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Hevre, Tnu Lee L'Halom. My Friends, Permit Me to Dream

04/06/2015 08:24:00 AM


Hevre, Tnu Lee L’Halom. My Friends, Permit Me to Dream
Yom Kippur 2007
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

In Hawaii, you will stand on a beautiful beach and look out into the crystal blue waters, you gaze up at a brilliant blue sky, you will see hillsides covered with swaying palms, you will raise your eyes toward heaven and say: "Master of the World, You knew about this place and You gave us Canaan? Would it have been so difficult for You, God, to put the Jewish people on Lanai or Kawai? Or make Maui our homeland? You couldn’t have given us just one isolated Polynesian island? We could have called it Alevai! You created this paradise and You decided we’d be better off in the Middle East? Master of the Universe, what were You thinking?"

Sometimes I believe this is a divine test. God tested Abraham. God tested Job. Now God is testing us. A divine experiment: Take the Jewish people, the people with the world’s highest moral aspirations, and put them in the world’s most dangerous neighborhood. Jews have spent generations arguing about ethics, let’s see how those ethics work in the real world. And just to make things interesting, yours is a land with no natural resources except your own ingenuity and energy. Yours is the only corner of the Middle East without a drop of oil! And we give you millions of immigrants to absorb and fashion into a functioning society; immigrants from 160 countries, speaking dozens of languages, with myriad traditions, immigrants bearing the wounds of centuries of persecution and oppression. Finally, we set the ever-critical eyes of the world upon you so that every misstep, every blunder, every failure is carefully noted and picked apart. 

It may be a divine test. But the object for Israel is not to earn God’s support. The object is to gain the support and loyalty of our children. How do we build an enduring love for Israel in our children? How does Israel gain their loyalty? What is Israel to them?

This year, Israel turns 60 years old. You love differently at 60 than you do at 20. At 20, we are smitten -- overcome with the flush of romance and passion. Flaws and faults are overlooked. Failures are invisible. All we see is the beauty of the other. Until one morning we wake up and see the other in the light of day. Just as quickly as we fell into love, we fall out of love. 

At 60, love is different. With lines on our faces and our bodies softer, we know all the flaws, all the faults, all the failures, and yet we still love. We see the whole self, the truer self -- all the faults but all the aspirations, all the imperfections but all the depth of character. At 60, love is deeper, more complex, more forgiving, more mature. 

This year, let us give Israel a special birthday gift. Let us share with our children a less romantic, but deeper, lasting, mature love of Israel. 

At 60, we can acknowledge that Israel has failures. Many of them. We don’t like to speak of them because we are afraid that the world may overhear hold them against us. But in Israel, they are painfully visible. And to love Israel, the real Israel, we need to acknowledge them.

According to the newspaper Haaretz, 28% of Israel’s population lives below the poverty line, one in three Israeli children is raised in poverty, and 400,000 families experience what is euphemistically called "nutritional insecurity," in other words, hunger. At the same time, the country is home to 7400 millionaires and 87 multi-millionaires, whose collective wealth grew 25% each of the last three years. Garish shopping malls and luxurious tourist hotels sit side by side with very poor neighborhoods. The gap between the rich and poor grows wider. 

There is a serious polarization between religious Israel and secular Israel. When a young Israeli soldier, the child of recent Russian immigrants, was killed in battle on the Lebanese border, the Rabbinate discovered that his mother was not Jewish and refused to bury him in a military cemetery. Secular Israel went crazy. Worse, is the gap between the Ultra Orthodox Haredim and the rest of Israeli society. The Haredim constitute only 10-15% of the populace, but their population growth is three times that of the rest of Israeli society. Currently 55% of children in Jerusalem nursery schools are of Haredi background. Haredi culture is deeply ambivalent about the very existence of Israel. While they decry Israel as a sin against God, they accept financial support from the state far beyond their proportion of the population. They pay little in taxes and do not serve in the army. 

