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Bombs and Puppies: living between the bitter and sweet

09/09/2018 08:51:41 PM

Sep9

Rabbi Allison Berry


Rabbi Berry gave the following sermon on Rosh Hashanah 5779 on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018.

Just weeks ago, I stood on Israel’s northern border and watched Russian fighter jets bomb Syrian villages. I saw plumes of smoke, flashes of light and burning. The sound of explosions reverberated off the mountains. I could feel the ground shake. We stood for a long time, silent witnesses to an unending war.

 

This summer, I traveled to Israel with the American Israel Education Foundation - the charitable arm of AIPAC - for a week-long seminar for progressive rabbis. There were just 20 of us, and I felt honored to have been chosen.

 

The purpose of the trip was to meet people from all different walks of life and points along the political spectrum. (1) And the itinerary was packed. We visited with members of Knesset from both the right and left. We crossed into Ramallah to meet Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator. And later the same day, we listened to Chen, a resident of Kibbutz Kfar Aza, which is a Kibbutz just a mile from the Gaza border.

These were only a few of the diverse voices and stories I heard during the trip. I traveled to Israel to deepen my understanding about current political realities. I never thought I would also learn a vital lesson about life’s complexities and ambiguities.

 

We found ourselves at Israel’s northern border, on the last day of the seminar. As we boarded the bus to head to the next stop, our group was overcome with sadness. We felt tired and shaken. People were being killed only a few miles away, and we had no power to stop it.

 

Forty minutes later, we entered the gates of Kibbutz Kishorit. This place - or actually - this paradise - is an oasis of beauty and calm. It is home to over 100 adults with disabilities who live and work on the kibbutz side by side with typical adults and families. (2)

 

The men and women who live there run their own businesses, make wine and cheese and farm the land. And, most importantly (at least to me), they breed prize-winning miniature schnauzer puppies. As soon as we arrived, we visited the kibbutz kennel and played with puppies. In less than an hour, we went from witnessing the bitterness of war to a moment of delicious sweetness.

 

My keepsake from that day is a photo taken by a friend. You’ll be able to see it after the holiday on the Temple blog or social media. Please don’t tell my kids - who are desperate for a dog - but in the photo, I cradle one of the beautiful puppy-babies. You can see the joy on my face.

 

Weeks later, I feel guilty about that picture. When I look at it, I’m embarrassed. How could I have enjoyed myself so much when only a few miles away, people were suffering?

 

Israelis live within this dialectic every day of their lives. They experience great trauma and pain, but also celebrate immense joys. I am inspired by their resilience. This summer at every teaching session or briefing, an Israeli expert would share hard-to-hear information about Israel’s reality; yet, each one finished their talk with a story of success. They shared with us an unshakeable belief that a better future is possible. I am struck by how - at least outwardly - so many Israelis accept ambiguity with a sanguine shrug of their shoulders.

 

On the contrary, many of us avoid the discomfort of holding both the positive and negative moments of our lives together in one breath. We crave decisiveness. Why juggle opposing feelings? That’s too hard! So we seek out the comfortable and yearn for answers that come easily. We demand a happy ending. We like it in our movies, our books and in our social media. We shut out news we would rather not hear. We want to resolve our problems quickly. We prefer all stories end, as we say in Hebrew, on a “nechemta” - an uplift.

 

Psychologist Leon Seltzer describes why it is difficult for us to balance multiple emotions at the same time. He writes, “How could you possibly act decisively, or even act at all, if you’re of two minds — or rather, feelings — about something? You may be eager and excited to start a venture, while at the same time you harbor fears about not being able to complete it successfully.” (3)

 

It is not only modern psychology that identifies this issue, but Jewish theology as well: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, "one may look upon the world with enthusiasm and absorb its wonder and radiant glory; one may also see and be shocked by its ugliness and evil." (4)

 

Yet, Judaism also teaches that feelings of sweetness and bitterness, can exist in harmony.

 

On Passover, we mix the bitter herb with sweet charoset and eat them together in a single bite. At weddings, we are also reminded of this co-mingling of feelings when the groom and often the bride steps on the glass and breaks it. The broken glass calls upon us to remember that joy is fragile and our world is imperfect. There is even a saying in the book of Psalms, “where there is rejoicing, there should be trembling.”, (5, 6)

 

There are many more examples in recent Jewish history that illustrate this fragile balance in our lives between marir - the bitter - and matok - the sweet.

