NO VICTIM (Yom Kippur 5777)
“Until the lion tells his own story, the hunter will always be the hero”. African proverb. What follows here is an examination of self- restoration after falling a victim.
These two pots are the last of a set that I bought in Jerusalem in the summer of 1996, on Rechov Agriffas. I had just arrived for a year of study and was finding my way around. I brought the set up to the counter, the owner told me how much the total was, and I handed him a credit card. He looked at me with an odd expression of surprise and pity, and a slight twinge of remorse, I think. An American tourist would not be buying a set of pots and pans. A new immigrant, an oleh, maybe, who most obviously, did not know how such transactions are negotiated. It doesn’t mean anything that there is a price tag on the item. You simply tell the shopkeeper that it is too much money. He asks you how much you want to pay, and then you reply with a figure that is about half as much as you are willing to pay in the end. Suffice it to say that by the end of the year, I could manage all of those transactions in Hebrew pretty well, with a feeling of satisfaction that I had come out a winner, because I got the price that I wanted. This is what Tal Becker calls “the winners curse.”
“When we make a deal, to know we’ve done well, we look for suffering or pain on the other side to know we’re getting a good deal.” Dr. Tal Becker is the Principal Deputy Legal Adviser at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
He has been negotiating with the Palestinians for the last decade, so he has had some experience trying to make a deal.
At a session during last year’s AIPAC Policy Conference, Tal Becker reiterated his analysis of the peace process in Israel and why it has stagnated.
He suggested that it is easier to understand the stagnant nature of peace negotiations from a psychological perspective. What makes negotiations in the Israel/Palestine case so challenging is that they are between two traumatized groups who carry the wounds of their past and therefore fear the future. Their world views have been shaped by a past of victimization, and both sides want validation that they are the true victims. Objectively, each side has valid reasons for claiming to be the victim: both Arabs and Jews see the land as rightfully theirs, dating their ownership of the land back either centuries or thousands of years. Both claim that the other side is trying to take what it rightfully theirs. Both sides claim some narrative of being refugees.
According to Becker, each side views the counterparts as the villain and wants to delegitimize the villain. Take this case: on April 1st, 2015, Palestine officially became a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Palestinian Government intends to seek retroactive action against Israel at the ICC for alleged crimes committed by Israel in the last war in Gaza. Though the Palestinian side sees this as seeking justice through a legal option.
Becker argues that this move is harmful to negotiations, as it reinforces the victim/villain narrative on both sides. Palestinians want international confirmation that they are the victims, but by doing so place Israel in the role as the villain. This action causes Israelis to feel victimized as well.
The combination of the winner’s curse and the victim/villain mindset from two traumatized groups makes negotiations near impossible. According to Becker, a common understanding of negotiations is that it consists of protecting yourself and tolerating what you can from the other side. A shift of consciousness is necessary for peace, since peace requires more than tolerating: peace demands each side to champion the efforts of the other party, in order to free each group from the victim/villain narrative and mindset.
Imagine if that were possible.
During the Gaza War in 2014, the mother of Naftali Frenkel, came to speak to a group of us in Jerusalem. When asked if the murder of her son made her more hateful of the Palestinians, and less hopeful of any reconciliation with them, Rachel responded in their way. We do not want to distrust our Arab neighbors. We try to be careful and not to worry so much because this is our home. That day, the wolves were out hunting, and our boys were their prey.
Here is a biblical narrative that challenges us to look at the victim/villain narrative in a different way. It’s the tragic story of Jephthah’s daughter.
Jephtha was a warrior whose half-brothers banished him on account of his mother’s social status, and denied him any inheritance. But when the Ammonites declared war on their tribe of Gilead, they sought out their brother for help. On condition, he agreed. He followed the dictum in the Torah by sending forth an emissary for peace, reviewing the facts of history and making a case for reconciliation. Nevertheless, the king of Ammon would not relent. So the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephtha and he went into battle with the following vow unto the God of Israel.
וְהָיָ֣ה הַיֹּוצֵ֗א אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֵצֵ֜א מִדַּלְתֵ֤י בֵיתִי֙ לִקְרָאתִ֔י בְּשׁוּבִ֥י בְשָׁלֹ֖ום מִבְּנֵ֣י עַמֹּ֑ון וְהָיָה֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה וְהַעֲלִיתִ֖הוּ עֹולָֽה׃
“If you give me victory over the Ammonites, I will give to the Lord whatever comes out of my house to meet me when I return in triumph. I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
Upon his return from victory, Jephtha’s daughter, and only child, came out to greet him with timbrel and dance.