Twenty percent of Israelis are Arabs. Despite a stated commitment of equality, there has always been a deeply ambivalent attitude toward Israel's Arab population, an attitude that routinely translates into blatant discrimination. Public schools for Israeli Arab children are underfunded and distinctly inferior to Jewish schools. Infrastructure for Arab towns -- roads, sewers, utilities, is underfunded and inferior to Jewish towns. Economic development is underfunded. As a result, there is a growing radicalization of Israel's Arabs, as they identify as Palestinians rather than Israelis. 

The Security Fence that divides Israel from the Palestinians is almost complete. It has been very effective in stopping terror attacks. This summer was the quietest summer in years. The sense of freedom was palpable. The question is what else has the Fence stopped? In dividing the land, has it also divided our minds? Has it created an attitude that whatever goes on over there is not longer our problem? With the Fence in place, we don't have to hear their story; we don't have to consider their aspirations; we don't have to know their suffering. What's over there is not our problem any more. This is a very dangerous illusion. Dangerous for the security of Israel, and dangerous for its moral character.

Israel has failures. These and more. There is an environmental crisis in Israel, with rivers turned foul and garbage everywhere. There is a crisis in the status of women. This year the President of the country was accused of rape and its justice minister was indicted for sexual harassment. There is a crisis among the Israeli youth who are disengaged and dispirited. Daily life in Israel isn't easy; there is a mean-ness to life. 

Israel has failures. But we don't teach love of Israel by denying them or hiding them. We don't teach love of Israel by throwing over ourselves the cloak of victimhood and excusing them. That only leads to disillusionment and rejection. It's time for a mature love – a love that can see beyond all these failures the deeper soul of this nation. A love that can see our own souls, our own struggles in this nation. 

This Summer in Israel, something remarkable happened in Israel. 2800 refugees from the Sudan and Ethiopia, half of them from the Darfur region, managed to trek northward, across Egypt, through the Sinai Desert and into Israel. Some were placed in detention centers. Some found refuge in villages and kibbutzim in the South of Israel. (Where a black African Muslim family hides in Israel, I still can't tell you.) By the beginning of summer, the government began deliberations on their fate. Five hundred of the refugees from Darfur, staged a march on Jerusalem, and camped out in front of the Interior Ministry. And many hundreds of Israelis joined them. 

Every night there is a talk show on prime time Israeli TV. When there is controversy in the news, people watch the way we watch the Super Bowl. And then everyone adjourns to the local café where the debate continues into the night. So here is the line-up:

On one side of the desk sits a government official, either from the Interior Ministry or the Foreign Ministry. He's a middle aged, middle class guy dressed in a short sleeve white shirt with a skinny black tie. Standard-issue, government bureaucrat uniform. In the middle of the table are two member of the Knesset, one from the Left and one from the Right. On the end of the table an activist from an Israeli human-rights organization.

The government fellow begins the conversation by pointing out that there are 2.5 million refugees from the conflict in Darfur. There are some millions of refugees remaining from the instability in Ethiopia, the civil war in the Congo, and the chaos of Nigeria. All tolled, Africa has some ten or fifteen million refugees. We're a country of 7.2 million people. And we're at war. Is it reasonable to open our borders to Africa's refugees?

Then there's pandemonium. The human rights activist interrupts the government man – Why did we start this country to begin with, if not to give shelter to those running for their lives? Have you forgotten that you're a Jew and this is a Jewish State? 

And how long will you remain a Jewish State if you throw open the doors to everyone who seeks asylum? And who pays for all these poor lost souls?

And then it gets personal: What if we had closed the doors when your people came knocking? Where would you have been then? The show lasts an hour. The conversation goes on through the night in cafes across the country. The controversy filled the summer. 

It's not about Darfuri refugees. It's about the fundamental question that is debated endlessly in Israel: What does it means to have a Jewish state? What is a Jewish state? What does it mean to be Jewish? It is an old conversation between two distinctly Jewish voices.

In 1903, the Zionist club of Odessa, Russia sent the poet Chaim Nahman Bialik to witness and report on the pogrom that took place in Kishinev. This was the first pogrom of the 20th century.What Bialik saw shocked him. He wrote a long and powerful poem, In The City of Slaughter. The poem begins with images of the decimated Jewish community and sounds much like the accounts of the medieval martyrdom of European Jews – the shattered homes and burned synagogues, the bodies of the murdered.

