Tuesday, August 26, 2014

How can we turn Av into Elul? Random Thoughts after a Harrowing Summer

Today is the first day of the month of Elul. This summer has been too much and it is “too soon” to be able to write a paragraph which begins with the words “This summer has been…”. As another cease-fire is declared in and around Gaza (odds are this one will stick, both sides too bent out of shape to break it), Ferguson returns to an unhealthy simmer, and the other atrocities lose their media sex appeal, perhaps we can begin to take stock. After two months in which it’s been hard to string a comprehensible sentence together, all I can manage so far are snippets of realizations, paragraphs threads without clear conclusions. Yet I need the darkness of Av to make way for the early dawns of Elul.
In general, very little thinking should take place during August. It is too hot to think. Europeans have it right when they simply shut down the nation and drift off for their “vakanzie”. Things will make more sense in September.
The Jewish calendar agrees. The month of Av peaks as it enters the depth of destruction and mourning on the infamous Tisha b’Av (Ninth day of Av), coasting in the sweltering heat until a new moon appears. The new month of Elul will bring with it a touch of autumn, that first breeze which reminds us that the humidity is not here to stay, that existence can become merciful again. The pious among us awaken early to “seek out our ways, investigating and seeking a path back”. Preparations for a new year begin, a cleansing process: may a year and its curses end, may a year and its blessings begin.
Yet this year, after a harrowing two months, 50 days of war, how can we enter Elul if the grip of Av well not let up? How can I enter the internal work of change when war is all around? How do we turn Av into Elul?
In 2006 the second Lebanon war mostly passed me by. My friends donned uniforms and disappeared into Southern Lebanon. My wife – six months pregnant – was called for reserve duty at her Intelligence base (dealing another blow to my Israeli masculinity). I hunkered down in Jerusalem’s National Library, reducing the war to a “media issue”, not anything too real. Like a teenager with an eating disorder, I’d stuff my face with news, updates and op-eds at weird hours of the night, and then call for a “media fast”, declaring that “it’s all too disgusting to engage with”.
This summer I did not have that privilege. Perhaps it was the fact that I was responsible for the safety and well-being of 26 teenagers, perhaps it was my own 7 and 5 year old, aware and questioning about sirens and terrorists and soldiers and war. My first war as a parent. Perhaps it was my sister in Beer Sheva, sending whatsapp updates from their bomb shelter, or the fact that now it was not just friends serving on the front, but students. Perhaps it was the fact that the Gaza strip was my home for 18 months in the 90’s (a small military outpost alongside the Rafah crossing) or the fact that this is the first conflagration of the conflict since moving back to Jerusalem. And maybe, as so many Israelis said early on, it simply feels different this time. It’s real. The sirens are not “there”. They are here. And the despair of the people and misguidedness of our leaders feels so thick you can almost touch it.
A word of Torah for a bloody month of Av. Why do we suffer? Jewish tradition offers us two narratives, each powerful and pervasive. But – as Rabbi Larry Edwards pointed out to us this simmer – they are stuck in parallel, always in proximity but never overlapping. “מפני חטאינו גלינו מארצנו” vs. “בכל דור ודור עומדים עלינו לכלותינו”. “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land” and “In every generation they stand up to destroy us”.
What caused the Second Temple to be destroyed? The Roman Empire, or our baseless hatred? A disinvited party guest with a funny name – Kamtza – or the inevitable might and corruption of Emperor Vespasian and his sons?
You can divide today’s political analysts (and ones relatives) into these two parties, and never the twain shall meet. “It’s because of our sins!” says the brow-beating-self-hating-Liberal. “No matter what we do, they will always hate us,” retorts the xenophobic-self-righteous-Conservative. Haaretz vs. the Jerusalem Post, Fox vs. NYTimes and the Forward, Maimonides vs. Yehuda haLevi. Rabbi Ishmael vs. Shimon Bar Yohai. One calls for an internal corrective, the other sees introspection as misguided self-hate. One sees a world out to get us, the other sees us as our own worst enemy. It feels nearly impossible to hold onto both of them at the same time. And it seems to be just as much about one’s own personality as about whether what’s trending on your smartphone is stories about ISIS or Yisrael Beiteinu. Which one is more optimistic? That depends on what kind of person you are.
Both worldviews in their extreme are unhinged. Two roller-coaster rides running side by side with similar experiences and yet inverted conclusions. One is a narrative of total disempowerment – we will always have enemies and that cannot be changed, all we can do hide from history/await divine salvation/mow the lawn. The second narrative believes in our total agency, as if everything that happens in Jewish (or Israeli) history is solely in our own hands. They are both wrong. And they have both never been more accurate.
I am a total “our own sins have brought us here” kind of guy. I believe it is the way our Prophets have taught us to look at the world – Amos, Isaiah, Meir Ariel. And even if it’s not the only explanation for the reality we’re facing, it is the one I can do something about. I prefer self-flagellation to victimization. For what is the meaning of the Jewish people – to fight anti-Semitism or to model an ideal society?  Maimonides seems to agree: the only meaning that can be derived from suffering is self-improvement.
There are days when the entire Jewish people fast because of the calamities that occurred to them then, to arouse [their] hearts and initiate [them in] the paths of repentance. This will serve as a reminder of our wicked conduct and that of our ancestors, which resembles our present conduct and therefore brought these calamities upon them and upon us. By reminding ourselves of these matters, we will repent and do better in the future. (Mishne Torah, Laws of Fasts 5:1)
I used to think we don’t need the Ninth of Av now that we’ve rebuilt a Jewish state. Why mourn destruction now that we are rebuilding. I know today that there is no more important holiday today, in this era of our Third Sovereignty. The month of Av reminds us that we can have it all – and then lose it. And that it is our own mistakes that will make us lose it. If we don’t shape up it will happen again.
Thus the nights of Av make way for the dawns of Elul.

