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Living More than a Normal Life

Yom Kippur Morning
October 18, 2010

 

It’s 1948 just before the creation of the State.  Israel’s undercover agency, the Mossad, dispatches a top agent to meet a fellow spy in New York, a man by the name of Abe Ginsberg who lives at 123 Delancey Street on the Lower East Side.  The password for Ginsberg is - “The sky is blue, the earth is brown.”
The Mossad agent leaves Israel and arrives at the New York airport.  To make sure he is not being followed, he takes a train to Connecticut, a bus to New Jersey, a limo to Staten Island and a ferry to Manhattan.  Finally, he arrives at 123 Delancey Street, an old tenement building.
He enters the building and reads the names on the mailboxes.  It turns out that two people with the name of Abe Ginsberg live in the building:  One on the second floor and one on the fourth floor.  The Mossad agent decides to visit the Abe Ginsberg on the second floor to see if he is the person he needs to meet.
The bell does not work, so he knocks very loudly.  The door opens just about an inch or two.  A little old man appears and asks, “What do you want?”
The Mossad agent replies, “The sky is blue, the earth is brown.”
To which the old man responds, “Oh, you want Abe Ginsberg the spy.  He lives on the fourth floor.”
**********
            So once upon a time people told endearing stories like this about Israel and the laughter came easily.  Israel was on a roll.
            Now it’s more complicated.
            Settlements and settlers, roadblocks, blockades, and occupation. The 1982 invasion of Lebanon.  The unresolved and unsettling battles with Hezbollah and Hamas.  Israel presents us with headlines that confuse or concern us.  It’s not so easy to laugh anymore.
            Then along comes TIME Magazine with its September 13 cover story.  A bold Star of David in flowers at the center of which we read:  Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace.
            Come on!  You must be kidding!
            Aside from the fact that the article appeared at the very moment when Prime Minister Netanyahu had begun peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, the article offers no context. We’re told about a real estate boom in Tel Aviv, but not a thing is said about the constant harassment of Israel for 62 solid years. 
            When it comes to conversations about who does or doesn’t want peace, why doesn’t Time Magazine publicize the recent opening of a public square in Ramallah on the West Bank?  The square was happily named after Dalal Mughrabi, the terrorist who hijacked a bus near Tel Aviv in 1978.  By day’s end, Mughrabi was responsible for the death of 37 Israeli citizens, including 13 children. 
            Why doesn’t Time also note that, at great expense and with grave concerns for its security, Israel has withdrawn from the Sinai Peninsula, southern Lebanon, and Gaza – all for the sake of peace? 
            And Time certainly doesn’t mention a poll conducted earlier this summer which showed that, even if a peace settlement could be reached, 62% of Palestinians in Ramallah would oppose Jewish responsibility for Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall.
            Time’s easy, breezy presentation is enough to make you a Zionist if you weren’t one before.  Friends, you’re all sitting near information about Israel Bonds.  If a mainstream journal like Time can do a setup job like this, you understand why Israel needs us as friends.  Interest rates aren’t listed in this year’s brochure.  But you know the drill.  Sign up.  Indicate you would like to know more.  The Israel Bonds office will contact you. All of your money comes back. It’s guaranteed.  You can hand in your completed forms when our service concludes.
            By the way, when I visited Time Magazine’s website earlier this week to reread the Israel article, I discovered something unexpected. There were so many readers writing in to complain about the article that Time had closed out that option.
I found that heartening, although I want to surprise you now by suggesting that, as objectionable as the article was, the article did point to at least one truth about Israel.
It’s not that Israel doesn’t want peace. It’s not that Israelis don’t care about peace.  It’s that, given all the delays, pain, and uncertainty, Israelis are tired.  In that regard, Time Magazine is correct.  It is true that, given the choice, Israelis would just like to live.
            They would like to make a decent living, read a good book, and sip a latte.
            Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s great national poet, captured this truth about Israel in a poem he wrote many years ago.  He called the poem – Tourists – and here is how the prose conclusion reads. [Slightly adapted by MDS]
            Once I was sitting on the steps nears the gate at David’s Citadel in the Old City of Jerusalem and I put down my two heavy baskets beside me.  A group of tourists stood there around their guide, and I became their point of reference.  “You see that man over there with the baskets?  A little to the right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period.  A little to the right. Yes, the one who’s moving.  He’s moving.” 
            I said to myself:  Redemption will come only when those tourists are told, “Do you see that arch over there from the Roman period?  It doesn’t matter, but near it, a little to the left and then down a bit, there’s a man who has just bought fruit and vegetables for his family.” 
            Does Israel want peace? Do Israelis want peace?
            Of course, that’s on the agenda.  But sometimes we imagine too much about Israelis. We idealize them.  We expect them to be larger than life.  We, who are their brothers and sisters, forget that they are also regular human beings.  They do walk by fabulous historic treasures, sites, and scenery every day.  As tourists, those settings amaze us.  But don’t forget Amichai’s poem.  The truth is that a Jew shopping for fruit and vegetables in the years 2010 can be every bit as inspiring as the Roman archeology next to the grocery store.
            That Jew is living his life.  He’s getting by.  And that’s not something to be taken for granted.
            Do you remember the summer of 2006?  Hezbollah kidnapped several Israeli soldiers late that June.  Israel crossed the border into Lebanon to get those soldiers back and a war erupted during which Hezbollah lobbed thousands of shells into northern Israel.  It was a terrible, frightening summer.  Life in Israel was turned upside down.
            How interesting, then, for me last week when I came across a letter I received from Israel that summer.  Rabbi Tammy Kohlberg, who lives in Tel Aviv, wrote to me about her experience.  She talked about some of the political facts. She described what her synagogue was doing.  But most of her letter was actually about her family:  her parents, her husband, and her adult children.  Israeli Tammy wrote to me as Tammy, a daughter, wife, and mother. 