When he saw her, he tore his clothes in anguish. “Oh, my daughter!” he cried out. “You have completely destroyed me! You’ve brought disaster on me! For I have made a vow to the Lord, and I cannot take it back.”
And she said, “Father, if you have made a vow to the Lord, you must do to me what you have vowed, for the Lord has given you a great victory over your enemies, the Ammonites. But first let me do this one thing: Let me go up and roam in the hills and weep with my friends for two months, because I will die a virgin.”
Jephtha allowed her to go, and she returned in two months as she had said. So it has become a custom in Israel for young Israelite women to go away for four days each year to lament the fate of Jephthah’s daughter.
When we come to this story each year during the recitation of the Haftarah for Parashat Huchat, which includes the vow, but not the homecoming, we cringe at the end, knowing what’s to come.
The rabbis of the Talmud condemn Yiftach for making such a foolish vow and call him an ignoramus.
What was he thinking?! Why would he have vowed, saying, that which comes out of the doors of my house? Does he keep all the kosher animals inside the house?
The Medieval commentators are equally uncomfortable with him, but found a way to interpret the ambiguity of the Hebrew verse to mean that Yiftach’s daughter was dedicated to a ritual life of celibacy, not that she was actually sacrificed. The Midrash Tanchuma also interprets the verse this way.
But what if Yiftach had reneged on his vow? Others in the bible have done that, Caleb and King Saul, for less severe vows. Would not God have mercy on Yiftach as well? And why didn’t Pinchas, the Kohen Gadol come forward to annul the vow; it was in his power to do so? After all, two months went by for the word to get around. And why didn’t Yiftach seek out the Kohen Gadol for the annulment? The Midrash condemns both of them for their failure to do so.
And why does Jephtha’s daughter willingly accept her fate?
“Father, if you have made a vow to the Lord, you must do to me what you have vowed.” Why doesn’t she simply disappear when she goes off with her friends to the mountains? Or at least put up some kind of argument?
In her book, Tragedy & Biblical Narrative: Arrows of The Almighty, Cheryl Exum offers us another perspective.
If we make Jephtha the callus victimizer and his daughter the innocent victim, which seems to be our natural reaction, we fall into the patriarchal pattern of thinking. We must realize that guilt and innocence are not clearly distinguishable in this narrative. Jephtha is also a victim of forces beyond his control. He is the consummate soldier, obedient to his Commander, the God of Israel.
He is like like Abraham, who heeds the calling, and puts his faith in God above himself and the preservation of his family. But here, God does not provide an angel to stay the hand of Yiftach, nor a ram caught in the thicket.
Instead, Yiftach speaks as the victim, and deflects the blame on his daughter:
“Oh, my daughter!” he cried out. “You have completely destroyed me! You’ve brought disaster on me! For I have made a vow to the Lord, and I cannot take it back.”
She does not reply, “Oh father, Let us go unto the Kohen Gadol to annul this foolish vow. . . and neither does he. Both of them choose to remain the victim of this circumstance.
I would like to turn now to a story from the Talmud. A story about Rabbi Yochanan bar Nappacha, one of the greatest amora’im, in whose favor the law was ruled in nearly every case. He was orphaned at an early age, but taken in by the sages and became a great student, then teacher in Tiberius, respected both in Eretz Israel and Babylonia. He was known not only for his intellect, and his spirituality, but also for his striking outward appearance. He was also, a healer.
R. Hiyya b. Abba fell ill and R. Yochanan went in to visit him. He said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? He replied: Neither they nor their reward.9 He said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand and he10 raised him.
R. Yochanan once fell ill and R. Hanina went in to visit him. He said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? He replied: Neither they nor their reward. He said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand and he raised him. Why could not R. Yochanan raise himself?11 — They replied: The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.12
R. Eleazar fell ill and R. Yochanan went in to visit him. He noticed that he was lying in a dark room,13 and he bared his arm and light radiated from it.14 Thereupon he noticed that R. Eleazar was weeping, and he said to him: Why do you weep? Is it because you did not study enough Torah? Surely we learnt: The one who sacrifices much and the one who sacrifices little have the same merit, provided that the heart is directed to heaven.15
Is it perhaps lack of sustenance?
