Sunday, September 19, 2010

Seeing the Good

There’s a true story told by Jacques Lusseyran, a member of the French Resistance during World War II who was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald. While there, he was put in Prison block 57, a building meant to hold no more than 400 men, but which housed over a thousand men, literally pressed together with no room even to lie down. It was, of course, a living nightmare—daily beatings, brutal slave labor, and no place even to sleep with decency. Even so, explains Lusseyran, there was one old man in block 57 who managed to move around—all the men instinctively gave him a tiny bit of space, in some kind of gesture of reverence. The old man’s name was Jeremy, but his nickname was ‘Socrates,’ because somehow whenever he opened his mouth, the simplest most beautiful words and stories of wisdom emerged. Unlike all the other men, who often screamed and fought and cried out in anguish, this Jeremy, this ‘Socrates’ was always peaceful. Lusseyran writes, “He observed things of the spirit with his eyes, as doctors observe microbes through their microscopes. He made no distinction.” In other words, matters of spirit were patently obvious for him. He was not a remarkable man, a simple welder from a small village in France. But there was something about his simple wisdom, “Each time he appeared, “ wrote Lusseyran, “the air became breathable.” What made Jeremy so remarkable was that he could walk about the camp, and see all the misery that everyone else beheld, and somehow Jeremy did not blink. When all the other men were stricken with horror and terror and wanted to shut their eyes, Jeremy was not afraid to see.

Lusseyran relates one teaching in particular of Jeremy’s that struck him: “For one who knows how to see,” Jeremy said, “things [here] are just as they always are.” “At first I did not understand,” wrote Lusseyran, “I even felt something quite close to indignation. What? Buchenwald like ordinary life? Impossible. All of these crazed, hideous men, the howling menace of death, these enemies everywhere, among the S.S., among the prisoners themselves, this wedge of hill pushed up against the sky, thick with smoke…the electric fences, all of this was just as usual! I remember that I could not accept this. It had to be worse…Until finally Jeremy enabled me to see…”[i]

The Torah tells us the famous story of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. God calls to Abraham and says ‘Take your son, your only son, the one whom you love, Isaac, and offer him up on one of the mountains that I will show you.’ Abraham rises early in the morning, takes his wood and knife and fire and his son on a three-day’s journey, climbs the mountain, lifts the knife, and almost sacrifices his son were it not for a heavenly voice that calls out to forbid him from harming the child. We have long wondered about the brutal betrayal that this story seems to pose to us: how could Abraham even think to heed God’s command—even if it is a test—and show any kind of willingness to slay his own child? What kind of a God, we wonder, would demand this kind of willingness as a test of faith and loyalty?

This story is truly a horrifying one. In fact, it’s there, in the Torah, to horrify us, to shake us to our core, to question our fundamental beliefs about life, about God. We’re supposed to struggle so profoundly with this story until finally we come to realize the nature of the test: it’s not Abraham alone who is tested, it is each of us who are tested! And here’s the test: like Jeremy, like those inmates at Buchenwald, can we look at our worst possible nightmare and not blink? Can we find the peace within ourselves so deeply that we are not afraid to see?...

On the first day of Rosh HaShanah, before we read the Binding of Isaac, we read the story of Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, and her son Yishma’el (Abraham’s first-born son). The story goes that when Isaac was born, Sarah demanded that Hagar and Yishmael be banished from their household. With great trepidation, and yet with God’s directive, Abraham sends Hagar away with her son in to the desert. After wandering for days in the desert, mother and child run out of water and out of hope. Hagar lays her parched child down to die, and she goes off and weeps in utter despair. But then, a heavenly voice calls out to Hagar, “Mah Lach Hagar?” “What’s with you Hagar?” God has heard the cry of the child. Lift him, for he will be a great nation. And God ‘unclosed [Hagar’s] eyes’ and behold there was a well right there, and she hadn’t even noticed it before! Isn’t that amazing? She was so despairing, she didn’t even notice, as she placed her child down to die of thirst, that a well was right there in front of them! Despair closed her eyes. Despair can do that to all of us—it can close our eyes and utterly blind us to the life-giving waters that we need.

