Thursday, July 28, 2005

Israel: The Feeling, The Mood, The Reality - Part III

In the center of town, on Ben Yehuda street, there is a festival going on: a trapeze team is doing acrobatics in the air; a tightrope walker is balancing his act; two jugglers are passing knives back and forth; a magic show for children has just come to applause; and all along the “Midrachov” (main pedestrian street), the street venders, from nuts to hot dogs, vend their goods.

A mother smiles at her child; a couple dances to the jazz band playing on the stairs in front of Bank Hapoalim; a man exhales, releasing streams of content cigarette smoke; a stooped man will take your picture for five shekel; the beggars will give you a red string in return for your generosity; two mimes walk by, their faces masked white; the fireworks explode, lighting the sky in colorful rain. It is summer in Jerusalem.

Still, is this mood – is this feeling – the reality? The events of the past few weeks seem to say that it is not.

I wander over to a cotton candy stand, and ask a man how he balances this regular summer’s eve with the irregular current events. “Just because I’m having a good time doesn’t mean that I don’t know what’s going on”. What is going on? I ask this self-conscious Israeli. “Israel is about to embark on a civil war,” he replies in reference to the nation’s split on whether or not land for peace is the answer. “So”, I question, “what are you doing about it?” “Me? What should I do?”

That seems to be the question, “what should I do?” Of course, being Israeli, there are those that have it all figured out, they say the government should do this and (Prime Minister) Sharon should do that, the soldiers should disobey when ordered to pull people from their homes in Gush Katif, and the Jews in the Diaspora should make Aliya to Israel. But, when asked, “What are you going to do?” most Israelis, uncharacteristically, have nothing to say. Even the cab drivers, notorious for their opinions, are mute when confronted with this question.

Yes, there are those few that are active in their opposing of the disengagement, but the majority is not. The ironic thing is, besides for a few orange t-shirts and bracelets life in mostly anti-disengagement Jerusalem goes on with virtually no change, not unlike life in mostly pro-disengagement Tel Aviv. So, what real difference is there between those who see the backing out of Gaza as a problem and those who see it as a solution?

All the responses given seem to imitate that of the man by the cotton candy stand: they just plain and simply do not know what to do. There seems to be a lack of leadership – not only in orange Jerusalem but in blue Tel Aviv as well.

“We will take it from there”, is a woman’s response to what will be after the disengagement. But, do you think it is worth the risk, pulling out and not really knowing the consequences? “These are desperate times and they call for desperate measures”.

So, is this lack of leadership, in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the only thing they have in common?

“No”, says a person sitting near me on an Egged bus, “we are all Jews – and that is part of the problem”.

Or, maybe it’ll be the solution.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Israel: The Feeling, The Mood, The Reality - Part II

It is three thirty in the morning and I am standing outside of Jaffa Gate talking to a man in a long black coat that nicely offsets his dangling Peyot. ‘The disengagement of Gaza doesn’t bother me one way or the other; I think the Israeli government should give up the whole land to the Arabs’. But wouldn’t that endanger Jews? ‘Ok, Maybe not to the Arabs, but definitely to the UN’. So, if you do not believe in the State, what brings you to Israel? ‘I do not believe in the State of Israel, but I believe in the Land of Israel’. Then he continues, ‘when the land of Israel is controlled by the Jews, bad things happen; when gentiles control the land, we can all live in peace. Only the Messiah will allow the Jews to rule the land’.

Three Arab teenagers sitting in front of a restaurant long closed by now, have extremely similar views to that of the Satmar Hassid: ‘Israel should give back all the land they have taken from the Arabs, including parts of Jerusalem, only then can we live in peace.’ But, as history can attest, whenever land is given for peace, the bombings increase. ‘That’s because we were kicked out of our homes,’ the teenagers say, ‘give us back our homes, and we will have peace’.

Most Arabs I have spoken to, however, seem to be hesitant when Gaza is mentioned. But, no matter what they do or do not say, undercurrents of mistrust flow like the Mediterranean. I feel them looking at me as if I don’t belong there, as if I were an intruder, as if I, with my questions, were disrupting their routine.