Not everybody has the privilege to enjoy two tables.16
Is it perhaps because of [the lack of] children? This is the bone of my tenth son! —
He replied to him: I am weeping on account of this beauty17 that is going to rot in the earth.
He said to him: On that account you surely have a reason to weep; and they both wept. In the meanwhile he said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? —
He replied: Neither they nor their reward. He said to him: Give me your hand, and he gave him his hand and he raised him.
We can see in this story, the ability of Rabbi Yochanan to empathize with others, to let them know that he understands them, because he has experienced similar sufferings. And lest we think that he weeps with Rabbi Elazar, his student, because he is morning his own departure, he is really weeping in appreciation of the beauty that life has to offer, and its ephemeral nature is its sweetness.
Once they have some time to share that melancholy moment of gratitude, Rabbi Yohanan asks the same question: Are thy sufferings dear unto you? Or are you ready to move on?
Ultimately it is up to each one of us to make that decision for ourselves, for even Rabbi Yohanan cannot heal us if we do not want to get up out of the bed. Eventually we will all feel like the victim of some circumstance, some unfortunate turn of events in the economy or in nature, the object of someones’ cruelty or indifference, deception or rejection. There is a wide range of suffering that people endure in this world.
We try to imagine,
And then -lend them that hand.
In each one of these three cases, the teacher comes to his student. They came to say, do you still have something to give to the world? In their language, can you still study Torah? They all answered yes. And that is what enabled them to arise and to be restored.
These two pots are now twenty years old, and aside from some holy books, they are the only possessions I have left from that year in Jerusalem. In this one I make the macaroni and in this one the cheese sauce, and then I mix them together. Although I may have been the looser on the day that I bought them, I have gotten a lot of use out of these pots. If only the shop owner knew now how valuable they really are, he would see that I am now the winner, but so is he, in the macaroni and cheese.
May we all arise from our prayer today and be restored for a winning year.
PATRIOTISM (Rosh Hashanah II 5777)
In the 2012 NFL season, Colin Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith after he suffered a concussion midseason. Even after his recovery the 49er coach Jim Harbaugh kept Kaepernick in, eventually leading them to Super Bowl XLVII, orchestrating an incredible comeback in the second half of the game but coming up just one or two plays short of a victory. Since then, the quarterback has resumed his place on the bench, where he sat, in the preseason while the national anthem was played. His friend Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret and NFL player suggested that he take a knee instead, to acknowledge the significance of the anthem. When a journalist took a photo of him in that position, people noticed.
“I’m not against the police. I’m not against the military. I’m not against America. I’m against social injustice.”
Since then, other NFL players have joined him in his protest of racial bias in law enforcement, kneeling or locking arms, and some, raising their fists. A girls’ volley-ball team in West Virginia, a baseball team in Oakland, Megan Rapinoe of the US Women’s Soccer team, high school football teams from Seattle to Camden NJ.
But in the meantime,
Kaepernick has been called the n word, received death threats, offered an exit visa, and worst of all, been called a traitor and that his protest is un-patriotic.
What is a patriot? and don’t say a missile, that’s the third definition:
1) a person who loves, supports, and defends his or her country and its interests with devotion.
How does one demonstrate that he is patriotic?
Right after 9/11, we lived in a house in Long Island owned by the synagogue. There was no American Flag in the basement, and there was no flag to be found in any store in the Metro Area. Sold out! So we took the NY Times that had the stars and stripes printed on two pages, and taped it to the front window. Unfortunately, there is nothing more unifying than suffering an attack on the ground of the homeland. And it could have been worse, if those other planes had stuck their targets more accurately. The incidents have continued and so we no have a new rendition of “duck and cover.” We take off our shoes and our belts, empty our water bottles, and applaud the men and women in uniform when they get off their flights home, maybe with a little less enthusiasm now than we did ten years ago, in gratitude for their willingness to die in service for our country. Isn’t that the ultimate test of patriotism? The willingness to sacrifice life, both yours and others- for the love of your country?
George Kateb, professor emeritus of politics at Princeton had this to say on the topic:
“The terribleness of patriotism is if you define it as love of country, just simply that, with the readiness to kill and die, ‘My country, right or wrong,’ millions have been sacrificed on the altar of that idol,”
Kateb rejects what he sees as the inevitable military component to patriotism.
“I would prefer a world in which the general sense among everybody was, no, that’s not how we try to work for the benefit of our particular society, not by a pumped up, trumped up, inflated feeling, constantly demonstrated often with bluster and meanness, ‘I love my country.’ Well, prove it … prove it by trying to make it better rather than making it a more efficient military machine.”