It was with this insight in mind, that Rashi and the Bekhor Shor, two great medieval commentators, pointed out something brilliant in that story of the Binding of Isaac. If you look carefully at the Hebrew of God’s command to Abraham about his son, it says “v’Ha’aleyhu Le’olah,” which literally means, “bring him up there for an elevating.” In other words, God never literally says ‘slaughter him,’ God just says ‘bring him up for the offering.’ But the expression was vague enough to be totally unclear to Abraham. Trapped in the uncertainty of God’s command, he sets out with his son and the accoutrements for the unthinkable—for child sacrifice—but look what Abraham says to Isaac when Isaac innocently asks him, “Father, I see the fire and the wood, but where is the ram for the offering?’ Abraham says “Elokim Yir’eh lo haSeh le’olah, bni.” “God will show us the ram for the offering, my son.” In other words, ‘we will see a ram, my son, mark my words.’ Abraham knew all along that God would not kill his child. Unlike Hagar, who closed her eyes in despair, Abraham never closed his eyes. He never blinked. As much as it looked like the unthinkable, the death of his child, was becoming imminent, Abraham was not afraid to see

Reb Meir was a Hasid of Reb Mordechai of Lechovitch. He was also the occasional business partner of Reb Gershon, who was a devout Misnaged—he hated the Hasidim and their radical teachings. Reb Meir was always inviting his misnaged friend to join him on his many visits to his rebbe, but Reb Gershon’s hatred of Hasidism was so strong that he could never consent to visiting his partners rebbe. Not wishing to hurt the feelings of his friend, he would find many reasons to explain why travel to Lechovitch was out of the question. It once happened, however, that separate business matters brought both men to Lechovitch on the same day. Discovering that his friend would be in town at the same time as himself, Reb Meir once again invited Reb Gershon to visit his rebbe. Seeing no way out that would not be offensive to Reb Meir, Reb Gershon agreed.

When the two men arrived at Reb Mordechai’s house, they were ushered into the rebbe’s dining room, where he was just beginning to eat his dinner. Reb Meir urged his friend to speak to the rebbe, to ask a question, to say something, but Reb Gershon—the cranky Hasid-hater-- was suddenly in a state of pure ecstasy, and he couldn’t even speak as he stared at the rebbe. After a few minutes, they left the rebbe’s house. Reb Meir said to his friend, “What just happened to you in there?” Reb Gershon said, “I saw the rebbe eating with the holiness of the Kohen Gadol [the ancient High Priest of all Israel]!” Shocked, Reb Meir turned from his friend and ran back into the house to his rebbe. When he arrived he said, “Rebbe, here I come to see you as often as I can, and never have I seen the way you serve the Holy One, Blessed Be He. And yet my misnaged friend comes for a minute, under duress, and he sees the miracle of your eating. Is this fair?”

The rebbe said, “It is not about fairness, my friend. Your friend is a misnaged; he has to see the Truth with his own eyes. You, on the other hand, are a Hasid; you have to trust even what you cannot see with your eyes.”

I bring all these stories today: the story of Jeremy in Buchenwald, the story of the Binding of Isaac, the story of Hagar, the story of Reb Meir—because they all have one thing in common: they’re all about seeing. They’re about what we see, and what we cannot see. They’re all about trusting, and not being afraid—that even when we can’t see it, this world, this Reality of ours, as nightmarish as it appears, is ultimately good. Some of us, sometimes like Reb Gershon the misnaged, can see that good directly. Most of us are like Hagar, and we despair of ever ultimately seeing the good. But Reb Meir, and each of us, is called upon to see with Jeremy’s eyes, and with Abraham’s eyes—to see beyond the nightmare.

