Divre Harav – May/17

I’m taking a break this month from my stroll through Pirke Avot (chapter 2) to report on my trip to Washington, DC to attend my first AIPAC policy conference this past March. AIPAC is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Every year, AIPAC supporters gather in DC for three days of sessions featuring speakers on various issues of Israel, such as technology, security, medicine, manufacturing, business, and entertainment. Speakers also include the political leadership of the United States and Israel, although this year we also heard from former leaders in Canada and the United Kingdom as well. AIPAC is a bipartisan organization, whose goal is to develop relationships with each of the 535 members of Congress as well as the Executive branch of the government, regardless of political affiliation.

It was an extraordinary experience to sit in the Verizon Center with 18,000 Jewish and Christian supporters of Israel, young and old and hear from the Democratic and the Republican leadership of both the House and the Senate, as well as the Vice President. I heard from Policy Conference veterans that 10 years ago the conference drew 4000 attendees. This year, there were over 4000 high school and college students alone! Eight years ago, there were 40 people at the lunch for rabbis and cantors; this year, I sat in a room with 900 people.

AIPAC is a phenomenal organization with a very clear mission: To strengthen the US-Israel bond. We learned how foreign aid to Israel supports US manufacturing. We learned how the Israeli defense program makes both Israel and the United States more secure. We learned how Israeli water technology is benefiting the region surrounding Israel and has been an important tool in addressing drought in California. We heard global experts addressing paths and obstacles to Middle East security. And much more.

The final day of the conference is a lobbying day. Many of the participants get on buses to Capitol Hill to meet with their Senators and Representatives. Each year, AIPAC prepares bipartisan materials to focus on a specific legislative agenda to support Israel. This year, we were asked to talk about three issues:

  • • A bill to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities, such as ballistic missile development, strengthening American sanctions against those who support such activities.
  • • A bill to expand existing U.S. anti-boycott laws to international organizations like the United Nations and the European Union which participate in organized anti-Israel boycotts.
  • • Robust foreign aid, which ensures America’s strong world leadership role, and security assistance and cooperative missile defense programs with Israel.

For more information on AIPAC’s legislative agenda, see http://www.policyconference.org/article/Resources.asp. And for a shining example of a powerful address, see this 17 minute video of the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, talking about how she is addressing the UN’s anti-Israel bias – http://video.policyconference.org/watch/toWdJqgHqFigsvr2m1PAE3.


Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Artzot Habrit (abbreviated in Hebrew, aleph-heh-bet) – United States (literally, “lands of the covenant” or perhaps “States of the Constitution”).
  • Umot Ha-me’uhedet (abbreviated in Hebrew, aleph-heh-mem) – United Nations
  • Nasi – President
  • Rosh Memshallah – Prime Minister (literally, “head of government”)
  • Haver Kenesset – Member of Parliament
  • Haver Congress – Member of Congress

Psalm 50

“From Zion, the perfection of beauty, God appeared.” (50:2)

Scripture tells us that from Zion comes Torah (Isaiah 2:3, Micah 4:2), blessing (Psalms 128:5, 134:3, 135:21) and salvation (Psalms 14:7, 53:7). None of these verses mention that what comes from Zion is connected to its beauty, a word associated with physical appearance. Surely God does not manifest only in vessels of beauty. Every human being is created in the image of God whether or not a given individual conforms to societal norms of beauty. Just as every person has a quality of beauty because he or she is the image of God, so too Zion is beautiful because it is a place which radiates God.

Psalm 137

 

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour. (137:5-6)

I love Jerusalem because it is the center of the Jewish world. I love Jerusalem even though the religious perspective of many Jerusalemites is anathema to my world view. I love Jerusalem because that is where I was introduced to the power of Torah. I love Jerusalem even though to many of its residents I am a complete puzzle whose religion bears little resemblance to Judaism. I love Jerusalem because it is a thoroughly Israeli city built on top of 3000 years of Jewish history. I love Jerusalem because it is also a city built on top of 2000 years of Christian history and 1400 years of Moslem history.