But when the game is about to begin, we all stand at attention, or bow the head in reverence, filled with pride and devotion to our nation, and then we reinforce the exclusive connection between our military and patriotism.
According to a recent report from Arizona senators Jeff Flake and John McCain, many of the pre-game displays of patriotic pageantry are paid for with tax dollars through contracts with The Department of Defense with the five major sports leagues in the USA. And the song that we sing is about a flag that represents an historical battle.
The song describes the unlikely outcome of an American victory at Fort McHenry amid an overwhelming all night bombardment from the British Royal Navy of the fort at Baltimore Harbor.
The Star Spangled Banner became the national anthem by way of a congressional resolution in 1931. Composed by Francis Scott Keys in 1814 during the War of 1812. It was first played at a baseball game in Brooklyn in 1862, later in 1918 at the World Series between Cubs and Red Sox when Babe Ruth was playing. In the historical context of WWI, the connection between battle, baseball and patriotism came to the fore during the seventh inning stretch.
What is the message that we are reinforcing in the thousands of fans who stand with their hand over their heart during this battle ballad? Does this song unify Americans because we share the pride in the defeat of the British Or is it just about being victorious? Isn’t there something else we can sing that captures the essence of our country?
Some song that would help us appreciate the talents of the players we were about to see, rather than feel like we were at war with the opposing team.
If you have ever taken a ride across this country and have seen the incredible landscapes, Mt Rushmore, The Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the amber waves of grain across the midwest, and diversity of its people, and our gleaming cities, you might wonder why America The Beautiful was not chosen instead for our national anthem.
Israel has a national anthem, on the other hand, that expresses the feeling Jews have for their homeland: Hatikvah, the hope that has kept our people going for 2,000 years, actually much longer than that, and the hope in the future, that we can build a better place tomorrow. This is an essential value of Judaism.
Naftali Herz Ember wrote a 9 stanza poem upon whose refrain the anthem is based. It was inspired by the founding of the Moshav called Petach Tikvah, The Opening of Hope, a few miles east of Tel Aviv, home of the Labor Movement and training center for agriculture. The name for this settlement of 1878 comes from a verse from Hosea:
וְנָתַ֨תִּי לָ֤הּ אֶת־כְּרָמֶ֙יהָ֙ מִשָּׁ֔ם וְאֶת־עֵ֥מֶק עָכֹ֖ור לְפֶ֣תַח תִּקְוָ֑ה וְעָ֤נְתָה שָּׁ֙מָּה֙ כִּימֵ֣י נְעוּרֶ֔יהָ וִּכְיֹ֖ום עֲלֹתָ֥הּ מֵאֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרָֽיִם׃
Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt.
Originally intending to establish a new settlement in the Achor Valley, near Jericho, the pioneers purchased land in that area. However, Sultan Abdülhamid II cancelled the purchase and forbade them from settling there, but they retained the name Petah Tikva as a symbol of their aspirations.
Undaunted, the settlers purchased a modest area from the village of Mulabbis near the source of the Yarkon River. The Sultan allowed the enterprise to proceed, but because their purchase was located in what was a malarial swamp, they had to evacuate when the malaria spread, founding the town of Yehud. With the financial help of Baron Edmond de Rothschild they were able to drain the swamps sufficiently to be able to move back in 1883, joined by immigrants of the First Aliyah, and later the Second Aliyah.
The opening of hope is the feeling that the future is possible. The practice of hope is recovering from a setback or loss, and trying again. The Hazutzim of Petach Tikvah retained the name of their town even though it was not on the biblical ground, because their actions demonstrated the ability to begin again. It was a model for the State that would be declared 70 years later. That ethos is what has preserved our people from the time of Abraham and Sarah. As soon as Abraham arrived in the Promised Land, there was a famine and he had to depart. When Issac returned to his fathers land, he had to re-dig the wells that had been stopped up. When Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and exiled our people, we came back 70 years later to rebuild.
Since the year 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, our people have yearned for our return to rebuild once again. And we are doing just that. Judaism is a religion of protest through hope.
The Talmud teaches this principle by calling on hope as one in a list of attributes for which we will be judged upon in the end.
1. תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף לא עמוד א אמר רבא: בשעה שמכניסין אדם לדין אומרים לו: נשאת ונתת באמונה, קבעת עתים לתורה, עסקת בפריה ורביה, צפית לישועה, פלפלת בחכמה, הבנת דבר מתוך דבר?
