Beliefnet
Truths You Can Use

President Obama lands today in Israel. It is his first visit as President.

His relationship with Israelis has had its ups and downs. He intrigued and inspired many Israelis during the 2008 campaign. One merchant interviewed recently in the New York Times recalled selling thousands of kaepas (small skullcaps worn by religiously observant Jews) inscribed in Hebrew with the Obama campaign slogan, “change you can believe in.”

obama israel trip

How The Relationship Waned

Criticism grew quickly, however, following the President’s March 2009 trip to the Middle East. While he visited Israel’s neighbor Egypt, and delivered an important speech there, the President did not visit Israel.

The message and focus of his speech also alienated many Israelis. It seemed to link the purpose of the founding of the state of Israel with Jewish sufferering during the Holocaust.

It did not note the connection between the Jewish state and the land of Israel dating back to the Bible, and seemed to bypass the two thousand years of Jewish longing for return to Israel.

The Love Affair With Bill Clinton

Israelis’ coolness toward Obama differs significantly from their love of former President Bill Clinton. Moshe Halbertal, a scholar and astute observor of Israeli society, said recently if he were eligible to run, Clinton could be elected Prime Minister of Israel.

Even through President Obama’s policies toward Israel do not differ materially from those of President Clinton, their perception does. In relating to Israelis, President Clinton displayed his knowledge of the potent observation by Poet Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

During this visit, President Obama has the opportunity to change the way Israelis feel. Here’s what we can do:

1. Proclaim proudly the Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel: Few countries need to justify their right to exist as often and as vociferously as Israel. President Obama can show he gets their plight and identifies with them by saying Israel has been part of the Jewish heart and soul since the time of the Bible. This statement is neither unimportant nor controversial.

2. Acknowledge that Israelis have tried and struggled for peace with their neighbors: After the War of Independence in 1948, Israel sought peace with its neighbors. After the Six-Day War in 1967, it offered a return of conquered territories for a concrete peace treaty with Arab Neighbors. After the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Israel sought sought another peace agreement. All were rejected.

Israel is also the only country to have ever created a plan for Palestinians to live in and govern their own state. When Jordan and Egyptian occupied the Gaza Strip and West Bank, they did not attempt to create a Palestinian state. Israel has tried.

And the President can acknowledge that.

This acknowledgement would also have pragmatic effects. Israelis are committed to peace, and if the President acknowledgements they have struggled for it before, he can help inspire them to struggle for it again.

3. Condemn terrorism unequivocally: Israel has been the miner’s canary for the spread of terrorism. It was Israeli school and airplanes that became the first targets of radical terrorists in the 1970s. Dozens of suicide bombers have killed hundreds of Israeli civilians over the last two decades. 

The threat of terrorism is what makes Israelis fearful of a Palestinian state. As several recent polls indicated, 70 percent of Israelis support the creation of a Palestinian state. Yet, when asked whether two states living side by side would bring peace, 80 percent of Israelis say no.

If Israelis feel the President understands their concern about terrorism, they will feel both more secure in taking risks for peace and confident in America’s ability to help forge it. May it be so. 

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In a recent talk Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, pointed out a unique feature of the Hebrew language. It contains two words for the one English word “why.” The two Hebrew words are maduah and lamah.

Why do we need two words? Because each conveys a different attitude.

asking the right question

Words Shape Our Attitude

Maduah is passive. It is used by the person who asks, “Why did this happen to me? Why did God do this? Why is life treating me this way?”

It suggests we are at the whim of people and forces outside of our control. It echoes the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which says, our work and our dreams are “meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” 

Lama conveys a different attitude. Someone who uses the word lama is not asking, “Why did this happen to me?” She is asking, “To what purpose is this event? What can I learn from it? Now that this has happened, how best can I respond?”

One kind of question leads to frustration and despair. The other leads to growth and change. One looks for someone or something to blame. The other embraces responsibility. One looks backward. The other pushes forward.

And asking the right question can make all the difference.

Saving Her Life By Saving Others

Rabbi Sidney Greenberg illustrates this truth in a story of a hospital visit he once made. He was going to see a member of his synagogue who was ill.

On his way to her room, he ran into a hospital volunteer. He couldn’t believe this volunteer was there.

She had just recovered from an awful cancer, and had gone through a divorce in the process. She had so much to be upset about, and yet here she was volunteering at the hospital.

He asked her, “With all your troubles, where do you get the strength to help others?”

“Rabbi,” she said, “this work saves me. If I didn’t come here twice a week, I don’t think I’d be able to carry on at all.”