The many tourists enjoying the Israeli summer are almost as diverse in their opinions as the Israelis themselves: an Asian man with a camera perilously dangling from his neck cannot understand the Arab point of view. An African in colors brighter than the sun cannot understand the Israeli point of view. An American girl in pigtails cannot understand one Jew fighting another. A Canadian with a maple leaf on his backpack cannot understand where G-d comes in. A South American with a bongo in hand cannot understand why we cannot just all live together. And I myself cannot understand anything.

Yet, on the other end of the spectrum, there is unity. The 17th Maccabiah games just ended, and the cobblestone streets of Jerusalem saw thousands of boys and girls from all over the globe coming together under the pretense of celebrating the prowess of the body, when, in fact, they were celebrating the prowess of the soul.

With the nation divided by opinion, these “Maccbians”, many for the first time, went down to the Western Wall, a place transcending our differences, and hundreds put on Tefilin. When binding mind and heart, we are all color – be it orange or blue – blind.

Maybe this is where the opinions end.

What’s your opinion?

Friday, July 22, 2005

Israel: The Feeling, The Mood, The Reality - Part I

Colors divide the nation: On a street corner at the entrance to Jerusalem, with the central bus station in the background, stand boys with big knitted kipot and girls with long flowing dresses: they are tying orange strips to the antennas of automobiles waiting at the red light. In front of the Izraeli Mall in Tel Aviv, young men and women hand out strips of blue. The orange represents the anti-disengagement of Gush Katif; the blue represents the pro-disengagement.

But it is not colors alone:

The square in the Jewish quarter of the old city in Jerusalem is known for its tolerance of many opinions. I’m sitting on a bench, watching young girls selling orange t-shirts; their slogan – “Jew, do not expel a Jew”. Near me sits a thirty one year old man from Los Angeles: ‘I do not really know what to make of the whole disengagement thing. I am confused’.

In Bat Ayin, a village some 20 kilometers south of Jerusalem concentrated on organically cultivating the Israeli soil, and known for its radical right wing views, there is no confusion: ‘this is the first time in our history that it is Jew versus Jew; Sharon has definitely lost his mind’. Another resident, when asked if he was going to Gush Katif, replied, ‘why go there, I should just go strait to jail’, a cynical response, highlighting the police’s thirst for arrests of anti-disengagement protesters.

A day after Gush Katif is closed off to none residents, I am hitchhiking from the Rishon Letzion junction to Jerusalem. The driver asks me, ‘so, nu you gonna go to Gush Katif? You can switch papers with one of its residents, or maybe tunnel in like the Arabs do from Egypt to Gaza.’ I’m not sure if he was serious or not.

Shabbos in Chevron is empty. Many of its residents have gone to Gush Katif. ‘It is not about Gush Katif’, a Chevroni tells me, ‘it is about the whole of Israel’. Throughout Shabbos there is scarcely another topic discussed. One man’s fourteen-year-old daughter sits in prison for protesting in Gush Katif. ‘It is a communist state’, says a resident, ‘imagine holding a fourteen-year-old girl in America for weeks – never!’

We are about to begin Maariv by the tomb of Yishai and Ruth, but an argument has broken out between a leading member of the Chevron community and a young soldier. ‘You, as a Jew,’ says the man from Chevron, ‘have the responsibility to leave the army’. ‘Would you not send your son to the army?’ asks the soldier. ‘No, I wouldn’t,’ he replies and then continues, ‘how could I send my son to send his own father from his home?’ With that we recite Baruchu.

I flip on the news, a girl in the Gush Katif area is asking a policeman, ‘how can you not let me walk the road on which my brother was killed?’ A white haired man says he hasn’t seen anything like this since the Holocaust – and then it was the Germans.

But, back in the old city, the Arab shuk is full with Israeli tourists, one bargaining for a Bedouin coffee press, another for a Nargila. Are they bargaining for the wrong thing? ‘Life must go on’ they say.

Well… will it?

Monday, July 18, 2005

From Israel With Love

Sunday, the tenth of Tammuz, Bat Ayin, The Holy Land.

It is light. Darkness may come in a few hours, but now it is light.

It is dark. Light may come in a few hours, but now it is dark.

I have spent the day in sunshine: My bare feet caressing the cultivated soil, my bare hands weeding the grapevines; my bare mind thinking nothing, my bare heart feeling everything; my bare body aching to exhaustion, my bare soul aching to G-d.

The Holy Land has spent the day in darkness: its bare feet caressing yet a few more wounded bodies, its bare hands bleeding in the grapevines; its bare mind thinking we’ve gone crazy, its bare heart broken in halves; its bare body too exhausted to ache, its bare soul aching to be recognized.