Were you religious in your business?
Did you make time for spiritual development?
Did you nurture the next generation?
Did you engage in intellectual pursuits?
Did you open your mind to see the nuance of the issue
Did you yearn for Salvation ?
Rashi says that this mean the Prophetic vision of the messianic era.
The RAN, Rabenu Nissim of Gerona says no, this means that it is your responsibility to do something in your own time to bring about salvation.
Rav Kook, Chief Rabbi of the First Yishuv in Palestine, echoes this notion saying, the rabbis of the Talmud chose the word
“צפיה”. ולא “קוית”
Because while both words essentially mean hope, צפיה also means to see, to have vision, like the watchmen that Isaiah refers to in the tower. They can see from above and they let the people know who is coming, and what to do. Therefore, says Rav Kook, when the heavenly court asks us
צפית לישועה, did you yearn for Salvation?
They mean, were you able to see clearly, the problems in the world in your time, and were you able to arouse others, through your vision, to realize their own agency for change, and more so, to mobilize them to take action.
Eli Wiesel, may his name be for a blessing, acted as our communal conscience, adjuring us to fight against our own indifference, to take a stand for the oppressed people of the world. April 12, 1999, he gave this address at the White House on The Perils of Indifference.
We must, at times, protect ourselves from the suffering of others in order to enjoy a fine meal with our family or listen to some fine music. We must compartmentalize in order to experience the blessings we are afforded. But then we must make the time to work on solutions to human suffering and indignity.
Eli Wiesel spoke as the Kol D’mama Dakah, the quiet voice that keeps resounding. We still hear him. But sometimes it takes the sound of the shofar to get people’s attention, and that is what Kaepernick did by taking a knee. You know, his jersey became the number one seller in the NFL shop.
Matt Ufford , former marine, now commentator for SB Nation said that “for most people it is easier to criticize the method of Kaepernick’s protest than to talk about the difficult systemic issue of racism in this country. Patriotism is characterized by actually working to make things better and putting other people’s rights above our own comfort.”
That sounds a lot like the dictionary’s second definition of a Patriot:
2) person who regards himself as a defender, especially of individual rights, against presumed interference by the federal government.
As his act of patriotism, Kaepernick took this pledge:
“Yes, I am planning to take it a step further. I’m currently working with organizations to be involved, and making sure I’m actively in these communities, as well as donating the first million dollars I make this year to different organizations to help these communities and help these people.”
Other players have recently stepped up to support community-based organizations to improve community relations with the police. Even Michael Jordan, famous for not mixing in, has pledged $1 million each to NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Institute for Community-Police Relations.
Writing for Time Magazine, Sean Gregory suggests that 50 cents could be taken from each average $86 ticket by the owners of these professional teams, to contribute to a cause that might benefit society, like improving the education system for the black community.
Sometimes hashtags are not enough: for real change we need solutions and action.
When we amend to the heavenly court and they ask of us:
צפית לישועה Did you yearn for salvation?
May we be able to say,
I have climbed up to the tower.
On my right was Eli Wiesel and on my left Shimon Peres
We looked out into the future
And proclaimed to the people
Humanity can surely ascend
And we can see from here the path
THE GREATEST (Rosh Hashanah I 5777)
Mark Twain once said that the self made man is about as likely as the self laid egg. Although the origin of this saying is in doubt, the term has been exemplified by the likes of Benjamin Franklin who rose from modest beginnings to a great stature. The concept came to define The American Dream: opportunity lies before everyone who is diligent and hard working, to rise in fortune and fame. Such is the story of Cassius Marcellus Clay II, whose father was named after an abolitionist, but who could not drink from the white water fountain. Cassius Clay II whose bicycle was stolen when he was 12 years old. When he reported that to a policeman, Joe E. Martin turned him toward boxing. And that turn eventually brought him from poverty to international acclaim and fame. From darkness to the light, a real story of personal redemption that echoes a biblical one. When Muhammed Ali died this past summer, I read articles about him, things I never knew as a kid. I watched the films of his early fights and the interviews with Howard Cosell. It awakened that feeling of awe that I had of him, watching him fight, you almost felt sorry for the other guys, the way he toyed with them. Ali was in a league of his own it seemed, and he told you so again and again. But it also awakened in me a question I never asked as a kid: why were people so mesmerized by this man who punched people for a living, and insulted his opponents? Today, I would like to examine this question in the context of our tradition, and I call this talk, The Grandeur of Greatness & The Virtue of Humility. Let’s return to our story of slavery to freedom, that begins with our oppression by a king who sees only the greatness of himself.
וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יֹוסֵֽף׃
There arose a new king who did not know Joseph
Pharaoh’s greatest flaw is that he sees himself as the source of everything he possesses and the state of wealth that he enjoys. He has forgotten or in unaware that it is Joseph who made it possible for the king to remain rich even while his people have become impoverished from the famine, forced to sell their land for stored grain.
When Moshe demands that Pharaoh release the Israelites to worship their God, he once again uses the phrase לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע, I do not know of this God you are speaking of, and I will not let them go.”
This is the attitude of the ungrateful person, we learn in the Midrash:
first they ignore the benefit they have received from others,
and next the deny the Source of all goodness itself. It is this attitude that actually diminishes the goodness from the entire world, diminishing its flow from the Source. Thus, God warned the Israelites with the first utterance of the Ten Commandments,
אנכי יהוה אלהיך אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים מבית עבדים׃
I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt
This is how we begin the 10 Commandments, in acknowledgment of our salvation and our gratitude for it.
But ingratitude can go so far as to become self worship as Pharaoh is characterized by another Midrash:
איני צריך לו שאני בראתי את עצמי ויש לי נילוס נהר שמשקה את ארצי דכת׳ לי יאורי ואני עשיתיני.
I have no need of God; I created myself, and I have the Nile, a river that waters my land.
We read the Akaidah on Rosh Hashanah to remind us our calling, but in the siddur, it appears every morning with the midrash that tells us that Issac became a pile of ashes on the altar, the angels wept over him, turned the ashes into clay, formed them into Issac once again, and that God breathed new life into him. This morning ritual is to remind us that we are וְאָנֹכִ֖י עָפָ֥ר וָאֵֽפֶר nothing but dust and ashes in order to instill in us a sense of gratitude for waking up to another day of opportunity . And as we go out into that new day,
Micha the Prophet teaches us וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃ to walk humbly with your God.
June 3, 2016, Muhammad Ali died at the age of 74. He was born as Cassius Clay II, but he was also known simply as “The Greatest.” He was also the greatest at braggadocio, his rhymes and the rhythm of his quotable one liners, trash-talking really, that got into the heads of his opponents, Liston and Foreman, and many others as well. And all of that trash talking included some real anti-Semitic remarks, and anti-Zionists remarks, most probably influenced by The Nation of Islam. But as he said, when he failed the draft board the first time around because of his low IQ, “I said I was the Greatest, not The Smartest.” And yet, although it seemed that he really meant all that stuff he said about people, there was this notion that it was part of the show, just as much as the fight itself. So he made himself admired and reviled at the same time,
and over time, he learned how to be a better statesman in his personal and spiritual journey.
He once said:
To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you’re not, pretend you are. Although he seemed sometimes, the antithesis of a good sport, he advised youngsters to have good sportsmanship.
There was something totally captivating about Ali, his courage, his confidence, his speed and skill, his stamina, they way he evaded punches, his power that made you feel powerful too just by watching him in the ring. Ali was a hero for some because they lived though him. A hero for others because he championed their cause. As strong in his spirit as he was with his hands.
Ali wanted his friend Billy Crystal of 42 years, to speak at his funeral. In that eulogy he said some things that resonated with me: Ali was the champion of so many young men cowering on the conveyor belt that fed the war in Vietnam. Many of them, at that point, were idealistically opposed to the war. Ali stepped off in his prime, and with it his title, a ban from boxing, a prison sentence and a fine. He didn’t renounce his citizenship and move to Canada. He stood for what he thought was right and took the consequences.
One time Ali invited Crystal to run with him at a certain country club. It’s restricted he told him, no Jews allowed. “They let a black Muslim in but not the Jews? I’m not going there anymore either,” and he didn’t.
Or the time Ali was an honorary chairman for a fundraising dinner for Hebrew University in Jerusalem where Crystal was being honored. He helped to raise a substantial amount of money for an arts program in which Jews and Arabs collaborated on original works.
He described the tribute he gave at Ali’s retirement party at the Los Angeles Forum, 1979. He called it 15 Rounds, a routine about Ali’s career from age 18 to 36, just before his rematch with Leon Spinks. In that routine, Crystal impersonates Ali with some of the exact words taken from interviews.