Giving gives us life. It nourishes us. It holds us up when we feel like falling.  

The Dead Sea and the Sea of Life

We find proof for this lesson in the very geography of the land of Israel. Israel has two main bodies of water:  the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. They are both fed by the Jordan River.

Yet, they differ significantly.

The Sea of Galilee is full of life. It has greenery, fish, living creature. The Dead Sea, as its name implies, has no life. What’s the difference?

The Dead Sea receives water, but does not give it. The Sea of Galilee both receives and gives.

The Dead Sea is a reservoir. It keeps its water for itself. The Sea of Galilee is a spring. It gives so that it lives. 

So can we. 

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jewish pope

Chutzpah is a Yiddish word with no exact English translation. The closest English equivalent would be “audacity” or “boldness.”

But chutzpah also contains an element of passion, social concern and self-confidence. Someone with chutzpah knows what he believes, and knows that he is right.

Chutzpah Makes a Pope Impossible

Perhaps the embrace of chutzpah has doomed any effort to appoint a Pope-type figure  for the Jewish people. There have been periodic attempts throughout history to do so, and even today certain communities have “chief rabbis.”

Yet, the power of any one individual in Judaism is determined by influence, not law or regulation. One can only earn influence, and not simply obtain it by virtue of position.

The nature of Judaism itself also makes the appointment of any “infallible” leader impossible. Here’s why:

1. A group carries more weight than an individual: In Jewish tradition, a majority of scholars determines the law. No one individual–even God–can determine what one must do and believe.

The classic example of this truth comes in a talmudic story in which a group of rabbis determines that a certain ritual item is kosher, even when God says it is not. The rabbis answer God by saying, “You’re in Heaven. We’re on earth. We need to figure this out!”

2. What we do matters more than what we believe: In Judaism doctrine is seconary to behavior, and the proper behavior has already been determined in Biblical and talmudic law. The role of contemporary religious leaders is to interpret those laws, and not to mandate new ones.

3. Disagreement is a religious value: Judaism has always seen debate and discussion as a means to discovering truth. The notion of an infallible leaders does not fit in this worldview.

4. Judaism has no sacraments: Catholicism is built around the belief that priests have certain functions no one else can fill. Only a priest can conduct a mass or perform the last rites. In Judaism, rabbis have no distinct privileges. Any educated layperson can perform a wedding, lead a worship service or teach Jewish law.

5. It wouldn’t work: About 120 years ago, a group of Jews in the New York wanted to appoint a Chief Rabbi for America. They paid a great deal of money to bring over a famous rabbi from Europe. They set him up in a big office with the title “Chief Rabbi.”

He immediately began issuing laws and opinions. People got angry. They challenged his views. They stopped going to his synagogue. They said the only reason he was chief rabbi was that somebody painted those words on his office door.

Within six years, he was out of the job. Since then no one has tried to fill it.

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passover lessons

Passover is the most celebrated Jewish holiday in America. For many the most memorable part of it is the food.

Yet, Passover is also a teaching tool. We  highlight and expound upon important parts of the Exodus story.  

Fortunately, in his monumental work on the Jewish holidays, Abraham Bloch summarized them. Each is rooted in a biblical verse. Here they are:

  1. The display of God’s power: “And that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.” (Exodus 10:2)
  2. Remembrance of divine miracles: “And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” (Exodus 13:14)
  3. God’s protection of the Jewish people: “The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:13)
  4. The obligation to express gratitude for God’s intervention: “On the seventh day you must explain to your children, ‘I am celebrating what the Lord did for me when I left Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8)
  5. That’s God’s deliverance marked the fulfillment of the earlier promises to Abraham: “Because He loved your ancestors, He chose to bless their descendants, and He personally brought you out of Egypt with a great display of power.” (Deuteronomy 4:37)
  6. That the Exodus is the beginning of the Israelite journey to sovereignty in the land of Israel and free exercise of their religion: “Observe therefore all the commands I am giving you today, so that you may have the strength to go in and take over the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy, 11:8)
  7. That the Exodus reminds us of the possibility of redemption: Stand in awe of the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast and take your oaths in his name. He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes.
  8. To remember that we were once slaves: “Be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Deuteronomy 6:12)
  9. To follow God’s commandments because we were once slaves, and the laws preserve our freedom: “Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, so be careful to obey all these decrees.  (Deuteronomy, 16:12)
  10. To sustain the Covenant in every generation: “The king gave this order to all the people: ‘Celebrate the Passover to the Lord your God, as it is written in the Book of the Covenant.’” (2 Kings: 23:21)
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