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Shifting Sands: Thoughts on the Eve of Tisha B’av

It’s just two weeks to the days since I left Israel to return home to Newton. As is so often the case, I find myself paying even closer attention to the Israeli newspapers (via the Internet) than I often do throughout the year. After finding myself immersed in Israeli society, it’s often a way of extending my feeling of connection as I turn towards home. In particular, as I have paid close attention to the news from Israel over the past two weeks, I have the feeling that the country I left a fortnight ago has changed in dramatic ways since I boarded my plane.

To be sure, the tent city had already begun to take root before I left Israel. I saw some of it with my own eyes, both in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem’s Gan Atzmaut (Independence Park). And as I arrived in Israel in late June, the so-called “cottage cheese” revolution had already borne fruit as the prices of this Israeli breakfast staple tumbled. The “baby-stroller revolt,” the physicians’ work slow-down, and more have roiled the Israeli consciousness over the course of this summer.

In early February I wrote in this space about my week studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. As my arrival in Jerusalem coincided with the beginning of events in Cairo’s Tahrir square, and the spread of what has now become known as “the Arab Spring,” I noted that I felt as if I was not leaving the same Middle East in which I had arrived one week early. Now, home from Israel for almost two weeks, I feel as if the Israel I left behind is not the same one about which I read on a daily basis. Two nights ago Israel witnessed the largest mass protest rallies in the history of the country as hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest the high cost of living in Israel and what is perceived by many as the government’s deaf ear and blind eye to the cares of Israeli citizens.

Last Spring, I had the privilege of teaching the Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel program at Temple Shalom. It was an opportunity for me to share my studies at Hartman with a wonderful group of adult learners from our congregation. A key component of the Engaging Israel program’s philosophy is that in our time we need new narrative to help inform our connection to and engagement with Israel. Rather than focusing on the classic narratives of Israel as evidence of our people’s redemption or of Israel as the key to the survival of the Jewish people, the team that has created Engaging Israel is calling for a new, third narrative focus to take its place alongside of survival and redemption. This third focus is what my teacher, Rabbi Donniel Hartman calls “Israel as Values nation.” In short, Rabbi Hartman believes that it is time for Israel to wrestle not only with her existential and security challenges which are real and important. At the same time, he believes that Israel must also wrestle with her identity as a Jewish and democratic state which means that core Jewish values must be employed to help Israel and our people define Israel’s core identity as she faces the future.

At a rabbinic study session with Rabbi Hartman at UJA-Federation in New York City this morning I noted to Donniel that as I have watched the events of recent weeks unfold I have been struck by the reality that the spread of the social unrest which has swept across the Middle East has arrived in Israel precisely on matters of values: how do we enable people to “live” in Israeli society? How are young people who complete their military service to be able to live in the State they have defended? How are young families to be able to survive in an economy in which diapers and baby strollers cost a small fortune? How are those who meet the medical needs of Israel citizens (and others) to survive in a society which does not compensate them at a respectable level. In his talk this morning, Rabbi Hartman noted that the protests spreading throughout Israel are not ignoring the existential and security realities of Iran and terrorism. Rather, the people are saying, even with those serious issues, we are tired of struggling to breath. The Israeli variation on the “Arab Spring” is about social justice and values. It’s actually refreshing to see Israelis standing up in this fashion, though no one can possibly know where this may lead.

As the sun sets tonight the Jewish calendar brings Tisha B’av, a day on which it is traditional to fast and mourn for the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem. Based on Rabbinic teaching in the Talmud, some interpret the destruction of the Second Temple as having coming as punishment for the bitter internal divisions and baseless hatred within the Jewish community in the years leading up to the destruction of the Temple at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE. To be sure there is cause to see a resonance of this teaching in our community today. But that’s a subject for another blog post.

For now, as I await sunset, my thoughts are with the protesters in Israel, and on the shifting sands within Israeli society. May Jewish values lead Israelis — and indeed, all of us who care about Israel and our Jewish people, to seek justice, to care for the stranger and the downtrodden, and to work for the wholeness and peace we call shalom.

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