Two psychologists named Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons recently wrote a book called “The Invisible Gorilla.” In it, they describe numerous experiments that seem to prove that the way we perceive reality is not as absolute as we think it is. The most amusing experiment involved asking subjects to view a short film where a group of people are passing basketballs back and forth between each other. The subjects’ assignment is simply to count the number of basketball passes and report what they counted. At the end of the experiment, they are asked, ‘Did you notice anything unusual while watching the film?’ Fifty percent of the subjects said no. That’s pretty amazing because if you watch the film again, right as the people are passing the basketball around, someone in a gorilla suit ambles right into the middle of the room. The gorilla pounds its chest a couple of times, and then slowly ambles out of the room. The fifty percent who didn’t see the gorilla were usually incredulous. And yet, they just missed it because they didn’t expect to see it. Our minds often don’t see at all what we don’t expect to see. Fifty percent of the time, any of us are like Hagar. We’re blinded by expectations, by our fears, by our despair itself.

But what’s amazing is that Abraham while was walking up that mountainside with his son, he, too, couldn’t see—visually—any sign of hope yet for his son. And yet, there was something in him that kept his eyes open in search of that ram. Something in him, as Reb Mordechai showed us, trusted even what you or I might not see with the naked eye…

Back to the story of Jeremy in Buchenwald: our author, Jacques Lusseyran, could not imagine why Jeremy would say “For one who knows how to see, things [here in Buchenwald] are just as they always are,” until finally Jeremy enabled Jacques to see. Lusseyran writes, “It was not a revelation, a flashing discovery of the truth. I don’t think there was even an exchange of words. But one day it became obvious, palpable to me in the flesh that Jeremy the welder had lent me his eyes…With those eyes, I saw that Buchenwald was not unique, not even privileged to be one of the places of greatest human suffering. I also saw that our camp was not in Germany, as we thought…in this precise place and no other. Jeremy taught me, with his eyes, that Buchenwald was in each one of us, baked and rebaked, tended incessantly, nurtured in a horrible way. And that, consequently we could vanquish it, if we desired to with enough force. Jeremy had always seen people living in fear…It was always, it was here [too], the same spectacle. Simply, the conditions [here in the camp] had been completely fulfilled…a masterpiece, a perfect sickness and misery: a concentration camp.”

What indeed did Jacques Lusseyran see when he looked at Buchenwald with Jeremy’s eyes? Yes, he saw Buchenwald. He saw the starvation, the suffering, the brutality, the death everywhere. He saw the same nightmare that everyone else could see. But he could also see something that only a very few—Jeremy, Abraham, Moses, King David, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luthor King Jr.—could see. He could see that the nightmare of Buchenwald, or the nightmare of Abraham’s world of child sacrifice, was not the final nightmare of this world that God has created. Lusseyran looked at Buchenwald and saw that it was not just one particular place. He saw that there are people—the Hagars of the world—who create and recreate Buchenwald everywhere they go. Everywhere they see enemies closing in, they have eyes only for the darkness, for the suffering, for the reasons not to trust. And even though God is giving us wells flowing with life-giving water everywhere, in every moment, we’re blind to them. We can’t even see the gorilla in the room because we have so conditioned ourselves never to expect to see beyond our own projected nightmares and despairing beliefs about the world, about life, about God.

It seems so difficult to believe or even hold onto this message of hope—that this world of ours is indeed good. No matter how we read it, the story of the Binding of Isaac disturbs us to our core, as does every aspect of the Holocaust; as does every story of misery we tell ourselves. The story of Jeremy ends simply and tragically. One day, Jeremy came to Lusseyran and told him that this would be the last time they would see each other. That was it. Several days passed, and someone told Lusseyran that Jeremy had died there in the camp, in Buchenwald. That’s what it was like in the camps. People died every day. That’s how it is for us here in our world too. Is this a reason to despair, to close our eyes to this world? Certainly not. For Lusseyran, Jeremy showed him a profound vision of the Truth: “the discovery that God is there, in each person, to the same degree, completely in each moment, and that a return can be made to Him.”