But then I raise my gaze from the comforts of Jewish guilt and look the enemy in the eye – and the hatred is real, and eerily repetitive. How can I indulge in introspection when I am under attack? Yes, I am flawed, but the attack is real. Like Job’s friends, those on the sidelines – rooting for me, yes – come and tell me that I am the source of the problem. I welcome such criticism, but right now it is doubly hard to hear. I want to believe my enemies (external and internal) are rational, enlightened, reasonable; and that “if only I would…” then surely “they would…”. But the medieval violence of this summer makes me question those assumptions. And so I can sit out Elul in my self-righteous bunker and claim it is everyone else’s fault but my own.
Betrayed by our leaders. Trapped under their rule. This is not a description of Gaza, it is a description of Israel. “If only someone else was the leader now and not that shmuck” “If only democratic elections meant that my ideology always wins”. It seems that the Israeli narrative of the first month of conflict was a renewed Israeli solidarity, a careful leadership and a homefront that discovered it had a spine. The narrative of the second month has been the waffling of the leadership and the abandonment of those towns and kibbutzim closest to the front. Either way, the people are something to be proud of, the leadership is not. And yet – as always – the people will pay the price while the politicans keep eachother propped up. I can only imagine what the internal narrative on the other side is.
Then why do I still expect “leaders” to solve this crisis – Israeli, Palestinian, American? There is no ilitary solution, but it seems there is no political solution either – at least not one to be generated by so-called “heads of state”. But what is the alternative, and am I really ready to embrace what such an alternative might means for my life? The conclusion seems to be that it is not enough to simply vote in the elections and post things to Facebook to make a difference. So now what?
Unable to change my leadership, and unwilling to take the mantle of political action myself, I can at least turn the reality of Av into a metaphor for Elul. Like the failed leadership of our states, my own life has been led by weak, indecisive leadership. Like them, I have opted to keep the status quo at all costs, preferring short term comfort over long term health. Like them I have gullibly believed in the power of a third-party to knock sense into me (John Kerry, personal trainer), or that an appeal to rationality will bring an “end of the conflict”. I mean, we all know when the right answer is in the end, why can’t we just get there now? In my own life, it is not so simple. Why doesn’t he just shake off the bad internal leadership and become the change he wants to see in the world? I don’t know, maybe because it’s easier to blame outside enemies (especially when they are real, like your kids taking up all your extra time).
Half a thought. Anyone who left this summer with the same opinions as they had entering it, is wrong. As the events unfolded in the Middle East this summer, on the streets of Gaza, the siren towers of Tel Aviv, the hills of Northern Iraq, the conference rooms of Washington and Cairo, did nothing make you change your mind? Did you not learn anything new that reshapes your understanding of the situation? In all those news items and op-eds and you tube videos, not to mention first-person experiences, was there nothing consciousness-altering? If you are holding fast to the same diagnoses and data that you had before all this happened, if you haven’t revisited your tightly held axioms, truly engaged a perspective 180 degrees different from your own, didn’t listen to voices that undermine what you believe to be true… well, then you’re probably like all the rest of us. But maybe we can use these next 30 days, outside the barrage of rockets and news flashes, to reach some fresh conclusions.
Agnon in his compendium “Days of Awe” describes the upcoming 40 days between now and Yom Kippur as “Days that don’t return, hours that will not reoccur”. Elul is all about opportunity. Will we take it? Will I?
Resh Lakish said: What is the meaning of the verse (Proverbs 3:34):
“As for the scoffers, He scoffs at them / But to the humble He grants favor”?
A person who comes to defile - the doors are opened to him;
But one who comes to purify - is helped.

In the school of Rabbi Ishmael it was taught:
It can be likened to a shopkeeper selling [foul smelling] Kerosene Oil and [wonderfully fragrant] Persimmon Oil.
If a purchaser comes to measure Kerosene, the shopkeeper says to him: Measure it out for yourself;
But to one who came to measure out Persimmon Oil he says: Hang on, wait, until I can measure together with you, so that both you and I may become perfumed.
(Talmud Bavli Yoma 39a)

God, claims Rabbi Ishmael, likes to smoke it up with his customers. Those who purchase the good stuff, that is. He also keeps foul smelling, toxic and dangerous substances, and unfortunately allows for their purchase as well. A true believer in the free market, our Creator. She enables those who come to defile (and they are proud to say that they bought their wares in Her shop). But it is those who seek to purify that She invites into a relationship.
After a summer in which kerosene was spilled on our homes, our children, our futures, and left to burn – let’s hope the sales of Persimmon oil go through the roof. And as we come to purify – ourselves, our communities, our collective futures – let’s wait awhile, pause, perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to experience the storekeeper joining us in the pleasure of the moment.

May it be a good month,