A Vision of Peace for the Jewish World:  SUPPORT THE KOTEL CAMPAIGN!

shimon_peres_2005

The passing of Shimon Peres beckons us to reflect on what his giant legacy means for us as Jews and Zionists.  The last of Israel’s founding leaders, a protégé of David Ben Gurion, Peres was witness to the seven decades of the history of the modern State of Israel, with all of it highs and lows.  It’s virtually impossible to identify a significant moment in Israel’s history that Peres did not influence or participate in, or a leadership position that he did not assume.  In his seven years as Israel’s President, the last formal position he held before retirement, he served the nation with grace and dignity.  He was instrumental in strengthening Israel’s economy and military defenses, including creating a crucial alliance with France that paved the way for Israel to develop nuclear technology.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect of the legacy of Shimon Peres is his commitment to peace.  It was he who influenced a reluctant Yitzchak Rabin z”l to agree to the Oslo Accords that led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority and opened the door to peace.  Peres never wavered from his passionate belief that Israel’s most promising future, and the best incarnation of the Jewish State, lie in a peaceful relationship with the Arab world.  He balanced his idealism with a realistic view of the world, being tough and cautious when necessary to ensure Israel’s safety and security.  He shared his optimistic vision for an Israel at peace with her neighbors in eloquent words throughout his career.

Peres was also an avid supporter of the Masorti Movement in Israel.  He articulated his vision for an Israeli society that is tolerant, and supported the cause of religious pluralism as a manifestation of Israel as a democracy.  He believed that religious and secular communities should seek to live together in a spirit of mutual respect and tolerance.  He believed that each group in the Jewish world, and in Israel in particular, should be able to live their way of life, for, as he said, “democracy in our time is not only the right to be equal, but also the equal right to be different.”  Some years ago, when speaking at a Masorti event, he said:  “Different streams exist in Judaism, which has room for conservative and liberal viewpoints, for those who abide by the 613 commandments and those who say ‘Sh’ma Israel.”

Shimon Peres was surely a supporter of the idea that the Kotel, the Western Wall, should be a place where all Jews can come to pray, to celebrate and to express themselves.  The idea that different streams of Judaism should live side by side in peace and tolerance was as reflection of his larger vision of peace for the Middle East and for the world.  He surely supported the recent agreement among members of the Israeli government to transform the Kotel plaza into a space that acknowledges the legitimacy of not only Orthodox Jews but the non-Orthodox as well.  That plan, so promising and encouraging, has been scuttled by pressure being put on the government by the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset who reject non-Orthodox groups as being illegitimate expressions of Judaism.

Now it’s time for Jews around the world who believe in pluralism and religious tolerance to send a message to Prime Minister Netanyahu that the plan must be revived.  You don’t have to be a citizen of Israel to make your voice heard.  Here’s what you can and should do:

  1. Visit masorti.org to learn about the issue of the Kotel plan and the Masorti Movement.
  2. Then, click here to add your name to the KOTEL CAMPAIGN. There is a pre-formatted message to Prime Minister Netanyahu, as well as an opportunity to add your own note.  Your voice and your support will make a difference.

As we enter the New Year, we are called on to contemplate a vision of a world of peace, tolerance and mutual respect.  These are values that Shimon Peres z”l lived for.  And they are values that should be modeled by the Jewish people worldwide.  The campaign to make the Kotel a place of mutual respect and tolerance is an ideal place to start.

 

What I Learned From My Dog

I’m a dog lover…I really am.  I can identify a lot of breeds pretty quickly and I enjoy interacting with dogs.  But candidly, you might not know that about me since I don’t actually have a dog and I don’t really want one.  I did have a dog for a very long time.  Laila, a mixed breed animal (I detest the word “mutt”) lived with us for close to 14 years.  She was friendly, obedient and a great member of our family.  We had a fence around our yard so we didn’t walk her in the neighborhood that often, which I regret.  When Laila passed away, we tried replacing her, which turned out to be a very hard thing to do.  We had forgotten how difficult it can be to find the right dog.  We actually adopted six different dogs in a span of four years (ouch!).  The last one, Hope, was a retired racing Greyhound.  She was an elegant, graceful dog who, soon after we welcomed her to our home, was diagnosed with separation anxiety.  That, we soon learned, meant that unless someone was with her 24/7, she’d display her anxiety by soiling our floors and carpets.  We wound up returning her to the NJ Greyhound Adoption Agency and haven’t tried to adopt another dog since then.

I’m telling you this because even though I don’t have a dog and don’t want one, I cherish the years that we had a dog while our children were growing up.  I think our kids learned a lot of valuable lessons from having a dog in the house.  Because we required them to walk and feed Laila, they learned responsibility.  As Laila grew older, they learned how to display respect for the process of physical deterioration that all living beings eventually experience.  I have vivid memories of our son Eitan picking up Laila on Rosh Hashana a few years ago when she could no longer walk and we all knew she would die soon and carrying her outside of the house so she could relieve herself with some measure of dignity.