Jeremy and Abraham and Reb Mordechai, and all the great spiritual teachers of the world share with us this message that each of our souls thirst for like those life-giving waters that saved Yishmael: that the nature of this world—in each and every moment—is so vastly more amazing and beautiful and extraordinary than anything that our little eyes can see. Our minds are structured only to see, to perceive, that which we have been conditioned to perceive. For most of us, that conditioning is all about fear and mistrust. But look deeper! Right now, there are countless blessings that are keeping you alive, sustaining you, bringing you from moment to moment! Yes, there are enemies and threats and problems and injustices that we must work against in this world, but keep looking more deeply. In this moment, this life of ours, is nothing but miracles unfolding for us. If you don’t see what I’m talking about, keep your eyes and your heart open, keep looking till you find the miracles that are all about you, all within you, within each of us.

We must never shut our eyes. We must never be afraid to look. What’s really there is, believe it or not, is kind. What’s really there is the potential for justice. What’s always really there is the potential for infinite goodness. What’s really there, beyond what we see merely with our eyes—is God! When that Divine voice called to Abraham to put down his knife, he lifted up his eyes, and behold, there was a ram with its horn stuck in the thicket. Abraham had told his son the Truth. He had trusted the goodness that even his eyes could not yet see—God would really provide a ram to be seen! When Abraham left that fateful spot there on the time of Mount Moriah, he named the place after his experience: ‘Adonai Yir’eh,’ which literally means: God will appear. God will be seen. May we all learn this, the deepest wisdom of this story, of our tradition. It is the light that we, the Jewish people, must bring to the nations of the world itself: that despite all apparent proof to the contrary, we must always look. We must always see. We must never give up—even when there is violence, betrayal, and death. We must keep our eyes open and never despair, for indeed, Adonai Yir’eh—God will be seen. The goodness, the kindness is really there, even more deeply and truly than the apparent nightmare that we may behold. That goodness is always right here. Right now. In this year, may each of us truly look and behold this Truth, and may we, like Abraham, be a blessing to the world.



[i] Jacques Lusseyran, “Le Monde Commence Aujour-d’hui,” translated by Noelle Oxenhandler . Appearing in Parabola Volume XI, No. 2., p. 25.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sacred Pluralism

There is a Hasidic story told of a great master named Reb Zusya, who lived two centuries ago. Once Rabbi Zusya came to an inn, and when he saw the innkeeper, he looked right into the innkeeper’s soul and saw long years of sin. For a while Zusya neither spoke nor moved as he sensed all the terrible things that this innkeeper had done in his life. But when he was alone in his room which had been assigned to him, the shudder of vicarious experience overcame Zusya in the midst of singing psalms and Zusya cried aloud: “Zusya, Zusya, you wicked man! What have you done! There is no lie that failed to tempt you, and no crime you have not committed. Zusya, foolish, erring man , what will be the end of this?’ Then he enumerated the sins of the innkeeper, giving the time and place of each, as his own, and sobbed. The innkeeper had quietly followed this strange man. He stood at the door and heard him. First he was seized with dull dismay, but then penitence and grace were lit within him, and the innkeeper woke to God.

It’s quite a story. There’s a lot to unpack here. Zusya is typically a larger than life figure who reveals astonishing truths through his outrageously selfless behaviors. In this instance, he sees all the innkeepers sins and depravities as his own. He becomes the ultimate exemplar of the famous commandment ‘Ve’Ahavta Lere’echa Kamocha,’ You shall love your neighbor as yourself—literally, as yourself in this instance. Why would he do this? It’s not that he was pretending. Zusya was so lofty in his connection to Heaven that he couldn’t help but see the innkeeper’s heart as his own. No matter how depraved the sins of that innkeeper, Zusya looked into his soul and found only himself.

Reb Yaakov Yitzhak of P’zhysha, also known as the Yehudi, “The Jew,” was another master rebbe of the late eighteenth century. He taught the following: “Everything can be tested in some particular way to discover whether it is any good. And what is the test for the man of Israel? It is Ahavat Yisrael—the Love of the People Israel. When he sees the love of Israel growing in his soul day after day, he knows that he is ascending in the service of God.”[1] In other words, the Yehudi wants us to know that each of us, the Jewish people, are tested by God in this life. And the test is this: can we love our Jewish people, even as they disagree with us? Can we love them even as they live their lives in a way that is totally anathema to what we believe is right? The Yehudi teaches that until we can do this, we are not passing the test! To love the Jewish people is to live with an attitude so courageously open-hearted, so tolerant of other perspectives that, like the ancient sage Hillel, we are willing to teach our students the view of our opponents even before we teach our own positions. To pass this test, we must live, as our highest value, the dictum, “Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh baZeh,” “All Israel, all Jewish people are responsible, interconnected with one another.”

