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My Land! My Land!

She was already sitting in my row as I got onto the plane.  With her hands folded in front and her elbows sticking over the armrests, she was what they call matronly.  But she had an air about her that screamed activist.  A garish medallion with Arabic swirls made me curious enough to ask where she was from.

“Palestine,” she answered more than a touch defiantly.

Just like my father, I told her.

Our conversation never moved onto anything else.  And never stopped and barely slowed down.  She spoke just enough English to be able to fight with me. 

Deir Yassin, she challenged me, Hebron I answered. 

I was seventeen; she must have been sixty.

The English is me no good, she would fall back on whenever the conversation wasn’t going her way.  She would then raise her hands to the overhead bins and exclaim: My land! My land!

No, I assured her: My land, My land.

The irony of it.  The old-time Zionists – Herzl is the only one still remembered, but there were others – spoke of “attaining” the land to “normalize” the Jewish people.  The French have France, the Germans Germany, and the Jews will have the Jewish state.  No more would they be “a people apart” they would become “a nation among nations”.  No longer would they be the people of the Book (definite article) they would be the people who gave the world the book of books. 

All that separated the Jews from the family of nations, argued Herzl’s devotees was their peculiar dress, grooming and habit.  In their own land they will loose all these idiosyncrasies and with no yarmulke, no shaitel, no kosher, no Shabbos, no bris to differentiate them, the Jews would assume their rightful place in the family of nations.

I wear a yarmulke, I keep kosher and well, you get the picture.  But when a conversation with a stranger takes the turn to a Jewish topic it nearly always begins with -- and always gets passionate with -- “what’s going on over there in the Middle East?” 

Some are with us. Some are against us.  But everyone identifies that place with us.  That identity, which was supposed to normalize us, is the lightning rod of all that makes us different.

The irony.  Christian anti-Semitism penalized Jewish livelihood, ghettoized Jewish residence and slandered Jewish honor.  To escape the Dreyfus affairs in the west and pogroms in the east, some Jews in Europe turned to an ancient homeland to become a nation among nations.  That homeland has now kicked up Islamic anti-Semitism. (Islamic anti-Semitism was always breathtakingly vitriolic, but it had never created a movement spanning from Morocco to Pakistan until the 20th century.)  And now Christian philo-Semitism, along with Christian and secular anti-Semitism, are expressed in the land-people notion.

The UN condemns, curses, whines and gripes more about Israel than they do about all the rest of the world combined.  Ivy-league student bodies and their professors couch anti-Semitism in anti-Zionist slogans.  In Europe, oh enough, you’ve read it just like I have, but I’ll never forget the Arab in Casablanca who threw a plastic cup at me my feet and screeched “Zionist!”  Or the street bum on Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue Express who folded his New York Times, lowered his reading glasses and started berating me about the Palestinians.  The last great hope of making us worthy of inclusion is what secludes us.  Even the Diaspora communities.  Especially the Diaspora communities.

In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.  A curious opening for a giver of laws: one that doesn’t escape the Talmudists.  Why did the Book not begin with the first law, the first call to action instead of the telling of the story of creation?  Rashi answers: To assert Jewish ownership over Israel – He who created the earth deeded this portion of it to this, His people. 

Remarkable, that real estate title precedes G-d’s gift to mankind.  Remarkable that the world’s all-time bestseller is so tied to this declaration of entitlement.  More remarkable, the attention given to its detractors. Remarkable that Rashi, one thousand years ago – a mere generation before the Crusades slaughtered his grandchildren – begins his classic commentary focusing on a Mediterranean shoreline he never saw.

It’s what the Jews do that counts, not what everyone else says, Ben Gurion is purported to have declared.  Maybe then, we should revisit Rashi.  Go back to the beginning.  This land is ours and this mission is ours.  We cannot be separated from it, nor do we really want to. 

Irony is G-d’s humor.  The land-people connection that was meant to separate the Book from the people has metamorphosed to a land-people connection that embodies the connection of Him, His people and His Book. 


To say the land does not belong to the Jews may perhaps fly in the face of history, no matter where you are sitting.  It most certainly flies in the face of He who wrote in the beginning.  The rest, as they say is history.  My land.  My land.  