There is a Midrash in which the Sages teach that one of the roles that animals play in the world is to help human beings learn how to behave toward one another.  An example of that is to be found in this week’s Parasha, Ki Teitzei, which contains the well-known Torah law stating that before taking eggs or hatchlings from a nest, a person must shoo away the mother bird.  The mitzvah is known as “Shiluach Ha-Kan.”  I don’t think any of us is in a position to fulfill this mitzvah very often, as we get our eggs and poultry from the grocery store.  But the idea that we ought to show compassion to a mother bird is a compelling one.  The Sages tells us that if we can show compassion to a bird, how much the more so will we be inclined to show compassion to our fellow human beings.  Shooing away a mother bird is meant to be spiritual practice for caring for safeguarding the feelings of a human parent.  In a similar way, the Jewish rules of Shechita, the ritual killing of animals for human consumption, are meant to nurture within us the expression of civility and respect for life, even as we take it for our own sustenance.

Compassion, generosity, understanding, tolerance, civility, respect and, of course, love are desirable human characteristics.  We want our children to learn them at the earliest possible age, and we want and hope that the people we encounter in the course of our lives embody them.  We ought to strive every day to cultivate these qualities in our own lives.  Clearly, the Torah wants to teach us that we can learn these characteristics from our interaction with animals.  I know that I and our children did from the dogs that have shared our lives.

When Your Child Enters the Army

This week’s parasha, Shoftim, contains rules of war, including the exemption from battle for someone who has just built a home, planted a vineyard, is married, or is afraid of battle.  These verses of Torah convey the requirement to offer terms of peace before attacking a city, and the prohibition against the pointless destruction of things of value.  These rules are presumably addressed to all involved in waging war, whether they are leaders, citizens and soldiers.  Such rules are clearly necessary, since war, while sometimes necessary to defeat evil, is always ugly and harsh.  Human beings must have rules of war in order to achieve, to the greatest extent possible, civility in conflict.

The Torah’s mention of war and soldiers is especially poignant for me this week, as my son Josh will enter the Israeli army in just a few days.  His “giyus” (induction) is scheduled for September 15 and I regret that I can’t be there to hug him, wish him good luck and tell him in person that I’m proud of him.  I hope to be in Israel in a few weeks for the “Tekess Hashba’a,” the day he’s sworn in as an Israeli soldier.

We’ve known that Josh would enter the army for some time.  His service will be just six months long, which is all that’s required of an Israeli citizen who is already 25 years old (18-year old young men and women serve for close to three years).  Since he is a computer programmer, he will likely be assigned to a unit where he will work on a programming project for the army.  First, he will go through basic training to learn army discipline and how to use a weapon.  His unit will likely visit Israel’s military cemetery on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, where he and his fellow soldiers will visit the graves of soldiers who have sacrificed their lives in all of Israel’s wars and will hear moving testimony from their commanding officers about what they’re fighting for and why Israel needs a standing army of dedicated soldiers. 

Josh probably could have been excused from serving in the army had he wanted to avoid it and pushed to be exempt.  He has a good job and had to arrange for a 6-month leave of absence in order to serve.  But he wants to serve…he sees his commitment to the army as national service, which it is.   Arguments that support his exemption from the army are irrelevant to him.  For example, the Israeli government just passed a law that people who arrive in the country at the age of 22 or older no longer have to serve.  Josh arrived after his 22nd birthday but before this new law was passed, so it doesn’t apply to him.  The point can be made that in principle the Israeli government doesn’t want him to serve and that being drafted is only a consequence of timing.  But, to Josh’s credit, he rejects that point.  He’s told me that it’s not up to him to decide whether or not he should serve, and that the army would face significant challenges if every drafted person decided on their own whether or not they’re needed by the army.  As a parent, I’d rather that he not serve in the army (even if he’ll be stationed in an office for six months and not on the front lines).  I’m proud of his ethics and his Zionism.

What does a parent say and feel when their child enters the army?  To be sure, most parents of Israelis entering the army have much more to worry about that Amy and I do.  I say that with humility and deference to the father or mother of young person who may be sent to a dangerous place to fight for Israel’s safety and security in actual battle conditions.  Still, entering the army is not something about which to be casual or flippant. 

Beyond a few pangs of worry about how Josh will fare as a soldier, I find myself feeling proud of his service to Tzahal, Israel’s defense force.  I’ve asked myself if I would feel the same way if he were entering the United States army, or even the army of another country in the world.  Honestly, I don’t think I would.  That is not because I am not a loyal and proud American- I am.  That is not because I don’t care about the needs and fate of American soldiers- I do.  A good friend of mine is the mother of a former Marine who spent many years serving our country in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I know how worried she was during the time of his service, and how devoted she remains to this day to attending to the needs of soldiers serving overseas.  I empathize with her and try to understand her feelings.

But there is something authentically Jewish, even spiritual, about serving as a soldier in Israel’s army.  This is a Jewish army.  Israel’s army is different from other armies in the world because it exists to defend the Jewish people, and that should mean something to us as Jews.  It is an army that is built to defend not only Israelis but Jews everywhere in the world from the dangers of the present and from the humiliations and agony of history.  Tzva Hagana L’Yisrael—Israel’s army—has a sacred duty to keep the Jewish people safe in the land of the Jewish people.  This is the army that will ensure that Jews have a safe place to live, unthreatened by those who seek to harm us precisely because we’re Jewish. 

While the parent in me wishes that Josh could be exempt from any form of danger, the Jew and Zionist in me understands the meaning and importance of what he’s about to do.

I’m proud of my son.