In May of this year, a young Israeli woman named Noa Raz was attacked by an ultra-Orthodox man at a bus stop. Noa is a Conservative Jew. That morning, while davening, or praying at home, Noa donned her Tefilin, her leather phylacteries, and the straps made a tell-tale mark on her arm. The Orthodox man questioned if she had indeed donned the tefilin. At first, she tried to evade his question. When he pressed her, she answered ‘yes.’ Immediately, he physically attacked her, kicking her and screaming words like ‘women are an abomination,’ and ‘desecration.’ Thank God, Noa escaped without any physical harm. Later, she commented on the experience: This is not a story about a man attacking someone at a bus station,” she said. “It’s not even a story about violence against women. It’s a story about religious violence…. The problem does not only lie with that man, the attacker. It lies with those who educated him, with his leaders who shamelessly and violently talk out against any religious practice that is not Haredi [ultra-Orthodox]…”

Indeed, Noa Raz is not mistaken. Somehow in that ultra-Orthodox man’s background and education, the wisdom of Reb Zusya and the Yehudi, the wisdom of Ahavat Yisrael, of all Jews interconnected with one another, has failed to penetrate a wall of anger and fear and even violence. By now, most of us have seen the constant attacks on the Women of the Wall, the group of women who seek only to daven at the Western Wall in the way that they wish—as egalitarian-minded women who wear kipot and tallitot. Perhaps we have seen the images of the Orthodox Jewish men hurling chairs over the divider at the women; or we have read how Anat Hoffman, a leader of the Women of the Wall, was arrested by Israeli police for simply carrying a sefer Torah from the Wall to the official “Conservative” section of the wall at Robinson’s Arch. And it’s not just about women. This summer, legislation was put forward in the Knesset that would place all authority for conversion anywhere in the world solely in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox, effectively disqualifying and nullifying the validity of any stream of Judaism that is not ultra-Orthodox. What is happening in Israel? Where is Zusya’s wisdom of seeing every Jew as ourselves?

These experiences of such frustrating and disappointing news are just another in a series of such reports that lays bare a profoundly disturbing reality: that Jews in Israel, and around the world, are growing apart: Jews attacking other Jews because of religious beliefs; Jews rejecting other Jews because of their lifestyles, or because they are intermarried; Jews attacking other Jews over political squabbles about Israel, or issues here at home. And saddest of all: Jews giving up on their own people and heritage and Jewish future, because they have simply had it with bitter squabbling, corruption, judgment, and nasty politics – yet we are all Am Yisrael, and like it or not, we are aravim zeh bazeh, our souls are interconnected with one another.

The Talmud (Yoma 9b) famously asks about why God destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 of the Common Era. “Why was the Second Temple destroyed? …Because during the time it stood, ‘sinat chinam,’--baseless hatred--prevailed. This is to teach you that sinat chinam-baseless hatred is deemed as grave as all three [greatest] sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed, combined!” If we look deeply into the current reality of the Jewish people in Israel and at home, it would seem that the greatest sin of all, hatred: Jew-against-Jew, the sin that brings on the destruction of the Jewish people itself—is rearing its head once again.

Of course, we Jews have always argued with each other. It’s probably what we do best. Ask two Jews a question, get three opinions! Argument, disagreement, makes us who we are. The Mishnah radically claims, however, that it is how we argue that can be the very salvation of the Jewish people and the world. Argue LeShem Shamayim, ‘for the sake of Heaven,’ says the Mishnah, and we become a Light to the Nations. Argue and attack one another for petty rivalries and power-grabs and hatreds, and our greatest blessing, our capacity to embrace disagreement, can become our very downfall: our Light turns to darkness. To be a Jew is a great test: can we lift up one light, one heart, one Torah--through multiple voices and multiple experiences?

