Friday, November 18, 2011

Hayyei Sarah 5772 - Love, Not Fear

Four elderly Jewish men are seated around a table in a cafe.  “Oy,” says one.  “Oy vey,” says the second.  “Nu?” says the third.  The fourth says, “Look, if you guys are going to talk about politics again, I’m leaving.”

I am not going to talk about politics today, but I am going to talk about grief.  Like those men seated around the table, I grieve for this world.  I grieve out of love.

Rabbi Stecker and I are currently teaching a class on Maimonides, arguably the greatest Jewish scholar who ever lived.  We read this past Tuesday evening a piece of the introduction to one of his best-known works, the Mishneh Torah, his comprehensive compendium of Jewish law.  In it, Maimonides describes one reason for writing this work is that Jews in the 12th century know far less about Judaism than their forebears did.  Maimonides laments,

וּבַזְּמָן הַזֶּה תָּכְפוּ צָרוֹת יְתֵרוֹת, וְדָחֲקָה שָׁעָה אֶת הַכֹּל, וְאָבְדָה חָכְמַת חֲכָמֵינוּ, וּבִינַת נְבוֹנֵינוּ נִסְתַּתְּרָה; לְפִיכָּךְ אוֹתָן הַפֵּרוּשִׁין וְהַתְּשׁוּבוֹת וְהַהֲלָכוֹת שֶׁחִבְּרוּ הַגְּאוֹנִים, וְרָאוּ שְׁהֶם דְּבָרִים מְבֹאָרִים, נִתְקַשּׁוּ בְּיָמֵינוּ, וְאֵין מֵבִין עִנְיְנֵיהֶם כָּרָאוּי אֵלָא מְעַט בְּמִסְפָּר

“In our time, severe troubles come one after another, and all are in distress; the wisdom of our sages has disappeared, and the understanding of our discerning men is hidden.  Thus, the commentaries, the responses to halakhic questions, and the settled laws that the Geonim wrote, which had once seemed clear, have in our times become hard to understand, so that only a few properly understand them.”  (Introduction to Mishneh Torah, line 40.)

I often hear the same lament today.  Plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose.  Maimonides grieved for the lack of Jewish knowledge in his day, and out of love he produced one the most prized offerings of the Jewish bookshelf.  

I grieved this week.  I even cried.  Like Abraham, whose wife Sarah dies at the age of 127 years, and he weeps for her, as we read at the beginning of our Torah reading today.  I too wept.  

I heard a speaker last Sunday evening at the Forest Hills Jewish Center.  His story is so moving, so tragic, and yet so inspiring.  It is a story of grief and love.

His name is Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian ob/gyn and native of the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza who holds the distinction of being the first Palestinian doctor to serve in an Israeli hospital.  In fact, he was a resident at Soroka Hospital in Beersheva, delivering Israeli babies, when my son Oryah was born there in 2001.  I may have, in fact, seen him there at the time.

Dr. Abuelaish’s story is at once tragic and inspiring.  During Operation Cast Lead in January, 2009, the IDF bombed his Gaza apartment, killing 3 of his 6 daughters and his niece, and seriously injuring another daughter.  It appears to have been a horrible accident, although the IDF has never admitted that, instead claiming that they saw suspected terrorist activity in the apartment.

As a long-time friend to Israel and Israelis, Dr. Abuelaish knew Shlomi Eldar, the Gaza correspondent for Israeli TV’s Channel 10.  The two spoke regularly about the situation in Gaza during Cast Lead, and describe each other as friends.  When the shell hit his apartment, Dr. Abuelaish called Eldar’s cell phone.  Eldar was on air at the time, and put the doctor on speakerphone so that all of Israel could hear him screaming hysterically, on live TV, in mixed Hebrew and Arabic, “Ya allah, habanot sheli, mah nish’ar?”  Oh God, my daughters, what’s left? Can’t anybody help us?  For seven gruesome minutes, Eldar debated what to do, and then walked off the set to make some phone calls to see if he could get help for the family.   The incident was played and replayed all over the world, inflicting doubt and pain on the Israeli psyche and the world stage

Dr. Abuelaish possesses what can only be described as an ironclad optimism that seems incorruptible by tragedy.  Despite what he has suffered, he has recently published a book called, I Shall Not Hate, and when he is not practicing medicine and teaching at the University of Toronto, he lectures world-wide about peace and the necessity of the two-state solution, and telling audiences of all sorts that politicians are the enemies of peace, and that an agreement is within reach of both sides.  

It is important to mention here that this doctor, who specializes in treating infertility and has helped many Israelis conceive and give birth, is an observant Muslim.  He attributes his strength in the face of tragedy and love of humanity to his love of God.  