Dirt under my fingernails, dirt under my skin; sweat pouring down my back, sweat soaking my shirt. I climb over the Judean hills, a towel wrapped around my head. I reach a stream flowing through the sun-drenched stones, pooling into a two thousand year old Mikvah. I jump in: the water is freezing – so cold it warms my heart. I come out, into the sunshine, clean.

Dirt under its fingernails, dirt under its skin; sweat pouring down its back, sweat soaking its shirt. It climbs over the Judean hills, but no one has wrapped a towel around its head. It is begging to be allowed the stream, for that freezing water to shock it into reality; but no one cares. It wishes to come out, into the sunshine, clean; but we don’t give a damn.

We are having a BBQ under a fig tree, over a grapevine, hotdogs and cold beers in the setting sun. The rhythm of a helicopter’s rotators matching the rhythm of my rotating heart. The sun is falling fast: now only a half is seen, wait, now only its red expression. Now nothing, only darkness.

It is sitting, alone, waiting for its children to come home. It hasn’t even seen the sun rise so how can it see it set? But in darkness there is hope: it knows someday the sun will come up from behind the hills.

It is a time of change. Yes, now it is dark, but light may come in a few hours –

It is up to us.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Many Pieces Making One Peace

Disagreements tend to get disagreeable. Disputes have a knack of getting disputable. Arguments usually flirt with the argumentative. Quarrels, in all likelihood, will have you on your knees quarrelling. Still, we cannot resist them. Or, more accurately, we do not wish to resist them.

“Imagine all the people living in the world agree”. With all do respect to Mr. Lennon – both John and Vladimir – Imagination, chemically enhanced or otherwise, just aint gonna cut it. Agreed, we need an alternative to disagreement, but I do not think the Lennon approach is it. If it were, we would either be “Day Trippers” in the LSD sense, or living on “Animal Farm” with the pigs running the show. Now what a pigsty that would be – or, in Johns case, a pig-high – it gives a whole new meaning to “Back In The USSR”.

He did not fancy laced mushrooms, nor was he a Marxist (Carl, not the brothers), but Korach felt that, if we are all holy, why should some of us be more holy than others; if we are all “dyed blue” why should we need “fringe” benefits; if we are all full of holy books why should we need a Mezuzah on our door. A tremendous question; and by the Torah dedicating an entire segment to Korach – indeed his name titles it – it is telling us: this is no mere detail in history; it is lesson for all of eternity – a lesson of not only how we should not act but, also, of how we should act.

Where exactly did Korach go wrong? He thought that all people were High Priests: we are all G-d’s children and, therefore, not subjected to the views of Man – an extremely valid and correct observation. (One of) the underlying difference(s) between the Jewish belief and that of, say, the Christian, is that we Jews do not believe in intermediaries, we do not need a “middleman” to “enhance” our relationship with G-d. This was Korach’s legitimate claim: why should Aaron be “closer” to G-d than, say, I; why should he be a High Priest and I but a lowly Levite?

With methodology that will undoubtedly make Freud giggle in his grave, let us uncover the root of Korach’s “issues”: it was partly his parents’ fault; as well as the fault of his environment; and let us not forget the sibling rivalry.But most of all, as we shall see, it was his issue with Moses, the brother of Aaron, that really messed with his id – or shall I say, his Yid (sic):

He came from oil, whereas Aaron was only anointed by it. His lineage suggested a naturally imbedded transcendence, like oil, which mixes not with the “inferior” species; however, Aaron received the oil as an anointment, not an inheritance, and was thus not, at least in Korach’s eyes, intrinsically inclined to the High Priesthood. Couple this with Aaron’s involvement in the Golden Calf, while the Levites remained pure, and Korach seems to have a pretty bona fide argument.

He lived in a “deserted” area, a desert. Esoterically speaking, the desert, that is, the Inner Desert, is a place that knows no challenges: it represents a place above physical labor and beyond deadlines; it is a place where one eats “heavenly bread”, sleeps in “clouds of glory”, swims in a “split sea”, receives the “blueprint of life”, and, plain and simply, lives it up. Korach lived in an environment that bred complacency. It was the greatest of generations, a “generation of knowledge”; but along with greatness comes one of the greatest challenges: realizing that this greatness is a G-d given gift, nothing you’ve earned, and, therefore, if one were not to capitalize on its vast potentials, it evolutes into a conceited self-righteousness, one that causes a complacent smugness.

