by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone: Erev Rosh Hashanah 2007
Looking out to see all of you is very moving to me tonight. Lately I have been
musing about the strange position called rabbi, and reflecting: How many people
are asked to stand with a starlit couple under the chuppah? or are handed a
newborn baby to bless and welcome into this world? Or are invited to the deathbed
of a family elder, and asked to guide generations of family members through
death and letting go? What an honor.
So before anything else this RH, I want to say, how grateful I am for these
privileges of serving this community. Sometimes they are wearying. Sometimes
I prefer not to get up in the middle of the night to go to the hospital. The
hardest is to bury a friend. But never am I blind to the awe of this role. And
I thank you for the sacred trust you have given me in the holding of this community.That's
the auspicious, positive, side of my job. Tonight, with your permission, I also
want to tell you what has brought me to my edge this year, to the edge of my
faith, the edge of my work as a rabbi.
Most of you know that I came back to Judaism years ago after having been away.
The teachings of Kabbalah played a big role. They reassured me that despite
what may appear on the outside as a rather male-dominated ethnic club,
Judaism is inherently far more grand, and more universal, that Jews hold to
a faith in a vast interlacing web, that envelops and invites all people to put
together the pieces of this broken world, to rediscover the mystery of Oneness,
of which we are all a part.
Yes, Kabbalah was a draw, but the biggest draw back to Judaism was far less
sophisticated. If I were to characterize it, it was simple, unmistakable kindness
that drew me back; the warm and unadorned, salt-of-the earth humanity, that
for generations has been called by a word: menschlichkite, the decency
that tells us: no matter who you are, where you are, or how bad things get,
there is nothing else worth doing more than reaching out. As Jews, we learn
in 100s of ways to go beyond ourselves; beyond our own honor; beyond our own
egos; to think into the margins, to where help is needed.
I am cynical about a lot of things these days, but the power of kindness, of
simple goodness, the inherent Jewish ethic of decency remains for me unscathed.
This is what moves me time and again, to watch people of this community make
room for others, go out of their way when one of us is sick or a tragedy has
occurred. That same impulse of crossing the boundaries of ego, sent Jews en
masse down to the south, to Alabama and Mississippi in the 60's as Freedom Riders
and civil rights workers; that called Jews to rescue and resettle 3 million
Soviet Jews in the 80's; that founded one of the most successful global relief
organizations in the world, in the 1990's, known as AJWS.
Of course, Jews don't have a trademark on menschlichkite. To be oblivious
to the walls of this world, and reach out beyond them is an ethic surely not
ours alone, anyone can choose it. But I like to say it runs in our veins because
so many of our ancestors made the choice to cultivate goodness and not narrowness,
largesse and not xenophobia, even when they themselves were subject to hatred
and discrimination, their own reality so often miserable and not at all large.
To choose kindness even when the world is unfriendly, not because it's convenient,
rather despite the fact that it's inconvenient, to me, that is greatness.
There are many great refrains in Torah that have inculcated this lesson in our
people: V'ahavta et hager…..ki gerim hayitem b'eretz Mitzrayim: Love
ye therefore the stranger; for you yourself were strangers. and…Lo
Tuchal l'Hitalem, you cannot turn away when you see someone in need of
your help. (I've often thought this may be the prooftext for Jewish guilt-neurosis.)
Yes it may make us neurotic, but feeling the pathos of the world, and reaching
out regardless of our own situation,for me, has remained our greatness, because
Life without simple kindness is simply not life.)
What has brought me to the edge of my faith this year has been the witnessing
of a formidable challenge to this ethic of kindness. This RH while we pray for
a year of peace and bounty, we must be aware of the grave dangers in the road
ahead. The growth of radical Islamic factions who rail for our destruction,
the funding of Hamas and Hezbollah by two of the richest countries in the world;
the formidable danger posed by the government of Iran.
All of these are genuine mortal threats and need to be taken seriously. But
there is another enemy, more insidious yet, because it comes from within, and
hence it is in our blindspot, so we cannot see it or witness it well. And for
this reason, it is more dangerous to our security than any outer enemy.
That enemy is our fear, and the danger of being held hostage to it. Like simple
kindness, fear has also been inculcated into us. It lives in our cells and it
is full of the real trauma of our sufferings, centuries of expulsions and pogroms,
and hatred in the streets;
And to some degree, Fear is wise. As Hannah Arendt has said, fear is an emotion
indispensable for survival.
Fear tells us when the world is not with us but against us, when we are unsafe
and we must hide for protection. But when this voice of fear threatens our basic
humanity then we need to take another look; when fear threatens the principles
upon which our existence is based, when fear for our own security puts us in
a straitjacket that holds us hostage, then my friends, fear has become the sovereign
power in our lives, which can and will justify any action. And then the simple
humanity that has been our people's hallmark for centuries, the lifeblood flowing
through our veins, becomes dangerously threatened.
Last month, with a rabbinic colleague who guides Jewish leaders into the Occupied
Territories of Israel, I saw the graphic effects of our fear in the West Bank.
The West Bank along with Gaza are the would-be sites for a Palestinian state.
I went there with other Jewish Zionists to see for myself. And what I saw shocked
I saw a land now sliced by a concrete and barbed wire wall, 450 miles long;
in many places, this wall snakes alongside beautiful 4 lane superhighways. Imagine
my shock to be told that by the end of the year, this highway is for Jews only.
Upon questioning I was shown primitive roads for the transport of Palestinians.