 

Rabbi Jonathan Sachs tells the story of the world’s oldest man who died last summer just short of his 114th birthday. The man’s name was Yisrael Kristal, and he was a Holocaust survivor. He survived four years in both the Lodz Ghetto and later Auschwitz. He was the only member of his family to live through the Shoah. When the war was over, Kristal married again and had more children. He made aliyah to Haifa where he started a business making sweets and chocolate. According to Sachs, “If you ever had Israeli orange peel covered in chocolate, or liqueur chocolates shaped like little bottles, covered with silver foil, you are enjoying one of Yisrael Kristal’s treats. Those who knew him said he was a man with no bitterness in his soul. He wanted people to taste sweetness.” (7) At the age of 113, Kristal celebrated his long-delayed Bar Mitzvah. He gathered his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren under his tallit as they recited prayers together. (8)

 

Yisrael Kristal’s story is similar to that of Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people. Tomorrow, we read from the Hebrew Bible about his most complex and heart-wrenching trial, the binding of Isaac. In this story, Abraham does not slay his son, Isaac, and yet their relationship is destroyed. It cannot be repaired. According to the book of Genesis, they never speak again.

 

Despite this life-changing, traumatic experience, the Torah describes that when Abraham “breathed his last, he died in good old age, old and satisfied,” the father of a great people. (9)

 

How did Yisrael Kristal and our patriarch, Abraham manage to build lives of meaning and sweetness despite the pain and ambiguity of living during difficult and complex times?

Rabbi Janet Marder reminds us: “Bitterness is within us, and not within the world. Even when we lose a person we love, the world remains a place of goodness and blessing and beauty, if only we can learn again to see.” (10)

 

No one knew this more than the late Senator John McCain. While he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, he suffered great deprivation and permanent injury. Years later, Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air asked him if what had happened affected his ability to relax or to enjoy himself. McCain responded: “I enjoy every moment of my life. My experiences have made me so appreciative of the opportunities that I've been given and the life I've been able to lead. I always have this...feeling deep down that I want to seize the moment and do whatever I can while I have the opportunity to do it.” (11)

 

When it might have been easier to close the door on that chapter of his life, John McCain shared his pain and his struggles with our entire nation. As I researched material for this sermon, never once in all of McCain’s writing, interviews, or public speeches, did he express anything less than an unending desire, (in his own way), to build a home, a family and a country that was stronger and better and brighter.

 

McCain did not allow himself to become embittered, he saw the world in all of its great complexity and continued to choose sweetness.

 

I doubt he was acquainted with the work of Rebbe Nahman of Breslov, but I’m sure he would have appreciated one of his teachings:

אם אתה מאמין שיכולים לקלקל, תאמין שיכולים לתקן

Im ata ma’amin, she’yi’cholim l’kalkeil, if you believe that you can destroy, ta’amin she’yi’cholin l’taken, then also believe that you can build.” (12)

 

Yisrael Kristal, our Patriarch Abraham, and John McCain built lives of meaning and joy. They understood, as a great teacher once explained, that “[there is] no miracle, just better vision.” (13)

 

As we enter our year, 5779, let us affirm that life is not only about bombs or even about puppies. When that puppy picutre taken at Kibbutz Kishorit pops up on my phone, instead of feeling guilty, I will value it. The photo is a living reminder that we can thrive in a world that is chaotic and bewildering AND joyful and blessed. We can experience the marir - the bitter - and matok - the sweet, all of it in a single breath. For that is the fullness and complexity and beauty that is life. (14)

 

Shanah Tova U’Metukah - I wish all of you a good and sweet new year.
 

1. The trip for progressive American Rabbis was technically sponsored by AIEF - The America-Israel Education Foundation which is the charitable wing of AIPAC. Each summer, AIPAC selects twenty Reform and Conservative leaders to travel to Israel to deepen their understanding of Israel’s people, culture, security and the work of AIPAC in both Israel and the United States. https://www.aipac.org/

2. http://www.kishorit.org.il/en/

3. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201406/can-you-feel-two-emotions-once

4. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth, p. 34. This book is an exploration of both hope and despair through the lens of Hasidism.

5. Psalm 2:11

6. This paragraph is inspired by a conversation with Rabbi Sarah Mack.

7. http://rabbisacks.org/worlds-oldest-man-chayei-sarah-5778/

8. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/aug/12/auschwitz-survivor-who-was-worlds-oldest-man-dies-at-113
9. Genesis 25:8

10. https://www.betham.org/sermon/bitter-and-sweet

11. Transcript of the entire NPR, Fresh Air interview. The section I quote from was recorded in the year, 2000. https://www.npr.org/2018/08/27/642246239/fresh-air-remembers-sen-john-mccain

12. Likutey Moharan II, 112
13. Strassfeld, Michael. A Book of Life: Embracing Judaism as a Spiritual Practice, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006.

14. Thank you to Rabbi Sarah Mack, Rabbi Marla Hornsten and Michele Lowe for their insights, resources and suggestions. Many texts and sources informed this sermon that did not make it into the actual writing. See specifically Midrashim and commentary on Exodus 15:22-25, Midrash Tanhuma, Mechilta D’Rabbi Ishmael, Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (all commenting on Exodus 15), S’Ftai Chachnim: Healing comes only after illness. Nahmanides on Exodus 15:25: “The Holy One’s way is that God sweetens the bitter with bitter.” See also: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/where-the-wood-meets-water/

Sun, May 19 2019 14 Iyar 5779