Korach, a descendant of Levi, was a cousin to Aaron and Moses. He sees their power – one a Leader, the other a High Priest – and says, ‘why not me’. How would you feel if one of your cousins was a Leader appointed by G-d himself, and another was the only one allowed to enter the Holy of Holies? There would definitely be some feelings of envy there – if not down right animosity.

All of the above has, no doubt, shed some light on Korach’ behavior. But the thing that really got Korach was Moses. He simply could not fathom of a person with absolute Bittul – a person who knows that every gift that he has, every talent he possesses, in fact every breath that he emits, comes solely from G-d – so Korach says, ‘why should you decide who is to be the High Priest, why should it be your brother and not me?’ He saw it as some kind of family mafia with Moses as its don. So Moses replies: ‘I too want this High Priesthood, but there is only one G-d and only one High Priest’. He continues, ‘it is G-d sending me to do all these things, it is not from my own heart’. Korach was skeptical; he just could not understand someone doing something “not from his own heart”. And all of his complaints of why we, the Chosen, are not equally holy, stemmed from his lack of trust in Moses.

But, if you notice, the Medrash quotes Moses not as denying Korach's claim, but, rather, as acknowledging and, furthermore, agreeing with it, “I too want this High Priesthood”. Why does Moses not deny Korach outright; why does he say, ‘I too wish to be a High Priest”?

Herein lie the beauty of the Torah and the extent of Moses’ Bittul: a man who opposed the very essence of Torah, Peace, was not incorrect in his intentions; he was incorrect, down right wrong, in his method. Yes, Moses is saying, personally every single human being must strive to be a High Priest, more, he must be a High Priest for himself, but as for the general High Priest, the one who enters the physical Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur to pray for all the people, there is only one. We must strive to be a High Priest, a person beyond the mundane world, but, in actuality, there is but one High Priest – and he is Aaron.

By Korach creating a rift, an argument, within the Jewish People, he was demonstrating the exact antithesis of a High Priest and the Torah: Aaron, the Kohen Gadol, was a man who exuded Peace, a High Priest cannot leave the holy city of Jerusalem, a city whose very name is made of Shalom, Peace; the Torah was only given to bring peace into this world, and anyone or anything that opposes peace, that is, true peace, opposes the Torah. By Korach it was a vicious – literally – cycle: he opposed Moses, thus disturbing the Peace, which, in return, caused him to oppose he who exuded Peace – Aaron – leading to his unavoidable opposition to that which was given to keep the Peace – the Torah – and, inevitably, it’s creator – G-d.

As the Torah is eternal, each and every one of us has this opposition to Peace within ourselves, the Inner Korach. But, we also have within ourselves the power to transcend differences, the Inner Moses. As the Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya: this thing, this power of Bittul, is very close to every person; why, because each of us has a piece of Moses, a piece of the leader of the generation within our own souls.

The Moses of our generation, the Rebbe, gives us the power to transcend any differences that the physical body inevitably creates. True, Judaism believes not in intermediaries – that is, intermediaries that create G-d in their own image – however, a Rebbe, a Moses, is what is called a Memutza Hamechaber, a Merkava, a conduit through which G-d shines, whose mouth G-d uses as a vehicle. When one strives for a state of Bittul that a Rebbe has, where there is nothing besides for G-d, then there is no place for any outside influence – in fact, there is no outside – all is G-d and G-d is all.

This is what Moses tells Korach, and what Korach failed (or chose not) to see: everything that “I” do comes not from my own heart, only, it comes from G-d.

One can – and must – strive for this Bittul, to be a Rebbe, a Moses, a Kohen Gadol, over himself, a man of Peace in the truest sense of the word; but one can only strive for this Bittul: you see, there is only one Rebbe. One exclaiming, ‘why should we all not be equally holy’, is like one exclaiming ‘why should we all not be the captain of the ship’. We all have our extraordinary job on this boat named life, but there is only one captain. We all play our unique instrument, but there is only one conductor.

May our Inner Moses, the power of Bittul, influence the “opposition”, our Inner Korach, until the whole world will resound with “Moses is True and His Torah is True”.

May there be Shalom, Peace, upon all humanity.