Our "Elul" Moment (An August Mash-Up): On Judgment and Reflection
I held back from sharing this talk I gave last Saturday, uncertain whether the Mosaic blog would be the right place to put out a piece of Torah learning and rumination (and also because it's long). But I've received moving feedback from congregation members, family, and friends near and far who found something in it timely, thought-provoking, revealing. So I share it here, in the interests of synthesizing communities — bringing together a spiritual touch-point with our artistic collective — having posted it earlier in the terrible-to-read Notes section of my Facebook page.
A "D'var Torah" is a talk on topics relating to a section of the bible – typically the weekly torah portion - and you'll often find a short "d'var" opening up many a Jewish community meeting, or a lengthier one as part of a sabbath service (aka sermon). Here's mine from last weekend on the Book of Judges (Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9, Parshat Shoftim) Tifereth Israel Congregation, Washington, DC, August 22, 2015.
Shabbat Shalom. It is good to be back in synagogue and to be welcomed to the bima [alter, or platform] to hear torah and to have spent some weeks thinking about the commentaries around it over the past weeks. We've enjoyed celebrating two bat-mitzvahs on this bima; rehearsals and evenings with actors and directors, sharing long sections of plays at the end of services, after wonderful Shabbat dinners with the congregation, the evening always ending with lively discussion and strong questions from this artistically engaged congregation.
The last time I was invited to speak at TI was in the chapel behind us before the board of directors in 2014. Congregants were getting unwanted, upsetting emails from a group in Potomac [no hyperlinks necessary] that was writing fairly vicious things about our theater program, an upcoming production, its author and the producer whom many at TI had grown to respect. The board wanted to learn more from me about the group; about the play and issues in question. The board wanted rounded consideration. No endorsement was being sought. The interchange was all. It was a fine hour for the shul reflecting its intellectual rigor and openness. And in the end, the TI board wrote a letter on behalf of our right to present the work. The play in question went onto become one of the most highly touted of the season (indeed, one of the most important of my 18-year tenure), with a commercial transfer, award nominations, and a lasting impact awaiting. But the lasting impact cut both ways.
I'm on the bima again today, in a new job with a similar title, a new work address but with the same work elements (a stage, a lobby, a rehearsal room, offices); the context has shifted, but the values are much the same (if more broadly defined); the same cadre of artists join many new ones; the same vision informs a more robust Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival, now expanded to include venues at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Woolly Mammoth, Arena Stage, GMU, AU, UMD, potentially Bowie State, WHC, and who knows, maybe here as well. So with all the changes over the past 8 months, I'm here because Rabbi Seidel extended the same kind of invitation he's done before. Quickly, over email:
"Ari: Thanks for agreeing! I’ve put you down for the Shabbat morning drash, parashat Shoftim, D’varim 16:18 – 21:9. This parashah has many features which you could hook on to, e.g.
1) The primacy of the pursuit of justice (first three lines of the parasha) 2) Due process (17:5) 3) Rules for the king (17:13) 4) Who is fit to fight battles (chapter 20:1-9) 5) Not cutting down the fruit trees, even in a war (20:19-20) 6) The obligation to accept responsibility for murders that take place nearby, even if you don’t know who perpetrated them (21:1-9)
Thanks again for agreeing to speak!"
In reading the parsha myself, my imagination indeed gravitated to the final points the rabbi had highlighted… 5) not cutting down fruit trees, even in war, and 6) The obligation to accept responsibility for murders that take place nearby, even if you don’t know who perpetrated them. One other aspect that captivated the imagination in considering Shoftim; where and when it falls in the Jewish calendar. A week into the month of Elul. Meaningfully. The portion on Judges, falling during the first week of the month of atonement. Something about that coupling.
I thought, in the interest of the calendar, where we are in month, and in the century, let's skip #6 — After all, the incident in which the Israeli government appointed the Kahan Commission, chaired by Yitzhak Kahan, president of Israel's Supreme Court, and referred to this passage from Shoftim in addressing the events surrounding Sabra and Shatlia, how the IDF bore not direct, but indirect responsibility for the massacre in those Lebanese refugee camps that took place with the IDF not present but nearby — happened 33 years ago — a long time — and that Ariel Sharon, who infamously bore most of the overseeing responsibility — had finally passed, as had much of the outrage and that we really have better things to do than expurgate this particular moment for the sake of making a torahportion relevant (what with so many fresher incidents and divisive headlines to make us tense).
