Sunday, September 12, 2010

Shabbat Shuvah 5771 - Returning to the Table

(Originally delivered on September 11, 2001.)

Today is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return, a name that captures the spirit of the Ten Days of Repentance, in Hebrew, Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, which can also be translated more literally as the Ten Days of Return. The name Shabbat Shuvah refers more directly to the first word of today’s haftarah, from the prophet Hoshea:

Shuvah yisrael ad adonai elohekha ki khashalta ba-avonekha.

Return O Israel, to the Lord your God; for you have stumbled in your iniquity.

This is, of course, consistent with the overarching theme of the Yamim Nora-im, the High Holidays - that we have missed the mark, and we should return to God and right living.

Now, we could parse that latter phrase, “for you have stumbled in your iniquity,” because it is something of a challenge. Is it possible to be iniquitous and not stumble? Is it the iniquity or the stumbling that we must return for?

It is, in fact, a problem. But leaving that aside, the more interesting problem of the language occurs a few verses later, in verse 5 (which includes two more uses of the same root for return, shin-vav-bet, the leitwort or thematic word of this passage):

Erpah meshuvatam ohavem nedava; ki shav api mimenu.

I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely; for My anger is turned away from him.

The first part of the verse refers to a plural group of backsliders (their backsliding; love them freely), but the latter half of the verse refers to the return of one person (My anger is turned away from him). If the backsliders that Hoshea is referring to are all of us, who is the “him” that gets credit for turning away God’s anger?

In the Talmud, Masekhet Yoma, which is the tractate dedicated to Yom Kippur, we read the following:

Rabbi Meir used to say: Great is teshuvah, repentance, since the whole world is pardoned on account of the individual who has repented, as it is stated: “I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely, for My anger is turned away from him.” It is not stated, “from them,” but “from him.”

Rabbi Meir’s point is that we all get credit for the honest teshuvah of even one of us. That is how powerful teshuvah is. It is not so easy, of course. But it is powerful.

What we should be asking ourselves over the course of this week is this: how can I change my behavior so that I do not make the mistakes that I have made in the past? How can I make right what I have broken?

Now, of course I am preaching to the choir. Anybody who is here today, after two days of High Holiday introspection, is clearly up to speed on all of this. (It never hurts to flatter your audience!)

But I am going to take this discussion out of the realm of the personal and into the international. Let us consider the fresh round of Middle East peace talks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas have pledged to meet every two weeks, including the coming week.

I have stated this clearly before in this space, and I will say it again: the status quo in Israel and the territories is not sustainable, and everybody around the table knows it. The only real solution is the two-state solution, and we all know how painful this is going to be.

What will make or break these peace talks is, of course, teshuvah. That Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas have agreed to return to the negotiating table is only the first stage of their return, their teshuvah. The next stage will be much more difficult.

Optimism is not available in abundance these days. Most of the pundits who have weighed in on this round have stated that it is unlikely that these talks will achieve anything new. Israel will not give up on building settlements, let alone consider withdrawing from them; the PA will not give up on the right of return of refugees to Israel. It’s dead in the water. As they say in Texas, that dog don’t hunt.

This is a hot topic on Ravnet. As you might expect, my colleagues in the Conservative rabbinate run the gamut of opinions about Israel. Some are bullish on the prospects of and peace, some think that the other side will never honor their agreements, so why should we bother negotiating?

And the professional pundits have gone the same way, although perhaps in a more subtle and reflective way.

There was one particularly optimistic column that I read in the Times, by Martin Indyk, the former American ambassador to Israel, who wrote about how now is the most optimistic time in recent history, and the basis for peace is stronger than it has ever been.

Indyk makes the following four points:

1. Violence is down considerably, with the PA police force newly trained with American help and demonstrating its capability of preventing terrorist activity in the West Bank, and Hamas preventing the rockets from Gaza, perhaps out of fear. While 452 Israelis were killed at the height of the intifada in 2002, there have been only 6 this year. (Of course, that’s 6 too many, but the difference is dramatic and undeniable.)

Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren has been saying for some time now that the situation on the West Bank is better than it has ever been. Law and order has brought peace and quiet: there was a 9% growth rate in the territories last year, with skyscrapers going up in Ramallah and new subdivisions in Jenin and Nablus. A properly-trained police force produces economic growth, and jobs and security will, we all hope, help the Palestinians to understand that peace, even with what they used to call “the Zionist entity,” is a good thing.

