There’s an ancient rabbinic story (now quite dated) that goes something like this:
How can you tell the difference between an optimist and a pessimist in Israel?
The optimist is learning Arabic. The pessimist is learning Russian. (This worked better back in the good ol’ days of the Cold War.)
I am not going to give the Israel sermon that some of you might be expecting. I’m not going to talk about the return of anti-Semitism after 70 years of retreat. I’m not going to talk about Europe or college campuses, or, for that matter, settlements and peace processes. I’m not even going to talk about Iran. I am instead going to talk about what very few commentators are willing to engage in: optimism. Hope for the future. Because really, it’s all we have.
I have been an ohev tziyyon, a lover of Zion, for all of my life. I have lived in Israel. I have a son that lives there whom I visit regularly. I am tremendously proud of everything that our people have accomplished in the modern return of Jews to Israel, from the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, to the many scientific advances that Israel has given to the world, to the easy availability of excellent coffee and, more importantly, free wifi everywhere in the Jewish state.
I have a qesher / connection with the land of Israel, a qesher that is also (as we discussed yesterday) seasoned with a sense of qehillah (community) and qedushah (holiness). In fact, it would not be unreasonable to say that my Jewish identity, my qesher with Judaism, would be incomplete without Israel. When I met Judy for the first time, we discovered that we both had this love of Israel; hers was nurtured in a secular Zionist upbringing, while mine was more closely tied to my relationship with Judaism and Jewish life. We have since confessed to each other over and over that this Israeli qesher is a cornerstone of our relationship.
Given the current state of affairs, I am sorry to say that 5775 was not a good year for optimists. Public opinion on Israel in almost every place in the world except the United States has shifted away from Israel. Israel has come under fire in every quarter, from academic boycotts to an attempt to exclude Israel from international soccer tournaments to the performing arts.
Perhaps you heard about the American Jewish reggae artist Matisyahu, who was initially forced out of a Spanish reggae festival because he would not repudiate his support of Israel. After an international outcry, the organizers relented and allowed him to perform, and he gave them a little dig by singing one of his particularly pro-Israel tunes, a paean to Jerusalem, with exultant pride:
Jerusalem, if I forget you
Fire not gonna come from me tongue
Jerusalem, if I forget you
Let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do
(The song references Psalm 137:5-6:
אִם-אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי. תִּדְבַּק לְשׁוֹנִי לְחִכִּי אִם-לֹא אֶזְכְּרֵכִי
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget; let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you.)
In the midst of the last war with Hamas, in the summer of 2014, while there was much carnage and loss of life and Israelis going in and out of bomb shelters something truly unfortunate happened in Jerusalem. (This was really only a footnote to everything else that happened that summer.) The Jerusalem light rail system, the Rakevet HaQalah, was attacked. Well, not the entire system – only the three stations in the Arab neighborhoods of the united city of Jerusalem: Es-Sahl, Shuafat, and Beit Hanina. I have considered the ramifications of this quite a bit in the context of what I personally know about Jerusalem.
I lived there for about seven months in the year 2000, just before the second Intifada erupted, when I was a cantorial student at Machon Schechter, the Israeli teaching institution of the Masorti (Conservative) movement. At that time, there was no light rail system, and there was (at least until that summer) a certain amount of optimism in the air. Peace was on the way. The Oslo accords were not yet dead. There was hope for a future of cooperation, of an economic dividend on both sides of the Green Line – the Palestinians had even built a casino in Jericho with the intent of attracting Israeli tourists. Ramallah was becoming a fashionable place to visit.
Living in Jerusalem is something like living in Gan Eden / Paradise. Well, that is, for the first few weeks. Then one starts to be aware of the traffic (which is particularly vicious), the high cost of living, the heavy tax burden, the tensions between the various demographic groups, the political snake-pit that is the Knesset, the thornier parts of the Israeli character, and so forth.
Back to the Light Rail: In an effort to help curb the traffic problem, in the early 2000s the city began to build its light-rail system. For a few years it actually made traffic in the Holy City even worse, as Rehov Yafo / Jaffa St., the main drag in central Jerusalem, was torn up to build the rails. It opened in 2010, and I first rode it on a visit in 2011. It’s beautiful – stylish, efficient, well-designed. (It runs on the honors system, which is, I suppose, appropriate for the Holy City – you buy your tickets outside and self-validate on the train. Inspectors do come through and check from time to time, although I have never seen one.)
And, call me crazy, but as an engineer, I appreciate things like this: it has electronic crawling signs telling you of the upcoming stops and warning you about suspicious packages. But here’s the cool part: it’s in three languages, Hebrew, Arabic, and English. So, if you can picture this for a moment, there is a kind of linguistic compromise in play on the sign. First it crawls from left-to-right for the Semitic languages, and then it reverses direction for the English. Once the English is done, it crawls back the other way again. I think that’s really cool.