            Last month I spent a few hours watching an Israeli movie called Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi.  Guess what?  It wasn’t about the military situation in Israel.  And it wasn’t about politics or ideology either.  It was, instead, the perfect illustration of what I’m describing.  It was a simple film about a family where mom and dad are separated, older brother in his 20’s is a bit of a braggart, and younger brother going on 15 dreams about girls and having a relationship with his very shapely next door neighbor.  It’s a quiet, gentle movie about a slightly dysfunctional Israeli family.  No more.  No less.
            May I tell you about an experience I myself had the last time I was in Israel – February 2009?  It didn’t take place at the sort of spot you find in a guidebook.  It happened, instead, along the Tel Aviv beach where three friends and I found ourselves talking for about 90 minutes outside a café. 
            Here’s what happened around us as we talked about Israel.  Two young mothers with pre-schoolers positioned themselves under an umbrella and watched their children play.  They sipped iced coffee and laughed as their big, friendly dog chased back and forth down to the waves.
            A woman in her 50’s sat down next to our table with her mother.  They ordered salads and the daughter helped her slightly infirm mother cut the lettuce and tomatoes.
            Four men dressed in business suits took another table, opened their laptops, and conducted a business meeting.
            And nothing else happened under the Mediterranean sun that morning. 
I know 25 miles to the south the Gaza Strip was probably miserable.  Inland the Orthodox religious establishment was continuing to disenfranchise liberal Israeli Jews.  The gap between rich and poor in Israel was also not resolved.
            But here’s my point for this morning.  Sometimes it’s OK to go to the beach.  Israelis do it the way we do it, and we do it the way they do it.  Israelis are like us; we are like Israelis.
            We talk family.  So do they.  We talk sports.  So do they.  Like them, sometimes all of us need a day at the beach.  And if it’s not the beach, well, perhaps for you it’s the serenity of the great lawn at Tanglewood. Or maybe it’s the feeling you have about Thanksgiving Day – nowhere to go, nothing to do, breathe deeply, drink in the faces of those around the table.  Satisfaction. Peace.
            Why doesn’t Israel care about peace, asks Time magazine?  What a stupid, offensive question.  Of course, Israelis care about peace.  Like you and me, they care about the kind of peace and tranquility I’ve just described.  They should care about it and so should we because it’s this kind of peace that allows us to be fully human – with a slight Yom Kippur twist.
            The twist comes when I recall another experience I had in Israel.  It was 1968, my first trip, one year after the Six Day War.  Israel was only 20 years old that summer and, like a person so close to the teenage experience, Israel was brash, confident, and bursting with pride. 
My last night in Israel I remember going to a restaurant with friends where the waiter (only a bit older than 20 himself) refused to serve us unless we made aliyah, unless we agreed to move to Israel. 
“We need you,” he said. 
Literally, that was true. I could have made aliyah that summer.  I was the right age to join the army and help defend the State.  But more than that, I believe the waiter was caught up in something you also sense in Israel.  That is the feeling, that as normal as you are, you are still involved with a historic project.  You are part of an experiment.  You’re a pioneer building a society where there was virtually nothing before.
Living in Israel means going shopping like a normal person for your fruits and vegetables, but it also somehow means something bigger, something grander.
            Not all Israelis feel this all the time.  Many probably don’t feel it at all.  But some do.  At the beach, in the clubs, at the mall, some sense that life means or should mean more than caring about yourself. 
            As Hillel taught, If I am not for myself, who will be for me.  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  What’s the point?
            On that very first trip to Israel, I came across a comment on Israel written by someone called Margaret Larkin.  It rang true back then and still works for me today.  “When people live with an ideal, they are marked by that ideal.”
            In other words, they don’t just go about living.  At their best, people ought to somehow be living with purpose.
            As I said before, that’s the Yom Kippur twist:  the sense that living a normal life and doing nothing more than normal is OK as long as we have feeling for a larger purpose and goal in our lives.
            Of course, a day at the Tel Aviv beach is delicious.  A day at the Cape recharges and refreshes us as well.  But Yom Kippur is that day of challenge which also says life (wherever we live it:  in Israel or here in America) has to be about more than sunbathing, good food, and happy times. 
That’s the message of Isaiah in this morning’s Haftarah. The prophet speaks directly to us when he says taking care of ourselves only goes so far.  The next step is “to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain  … Share your bread with the hungry…Bring the homeless poor into your house…When you see the naked, to clothe him, and never to hide yourself from your own kind.”
            Frankly, I don’t think Isaiah’s passion means we have to all go join the Social Action committee.  But it does mean that somewhere/somehow we do each need to cultivate a higher calling.  We need to know that life is ultimately not about us. Life is about goals, ideals, and values.
            As my good friend Hillel also taught, “In a place where no one behaves like a human being, you must strive to be a human being.”  Or to put it in the colloquial, even if everybody else seems quite satisfied to lounge by the swimming pool, you have more to do.  You have a role to play in building a world that is more decent and more at peace than it was when you arrived.
            The real problem in life doesn’t take place when you leave behind fingerprints. The real sadness is to live and not leave any marks at all.
            The story is told of a small town during the Civil War.  Fighting swept through the town and in the midst of the commotion, an old woman rushed out of her house, brandishing a broom handle as a weapon.
            A soldier yelled out, “Grandma, you can’t fight with that.
            Without hesitating, she shot back, “But I sure can show which side I’m on.”
            And that’s the message of this day.  We have to be on a side.  We need to take a side, to care, to make a stand.

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