2. Settlement building has been minimal for 10 months. This is key in having returned the Palestinians to the negotiating table, according to Ambassador Oren. It seems unlikely that Netanyahu will extend the moratorium, but there are other compromise options that Indyk suggests.

3. A majority of people on both sides now support the two-state solution. The public is tired of war, says Indyk. This is not necessarily true of those who vote Likud, Netanyahu’s party. In fact, there is a cover story in the current issue of Time magazine that suggests that Israelis have become complacent in their flourishing success, in spite of the untenable status quo. I am not going to attempt to debunk the article. Yes, a majority of people want peace, but there is, understandably, a generous helping of skepticism about peace talks in the Israeli public. I hope that such thinking does not obscure the long-term visionary goal, which is that everybody would benefit even more from peace.

On this point, it is nonetheless important for us in the Diaspora to respect Israel’s democratic process. We should remember that it is not just the leaders at the table and the hopes of American Jewry and the Obama administration that are in play here. The more formidable problem is this: Netanyahu’s own party and some of his coalition partners are not on board with him. If he makes what Likud sees as a rash decision (like, for example, extending the settlement moratorium), he’ll be out of a job.

And the same applies to Abbas and Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad as well. Perhaps you saw the news blurb online (curiously, the New York Times missed this) that on Monday, a few days after leaving Washington, Mr. Abbas stated clearly, for the record, that the PA will never recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” He knows that doing so is political suicide (or perhaps even actual suicide); for some of his constituents, even meeting Netanyahu raises the spectre of treason.

But let us hope that the majority opinion and cooler heads on both sides will prevail.

4. There are not many outstanding issues that require negotiation. Many of the details required by the Oslo accords of 17 years ago (can it really be that long?!) have already been worked out. All we are facing now is the set of tricky issues that I have already identified.

The moment is now, says Indyk; all that remains is the willpower and courage of Abbas and Netanyahu to make the politically complicated decisions.

I was listening to the NPR News Quiz Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me last Sunday afternoon, and the host remarked sarcastically that the stakes for the first meeting in Washington were so low, that it was considered successful merely because the two sides agreed to meet again. This may be funny, or perhaps pathetic, but it is also true. They agreed to meet every two weeks until this thing is resolved.

Furthermore, in the wake of the first meeting, both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Netanyahu expressed optimism that the entire negotiation can be resolved within a year. It makes me wonder, if all they can do is agree to further meetings, what will be accomplished within that year?

Still, the next meeting is this coming week, during, as luck would have it, Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the aforementioned Ten Days of Return. And so, in what we hope is good faith, Abbas and particularly Netanyahu will return once again to the table. And let us hope that this time, they are willing to approach the task at hand with the same demeanor with which we approach God and each other during Aseret Yemei Teshuvah.

Let us hope that they hear the sound of the metaphorical shofar, calling them to return. Let us hope that they draw on the theme of purity that permeates these days, entering these negotiations with pure souls and honest intentions. Let us hope that they gesture to each other in the cantorial mode of selihah, the hopeful, prayerful, and yet slightly mournful chant that is omnipresent during this season, humble in spirit and forthright about the past, with the intention of doing better in 5771.

Rabbi Jonah ben Abraham Gerondi, from 13th century Spain, said the following about teshuvah. “The repentant sinner should strive to do good with the same faculties with which he sinned. If, for instance, his tongue gave offence to others, he should study the Torah aloud. With whatever part of the body he sinned he should now engage in good deeds. If the feet had run to sin, let them now run to the performance of good. The mouth that had spoken falsehood should now be opened in wisdom. Violent hands should now open in charity. The haughty eye should now gaze downwards. The plotting heart should now meditate on the teachings of Torah. The trouble-maker should now become a peace-maker.”

And finally, as we commemorate on this day the horrible tragedy of nine years ago, we should remember that there are people in this world who will want to prevent through violence any form of forward movement. It is up to us to make sure that we do not negotiate with terrorists or embolden them in any way. And the only way to do this is to engage with the moderates. Then we can hope that if Israel reaches a peace deal with the leaders of Fatah, the West Bank PA authorities, the people of Gaza will see and understand the peace dividend and throw off the yoke of Hamas.

Call me naive, if you will. Call me a peacenik, if you want. I prefer to think that I am something of an optimist. But this is the week of return; now is the time to return to the table in good faith. Let us hope that the players who have returned do what is right.

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