Saturday, October 1, 2011

How Beautiful Are Your Tents

A Sermon Delivered on Rosh Hashanah at Congregation Etz Chaim, Ramona CA:

“How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob! Your dwelling-places, O Israel!” So begins every Jewish morning synagogue service. But the words are not those of any lover of Israel. Rather, they were first said by the Midianite prophet Balaam, hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the upstart people Israel, who were growing rather too numerous and prosperous for Balak’s comfort. In the story told in the book of Numbers, Balaam tries with all his might to fulfill his mission of cursing Israel but every time he looks at them, he is only able to utter blessing.

Balaam can only envy those who come to curse Israel today. Most of them are able to succeed quite well. Israel, in the eyes of the modern world, is too compassionate or too harsh, too arrogant or too humble, too heavy-handed or not nearly heavy-handed enough. Israel is a nation with great divergences. There is the divide between secular and religious, between Jew and Arab, and lesser known out of the country, there is a great divide between rich and poor. Taxes are high and salaries are low. An Israeli joke goes, “How do you make a small fortune in Israel? Answer: Come here with a large one”. Certain industries are entrenched hand-in-hand with the government, and a great amount of wealth is in the hands of a very few families. Ordinary working people are finding it harder and harder to get by, to pay rent, to buy even the simplest of foods.

Columnist David Suissa, in an article in the L.A. Jewish Journal’s September 1st issue, analyzes the situation in Israel as follows: “As I see it, three great forces animate Israeli society: love of life (peace), fear of extinction (security) and an impulse for social justice. Until this extraordinary protest movement this summer, Israeli consciousness was largely dominated by the first two – peace and security.”

The recent social justice protests in Israel began over the price of cottage cheese. Israelis love dairy products, and cottage cheese is one of the staples of their diet. This past June, manufacturers announced a steep rise in the price of cottage cheese, and two young men in B’nei B’rak, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, began a Facebook campaign encouraging others to boycott cottage cheese to bring down the price. This spurred on-line discussions about the high cost of living, and by mid-July hundreds of young people had pitched tents in the middle of Rothschild Boulevard, one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, to protest skyrocketing rents. Throughout the month of July, the protesters and tens of thousands of their supporters marched and demonstrated through the streets. More tent cities sprang up around the country, and the movement culminated in a 400,000 person demonstration on September 3rd. To give you an idea of how large that is by Israeli standards, the country has only 7.7 million residents. Think about it – almost half a million people in a country of less than eight million turned up at one demonstration.

The Israeli protests gave me heart, in a summer that saw not much heartening news. Other demonstrations took place in the world this summer. London ignited in a three-day storm of protest over the same kind of perceived social injustice as in Israel. The London protests, though, featured looting and burning. The Israelis dragged couches and easy chairs into the streets and set up salons amid the tents. As people passed by, they sat down, sipped coffee and engaged in conversations about the future of their country. Although most of those who actually lived in the tents were young, those who engaged in the discussions ran the gamut of Israeli society – Arab and Jew, young and old, secular and religious.

In our own country, the angry voices of protest these days belong to the “Tea Party”. They contend that getting the government off our backs will save the United States. The Israeli protests are the exact reverse. In the words of Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot columnist Yair Lapid, writing on the paper’s website Y-Net, “The new people are not trying to destroy the regime. Rather the opposite is true: they are trying with all their might to make the government do its job”.

What is it that makes this protest a Jewish one? It is entirely in keeping with Jewish values, the values given us by the Torah, many of which we will hear during these Aseret Y’mei T’shuvot; the ten days of Awe upon which we embark this evening.

“You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue”, reads Deuteronomy 16. Unfortunately, one of the reasons for the inequities in Israel is that a few families have monopolized crucial industries, and are hand-in-glove with the government. They make huge profits, have no competition and no incentive to change, and they have enormous social and governmental influence. The protests are calling this long-term collaboration out into the light of day and crying for change.

“You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him”, reads Leviticus 19. Midrash Sifra explains this verse to mean that the obligation to reprove is for cases in which one has reason to believe that the reproof will bring about a change in behavior. Calling upon the government and the powerful industries to which it is beholden may indeed bring better and fairer times to the general Israeli public.

“This is the fast I desire”, said Isaiah the prophet, in the haftarah we will read on Yom Kippur morning, “It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.” The protests, which began with a couple of religious young men protesting the price of cottage cheese, caught the religious and moral imagination of the entire country, and showed that, whether or not they attend synagogue, observe Shabbat or the laws of kashrut, that the spirit of Jewish values is alive and well in modern day Israel.

The sheer size of these protests has required a response from the government. As early as July 26th, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu unveiled a series of reforms regarding public housing and transportation subsidies. The protesters rejected the reforms as insufficient and called for renewed protests. Netanyahu then established a special commission headed by economics professor Manuel Trajtenberg to analyze the problems and make recommendations. Trajtenberg himself visited the tent cities to meet with leaders of the protests. What the commission will devise, or how it will translate into law is yet unclear. But according to all who experienced the social justice protests this summer, this is an issue that will not go away. The people of Israel want their country to stand for the values upon which it was founded; the values of fairness, justice and caring for all members of the society – the values of Judaism.

The tents are gone, now, or going away. The day after the September 3rd demonstration, the city of Tel Aviv delivered polite letters to those living in the tents on Rothschild Boulevard telling them to dismantle them by Rosh Hashanah, or be forcibly removed. The protesters complied, as they have throughout this summer, in a peaceful fashion. The weather is turning to autumn, and many of them have had to go back to school or work. Those who had been homeless before the protests said that they still had no place else to go, but would find a less public venue to continue living on the streets of Israel. They had benefitted from a summer of donated food and available showers and toilets and felt that, at least to some extent, their plight had been heard by the powers that be.

What comes next? David Suissa, in the same Jewish Journal article, recounts that in one of the salons, towards the end of August, he heard the following conversation. An elderly woman asked, “What will happen when all these tents go down? How will this lead to anything new? All these tents are beautiful, but we need solutions!” A man dressed in black replied, “Remember when the Second Temple got destroyed? It didn’t destroy us. We had leaders who picked up the pieces and kept our people growing. These tents are like little temples. After they go down, it’s up to us to make sure we keep their spirit growing”.

Like all Jews should do at this time of year, Israel is looking inward and trying to take stock and improve itself. May the ongoing sense of justice that these summer protests ignited grow to make Israel the kind of country where even its harshest critics will be forced to say, “How beautiful are your tents”.

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