He recalled, as he spoke last Sunday night, that Cast Lead ended just two days after that tragedy, and at the time he remarked to his remaining daughters, almost inconceivably given what had happened, “I am satisfied that the blood and souls of your sisters and cousin is not wasteful or futile. It made a difference in the lives of others and saved others by announcing the cease fire and showing the human face of the Palestinians.”

There had been widespread Israeli support for Cast Lead.  Virtually all Israelis agreed that they had to halt the thousands of rockets that were falling on cities in the south.  But this scene on live TV with a screaming doctor, a friend to Israel who had brought so much Jewish life into this world, this touched a nerve among Israelis.  Watch it on YouTube, and then treat yourself to all the shocking invective against Israel, Israelis, and Jews posted as comments below the video.

Ladies and gentlemen, if this man, who suffered such a tragedy, can choose not to hate, not to seek revenge, but to preach the message of peace, then so can all the rest of us.  Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish has chosen love over fear, anger, and bloodthirstiness.  

Avraham cries for Sarah.  He grieves for her out of love.  Rashi points out that she dies just after the story of the Aqeidah, the binding of Isaac, because when she learns that Avraham almost sacrificed their son, parhah nishmatah mimena, va-metah, her soul fled from her and she died.  Sarah passed away in grief for love of her son; Avraham grieves for his wife out of love.

One of the beautiful features of childhood is innate optimism, the naive understanding of the world that gradually slips away as we age and encounter suffering.  

In the upcoming class that Rabbi Stecker and I are teaching at the home of one of our Temple Israel member families in December, to which you are all invited, we will be discussing what Jewish sources teach us about raising children.  And of course, the way it goes with children is something like this: as parents, we do the best that we can to try to give our offspring everything that they need to be responsible, capable, well-adjusted adults.  

And we often try to protect (or indeed over-protect) them from the reality that life is difficult, that sometimes you try your best and fail, that suffering and loss are an essential feature of our existence.  Sometimes, we do our children an injustice by shielding them from pain; that is the premise of the popular books by the psychologist and author, Dr. Wendy Mogel.

However, I would wish on nobody, even my greatest enemy, the tragedy that befell Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish.

I do, however, wish that everybody could contract his incurable optimism, and that all of the parties involved and committed to recalling the litany of historical wrongs of a century of conflict would let it go and come to the table to hash out a plan.  There are some things that we, the Jews, will have to give up on, and some things that they, the Palestinians, will have to give up on as well.  And that will hurt.  But we do not really have a choice.

Some of you are now thinking, “Oh, Rabbi Adelson, that’s so naive!”  

Well, maybe so.  Perhaps a wee bit of hope remains deep inside me somewhere, despite the rampant pessimism of our age.  But what I want to challenge us to do today is to conquer fear, which is the true enemy of peace.

We protect or insulate or isolate our children out of fear.  The journalism industry delivers fear to us daily through more and more channels, as it thrives on the maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads.”  Within Israel today, there is fear of the Haredi world displacing secular Zionism - a former Mossad chief recently stated that ultra-orthodox Jews are a greater threat to Israel than Iran.  In Europe, there is fear of a Muslim takeover.  Here, we fear many things, and especially during an election season: illegal immigrants, taxes, “death panels.”  

We may indeed grieve for this world, for the loss and suffering and change and all the different things that cause us pain.  But we cannot allow our grief to yield more fear.  

We cannot grieve only for our own losses, for spilt Jewish blood.  I don’t care how many Palestinian prisoners Gil’ad Shalit was redeemed for.  Blood is blood.  Jewish blood, Arab blood, Christian blood are all the same.  Why do we spill out wine from our cups at the Passover seder table when reciting the Ten Plagues?  Because the Egyptians suffered as well, and as such our joy is lessened.

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish writes in his book, “To those who seek retaliation, I say, even if I got revenge on all the Israeli people, would it bring my daughters back?  Hatred is an illness.  It prevents healing and peace.”

Fear breeds hatred, and love gives us peace.  And love should not be equated with naiveté.  I hope that as we continue into the future, we seek to surmount our fears, and not just with regards to the Middle East, but here at home, in our families, in our work and school and social environments, and here at Temple Israel.  

As each of us in this room gets older, we will surely grieve more.  May God see to it that we grieve in love, and not in fear.


As a coda, I would like to mention that Dr. Abuelaish founded a charity in memory of his daughters.  Called the Daughters for Life Foundation, it awards scholarships to girls and women in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the rest of the Middle East, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian, to help elevate the status of women throughout the region.  Dr. Abuelaish believes firmly what is described on the foundation’s website, that:

“When female values are better represented through leadership at all levels of society, overall values will change and life will improve in the Gaza Strip, in Palestine as a whole, in Israel, and throughout the Middle East.”

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 19 November 2011.)

No comments:

Post a Comment