On the other hand, Rabbi Seidel had highlighted the passage for a reason (as bait? To get me in trouble; again? Or because he thought, quite possibly it was important? To remember?) So before we skip #6 entirely, let's appreciate how the Kahan Commission interpreted this esoteric passage as the basis of its ruling. Let's quote from Chapter 21:
"If a slain person be found in the land which the Lord, your God is giving you to possess, lying in the field, [and] it is not known who slew him, then your elders and judges shall go forth, and they shall measure to the cities around the corpse the elders of that city shall take a calf with which work has never been done, [and] that has never drawn a yoke and they shall bring the calf down to a rugged valley, which was neither tilled nor sown, and there in the valley, they shall decapitate the calf. And all the elders of that city, who are the nearest to the corpse, shall wash their hands over the calf that was decapitated in the valley; And they shall announce and say, "Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see [this crime]." Atone for Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, O Lord, and lay not [the guilt of] innocent blood among your people Israel." And [so] the blood shall be atoned for them. And you shall abolish the [shedding of] innocent blood from among you, for you shall do what is proper in the eyes of the Lord.
The commission interprets that the "Jewish public's stand has always been that responsibility for such deeds falls not only on those who riot, murder, or commit the atrocities, but also on those who are responsible for safety and public order, who could prevent such disturbances and did not fulfill their obligations in this respect." They held their own military culpable. So we recognize the Israeli Supreme Court, for its pursuit of "justice-justice," and using our parsha to invoke responsibility in cases where the culpability is indirect .
More pertinent to the situation in Israel today, alas, and alarmingly, is the issue of direct responsibility, where learned Jewish brethren settling on the West Bank, seem to be acting not in accordance with the injunction from Shoftim, of not destroying the fruit tree of thine enemy, but rather intentionally, and by means of intimidation, uprooting the fruit bearing Olive Trees of their Palestinian neighbors.
But again, as with the Kahan commission, better we not discuss something so contentious, during this summer, when we've been reeling from news of Jewish-perpetrated violence at Gay Pride rallies in Jerusalem, or fire bombing a home in the West Bank village of Douma near Nablus, the latter carried out by a group you've heard of, "Tag Mechir" or Price Tag. Why go there on shabbis when we need a break? We're shell-shocked enough as a community by the divisiveness of debate surrounding the Iran Nuclear deal- Can't we stay away from Jews Behaving Badly on the day of rest?
Yes. But then, Jews Behaving Badly might be another name for the bible no? Or the story of Being Human, Chapter 2. So let's read this from The Times of Israel, from one year ago, just to be in touch with the apparent prescience of our parsha:
"Unknown assailants chopped down approximately 30 olive trees and scrawled racist invectives in the West Bank village of Nahalin Saturday, in what Israeli authorities suspect is the latest in a string of attacks by radical Israeli settlers. The words “Arab thieves” and “price tag” were found spray painted on rocks next to where 32 olive trees were uprooted. According to Israel Radio, police opened an investigation into the incident near the Etzion Bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem, which came amid a growing call for Israeli authorities to bring perpetrators to justice. Earlier on Saturday, former Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs criticized the Israeli government for not doing enough to prevent “price tag” attacks.
Then this from May 2015, from Ma'an News Agency - which provides, at least, a justification for the uprooting of olive trees.
SALFIT (Ma'an) -- Israeli settlers from the Immanuel settlement uprooted some 450 olive trees and saplings from lands in Deir Istiya, northern Salfit, on Tuesday. Mayor of Deir Istiya told Ma'an that farmers were surprised that the trees had been uprooted, as they went to farm their lands near the illegal settlement of Immanuel. Surrounded on all sides by Jewish settlements, Israeli authorities have long designated Wadi Qana area a natural reserve. Such designation prevents Palestinian farming in the area as well as construction, while providing legitimization for Israeli forces to legally uproot Palestinian-owned olive trees.
* * *
Beyond the question of the Nature Reserve (since we're not here to litigate the issue of land ownership) we have to ask, how can settlers, as well as the IDF earth-moving units, be sanctioning the uprooting of olive trees, given the biblical injunction in Parshat Shoftim?
Well let's look at our Old Testament — Certainly the Settlers do. Like other parts of the Old Testament, it can be inspirational — and also brutal:
Chapter 20, verse 11
When you approach a city to wage war against it, you shall propose peace to it. And it will be, if it responds to you with peace, and it opens up to you, then it will be that all the people found therein shall become tributary to you, and they shall serve you. [hmm] But if it does not make peace with you, and it wages war against you, you shall besiege it, and the Lord, your God, will deliver it into your hands, and you shall strike all its males with the edge of the sword. However, the women, the children, and the livestock, and all that is in the city, all its spoils you shall take for yourself, and you shall eat the spoils of your enemies, which the Lord, your God , has given you. [okay...]
Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, However, of these peoples' cities, which the Lord, your God, gives you as an inheritance, you shall not allow any soul to live. Rather, you shall utterly destroy them: The Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivvites, and the Jebusites, as the Lord, your God, has commanded you. [The rabbi didn't point this section out.]
So that they should not teach you to act according to all their abominations that they have done for their gods, whereby you would sin against the Lord, your God. [the justification... And then finally… the trees...] When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you? [the innocence of nature] However, a tree you know is not a food tree, you may destroy and cut down, and you shall build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until its submission." [the security justification…]
So there we go: The Old Testament — A document we struggle with, even as we take our moral marching orders from its wisest injunctions, its most profound stories; we can also see it as an antiquated and brutal Guide to Warfare. We must select and create a moral order from the great mass of elements that comprise our heritage. We must exert wise judgment.
* * *
Let's focus on the wise placement of this book of Judgment. The positioning of this parsha within the calendar as we near our Collective Annual Review - our month of cheshbon nefesh - where we are counseled to seek forgiveness - the month of asking for Mechilah - we must take note and ask, why is Shoftim placed here? Judgment as a presage to atonement; and the granting of forgiveness. Or, well, isn't that the answer!? The latter without the former is foundation-less repentance. It's reckoning without something to reckon with!
Sifting for the Truth (through gathering testimony, and a process of jurisprudence) so that it might lead to a process of Reconciliation (through acknowledgement & atonement) is what we've come to know as a Truth & Reconciliation process. The process which helped to usher forth a transformed South Africa, after the dismantling of Apartheid.
Does the Truth and Reconciliation commission process work? It can only happen after battle. As enemies are forced to live together. Are we ready for such?
[Or as my friend, Rabbi Ronne Friedman, wrote to me upon reading the d'rash: "In a sense, Truth and Reconciliation worked (to the degree that it did) because of the uniqueness of Mandela's vision. It couldn't have been organized by the Afrikaaners, nor would it have been supported by them if they hadn't discovered themselves immersed in their greatest fears."]
What of an art form that invokes a Truth & Reconciliation process as a would-be catharsis, after the fall-out of a dramatic cataclysm, much as we watch a classical tragedy, we can simulate the process of reckoning with those whom we might call our adversaries…
It's a process I believe in. A form of theater — the modern drama — which feels both relevant as a form of witnessing — of bringing us closer to that which we might rather turn from — for the purposes of creating light; awareness; hope; cleansing; catharsis. It's what I tried to do with many others for a great long time on 16th Street, and what we're hoping to do across town at Mosaic, and why we call our inaugural season, "The Case For Hope in a Polarized World." Because in touching the polarities — in humanizing the vast differences — we might come to see commonality in otherwise disparate positions, and thereby bring distant points and people closer together. In lancing the boil. In shining some candle light into darkened corners, there might be transformation.
That's what we hope to experience in plays like UNEXPLORED INTERIOR about Rwanda; THE GOSPEL OF LOVINGKINDNESS about young African-American men in our cities, their hopes, dreams and lives cut down prematurely, and how a community might create light and uplift from darkening horizons; and a VOICES Festival with plays like WRESTLING JERUSALEM, I SHALL NOT HATE, ERETZ CHADASHA/THE PROMISED LAND, AFTER THE WAR, and HKEELEE (TALK TO ME), by American-Jewish, Israeli-Jewish, Palestinian Muslim, and Lebanese-Christian authors, and a consideration of the plight of Sudanese refugees seeking asylum in Israel.
The month of Elul is a time of repentance in preparation for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The name of the month (spelled Alef-Lamed-Vav-Lamed) is said to be an acronym of "Ani l'dodi v'dodi li," "I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine," a quote from Song of Songs 6:3, where the Beloved is G-d and the "I" is us; the Jewish people. In Aramaic, the word "Elul" means "search," appropriate, because this is a time of year when we search our hearts.
According to tradition, the month of Elul is the time that Moses spent on Mount Sinai preparing the second set of tablets after the incident of the golden calf. He ascended on Rosh Chodesh Elul and descended on the 10th of Tishri, at the end of Yom Kippur, when repentance was complete. Other sources say that Elul is the beginning of a period of 40 days that Moses prayed for G-d to forgive the people after the Golden Calf incident, after which the commandment to prepare the second set of tablets was given.
Who is atoning this month for the sins of Tag Mechir?
A majority of the state of Israel, apparently.
