Thursday, January 26, 2012


Last Friday eight of my classmates and myself piled into a minibus and went on a tiyyul [trip] to Sderot. Sderot is a small unassuming town an hour and ½ south west of Jerusalem. Along the way we saw some of the lushest foliage I had ever seen, before pulling up first to the town of Sderot, and then to the Sderot Media Center. At the media center a man named Tom who was going to be our tour guide for the day greeted us. Tom offered us all coffee and cookies, and then a warning—if you hear an alarm go off you have 15 seconds to run to the nearest bomb shelter.

Bomb shelter?? As I said,  Sderot is a small, unassuming town located within Israel proper [opposed to in disputed territories]. It is also around 1-1.5 kilometers from the Gaza strip.  For the past 11 years homemade ketusha missals have ambushed Sderot. The majority [if not all] of these ketusha rockets are homemade. The supplies that is used to make them, comes from aid given into Gaza from Israel. It is, in essence, as if Israel is indirectly bombing itself.

While we were there we met mostly with people who lived there for the normal reasons anyone would live anywhere. One person wanted to live in a small town, somewhere not too expensive to live. Another lived there simply because it was affordable. Yet, for these people a part of their every day life was hearing a siren go off and having to run to a bomb shelter. During our time there, we joked, laughed, sat with people and had conversations over tea. But there is a tension in the air, of never knowing if the alarm would sound.

There have not been many casualties in Sderot, the effects of the bombings are psychological. Our tour guide told us that as a result of his two years living in Sderot he jumps every time he hears anything that remotely sounds like a siren. Children are raised to not chase a ball that goes rolling down the street for fear of being to far from a bomb shelter if the alarm sounds. Houses when they are built, are built first with a bomb shelter so that should the alarm sound the workers have a place to hide. We heard stories of the alarm going off, and people having to decide which child to take if they had young kids [15 seconds is not enough time to free two children from seat belts and run to safety]. There were stories of disabled people who would just make it to the shelter after it was safe to go out again. In Sderot, everyone has a story.

Everywhere you look in Sderot there are bomb shelters. Every house has a shelter [if it has not been built in such a way that the house itself can be a bomb shelter], every school, there are multiple shelters on the streets.  These shelters have become works of art. Tagged with graffiti so that they don’t stick out so much. And they smell. Of sweat, and urine and God knows what else. During our time there we did a sample bomb drill [after looking at pieces of bombs, painted in different colors so that the Israelis would know who sent the rocket over].

For the last part of our tour Tom took us to a lookout. Before we went up he warned us “if I say duck don’t ask questions just do it. Don’t care if your clothes get dirty just get down to the ground and lay there, flat as you can”. From this viewpoint we had a view of Gaza City. From this view we saw skyscrapers, and buildings that looked like they belonged in any city, anywhere in the world.

After the tour, we hopped back into our little bus and headed out of the quiet, unassuming town, back towards Jerusalem. In the first ½ of 2011 over 180 rockets were fired. While the Israeli government has found ways to protect the cities that are under fire, those firing the rockets have found ways to counter those methods.

Sderot is a small, unassuming town that most people outside of Israel have not even heard of. It’s a town where people want to go about their daily lives. They study, they work, they go out to eat. It is a town where everyone knows someone who has been injured or killed in a terror attack. It is a town where almost everyone suffers from PTSD.  But the people do not move, they do not move because their lives are there.

Sderot is not a town over some line that divides what is from what isn’t [depending on who you ask] Israel. Sderot is properly inside the boundaries of Israel. Yet it is constantly under attack. It is a town where everyone is a victim and everyone suffers, yet no one outside of Israel seems to know about it, and I can't help but wonder why.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

D'var Torah

This is the D'var [words of] Torah I gave last week:

The book of Exodus. Martin Luther King Jr. Abraham Joshua Heschel. This list sounds pretty random, and when hearing it one might wonder what do they have in common besides the fact that this week we read the first parsha in the book of Exodus, Monday is Martin Luther King Jr Day in the US, and it is also Abraham Joshua Heschel’s yartzite. To me, it is actually quite fortuitous that these things  came together at the same time this year--as one of my friends put it, drashing on these three things together is like winning the Rabbinic lottery.  What makes these things the “rabbinic lottery?” Why do these things tie together so well? To me, it is how clearly all three display what it means to have courage. This sounds a bit broad, what is courage and how do these three instances display courage to us? For the purpose of today, I am not going to use the dictionary definition of courage, rather the one I am going to use comes from the book To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  In To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee defines courage as:
 When you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.
This week we have many examples of people who probably thought they were licked before they began.
Firstly, in this weeks parsha we read the line:
: :P`Eswøy_tRa oäådÎy_aáøl r¶RvSa Mˆyó∂rVxIm_lAo vä∂dDj_JKRl`Rm M∂q¶D¥yÅw

