In “The World of the High Holy Days,” Rabbi Jack Riemer tells the story he heard from the Jewish educator Shlomo Bardin, recalling going with his grandfather to the cemetery between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Although this had been over70 years ago, Bardin recalled clearly that his grandfather didn’t go into the cemetery because he was a cohen, but would walk around the fence and ask people buried there for forgiveness. Riemer concludes, “70 years from now, what do you think our children and our grandchildren will remember having seen us do? What we say, they may remember for five years. If you are an extraordinarily gifted speaker, they may remember what you say for ten years. They won’t remember what we say to them for 70 years. But, they may remember what we do 70 years from now. Because what we do leaves much more of an impression than what we say.”
This story brings together two themes I have been thinking about a lot lately-education and action. I will write a bit personally not because I am self-absorbed (at least not only because I am self-absorbed), but because I don’t believe in asking others what I don’t ask of myself. Bear with me, and I hope that the more universal message will become clear.
The phrase from our prayers that is most consistently jumping out at me recently is “V’shinantem l’vanekha-You shall teach them (that which I command you this day) — to your children” (Deuteronomy 6:7 ) My children are now 20 and 17 years old. They are no longer the little toddlers praying on my knees, perched on my shoulders at an economic justice demonstration, or imagining that we are marching through the desert towards Sinai when we count the omer. They no longer accept unquestionably stories I bring from the field, such as when I would compare Palestinians going to the Israeli High Court to the Daughters of Tzlofkhad, or contrasting between the use of fire in their scout’s ceremonies, and settlers burning olive trees.
Now that my children are independently thinking young adults forging their own spiritual paths in the world, what can or should I still try to teach them? Do I still have an opportunity to fulfill this important commandment? I have always believed in encouraging them to think for themselves and remember how my teacher, Rabbi Professor Eugene Borowitz, would apply the Lurianic kabbalah’s concept of “tzimtzum” to education and parenting. We must contract ourselves to create a space for our children to develop. At this stage it is somewhat moot. I couldn’t control their thinking, even if I wanted to.
Our sages taught that our students, and not just our children, and can be the ones to carry on our beliefs and values. Torat Tzedek, and all of us in the human rights community, expand this to our entire society, “What can we or should we do to inspire our fellow Israelis to honor God’s Image in every human being?”
Not everybody appreciates this assumption of responsibility. One of the responses I sometimes get, is “Who are you, to try to educate (they would say ‘harass’) soldiers? They aren’t your children.” I explain that I try to speak with soldiers, or anybody else, with the utmost courtesy, even if I deeply oppose what they are doing. However, not to try to educate is to abandon our soldiers. In the thankfully few occasions where I have found out long after the fact that one of my children did something that I didn’t approve of, I was both embarrassed for not knowing, and upset with those who knew and neither informed us nor tried to speak to my children.
The connection between words and deeds.
At the conclusion of the Amidah prayer, the private conversation time we have standing before God, we meditate, “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, Adonai-my rock and my redeemer.” However, we are also taught that on Yom Kippur, God only forgives us for ritual sins committed against God alone. God will only forgive us for sins committed against fellow human beings after we have made amends with those we have harmed. The words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts can only be acceptable if they follow up on, or lead to action.
This season of soul searching that began on the first of the Jewish month of Elul, intensified on Rosh HaShanah, and will conclude on Yom Kippur (some say on the final day of Sukkot) can be a time for asking hard questions of ourselves, or of simply hoping that saying the right words is sufficient. The words alone are never sufficient. Neither are the questions, for that matter. They can move us in the right direction.
Thankfully, our Rosh HaShanah prayers punctured my complacency – perhaps the meditative moments even more so.
Thinking of everything from my family to the state of our society to the policy changes Torat Tzedek is working on, to the human rights victims for whom I feel particular responsibility, my uneasiness began to grow and spread. Yes, there were areas where I had carried out the promises I had made to God and to myself last year. There were so many where I hadn’t. And words are not enough.
Neither changing family dynamics nor effecting policy change happen all that quickly. But what could I do more immediately?
A plan began to form. I’ve written before about Ibrahim, the Palestinian farmer I have known for 17 years. Despite our success in helping him prove ownership of his olive grove adjacent to the fanatical and often violent Khavat Gilad outpost, only 222 of his 450 trees are left. Last year we demanded his right to plant new trees, but they too were uprooted. Year after year, 50%-100% of his olives are stolen. Last year, “only” 25%. Perhaps the fact that we had brought in a group to conduct an unauthorized early harvest until we were kicked out, and the fact that we spent several days and nights observing the grove helped. But, another 22 trees were uprooted, even though I send a real-time video clip. This year, we coordinated a full-court press for him to conduct an early harvest at the end of September, but it was postponed until the day after Rosh HaShanah-still early, but tipping the settlers off that they had just a bit more time to steal olives. Why hadn’t we even taken the steps we took last year to watch over the grove?
I couldn’t find anybody to join me, and I can’t say it was the smartest thing I ever did, but I spent the evening after Rosh HaShana conducting a lookout over Ibrahim’s olive grove. Ironically, the Palestinians in the area are so afraid of the Khavat Gilad settlers that I knew there was less danger from them. I informed the army and police of my whereabouts. Sometime just after midnight, the outpost security officer found me, brought the army and threatened to call the police. I was well outside his area of authority, but eventually decided that to stay could endanger the harvest scheduled for the next day, and hoped that there would be enough lack of certainty as to whether I had really left, to prevent any attempts at theft later in the night.
I was overcome with emotion the next day when, for the first time in 10 years, Ibrahim found all of his olives on his trees. On the second harvest day, he found some trees where the olives had been stolen and is waiting for a third day to finish. However, he sees the relatively small amount of olives stolen as a sort of tithe. More seriously, he saw a new structure built by the settlers in his grove, and where it looks like the settlers are preparing for additional building. We still have work to do.
While maintaining my lookout, I wrote an email to my family reminding them not to hate, recapping all the violence, theft and vandalism that Ibrahim has suffered, explaining that I can no longer look in Ibrahim’s resigned eyes, and how his story is an extreme but representative example of how the Occupation inexorably grinds up Palestinians because even those who say they are opposed do nothing. There are those who actively do evil, those who support, and those who look the other way. I concluded with another quote that has always been important to me, but increasingly so, “When those around you are not acting with basic human decency, you must be the one who does.” (Pirkei Avot 2:5)
So what do I wish all of you this year? “Be the one,” so that together, we will be the many — the “agudah ekhat” doing God’s Will and God’s Work. May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts disturb us, shatter our complacency, and move us to additional and more intelligent results achieving action. May our actions increase the spiritual harvest we can relish during Sukkot. May our biological and our spiritual families, as well as our communities and societies, be open and receptive to the examples we aspire to be.
G’Mar Khatima Tova — May The Final Seal Be For the Good,
Rabbi Arik Ascherman