But the most powerful, symbolic feature of the light rail system is that it was designed to serve both Jews and Arabs, in what is largely a segregated city, still segmented by imaginary lines. People could board the train in Shuafat and get off in the center of the city. (Although I suppose that many people here have been to Jerusalem, I would hazard a guess that very few of us have been to Shuafat. I have never been there, and I have walked many, many streets in Jerusalem.)
The fact that some Arab neighborhoods were to be served by the Rakevet HaQalah / the Light Rail was heralded as something that would be a boon to the economy. Roughly one-third of united Jerusalem’s population is Arab, and the perception is that many of these neighborhoods are under-served by city services.
Against the backdrop of the war with Hamas in Gaza last summer, the three stations in Arab neighborhoods were attacked by Arab youths and heavily damaged. For several months, the trains stopped running north of the Giv’at HaMivtar stop in French Hill. Those neighborhoods were cut off.
Some time last spring there was a captivating article in the New York Times magazine about the “psychology” of cities, and in particular how breaking transportation connections, like bridges or rail service, serves to weaken the morale of people on both sides of the breakage. Indeed, internal breakage in cities causes depression: economic and social. It drags the local population down. Neighborhoods feed off of each other for energy when people and goods flow freely. When areas are cut off from each other, says research psychiatrist Mindy Thompson Fullilove, the vitality drains away.
Now, we might be inclined to think of those who attacked the stations in the Arab neighborhoods as savage enemies of Israel and the Jews. And they probably see themselves as Israel’s enemies. But I think a more accurate understanding is that they are in fact enemies of the future. They don’t want cooperation. They don’t want any acknowledgment of or participation with the State of Israel or with us, the Jews, or even anybody on the Palestinian side who cooperates with the Jews. And they certainly don’t want united Jerusalem to feel united.
I think that we can all agree that the light rail is a good thing for Jerusalem, for everybody who lives there. Connections are good. Flow is good.
Understanding this, Israel restored the stations, and they were functioning again about three months later. But the wound in the heart of Jerusalem is still undeniably there. And all the more so: the trains are running, but the dialogue is not.
In the Jewish mind there are two Jerusalems: Yerushalayim shel ma’alah, the heavenly Jerusalem, and Yerushalayim shel matah, the earthly Jerusalem. Yerushalayim shel mata has been ravaged for centuries by war and dysfunction: destruction of two Temples and two millennia of subsequent conquerors. By contrast, Yerushalayim shel ma’alah has always been under God’s sovereignty; it is the ideal to which the earthly Jerusalem aspires, the Jerusalem of our tiqvah / hope and our tefillah / prayer. We must admit that although we, the Jews, now control Yerushalayim shel matah, and safeguard the freedom to worship for the three major religions who revere her, Jerusalem is still a far cry from the heavenly ideal.
Israel is a very complicated place. When you visit Israel as a tourist, you see what some dismiss as “Disneyland Israel”: the Kotel, the Old City, the wonderful museums, the fantastic food, the sense of peoplehood and sovereignty twisted together in a magical bow that resonates deeply with those of us who make our home in Diaspora but (to paraphrase Yehuda HaLevi) whose hearts are in the East . There is something tremendously gratifying about quenching our yearning of 2,000 years by hiking in the desert, weeping at the Wall, and partying on the beach in Tel Aviv.
But Israelis have a much more nuanced understanding of their own country. It is small, crowded, and relatively poor: salaries are low and cost of living is high. Army service and the constant threat of war are ever-present. Never mind the breakdown between Arabs and Jews – the rifts just among the Jews seem insurmountable: religious vs. secular, Ashkenazi vs. Eastern / Mizrahi, right vs. left. It’s very hard for Israelis to be optimistic about the future.
Those of you who know and love Israeli pop music are probably familiar with the first Israeli supergroup, Kavveret, who were sent to the Eurovision song festival in 1974 to perform their hit, Natatti Lah Hayyay – “I gave her my life”:
נתתי לה חיי
ירדתי על ברכי
יאמינו לי כולם
למדתי מה זה סתם ונעלבתי.
I gave her my life
I got down on my knees
All will believe me
I learned the meaning of nothingness, and I was insulted.
The lyrics are cryptic, but most Israelis understand this song to be a critique of their own state: you give everything to her and she knocks you down. And I have lived there long enough to assure you that every Israeli feels this way at some point.