But who is castigating the self-flagellators? Silencing the self-criticizers? Defunding those who would present a divergent narrative?
We are a divided community, to be sure. What tools do we have that can bring unity? Bridge divides? Promote healing?
There is worship; there is social action; there is the experiencing of art. But of course, each has its own way; its own expression.
What experiences do we go through, that help us see ourselves more clearly, and see those with whom we disagree, just as clearly? More humanely… Can we be united, at least, in that common pursuit? It's unclear.
We as a community have a lot of soul searching to do. So involved in asserting our rightness, we fail to see our pride and our arrogance and our inability to see the soundness of intention in those with whom we disagree. I include myself in this charge — I am part of a drama that reflects our community's divisions — even as I look at others and see faults in those with whom I/we might disagree. Can it be that we've both behaved badly? Isn't that the very definition – not only of the bible — but of a family? Where everyone's free to be a lot less than perfect, but where we cannot renounce or dissociate one another from under the same wing? Where we can revel in our humanity — which is to say our fallibility — and appreciate the aspects that make us family — that gives us our common strands of DNA — even as we recognize our chromosomal (and ideological) difference?
When we cleave to a right — to a position — which we feel is ascendant — dominant — more important than another position, assigning to it priority — a value of superiority — which is of course the establishing of a Value System (honorable in and of itself to have one), we place ourselves in ascendancy. A precarious position. In my case, it was a commitment (as a progressive Jewish theater producer) to hearing multiple narratives within the Israeli-Palestinian drama — to expose ourselves to the fusion and dialectic of perspectives as Jews and Arabs encounter each other, not just in battle but in commerce; in culture; bound by the magnetic properties of dramatic engagement (which is to say emotion, relationship; humanity) within our Jewish cultural context as a meeting place with lots of universalist values to go around. This was a value to fight for and uphold, even when an institutional decision was made to cancel the Voices Festival that bespoke those values — that allowed for a space of reckoning. The proudest thing I've done in a while is to not allow the Voices Festival to die, but to ensure its continuation. Yet how might have I, or we, have handled this disagreement more honorably/more humanely for all concerned?
Perhaps that's a cheshbon nefesh to be conducted — for myself and a great many others involved — but not during the course of a d'var torah.
[I've written those reflections, but upon advise of spouse, I've put them in brackets… not to be shared here]
Suffice to day, for all the paths we might have chosen, things didn't go optimally.
[More specific reflections in brackets….]
We have endured the dynamics of a difficult, if abrupt, divorce. But the Jewish community is a capacious one. Though one might leave the Center, one still may be part of the circle. This city too is capacious (and welcoming). One leaves one quadrant, to discover a new one. The city expands, as does one's context; one's Global Positioning Coordinates. And time heals too. The calendar is wise. It has its own inexorable logic.
What does the calendar have in store for the family of Israel, so fatefully transformed over the past 6 six years to a point where cleavages have created immense division; disruption; where the landmass is not "Capacious" but tiny; cramped; and security is always at stake? Where the calendar marks the holy days, but also the demographic ticking clock, with the nature of democratic values at stake?
We can take pride in the capaciousness and security that our community here affords; in the resilience of our convictions and capacities, that even as one door is shut, new doors open and we band together to form a new entity, productive and meaningful.
We are all cells born from a process of individuation. We bring our DNA with us even as we mature into new hybrid forms, shaped and influenced by our new setting. We have always been a people on the move; a meta-nation of immigrants. So too do we move again. And we carry our tradition with us as we meet brand new horizons.
Still the question: Can there still be reckoning between enemies; between former allies, members of the same tribe who, for all their differences, are committed to safeguarding a shared future?
Do we renounce each other? Strive to reform each other? With whom do we stand?
What to do with the olive tree?
What to do with the entirety of D'varim, Chapter 20 (about the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites?)
Shoftim reminds us to parse distinctions — to submit to process of jurisprudence — to submit to a process of cleansing; arbitration and accept judgment — as we are positioned, by virtue of the advancing calendar and our inscriptions in the book of life — as an accounting and moral evaluation is made — whether we are right or wrong, we are laced with transgression and imperfection — we have not behaved in a manner which is beyond reproach — we must seek amelioration and reconciliation and forgiveness for the cleavages that have been wrought — we must submit to a more humane and just process for litigating our disagreements, and we must do a better job of honoring the legacy and good name of our collective family.
I'm committed to that. You can be too. And you can meet me at Mosaic.
Let us ask for gentle judgment in this month of Elul; the deeper and more probing, the more generous, the better… Shabbat Shalom.