Here’s another way to explain the test: to be a Jew means my ability to say this: See that Jew throwing a chair at another Jew? Yes, it’s disgusting. Not only because it’s an act of violence. It’s disgusting also because he’s throwing that chair at me! But it goes even deeper than that: That man throwing that chair is also a Jew! He’s connected to me, a part of me! In what ways am I responsible for his throwing that chair? And even deeper: In what ways do I attack, and do my own version of throwing chairs at other Jews, or at any other human beings? That woman victim of violent intolerance--her heart is my heart. But much more disturbingly, that chair-thrower, his heart too is my heart! This is Ahavat Yisrael, the love of the Jewish people! Think you can do that so easily? Can we indeed see each other through the eyes that Zusya saw the innkeeper? To be a Jew is, indeed, a radical test!

But we must also remember that this radical spiritual test is ultimately the root of the great radical experiment of democracy itself. It is the spiritual core of what makes pluralism not just a useful value, but a sacred value—a profoundly ancient and Jewish value! The claim of Judaism is that when the Jews master the art of Ahavat Yisrael with one another, then they can be a Light to the Nations of the world, for how to practice Ahavat Olam, pluralist love of all peoples of the world. It is the essential teaching that no one among our people deserves to be abandoned. No matter what they believe, no matter how they choose to live their lives. To be a Jew means that we see all our people as our family.

But our times are complex. Family doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Ultra-Orthodox Jews see women davening with tefilin and carrying the Torah, and praying right beside men, and they see in this the dissolution of everything they believe “the family” stands for. Over here, we can clearly see the error of the ultra-Orthodox view: these women and egalitarian men—people just like you and me--we are renewing and growing together with Judaism, as we find wonderful ways to make the tradition speak the language of a new world! If anything, we are saving the Jewish people! But many of our ultra-Orthodox brothers and sisters can only see us through the eyes of fear! And guess what: as soon as we look at our own people through the eyes of fear instead of love, we are failing that tricky test!

What is true in Israel is equally true for us here in America. During these difficult times for our community here, we must ask ourselves a tough question: are we really practicing Ahavat Yisrael here? Are we seeing our fellow Jews with whom we disagree with eyes of love or eyes of fear as well? Are we willing to strive for empathy even with those who disagree with us about intermarriage, Israeli politics, homosexuality, the role of women? Perhaps we feel the urge to metaphorically throw chairs at our own people because we fear that if their opinions are received by the world, this will be a betrayal of “the family?” If indeed, our aim is to silence dissent and an honest voicing of opinion within our own community on any of these issues, then we too are failing the test of Ahavat Yisrael. We’re failing because we are looking at our own people not through the eyes of love, but through the eyes of fear. If, indeed, we want to see an end to the intolerance we despise in Israel, then we had better begin by ridding ourselves of our intolerance within our own hearts and minds as well!

Intolerance is so insidious because it begins in such subtle ways. It begins when we surround ourselves only with people with whom we agree—on anything: politics or religion or culture. It begins with all the little condescending and judgmental remarks we make with a smile on our face with our friends at dinner parties and at the office—about those ‘idiots’ on the other side of the political spectrum, or those ‘maniacs’ with their barbaric or insane views on religion. Have you ever done that? And because we have the smiles and approval of those around us, we feel empowered to reject and disapprove of them even more. And some of us will go so far as to dehumanize ‘them,’ and deem them worthy of abandonment and even violence. This familiar scenario is sad enough when it occurs among any groups of humanity. It is beyond tragic as it rears its head more and more among and within Bnai Yisrael, the Jewish people! There’s only one way to break the chain of intolerance and fear among the Jewish people and in the world, and it begins with each of us.

