Pick your redemption

There’s something about being Jewish that makes you think big. Jews can easily schmooze about global stuff — the bigger the better. We’re here for all of humanity.

We want to save the planet, whether from global evil or global warming. When we talk about our own problems, we also lean to the dramatic; we’re constantly at a crossroads, fearing for our survival, talking about “the future of the Jewish people.”

Maybe it has to do with our big bang beginnings, when we all had front row seats to God’s revelations. We were born in drama, we grew up in drama and we shall forever live in drama.

So it was business as usual the other night when a historian from Aish Hatorah gave a lecture at my place called, “The Edge of History.” Talk about big. It seemed like every few minutes we heard the words prophecy, redemption or revelation. The speaker, Rabbi Ken Spiro, was using a slick PowerPoint presentation to impress on us that the era of global redemption was at hand, and there is no time to waste to return to God.

The rabbi was no fool. He was prepared for a skeptical audience, so he went through many of the biblical prophecies – the Jews will be small, they’ll be hated by the world, they’ll survive, an enemy will have a “weapon of mass destruction,” etc. — to make the point that if those prophecies came true, why can’t others?

He was especially interested in the prophecy that all Jews will return to God. According to the biblical and rabbinical sources Spiro quoted, this teshuva, or return, is critical if we want to survive as a people and fulfill our role as the redeemers of humanity.

In truth, it was a compelling presentation. When he was done, there was a sense that we had witnessed something incredibly important. It couldn’t get any bigger — the future of the world and the Jews’ vital role in shaping it. When your mind is consumed with whether you have a snack ready for the kids tomorrow, it feels oddly relaxing to talk about the end of the world.

But while we were highly impressed, even awed, I didn’t get a sense that anyone was personally moved. Some of us might have been swept away in the moment, but that seemed to blow over once the shmoozing started.

Of course, it didn’t help that something was still lingering in my mind — like a little barbecue party.

You see, by a strange quirk of timing, a few hours earlier, my teenage daughter and her friends from Yula High School hosted a little barbecue for a couple of Jewish girls visiting from Israel.

It was a casual affair. Everybody just hung out and had a good time. The visiting girls had just come back from a day of shopping. A day earlier, they were at Disneyland, and they were now looking forward to Universal Studios. One of the girls, Adi, asked for my mother’s hummus recipe. The other, Racheli, was saying how much she’d love to live in Los Angeles. They both asked about movie stars.

There was, however, one thing about the girls that was not typical. About six years ago, on a warm Saturday night in Jerusalem, Adi and Racheli went out for ice cream with friends and soon found themselves next to a terrorist blowing himself up.

Racheli had only minor injuries, because right before the bomb exploded, she’d left Adi to say goodbye to a friend several yards away. The bomber was a yard and a half from Adi. All 10 people around her were killed. About 100 nails coated with rat poison exploded into her legs, and a main artery was severed.

When Adi talks about it now, with her sweet voice matching her sweet, olive-skinned face, she is remarkably calm and factual. She talks about “maybe 30” operations on her legs and another one coming up. She tells me in detail about the night she was rushed to the hospital — how the enormous amount of blood pumped into her body was coming out of “the hundred holes in her leg”; how at one point they had to stop operating because her body couldn’t take the trauma, and how an experimental coagulant drug, Novo 7, saved her life.

She also remembers that in the beginning of her recovery, one of the few things she could eat was ice cream, her favorite.

She was especially happy when I met her, because she has finally begun to walk without the help of a walker or cane. Clearly, she was also happy to be in Los Angeles, a place she always dreamed of visiting. In fact, when I told her I might write about her story, she asked me to please mention the organization that helped arrange her L.A. visit — Kids for Kids, an organization that connects young terror victims with fellow Jews around the world.

In the spiritual realm, they tell you there are no coincidences — everything that happens to us holds a divine message. What could be the message in this unusual sequence of events: a little barbecue party for two young girls who were caught in a Jerusalem bombing, followed by a masterful presentation on the final days of global redemption?

If you ask me, maybe the message is that there’s more than one way to find God and bring about redemption. One way is to think big, go right to God and commit to obeying his commandments.

The other is to think small, and on your way to finding God to see if you can find any Jews who have trouble walking — and who might be in the mood for a little ice cream.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Dream a Little Dream

Joseph’s life is linked to dreams from his youth, and the way in which he responds to dreams reflects the level of his maturity.

As a boy, he delights in using his dreams to torture his brothers and triumph over them. While he never interprets these dreams, their meaning is so clear as to need no expert reading. Indeed, everyone who hears him relate these dreams knows he is using them to raise himself over others.

His next dream encounter is in an Egyptian jail where he tells Pharoah’s chief butler and baker the meaning of their dreams. Here we find a maturing, but not yet mature, Joseph. He says to them: "Do not interpretations belong to God?" (Genesis 40:9) This is a statement reflecting newfound humility. He realizes that dreams come from God and that only God can reveal their meaning. Having said this, however, he then says, "Relate it to me," as if he were God! While realizing the need to go beyond ego, Joseph is not ready to actually do so.

When Joseph is brought before Pharaoh and asked to interpret the king’s dreams, however, he does so from a very deep and spiritually mature place: "That is beyond me; it is God who will respond to Pharaoh’s welfare." (Genesis 41:16) There are two points that must be made regarding this text.

First, to be able to say "that is beyond me" is the key to spiritual life. It is the affirmation of the surrender that is needed if we are to realize God and godliness in our lives. It is the equivalent of Jacob’s "God is in this place and I did not know." (Genesis 28:16) These are both expressions of surrender. Joseph’s "I cannot do it" and his father’s "I cannot know it" are reflections of a level of spiritual awakening that reveals the limits of self and the limitlessness of God.

