoid the reality that eventually we need to come together.  As for the soldier who shelled my house, I believe that in his conscience he has already punished himself, that he is asking himself, “What have I done?”  And even if he doesn’t think that now, tomorrow he will be a father.  He will suffer for his actions when he sees how precious is the life of his child.

To those who seek retaliation, I say, even if I got revenge on all the Israeli people, would it bring my daughters back?  Hatred is an illness.  It prevents healing and peace. (page 187-8)

That’s how things happen in the Middle East – the size of the rhetoric trumps the facts on the ground.  In my experience, the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians were horrified by the terrifying events of the three week war.  The reaction of ordinary people strengthens the case for our need to talk to each other, to listen to act.  And it reinforces my lifelong belief that out of bad comes something good.  Maybe now I really have to believe that; the alternative is too dark to consider.  My three precious daughters and my niece are dead.  Revenge, a disorder that is epidemic in the Middle East, won’t get them back for me.  It is important to feel anger in the wake of events like this; anger that signals that you do not accept what has happened, that spurs you to make a difference.  But you have to choose not to spiral into hate.  All the desire for revenge and hatred does is to drive away wisdom, increase sorrow, and prolong strife.  The potential good that could come out of this soul-searing bad is that together we might bridge the fractious divide that has kept us apart for six decades.

The catastrophe of the deaths of my daughters and niece has strengthened my thinking, deepened my belief about how to bridge the divide.  I understand down to my bones that violence is futile.  It is a waste of time, lives, and resources, and has been proven only to beget more violence.  It does not work.  It just perpetuates a vicious cycle.  There’s only one way to bridge the divide, to live together, to realize the goals of two people:  we have to find the light to guide us to our goal.  I’m not talking about the light of religious faith here, but light as a symbol of truth.  The light that allows you to see, to clear away the fog – to find wisdom.  To find the light of truth, you have to talk to, listen to, and respect each other.  Instead of wasting energy on hatred, use it to open your eyes and see what’s really going on.  Surely, if we can see the truth, we can live side by side.

I am a physician, and as a consequence I see thinks most clearly in medical terms.  I am arguing that we need an immunization program, one that injects people with respect, dignity, and equality, one that inoculates them against hatred. (195)

Recently, Rabbi David Wise taught me that the Hebrew word for   
Revenge (Nekamah) is only one letter away from the Hebrew word Comfort (Nechamah).  Today is Yizkor and we gain a sense of comfort as we remember our dearly departed.  Similarly, may the Jewish people and the Palestinian people choose Nechamah over Nekamah so that peace may envelope us all.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Whoever is hungry-let him come and eat!

Food plays such an important role at our seders.  Of course there is the symbolic food on the seder plate.  No seder would be complete without matzahs, marror, charoset, and salt water.  Menu planning, shopping, and cooking the festive meal requires weeks in advance planning.  Despite scouring all the advertisements for Passover sales, our grocery bills go through the roof.  One local cantor posted a parody called Matzah Balls lamenting this fact.  He sings “I have blown my whole life savings shopping for food and it’s all made from over priced cardboard.” (

Besides the symbolic food and the actual food on the table, food serves as one of the thematic threads that tie the Haggadah together. Raising the matzah the leader of the seder begins the Maggid section of the Haggadah saying “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.  Whoever is hungry-let him come and eat!”  

Immediately afterwards the youngest child asks the four question.  Do you really think that eating matzah and having hor dourves, the dipping the karpas in salt water prompts him or her to say “How different this night is from all other nights!”  Passover isn’t the only time we eat matzah.  Many times people use matzah for lechem mishnah (the second loaf of bread) on the Shabbat table when they don’t have a second Hallah.  Although not customary, everybody has seen hors dourves served at a cocktail hour.  These things are different but really not so strange to raise questions.


A long time ago, I read a commentary that states the invitation “Whoever is hungry-let him come and eat!”  prompts the child to question the father’s behavior.  For on all other nights whenever the father sees a poor person begging for food in the street, he crosses the street in order to avoid all and any contact with the hungry beggar.  Tonight he invites him into their home.  No wonder the child says, “Ma Nishtana-How different this night is from all other nights!”


Too many of us are like the parent above who avoids or just doesn’t see hunger in our midst.  I wonder how can there be so people going to bed hungry every night in America, this land of plenty.  World hunger is great tragedy. The world is facing a hunger crisis unlike anything it has seen in more than 50 years.  925 million people are hungry.  Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes. That's one child every five seconds.  There were 1.4 billion people in extreme poverty in 2005. The World Bank estimates that the spike in global food prices in 2008, followed by the global economic recession in 2009 and 2010 has pushed between 100-150 million people into poverty.
Like Rabbi Elezar be Azariah in the Haggadah who wasn’t able to show that the Exodus must be recited at night until Ben Zoma gave him the correct interpretation, I was always troubled by the penultimate line of birkat hamzon, grace after meals.  That line “I was young and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.” just doesn’t jive with reality.   We all have witnessed when bad things happen to good people and children going to bed hungry.  I use to say this line silently because I just couldn’t pray a lie out loud.   I didn’t know how to understand that sentence until Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ interpretation.
He writes:

I was young and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.

This line, from Psalms 37:25, has often raised questions.  Surely throughout history there were times when the righteous were forsaken?  Indeed this is one of the questions that, according to the Talmud, Moses asked God:  “Why do the righteous suffer?

I once heard a beautiful explanation from R. Moses Feuerstein of Boston. The key phrase in the verse is lo ra’iti, standardly translated as “I have not seen.”  The verb ra’iti, though, occurs twice in the Book of Esther with a quite a different meaning. “How can I bear to watch (eicha uchal vera’iti) with the disaster which will befall my people? And how can I bear to watch the destruction of my family?” (Esther 8:6) The verb there doesn’t mean “to see.”  It means “to stand by and watch, to be a passive witness, a disengaged spectator.” Ra’iti  in this sense means to see and do nothing to help.  That for Esther as for the Psalmist, is a moral impossibility.  We may not “stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.”  We are our brother’s keeper.

Translated thus, the verse states:  “I was young and now am old and I have not merely stood still and watched when the righteous was forsaken and his children forced to beg for bread.”  Read this way, not only does it make sense. It also emerges from the core of Jewish sensibility. It ends grace after meals with a moral commitment. Yes, we have eaten and are satisfied.  But that has not made us indifferent to the needs of others.

The conclusion of the meal, so understood, echoes the opening of the seder service with its invitation to “all who are needy-Come and eat.”

The challenge of Passover is to refashion the outside world so that all may be free.  Of course supporting organizations like Mazon and Hazon are worthwhile endeavors.  Beyond that, the Haggadah may just be the educational tool to teach our children how our tradition demands us to bring redemption nigh.  Maybe the act which rouses the child’s question in the first case can spur us to action in our own little corner of the world.  Perhaps instead of stepping over or crossing the street to avoid a hungry person, we can buy them something to eat to satisfy his/her immediate needs.  This would be such a valuable chesed example to teach our children to imitate. 

Our final redemption would be all that closer when our children see us invite the hungry to our table and not think, “How different this night is from all other nights!”