Souls in the Rain

If G-d is "perfect," as Judaism says, what prompted Him to create the universe? What void was He seeking to fill?

The answer provided in Jewish Mysticism is that G-d desired marriage.
Marriage necessitates the existence of someone distinct from yourself with whom to share your life, a union of husband and wife. G-d chose humanity as His bride.

What a marriage this has been--a roller coaster of romance, affection, quarrels and estrangement. In every generation, many counselors advocated a divorce while others proclaimed the Groom dead. Yet, the relationship has endured because both partners intrinsically know that they belong together.
When all veils are removed, man manifestly yearns for union with G-d.

According to the Kabbalah, the High Holiday season is the annual experience of the cosmic matrimony between G-d and humanity. The five key spiritual moments of the season parallel the basic phases of a conventional courtship and union. The holidays invite us to journey through this process again and
rejuvenate the relationship.

The Courtship:
The Hebrew month of Elul precedes the High Holidays. This month is described in Chassidic teachings as a time when "the King goes out to the field to meet with His people, greeting them with kindness and tenderness, displaying a joyous face to all." We, in turn, "open our hearts to G-d."

This time provides us with an opportunity to get to know G-d.

The Groom Proposes:
Four weeks later, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, He makes His proposal.

The world goes haywire, says Master Kabbalist Rabbi Issac Luriah. "During the night of Rosh Hashanah," he writes, "the consciousness animating the universe becomes frail and weak." The great Jewish mystics would, in fact, feel physically weak during the night of Rosh Hashanah.

All of existence was brought into being for the sake of this proposed marriage. If we refuse Him, then it was all in vain. The entire cosmos awaits our decision.

The Bride Commits:
On the morning of Rosh Hashanah, a piercing sound rises from the Earth: the cry of the shofar. It is a simple cry, expressing man's yearning to connect with the Divine.

We have decided. Our answer is yes.

The Wedding:
The wedding day arrives: Yom Kippur. A day described in the Kabbalah as "the time of oneness" in which cosmic bride and groom forge a bond for eternity.

In the Jewish tradition, bride and groom fast on their wedding day. On the day we unite with G-d, we abstain from food or drink as well. The Talmud teaches that upon marriage, all the sins of the groom and bride are forgiven.

That's why this day is called Yom Kippur, "the day of atonement."

The marriage ceremony begins with the stirring melody of Kol Nidre, in which we remove the power from vows and addictions that tie us down. During these profound moments, we attempt to free ourselves from compulsive behavior and
negative habits and let go of resentment, animosity, anger, fear and envy.

The traditional Jewish marriage ceremony culminates with the bride and groom entering a secluded room (cheder yichud in Hebrew) to spend time alone with each other. Yom Kippur culminates with the Ne'ilah, or closure prayer, so called because as the sun of Yom Kippur sets, the gates of heaven close--with us inside.

During Ne'ilah, every soul is alone with G-d.

The Celebration:
When the bride and groom exit their private room, the party begins. From Yom Kippur we leap into the seven-day festival of Sukkot, described in the Torah as "the time of our Joy."

These days are filled with feasting and ecstatic happiness, celebrating the union between G-d and His people.

The wedding feast is over. The guests and relatives have returned home. In a consummation of the relationship, bride and groom experience intimacy for the first time, their lives melded together as a husband and wife.

Hence, following the seven days of Sukkot, we reach the zenith of the High Holiday season: Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, described in the Kabbalah as the "time of intimacy with the Divine." During these two charged days the joy reaches its peak, as G-d and His people merge into a seamless whole. A
Divine seed is planted in each of our hearts.

That's why we recite special prayers for rain on the festival of Shemini Atzeret. What is rain? In the midst of intimacy between heaven and earth, procreative drops from heaven are absorbed, fertilized and nurtured by mother-earth, which in time will give birth to its botanical children.

The Ordinary Month:
The honeymoon comes to an end and the excitement begins to fade. Now the marriage becomes about caring for each other and demonstrating trust and loyalty as we work through the daily grind of life.