Second, to recognize that "it is God who will respond to Pharaoh’s welfare" is to realize that even when we seek to do good, we must realize that we are merely vehicles for God. Thus, we should take no pride in doing good, for that is why we were born. The Torah is not saying that we should ignore the needs of others and let God take care of things (Joseph certainly does not do this), but rather that even as we go about caring for others, we should not let that feed our ego. We should let it envelop us in a greater gratefulness that we are privileged to serve. We are not caring for others. Rather, God is caring for them through us.

Here, then, is the key to living spiritually: Knowing what is beyond and allowing God to respond. The first puts the ego in its proper place; the second allows it to be used for the proper purpose.

But we would be remiss to stop here and not take up the issue of dreaming itself. The talmudic sages tell us that prophecy is a small component of dreams. They come from God and speak to godliness, though they do so in a manner that is far from prophetic clarity. Where do they come from? What do they mean? How shall we use them?

Some dreams are simply the mind processing the day’s events. Others are the cold pizza you ate during Letterman or Leno. These dreams are most often nonsensical. They do not stay with you. Yet, there are other dreams that you cannot dismiss no matter how hard you try. These dreams come from the soul.

There is a game children play where one child closes his eyes and tries to find a ball the other children have hidden. As he moves closer to the goal they call out words of encouragement, as he moves farther away from it they call out words of despair. Dreams are like this. The goal is God. When you are moving closer to God in your thoughts, words and deeds, the dream sends word of encouragement. When you are moving further away, the dream shouts out words of warning.

No one can tell you for certain what your own dream is saying. All you can do is carry it with you and ask God. If you do this sincerely and humbly, you will know. If you do this sincerely and humbly, your very asking of God will move you closer to God. Your response to the dream will make the dream a voice for good.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is director of The Simply Jewish Foundation,

The Self-Denying Prophecy

This address was given Sept. 17, 2002, at morning prayers at Harvard University’s Memorial Church in Cambridge, Mass.

I speak with you today, not as president of [Harvard] University, but as a concerned member of our community, about something that I never thought I would become seriously worried about — the issue of anti-Semitism.

I am Jewish — identified, but hardly devout. In my lifetime, anti-Semitism has been remote from my experience. My family all left Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. The Holocaust is, for me, a matter of history, not personal memory. To be sure, there were country clubs where I grew up that had few, if any, Jewish members, but not ones that included people I knew. My experience in college and graduate school, as a faculty member, as a government official — all involved little notice of my religion.

Indeed, I was struck during my years in the Clinton administration that the existence of an economic leadership team with people like Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, Charlene Barshefsky and many others that was very heavily Jewish passed without comment or notice — it was something that would have been inconceivable a generation or two ago, as indeed it would have been inconceivable a generation or two ago that Harvard could have a Jewish president.

Without thinking about it much, I attributed all of this to progress — to an ascendancy of enlightenment and tolerance. A view that prejudice is increasingly put aside. A view that while the politics of the Middle East was enormously complex, and contentious, the question of the right of a Jewish state to exist had been settled in the affirmative by the world community.

But today, I am less complacent. Less complacent and comfortable, because there is disturbing evidence of an upturn in anti-Semitism globally, and also because of some developments closer to home.

Consider some of the global events of the last year:

There have been synagogue burnings, physical assaults on Jews, the painting of swastikas on Jewish memorials in every country in Europe. Observers in many countries have pointed to the worst outbreak of attacks against the Jews since World War II.

Candidates who denied the significance of the Holocaust reached the runoff stage of elections for the nation’s highest office in France and Denmark. State-sponsored television stations in many nations of the world spew anti-Zionist propaganda.

The United Nations-sponsored World Conference on Racism — while failing to mention human rights abuses in China, Rwanda or anyplace in the Arab world — spoke of Israel’s policies prior to recent struggles under the Barak government as constituting ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The NGO declaration at the same conference was even more virulent. I could go on, but I want to bring this closer to home. Of course academic communities should be, and always will be, places that allow any viewpoint to be expressed. And certainly there is much to be debated about the Middle East and much in Israel’s foreign and defense policy that can be, and should be, vigorously challenged.

But where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.

For example:

  •  Hundreds of European academics have called for an end to support for Israeli researchers, though not for an end to support for researchers from any other nation.
  •  Israeli scholars this past spring were forced off the board of an international literature journal.
  •  At the same rallies where protesters, many of them university students, condemn the [International Monetary Fund] IMF and global capitalism and raise questions about globalization, it is becoming increasingly common to also lash out at Israel. Indeed, at the anti-IMF rallies last spring, chants were heard equating Hitler and Sharon.
  •  Events to raise funds for organizations of questionable political provenance, that in some cases were later found to support terrorism, have been held by student organizations on this and other campuses with at least modest success and very little criticism.
  •  And some here at Harvard, and some at universities across the country, have called for the university to single out Israel among all nations as the lone country where it is inappropriate for any part of the university’s endowment to be invested. I hasten to say the university has categorically rejected this suggestion. We should always respect the academic freedom of everyone to take any position. We should also recall that academic freedom does not include freedom from criticism. The only antidote to dangerous ideas is strong alternatives vigorously advocated.

I have always, throughout my life, been put off by those who heard the sound of breaking glass, in every insult or slight, and conjured up images of Hitler’s Kristallnacht at any disagreement with Israel. Such views have always seemed to me alarmist, if not slightly hysterical. But I have to say that while they still seem to me unwarranted, they seem rather less alarmist in the world of today than they did a year ago.

I would like nothing more than to be wrong. It is my greatest hope and prayer that the idea of a rise of anti-Semitism proves to be a self-denying prophecy — a prediction that carries the seeds of its own falsification. But this depends on all of us.