Then Bialik abruptly changes his perspective, and reveals something more disturbing. The women of the villages were raped, defiled, murdered. Where were the men? Why were they cowering, hiding? Why did they do nothing to fight back? What kind of men are these who allow their wives, mothers, sisters and daughter to be violated, and do nothing? What has happened to us?

For 1800 years, we chose to remain powerless. It was our survival strategy. For 1800 years, we defined ourselves as a spiritual community. We gave up control over the material conditions of our lives. Others would decide where we would live, and how we would live, often if we would live. Our task was to trust God, serve God, and await the coming of God's Messiah. God acts in history, not us. For 1800 years, we chose a life of political passivity, remaining on the periphery of history, marginal, rejected, despised by the world, but faithful to God's plan and God's promise. 

"But no more!" screamed Bialik. No more! Men who have lost the will to fight for their wives and sisters and daughters have lost the essential dignity of men. Mothers and fathers who haven't the ability to protect their children lose their humanity. Basic dignity is fundamental to being human. Basic dignity is rooted in responsibility, the responsibility to defend that which is most precious to us. And such defense demands power. Jews must have power because generations of powerlessness had stolen the soul, the humanity of the Jewish people. We must return to our land, Bialik taught, and retake power, reassert responsibility, and regain dignity. 

What does it mean to have a Jewish state? It means protecting our own. It means walking the world with the dignity that comes with the capacity to defend what's precious to us. Americans will remember July 4th, 1976 as the bicentennial of the United States. But Jews remember that day differently. An Air France jet was hijacked by the PLO and Bader Meinhoff to Entebbe, Uganda. Jewish passengers were held hostage as everyone else was set free. Then out of the sky came Israeli commandoes led by Yonatan Netanyahu. That image lives with us. Anywhere Jews are in danger, we now have the power to rescue them. This time when we say, Never Again, we mean it. 

The government official on the TV talk show speaks in the voice of Jewish self-defense. He is realistic, sober, and careful. Is it in the best interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people to open our doors to African refugees? And the answer comes roaring back in a second voice. There's more to this than our interests. Any country sets policies in light of its interest. But we're different. We are a Jewish state. 

This summer, Shimon Peres was voted Israel's president. Peres is an interesting character study. Outside Israel, he is respected as a senior statesman, and thoughtful spokesman for Israel. Within Israel, he is regarded as a curiosity. Until this presidency, he never won an election. He is Israel's political Don Quixote, the national luftmensch. His ideas of a new Middle East are seen as fantasy and his peace initiatives are dreamy. But he enjoys his unique role. In his inaugural address, Peres declared: "I know that the president is not a governor, not a judge, not a lawmaker, but he is permitted to dream. Hevre, tnu lee l'halom. My friends, permit me to dream." 

Israel is about dreams. It has always been about dreams. In his typical passionate idiom, David Ben Gurion captured this voice of Israel: "The Jewish redemption is here and it is now. It is not next year in Jerusalem but today! Today, we are in the process of writing a new Torah not only with scribes but with pioneers and farmers, artists and scientists, architects, teachers, engineers, legislators, collectivists, citizens in every walk of life. All speak the language of Moses and even the freethinkers among them study deeply in the Book, the source of inspiration provider of a past and of a vision for the future. Our new Torah is being written now but its best chapters are still to come." Returning to the land of the prophets means returning to the dreams of the prophets. "You will be a blessing," God promised Abraham. "And in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed." 

Let me tell you a tale of Jewish dreams: In 2005, Ann Heyman, a Jewish woman from New York, a lawyer, a mother of three, heard a presentation by Paul Rusesabagina, the subject of the film Hotel Rwanda. He observed that in Rwanda today, there are 1.2 million orphaned children, out of a total population of 8 million. The survival of Rwanda, he argued, depends on finding a way to save those youngster. Mrs Heyman was haunted by the images of those children. She was aware of an institution near Haifa in Israel, Yemin Orde, that did remarkable work with orphaned, displaced and traumatized children, so she phoned the director, Chaim Peri, and proposed and project: build a Yemin Orde in Rwanda. This is a news story you didn't hear last summer. In the midst the war in Lebanon, a groundbreaking was held the town of Rabono Rwanda for the Agahazoo-Shalom Youth Village. Supported by the Rwandan government, the American Joint Distribution Committee (the overseas arm of the Jewish Federation), and private donors, teams from Rwanda have been visiting Yemin Orde to learn its unique approach to healing children. And at the same time, teams from Yemin Orde have been building the new youth village in Rwanda. 