There’s a Hasidic story told of a reb Mottel of Kalshin, a businessman who spoke fluent Polish , who was asked to go before an anti-Semitic Polish government official and to ask him to repeal a law that was threatening the Jews of Poland. Reb Mottel was terrified. He thought it was certain death to ask such a thing of this anti-Semitic Polish official. Reb Mottel’s Rebbe, Reb Yitzhak of Vorki summoned Mottel and told him a story: “When Moses went to Pharaoh to demand that he free the slaves,” the rebbe said, “do you think Moses was unafraid?” “No,” Reb Mottel said. “Of course he was afraid, how could he not be?” “Exactly,” the rebbe said. “He was afraid that Pharaoh would kill him. It was for this reason that, in the Torah, God says ‘Bo El Par’o,’ ‘Come to Pharaoh.’ It says ‘come’ and not ‘go’ to Pharaoh. Why? Because what God meant to say was ‘Come with me to Pharaoh: I, God, will always come with you when you plead the cause of your people. Reb Mottel lost his fear with this story. He went before the Polish official, and the evil decree was repealed.[2]

The message of this story is not that God will magically be with the Jewish people and prevent despots ever from hurting us. The point is that when we shift our perspective from ‘going’ to our adversary, to ‘coming to’ our adversary—when we let go of our fear inside ourselves—then, and only then, is all Redemption of the Jewish people, and the world, possible! The great test that we are all being called to in this New Year is: can we ‘come to’ all of our people no matter what they say, or who they are, or what choices they have made? Can we strive to see how all those with different perspectives on God, on Judaism, on Israel, on politics, are all ‘coming with God,’ no matter how much they challenge us? Can we find the strength inside to understand that even those Jewish people who live differently than we, and who are proud to speak out and argue for their beliefs are, in fact, arguing LeShem Shamayim—for the sake of Heaven, for the Love of God, or for the Love of the people Israel—can we ‘come to them’ even if we fear that their position is a foolish one? Of course, there are limits to our pluralism as well--Jews who try to convert Jews to other religions, or Jews who give money directly to anit-Israel terrorist organizations, such Jews are not working toward a future of the Jewish people. But short of these extremes, all other Jews deserve our love, support, and commitment. On this day, if we want a future for our children and their children as Jews, we must be willing to make the effort to come together. The Jewish people of the State of Israel have to figure out how to make this work. And we can help them do it—right here in this synagogue. You see here in America, a synagogue like this one is the only place where Jews of all walks and stripes can come together, despite differences, and call themselves ONE community! Adas Israel is one of the few congregations in the world where pluralism is lived. We can see this in our multiple services of different styles every Shabbat. Right here, every week, every day, we practice a kind of multi-faceted Jewish life that can be an inspiration to Jews everywhere. A synagogue like ours is not just a place of prayer and life-cycle celebrations. It’s a place of Jewish people coming together to do nothing less than change the world—by facing even those who are different from us within our own people, and eventually inspire other people—beyond the Jewish community--to live by the same pluralism.

This is why, in the coming year, you will see new kinds of experiences at Adas Israel. You will see special “Three Pillar conference weekends” where the whole community is invited, with all our different perspectives and backgrounds, to study together, to join together to effect Tikkun Olam, or Social Justice, and also to explore and strengthen, our connection to Israel, as well as our potential to take action for Israel’s sake, together as one community, with many faces. We will sometimes disagree, but we will really hear one another, and speak not from fear, but from love of our people. When our purpose is grounded in Sacred Pluralism, then we can teach each other, the Jews of Israel, and the whole world what it means to come together celebrating difference rather than trying to erase difference.

In this year, 5771, may we take this leap of faith, this leap of courage, this leap of trust and of love for the sake of our People of Israel. May we pass this great test of our people, overcome sinat chinam, baseless hatred, and seek to heal the fractures and rifts that have been tearing us apart. May we stand together to combat intolerance and injustice in the land of Israel—and may we accomplish this not through fear or hatred, but through Ahavat Yisrael—through our deepest knowledge that their destiny is our destiny. May we overcome our fear of one another here at home, so that we may shine as a Light to our brothers and sisters in Israel. And together, may all of us, the people of Israel, finally serve as a Light to the Nations.



[1] Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, vol. 2 p. 232.

[2] Adapted from Rami Shapiro, Hasidic Tales, p. 51-53.