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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Celebrating Israel

In America, for too many people Memorial Day has become the day after which it is again permissible to wear white shoes. Such a blasé attitude is impossible in Israel. Memorial Day here is a day on which nearly every Jewish citizen remembers and mourns someone they have lost. A father, a son, a neighbor, a friend: Israel has known too many wars in her young life, and no one is untouched.

A siren sounded at 8PM on Sunday night, and again at 10AM on Monday, and for their duration the country was silent. Cars pulled over to the side of the road, some mid-intersection or mid-turn, and the drivers stepped out and stood quietly . The siren sounded a solid blast, like a tekiah of the shofar, the all-clear sign during a war. The same sirens, played in broken bursts like a shevarim, are the alarm signals that mean run for your life. Every house and apartment in Israel is equipped with a bomb-shelter, usually doubling as a bedroom.  At 8PM last night I was sitting in the dark of my daughter's bedroom as she fell asleep, and, because I was also in Israel during the Gulf War, it was easy for me to imagine that eerie wail as broken bursts, announcing an unknown terror rushing toward us in the form of a missile in the night sky.

It is characteristically Jewish to catapult from solemnity to utter, joyous release. Ta'anit Esther, a day of fasting, is followed immediately by Purim, the silliest day of the year. Yom Kippur, the day we throw ourselves onto the mercy of heaven, is followed quickly by Sukkot, a holiday of such happiness it is often referred to simply as חג, "holiday". And Israel's Memorial Day ends on the evening that Yom Ha'atzmaut -- Independence Day -- begins.

As Debbie Friedman wrote in the lyrics to Miriam's Song, "We just lived through a miracle, we're going to dance tonight." For two thousand years, we prayed for this miracle. Every Jewish prayer service since the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE centered on our pleas to God, to free us from our oppressors and return us to Jerusalem. ותחזינה עינינו בשובך לציון "May our eyes see Your return to Zion." Yom Ha'atzmaut is and should be a day of fireworks and barbecues, but also Hallel. Because I do believe history progresses, I am confident future generations of Jews will look back on this time as a period of miracles.

I cannot dance on a blog, but here is my virtual dance, a giddy tribute to this day -- a list of biblical, rabbinic and kabbalistic references that are sewn into the daily life of Jerusalem today:

מפני שיבה תקום On public buses, instead of a clunkily worded notice that passengers should vacate these seats for the elderly and persons with disabilities, three simple words from a biblical verse are posted at the front of the bus: "מפני שיבה תקום Rise before old age." (Leviticus 19:32)

אין סוף אפשרויות Outside the Jerusalem Theatre, a large banner proclaims "Infinite possibilities", where the term infinite is a kabbalistic reference to God as containing the entire universe.

השבת אבידה Lamp-posts, fences, trees throughout Jerusalem are decorated with hand-printed signs proclaiming an item lost or found, using the Talmudic term for a commandment to return lost items, originating in the bible but much elaborated on in rabbinic sources.

פריקה וטעינה בלבד "Loading and Unloading Only" This standard street sign recalls the Talmudic language discussing the biblical commandment to assist another person's donkey that has stumbled under its burden.

הנה אנכי שלח מלאך לפניך לשמרך בדרך Behold I am sending an angel before you, to protect you on the way (Exodus 23:20) God's words to Israel, as they set off on their journey through the desert to the promised land, now drive around Jerusalem on the front grille of a delivery truck.

And finally, my favorite:
וַיַּרְא אֶת־הַמָּקוֹם מֵרָחֹק "And he saw the place from a distance," (Genesis 22:4) These words describe Abraham, as he approached the place where he was to sacrifice Isaac. The ancient rabbis identified that place as the future Temple mount in Jerusalem. Our friends Dave and Toby Curwin own an apartment in Efrat, twenty minutes outside Jerusalem, and from their living room porch they can see, at the end of a series of brown desert hills, the green hills and buildings of Jerusalem. וַיַּרְא אֶת־הַמָּקוֹם מֵרָחֹק they posted above their porch door.

This is the first in a series of comments about the political situation in Israel.  To read the next comment in the series, click here.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Have We Progressed?

Two posts back, I shared my understanding of a talk by Reb Shmuel Lewis.  The Torah insists that human morality can and must progress; that history is not cyclic but rather linear or teleological.  We are heading towards a better world.  The example Reb Shmuel gave was slavery, which was once accepted as an inescapable part of reality and is now abhorrent to all of us.

My post triggered complex reactions from many of you.  No one left a comment on my blog site, but, as is always the case, I received many comments by email and Facebook, and each one made me think again.

I don't know any slave owners personally.  But I am certain that my wardrobe includes clothing and my kitchen cabinets include foods that were produced in part by the hands of slaves.  In the year 2000, a report by the US State Department noted that 15,000 children aged 9 to 12 had been sold into forced labor on cotton, coffee, and cocoa plantations on the Ivory Coast alone.  And where is all that cotton, coffee and cocoa heading?  You guessed it -- our wardrobes and kitchen cabinets.   The Slave Free Chocolate coalition estimates that cocoa production worldwide uses 100,000 child slaves.

On the other hand, in 2008 the UK's Fair Trade Foundation announced a total of 4.12 billion dollars of fair trade sales worldwide, and the fair trade movement is slow but growing in the US and Canada.  Many chocolate companies in particular make a point of selling only products that do not rely on exploitation (at least, not severe exploitation.)

So now I am posing it as an open question, on the evening after Holocaust Memorial Day.  In the past millennium, humanity has made astonishing progress in science and technology, but have we made any progress in matters of the heart?

Please tell me what you think.  If you are unable to leave a comment here on the blog site (many people have told me they've tried to leave comments, but their efforts were lost when they clicked "post"), send me an email at ilana@post.harvard.edu, and give me permission to copy your email into an anonymous comment on my site.  Let's get a conversation going.