Like when Ali was beaten by Leon Spinks he said: I Wasn’t ready for him, I didn’t train hard enough, I was a little slow, and he got the better of me. But the most important thing to learn is that you can never be a success in this world unless you can come back from a loss and do it all over again.
And that is why Ali was a champion, because he spoke to everyone when he said that. Ali made you feel like you could do it too. Then a young Crystal finished the routine in character: Don’t let anybody tell you, you can’t do something you want to do.
Backstage, Ali came charging in, gave Billy
Crystal a bear hug, and whispered to him,
“Little brother, you made my life better than it was.”
And after a pause Crystal said:
“But didn’t he make all of our lives a little better than they were?”
Although that was a beautiful rhetorical moment, the answer is not necessarily yes. Just because you are captivated by someone of power doesn’t mean the you get any of that for yourself. He only makes your life better if he inspires you to be the best you.
Everyone likes a winner because everyone wants to be a winner. And so we live vicariously, sometimes, though the victories of others, the wealth of others, the power of others. Maybe that is why the phenomenon of reality TV has made it so big in this country. We can see that in other countries too,
who relish having a king or queen of sorts that make the people feel like they are a part of all that royalty, even when the wealth or the power is not shared at all.
Our Torah tells us that if must have a king, then he shouldn’t have too many horses or too many wives, or amass too much gold and silver:
וְלֹ֤א יַרְבֶּה־לֹּו֙ נָשִׁ֔ים וְלֹ֥א יָס֖וּר לְבָבֹ֑ו וְכֶ֣סֶף וְזָהָ֔ב לֹ֥א יַרְבֶּה־לֹּ֖ו מְאֹֽד׃
And if we must have a king, to have a system of defense against aggressors, then that king must commission the writing of his own sefer Torah, keep it by his side and read from it every day. In it he will see the example of a man who held out his staff and parted the sea,
The prophet Moshe, the one who spoke face to face with God.
Of him it was said:
והאיש משה ענו מאד–מכל האדם אשר על פני האדמה
This man Moses was the most humble of any human being in the whole world.
Certainly Moshe was a man of great strength and courage, but he was aware of his shortcomings and his vulnerability. He stood in complete contrast to Pharaoh who was unable to see anyone but himself.
איני צריך לו שאני בראתי את עצמי
I don’’t need Him because I created myself.
Therefore, the Torah warns us, especially in times of prosperity:
to keep our proper perspective
וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ כֹּחִי֙ וְעֹ֣צֶם יָדִ֔י עָ֥שָׂה לִ֖י אֶת־הַחַ֥יִל הַזֶּֽה׃
Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’
For to see your essence as part of all creation -To be able acknowledge your own vulnerability-that is what opens the door to gratitude. and accepting your defeats as part of being human is to recognize and honor the humanity in others as well.
In 1975, Muhammed Ali was invited to speak at the commencement ceremony at Harvard, the only one to that date to get such a rousing ovation.
He spoke about the importance of love and the cultivation of friendship.
“One learns friendship by being one.
So If a man extracts in return all he does for a friend then it is business, not true friendship,”
He said that being selfless was a key lesson to learn in life’s journey,
and that service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.
This is all coming from the man who called himself, “The Greatest.”
In our Mussaf prayers we will say that there are three things that have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny:
T’shuvah, Tefilah, U’Tzdakah
Be determined to change for the good
Express gratitude at every opportunity
Stand up for what you think is right
There is only One who is the Greatest
We proclaim that in our most common prayer, The Kaddish
יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא.
Great and exulted is the name of God
Let us sanctify His Holy Name through our actions and in humility
in this coming year of 5777
and let us say amen.
Peah: The Four Corners of the Land
In 1974, an authentic crime book by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry was published, titled Helter Skelter. Bugliosi had served as the prosecutor in the 1970 trial of Charles Manson, and the book presents his firsthand account of the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of Charles Manson and his followers for the notorious 1969 murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, actress Sharon Tate, and several others.