In truth, it is really a part of the Jewish psyche, both in Israel and the Diaspora, to see ourselves as constantly under threat of disappearance. In his essay from 1948 entitled “Israel: The Ever-Dying People,” philosopher Simon Rawidowicz posited that this innate pessimism dates all the way back to Moses, and is a constant in Jewish thought and culture right up to the present day. And we see it on display in its full glory throughout the Jewish world.
Pessimism aside, Rawidowicz concludes his essay by pointing out that, “a people who have been dying for thousands of years means a living people.” We are still here, and where are the Canaanites? The Babylonians? The Assyrians? The Romans? The modern states of Greece and Egypt are barely shadows of what they were in ancient times. And yet we’re still here, and we even have a Jewish state. The ever-dying people is still alive. Thriving, even. Am Yisrael Hai.
One might even say that Zionism, the political movement that began in the late 19th century advocating Jewish national self-determination, is the most optimistic venture that we have ever undertaken as a people. Given the status of most of our people at that time, it was a bold vision indeed to think that we could establish our own state in the land renamed Palestine by the Romans eighteen centuries earlier.
True, it was borne of pessimism: In France, the first country in the Old World to grant Jews full rights as citizens, the young Hungarian journalist, Theodor Herzl, was covering the Dreyfus affair in Paris in 1895. It occurred to him that if an angry mob of citizens of the most enlightened society in the world at the time could march through the streets chanting, “Mort aux Juifs,” (“Death to the Jews”) then there was no future for Jews in the Diaspora. It was this pessimistic outlook which inspired him to convene the First Zionist Congress in Basel two years later. The rest, of course, is history.
Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah. If you will it, said Herzl, it is no dream. That is an undeniably optimistic statement.
And you know? We can still follow Herzl’s lead. We can return to the tremendous optimism that yielded Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, the greatest Jewish miracle of our time. And who brought about that miracle? We did.
Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine the Israel that you want your great-grandchildren to visit, to know, to love. Is it a peaceful place? Is it well-developed? Economically stable? Vital? Not bathed in fear? Living in harmony with her neighbors? A vibrant, Jewish democracy? Imagine that for a moment.
We will disagree about the various political wranglings that must take place to build that Israel. As the old joke goes, two Jews, three opinions. And it is OK to disagree, as long as we do so respectfully. But everybody around the table has to keep talking to each other.
(An aside: Regarding respectful disagreement, I’m afraid that on the domestic front we Jews and ohavei tsiyyon / lovers of Israel on both sides of the recent debate over the Iranian nuclear deal have been guilty of not merely being uncivil, but downright appalling public rhetoric, so much so that the Anti-Defamation League had to speak up to condemn it forcefully, calling it “hateful,” “vicious,” and “dehumanizing.” I certainly hope that such horrible discourse will never be heard again.)
While a pessimist is never disappointed, optimists live happier lives.
These Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, these ten days of repentance that include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are among the most forward-looking days of the year.
We gather to pray and sing, and of course to eat, and maybe hear a few bons mots from the rabbi. But we also gather to yearn for closeness with God, to ask for forgiveness, to seek reconciliation, to hope for a good year, to carry the sweetness of these apple-and-honey soaked days into 5776. In short, we should be filled with optimism on these days; we acknowledge that we have the power to change our lives, to change God’s decree. That is an incredible thing!
If we can do that for ourselves, we can also do it for Israel. Let’s keep looking to the future, and keep talking, and counting on the measure of Divine goodness that enabled Israel to come into being a mere 51 years after the First Zionist Congress. And we must keep building and rebuilding those literal and figurative rail lines.
So what’s the action item, rabbi?
It’s not so easy. Yesterday, I suggested the action item of wearing white on Yom Kippur. That’s simple.
Today, the action item is to follow the lead of Theodor Herzl, and turn pessimism into optimism. Think positive. Be hopeful. Not in a Pollyannish, naive kind of way. But rather in knowing that doing so is part of our heritage, our tradition. It is what God wants of us on these days, and beyond them for our lives. I know as little as you do about the future, but I am pretty certain that hoping for and working toward a good outcome has a better chance of success than defeatism.
Consider optimism. Come on over to the sunny side of Jaffa Street as we inch toward Yerushalayim shel ma’alah, the heavenly Jerusalem.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, 9/15/2015.)
One reply on “Optimism, or, Building Yerushalayim Shel Ma’alah – Day 2 Rosh Hashanah 5776”
What about the Israel envisioned by Ahad Ha’am? Wouldn’t he be horrified by contemporary Israel? Also, you forgot that Jerusalem is also the capital of Palestine. Must be shared peacefully and without barriers by two people who are brothers (we just read about Ishmael) if there is ever to be peace and justice within her limits.