a new king arose who did not know of Joseph. This Pharoah  saw that the Israelites were multiplying and set task masters over the Israelite people. Still, even in slavery the Israelite people multiplied. In this story we read of two unlikely heroes: the midwives. Pharoah  speaks to the midwives Shiphrah and Puah saying:  
When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy kill him, if it is a girl, let her live.
The orders Pharoah gives these women are pretty explicit: step 1 deliver the baby, step 2: if it’s a boy—kill it. There is no grey here. Yet, despite these incredibly black and white orders from Pharoah
—the person who is the highest in government, the midwives choose to let the Hebrew male babies live, as we read:
N™RhyElSa r¶R;bî;d r¢RvSaA;k …w$cDo aâøl◊w My$IhølTa∞Dh_tRa ‹tOdV;lÅyVm`Ah Π Naô®ryI;tÅw
:MyáîdDl◊yAh_tRa Π Ny™R¥yAjV;tÅw Mˆyó∂rVxIm JKRl∞Rm
The midwives feared God and so they let the babies live. They also risked punishment from Pharaoh when he found out what THEY were doing. Think for a moment, how different the story of our exodus would have been had these midwives not had the courage to do what they felt was right. Had they not disobeyed Pharoah there would have been no baby Moses, would there been another who could have led us out of Egypt? The rest of the Torah would have been completely different had they not been so courageous! This is especially true given their position in society.  According to Hannah Pressman a commentator who is presuing her PhD in Hebrew Littature at The New York University
Consider, then, the special position of Shiphrah and Puah in these initial verses of Exodus. Significantly, the book of Exodus begins with an overt act of political defiance by two women who are themselves serving the enslaved Israelites. Yet these women, seemingly in a subservient position to a subservient people, enter into a high-stakes power play with the king of the ruling nation! This fact, in and of itself, sets the stage for the eventual and ultimate defiance of Pharaoh by the Israelites.
Shiphrah and Puah risked insulting Pharaoh at the least, and my guess at worst  death. Yet they risked it all, not knowing that through that risk, Moses would be born and he would lead the Israelites out of slavery.
These women, my not have thought that they were “licked” when they were doing what they were doing, but they most likely they knew it was risky.
Lets fast forward to the mid 1900’s and the Civil Rights Movement.  On Monday, America will be celebrating Martin Luther King Junior Day. Now, I could be wrong, but my guess is that Martin Luther King Junior did not know if the movement would be successful at all. Rather he saw an injustice, and saw a need to fix it, and just like Shiprah and Puah he did it on faith, he was once quoted as saying: “faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase”.  My guess is, Martin Luther King Jr did not see the whole staircase. He could not imagine how far we would come, while still having so much further to go for equal rights for all. Rather, he had to have the faith to take the first steps, to start the ball rolling, he had to first have the dream for equality, and then have the faith and courage to follow it. Many may have thought he was licked before he began, but as Harper Lee pointed out to us, you don’t often win, but sometimes you do.
One man who believed in Martin Luther King Jr’s fight was, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel, who was a noted Jewish philosopher who wrote well known books such as Man Is Not Alone, God In Search of Man,  and The Sabbath,  was also a fighter of civil rights. Heschel believed that we needed not textbooks, but what he called “text people”, people who through their actions and how they walked in the world lived the Torah.  Heschel saw the teachings of the prophets as a call for social action in the United states, and he worked for racial equality. Heschel had the courage to stand up and be a text-person fighting against what he believed was one of the biggest threats to mankind. He once said: Racism is man’s gravest threat to man-the maximum of hatred for the minimum of reason. Heschel’s support of Martin Luther King Jr went beyond simply agreeing with his message. Heschel once said “To be is to stand for”, and Heschel had the courage to be. He had the courage here to speak up against what he saw as a grave injustice in the world, as someone who was not experiancing the injustice himself but knew it needed to be fixed. In 1963 Heschel and Martain Luther King Jr. met and not only did they work together to fight injustice, but they formed a friendship. There is a picture of King and Heschel walking arm in arm in the front row of the marchers at Selma. They spoke out against the war in Vietnam. These men worked together, and through collaboration and the courage to speak up for what they believed was right were able to achieve great social change.
We may have come a long way from the Civil Rights Movement, but we still have much further to go. This past summer people pitched tents all over Israel demanding "Tzedek Hevrati"--they saw injustice--inflated prices that did not match up to the salaries . Now, for  the past few weeks in Israeli newspapers we have heard people speak out against injustice against women in the public sector. People are speaking up, saying that things like segragated bus lines go against the Jewish values of this country, and they are taking a stand. Now, I am not asking if you agreed with the politics of the protesters or  if you agree with how they are going about getting their voices heard. What I am suggesting is that you admire their courage. They may not win, and they may feel as though they were "licked" before they began, but they have found the courage to open their voices and demand to be heard. Pirke Avot 1:14 starts by saying if I am not for myself who will be for me. No one else can stand up for you, no one else can speak your mind, only you can work to right the things you think are wrong—the quote from Pirke Avot ends with if not now, when? We need to have the courage to speak up, we may think we are licked before we start, we may fail often, but sometimes we will succeed.