Jerusalem is religiously complicated, historically rich, at once ancient, medieval, and modern. I love Jerusalem both for what it represents and what it is – Judaism deeply rooted in Torah and a diversity of Jewish practice unimagined by ancient Israel. In a perfect world, Jerusalem would be the center of all religious practice. All people, of all faiths, would make pilgrimage there to offer of themselves to God. In a not-yet-redeemed world, the “city of gold” is a place of great joy and also a symbol of an imperfection and brokenness.

In the Bible, the right hand symbolizes strength. In Kabbalah, the right side symbolizes love. Without Jerusalem in my life, I would be weakened and my love of God and Torah would be less developed.

Psalm 129

Let all who hate Zion fall back in shame. (129:5)

For most of Jewish history, love of Zion has united Jews. Zion represented the dream of a world in which Jews would regain their historic place and live in security in a perfect Garden of Eden society according to the values and practices of Torah. Dreams do come true, but there is a wide gap between the perfection of a dream and the realpolitik of reality.

Zionism is the movement to make the dream a reality. The modern state of Israel is our embodiment of the historic values of the love of Zion, the result of nearly 2000 years of prayers and 50-plus years of political activism. For the entire history of post-Temple Judaism, Jews have held Zion, the mount on which the Temple stood, as a place of pilgrimage. Life in Jerusalem and in other cities in which Jews lived, such as Hebron, Tiberius and Safed, was difficult. Nonetheless, small communities of Jews embraced life in and around Zion as a religious obligation and privilege.

There is room for disagreement about how successful the modern state of Israel has been in living up to the challenge of creating a state embodying Zionism, democracy, Jewish values, and security. There is no doubt that they have fallen short in some area, even as they have succeeded wildly in other areas. Who would have dreamed that the “ingathering of exiles” would have taken so many Jews from so many different part of the world and melded them into such a innovative powerhouse in such a relatively brief period of time?

It saddens me that there are still people in the world and in the Jewish community who believe that the world, Jewish and otherwise, would be better off today without a State of Israel. Let those who want to improve Israel stand up and let their voices be heard. Let those who want to dismantle and destroy the State be ashamed.

Psalm 126

January 11, 2016

 

When Adonai restores the fortunes of Zion, we are as dreamers. (126:1)

To be a Jew is to be an optimist and a dreamer. We don’t say “if God gives Zion back to us,” we say “when.” For nearly 2000 years of exile during which there was a Jewish presence but no Jewish control over Jerusalem, we introduced Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals, with this Psalm on Shabbat. Our optimism asserts that our loss of sovereignty was only a temporary setback that could be corrected at any time. The Sabbath in Jewish tradition is celebrated as taste of the world to come, a day on which we experience the beauty and peace of messianic era. Shabbat embodied the optimism of the Jew. No matter how much time has gone by, no matter how much evil or hatred we experience in the world, Shabbat takes us back to the perfection of the garden of Eden.

In order to improve yourself to the greatest extent possible, you must have goals that are slightly beyond your reach. If your goal is to lose five pounds and you succeed and stop trying to lose weight, you miss the opportunity to lose ten pounds. If your goal is to increase your strength and endurance by taking a 50 mile bike ride, you might stop at that point and lose the opportunity to ride 60 miles. If your goal is to increase sales by 10%, you might lessen your efforts when you reach that mark and miss the opportunity to increase by 25%.

Optimism teaches us to celebrate our accomplishments even if we haven’t reached our goals. After setting the mark higher than you expect and losing only nine pounds instead of ten pounds; riding only 58 instead of 60 miles; or increasing sales only 20 instead of 25%, you can then notice with pride in accomplishment that you lost nine pounds instead of five pounds; rode 58 instead of 50 miles; and increased by 20% rather than 10%.

To be a Jew means to be an optimist and a dreamer.