Out of the twelve months in the Jewish calendar, the only one lacking a single festive day immediately follows the High Holiday season. The Hebrew month of Cheshvan is the time to build a genuine relationship with our marriage Partner in our everyday lives. This is the time to discover the joy born out of a continuous relationship with G-d.

How Strong The Vulnerable

If you're looking for nobility, search not among noblemen.  If you're looking for royalty, search not in palaces.  If you're looking for aristocracy, go to a sinking ship.

In good times and good places everyone seems to be of noble and fine character --

they just mirror everything around them.  Only when everything around them is falling apart, can inner light shine.  When bad things happen then good things can happen.  He, in His infinite wisdom, ruled that a grey cloud can produce a rainbow.

Does all this mean that we need to suffer in order that we flourish?  No, says the Sukkah, but we must stop suffering flourishing illusions. 

Egypt was the Garden of Eden, lush, vigorous, sensuous, stable, prosperous.
Decadent.  The Jews wanted to melt, to dissolve and be absorbed into Egypt. 

The triumph of the Exodus, say the masters, was not in His taking the Jews out of Egypt – the triumph was in his taking the Egypt out of the Jews.  He took out the Egypt by demonstrating that everything they considered safe and secure was neither.  Rivers ran bloody. Weather patterns devastated blue-chip commodities.  Death obliterated blue-blood bloodlines.

In WWII, London's slummy East End was bombed and Buckingham Palace was bombed.

Looking at the rubble, people saw that palace and tenement are, ultimately, indistinguishable.  Must you bomb a palace to see it is a slum?  No, you must bomb your illusion of it.  True aristocrats do that. 

On the holiday Sukkos we abandon secure homes for roofless huts which share a name with their holiday: sukkos.  Sukkos falls in autumn, the harvest season.  The crops have come in, the storehouse is full, the bills are paid off, the logs are on the fire.  You're about to slip into your slippers.  That's when you leave your house.  You go into your sukkah.  You remember what happens to slippers in the rain and what happens to palaces in blitzkriegs.

Exodus was followed by Sukkos.  For in Sukkos I housed the Jewish people, says the Torah.  I housed them in Sukkos propound the masters: I housed them in the mindset of Sukkos.  In the mindset that palace and slum lack permanence, that safety and security do not come from commodities, that salvation is not in savings and trust is not in funds.

More than a sinking ship reveals the aristocrat, the aristocrat reveals how sinkable is the ship.  Aristocratic people, free from Egypt, are in the sukka.  As Reb Leivik said, the sukkah is a very strong place to be.


Days of Awesome. . .Totally

Kid standing in the synagogue lobby sees a bronze plaque “for the brave soldiers who died in the service”; he wondered if it was the Rosh Hashanah Service or the Yom Kippur one! 

For those who go to shul two times a year plus bar mitzvahs, I don’t know how you do it!  I mean, sitting through something you have little idea what’s going on and where it’s all heading... yet you keep coming back, and that’s incredible.

I like history and I love Jewish history.  When I’m in Jerusalem’s Old City and I see the tour guides leading their charges down the street, a street that’s layered with stories, from the time before the Romans, the Romans, a hundred years ago, the battle in 1948, 1967 – and he just leads them along like it’s a route from the Wall to the pizza shop, I feel like stopping those poor, innocent tourists and telling them “You’re being robbed!”

But on Rosh Hashanah I’m as guilty as the tour guides.  Don’t get me wrong, in the services we explain what’s going on, everything is translated in English, the singing is transliterated so everyone can sing along, people always tell me how much they learned, how emotional it was, how spiritual, even if it’s a first time but . . .there’s so much I simply can’t cram in there.

A few years ago a dear friend stood up in the Davening and told us of how as a little boy hiding from the Nazis in the forests he wanted to daven on Yom Kippur.  He remembered a tune his Shul would sing, and he sang that song over and over again.  Now over sixty years later he sang it again . . . and slowly, slowly we joined in. Forget that there wasn’t a dry eye in the place, we sang through our tears. One of the ladies met me the next morning waving a handful of tissues:  try a fast one on me again I’m prepared this time.

Days of Awesome, and to give it a California touch, totally.


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