I saw that this wall, also called the security fence, completely encircles many
Palestinian villages and cities now, keeping their inhabitants locked in or
out, at the mercy of young Israeli soldiers and strict schedules. Palestinians
are separated from their fields, their jobs, schools, and unbelievably, from
medical treatment. Yes there have been security threats that come through these
gates, and checkpoints. Nevertheless, I found myself questioning the holding
back of women in labor, children in need of emergency blood transfusions. I
heard too many stories, not only from Arabs by the way, but from Israeli soldiers
who were simply "carrying out their orders" and were struggling with the loss
of innocent life in which they had participated.
In Judaism, having life and defending life trumps almost all else. But is that
only Jewish life? And there were other ethical questions that emerged for me:
The widespread rationing of drinking water to the Arab villages, the prohibiting
of people to access their land to harvest their own crops, the uprooting of
olive orchards to build the wall …Were these within the moral code of
Friends, I invite you to question my questions, Do your own research. Find out
for yourself what is happening. If you go to Israel you will see the wall for
Most of us go to Israel, see the wall, stop short and say, whew, glad that's
there. Few people ask: What's on the other side? What we Jews see from the super
highways, is quite lovely in places, decorative panels of wood and brass . On
the other side of the wall, the cement and razor wire is not so pretty. But
from the other side, you will see amazing graffiti-art that tells a story: I
saw A majestic dove caught in barbed wire, a horned, and ghoulish Statue of
Liberty, and the words that made my eyes stream: "Don't they remember the Warsaw
Ghetto?" "We are not all terrorists!" and closer to the settlements, "Death
to the Arabs."
It's important to say that what prompted this wall, the cumulative terror of
violent explosions at any bus stop or café, the horror of people like
you and me, on their way to work or having dinner with their family, being blown
up. The government of Israel has a duty to protect its civilian population from
these attacks. And the suicide bombings HAVE significantly lessened since the
building of this wall. Yet it seemed clear, as I went back and forth daily from
the territories into Israel, that many Israelis know little or nothing of the
humiliation, loss of morale and loss of life that is going on behind the wall.
Totally understandable that our brothers and sisters in Israel just want to
get on with normal life and to do so, they need security.
But can this situation really produce long term security?
Travelling through this territory, seeing these things, I found myself whispering
over and over like a mantra: What is happening to us? How did we get here?
Is this the result of our fear? Once we were victims, now we are seen in the
world as the aggressor, the oppressor. The tough guy who bulldozes orchards,
dictates lives, and lays the tracks that spell ruin to others. For this
is how we are seen.
God forbid this be the new image of Jew! God forbid this be our new narrative.
And here we are: What does all of this trouble have to do with us, here tonight?
Why o why am I bringing this in to our lovely festivities?
Listen: each of us who sit here tonight, far away from the conflict in the Middle
East, you may or may not feel that this is your issue to wrestle. Either way,
what an incredible metaphor this "security barrier" is! A useful symbol with
which to look at our own lives, which is what this holiday is all about…
We all have some form of fear that we carry around with us. And most of us have
constructed some form of wall or boundaries to keep us safe and highly functioning.
Ask yourself: At this time in my life, how do my own personal fears shape the
landscape of my life? How do I personally protect myself, what do my walls look
like? Are they Permeable or impenetrable? to what's going on around me? Do they
ever make me Lonely? Disconnected? Maybe I need better boundaries? Maybe I keep
myself too safe? Could I too safe?
Because it is possible that for the sake of one's own safety and comfort, we
put up walls that protect, but also numb us, and a kind of sclerosis of the
soul is the result.
For me, speaking about these things is like coming out from behind a wall. For
any Jewish leader to speak out about the Occupied Territories in Israel is risky.
You risk being pidgin-holed as anti-Zionist or self hating, or worse, dismissed
as a traitor. And so many of us who have witnessed these things submit to a
tacit silence. I have to ask myself: Which is worse? Speaking and risking my
reputation or not speaking and risking my soul? For me the choice is hard but
So I thank you for hearing me tonight and I invite you, to ask, to learn, to
be curious, to penetrate to the other side of your personal safety and comfort,
to connect beyond yourself, whether having to do with Israel or your own life.
I've told you what has brought me to the edge of my faith this year, let me
close with what restores it:
~Rabbis for Human Rights: A group of Israeli, and American rabbis who defend
the Palestinian farmers against settler attacks, to help them harvest their
olives, to defend their right livelihood in the courts.
~Bereaved Families Forum (BFF):A growing group of bereaved Arab and Jewish families
who have lost loved ones to acts of terror meet regularly to share their pain,
opening telephone hotlines for Arabs and Jews to speak to one another about
~There are more and more families giving eyes, hearts, and other organs for
transplant to individuals of the so-called "other side."
~There are seven different Arab non-violent resistance groups around the West
~CFP There is even a group of Israeli soldiers and Palestinians just out of
Israeli prisons who have joined forces to publicly denounce the cycle of violence.
There are many more such organizations that reach beyond the wall. This reach,
this largesse is what helped our ancestors survive. And we might even say that
this largesse was the greatness of our very first ancestor, Abraham. Tonight,
the eve of the Jewish new year, is also the eve of the Ramadan for Moslems around
May the Spirit of Abraham our Father bless all of his children:
To break down the walls of cement and silence, to reach beyond our fear, to
return to our simple humanity, wherein lies our greatness.
Thank you for listening. Thank you for joining me in welcoming this new year
Please reprint with permission of the author.