The book takes its title from the apocalyptic race war that Manson believed would occur, which in turn took its name from “Helter Skelter” a song by The Beatles, actually named after an amusement park’s twisting slide and having no particular symbolic meaning at all, according to Paul McCartney, just a proto-metallic musical experiment. But the twisted scheme of Manson, to ignite a race war by framing a mass murder of white prominent people as a racial hate crime, never came to fruition. But if you look around today, in cities like Baltimore or Ferguson, it seems that smoldering tensions need only a little wind to burst into flame. Not that police brutality should ever be called out as anything less than abhorrent behavior: bad for the police and bad for the people. It has also been bad for people of color in Israel, our Holy Land. You can see that video for yourself of Damas Pakada, the Ethiopian uniformed IDF soldier, being brutalized by the police on April 29, 2015 in Holon, for no apparent reason. “This is not news” commented Danny Admasu, former Executive Director of the Israel Agency for Ethiopian Jewry. “The only news is that this time we caught them [on video].” And this time the demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem turned violent. This time, the demonstrators were predominantly sabras, the new generation of Ethiopians who were born in Israel, and raised in a system in which they found themselves in segregated communities for the poor, schooled there, and when they got to tzofim, the youth training that prepares teens for the IDF, they found themselves, after testing, in a special program for Ethiopians only. MK Pnina Tamanu-Shata (Yesh Atid) was quoted in The Times of Israel as calling these segregated courses “an embarrassment and a disgrace and a certificate of poverty.” She said that the mandatory attendance for soldiers who tested poorly means “that you put the weak with the weak and everyone gets weaker.” “There has been a process going on for years of marking the Ethiopian immigrants as a target for special treatment,” said Chen Bram, Ph.D anthropologist and expert on multicultural policy and diversity management at the Hebrew University. Although the intentions were good, the result of these social policies have kept the Ethiopian community on the fringe of society, marking them as a weak subset in need of special treatment. There is a law in the Torah which commands us to leave the corners of the field for the poor to harvest, called peah. This was necessary to ensure that those whose crop did not come in, or were landless, were still able to eat. However, those beneficiaries do not want to remain at that social status. They do not want to remain on the fringe and dependent on others. They want to have a field of their own.
When the riots broke out in Ferguson last summer after the shooting death of Michael Brown by a white policeman, an article appeared in Time Magazine by Kareem Abdul Jabbar, , the former LA Laker center, in which he advised us to steer the national discussion away from racism: The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race, it will be about class. Kareem contends that while the middle class is shrinking and the poor remain poor, the elite 1% influence the lawmakers to retain the status quo. So he calls upon all of us to stop fighting our allies and avoid deliberate distractions, but join together across racial lines for the social change our nation needs to survive. There is an echo from the 60’s in his message, but one that we have not made much progress on since then, much less since last summer.
After the demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Prime Minister Netanyahu met with Damas Pakada, embraced him before the cameras, and announced: “The ministerial committee that I will chair will advance plans to resolve problems in education, housing, culture, religion, employment and in other areas.” Admasu characterized this as Kish Kush, rhetoric to appease the emotions in the moment. There is work to be done beyond the talk, and that is what we call Avodat HaShem, being in service to the Lord, to walk the talk. A little further on past the commandment of Peah, leaving the corners of the field, is the mitzvah of Shmita and Yovel, the sabbatical and the jubilee year, the observance of which include the cancellation of debts, the return of ancestral land and the release of the indentured servant. These laws were meant to ensure upward economic mobility for the individual who fell on hard times, so that individuals should not remain in poverty. In such a small country like Israel, the job opportunities are limited among a population that is the second most educated country in the world. However, education still is the necessity for upward mobility. Reforms have been made in the educational system in Israel, including increased salaries for teachers and curriculum development. NGO’s have been focusing on fostering educational advancement through tutoring and parent mentoring. Organizations like IAEJ are working for systemic change that will facilitate integration and provide assistance for job opportunities, and the JDC has many arms that try to assist the immediate needs of the Ethiopian community. However, there is some other grass roots work that can be done, to undo the status quo: in the name of Yehoshua ben P’rachya, acquire yourself a friend (Avot 1:6). Just imagine that every Ethiopian Israeli had a friend from the main stream, to help bring them from the four corners of society into the middle of the field? All too often we take the easy route and donate money for tzedaka. But that word means, do what is right. If individuals felt like they themselves were responsible to cure the ills of society, we wouldn’t be waiting around for the government to solve them. So the Mishnah 4:5 teaches us from Sanhedrin: So that none can say that I am greater than you because of my lineage, the Holy One, blessed be He, stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his fellow. Therefore each and every one is obliged to say, “For my sake the world was created.” When we can accept that statement from the other as true as we can for ourselves, the we can proclaim liberty throughout the land.
-Rabbi David Weizman