The village will open officially in 2009. During the past decade, the majority of Yemin Orde's population has been made up of Jewish orphans from Ethiopia. Graduates of Yemin Orde are encouraged to participate in community service, as a way of sharing gratitude for their education. Four of the Yemin Orde's recent Ethiopian graduates will be leading the creation and operation of the Rwandan village and will lead its staff. Young Jewish African Israelis have chosen to return to Africa to bring healing to young refugees of Rwanda's genocide. Hevre, tnu lee l'halom. My friends, permit me to dream.

The government official grimaces. He knows he's losing the argument. "Do you know how many refugees there are in Africa? Do you expect us to save them all?" And the human rights activist volleys back: "We were once refugees. We remember what it was like to knock at closed doors, to appeal to unfeeling hearts. Can you really turn them away?" 

Din and Hesed: the voice of Jewish power, and the voice of Jewish compassion. Loving Israel means learning to hear two voices at the same time. The first requires a careful consideration of our interests; the second requires that redemption become our interest. The first demands a true and firm grasp on what is and what is possible. The second invites us to imagine what might be. The first speaks of realism, the second of ideals and dreams. Both come directly from the heart of the Jewish people. Both speak our truth. And both are necessary. Lose either side of the dialogue and we lose ourselves. 

By itself, power becomes an idol. Power breeds arrogance, moral callousness and warped vision. We easily forget that power is a means, and we treat it as an end in itself. We turn brutal and cruel. The world's oldest story -- the victim who gains power and becomes the victimizer. But so too can a dream become an idol. The dream clouds our vision of what is before us and leads us to step off cliffs into thin air. Both voices, the voice of our realism and the voice of our dreams are necessary. 

This is the great adventure of Israel. Only in Israel could this argument take place.

Go to Israel. But not as a tourist. You can go to France or Italy or even Hawaii as a tourist. See the sites, enjoy the museums, eat in the cafes, shop in the markets. You'll have a wonderful time. But it's not yours. It's a lovely place to visit. But it doesn't belong to you. Israel is yours. The museums in Israel tell your story. The sites are filled with your memories. The cafes are filled with your people. Israel is yours. Go to Israel, and join the argument. Because the argument isn't just Israel's. The argument belongs to us as well. 

This is what Israel needs of us: Not just visits of solidarity when there's a crisis. Even when there is no crisis, Israel needs help to become the fulfillment of our dreams. Mrs Heyman found Yemin Orde. Find the place of your dreams. Find something or someplace or somebody in Israel that is fulfilling your Jewish dream, and make that your cause. Show your children that this land really is the land of our dreams. 

All Summer, the argument continued, until finally it was decided that the 2800 Sudanese and Ethiopian refugees already in Israel would be permitted to remain and would be eligible for citizenship. All who were detained were released, and were adopted into kibbutzim and moshavim and towns, to begin new lives as new members of the Israeli community. Israel appealed to its surrounding neighbor states to absorb the remaining refugees. 

A postscript, from a recent newspaper. There is a new international Robotics competition for high schoolers around the world. Kids from countries the world over are competing in regional and then international contests. The Israeli team won its regional competition. The captain of the Israeli team is a young man named Adam, age 16, a recent refugee from Darfur, an orphan, currently a resident at the Yemin Orde Youth Village. Adam will be leading the Israeli team when they compete in the International finals in Atlanta this coming summer. Adam. Age 16. Darfuri orphan refugee. Muslim. Citizen of Israel. Resident of Yemin Orde. Hevre, tnu lee l'halom. My friends, permit me to dream.

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.


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