Saturday, January 3, 2009

If Not Higher...

Though the following was written way back in October for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance, it still seems appropriate to think of the same themes as we begin a new year in the secular calendar.

In light of the war going on in Gaza, the sermon also reflects for a moment on Arab and Israeli coexistence in the most unlikely of places. May we see such a day in the near future. Happy New Year!

The Rabbi of Nemirov had a strange habit. Every Friday morning he vanished and was gone for hours. Then suddenly, just in time for Shabbat, he would reappear. No one knew where he went. A whisper went among his disciples that the rabbi actually ascended to heaven for a few hours, communed with God, and returned.

One new student, a bit of a skeptic, could not stand the mystery and desperately wanted to know where the rabbi really went each Friday. One Thursday night in winter, the young man sneaked into the rabbi's house. He climbed under the rabbi's bed and waited there all night until the rabbi awoke just before daybreak. The rabbi dressed himself in old, dirty clothes, the clothes of a woodsman. Taking an axe and a large bag from a hook on the wall, out he went.

The young man followed as the rabbi went deep into the woods. At one point the rabbi stopped, and chopped and split as much firewood as he could put into the bag. He then continued into the woods, the young man following quietly behind. Eventually the rabbi came upon a rundown shack, and knocked on the door. A strained woman's voice called from within, "who's there?" The rabbi replied, "The woodcutter. I see no smoke coming from your chimney. You need wood. You must be cold." "I am," the woman said. "But I am a poor, sick woman. I have no money to pay you." "Don't worry," the rabbi answered. "I'll lend you the money you need." "But I don't know when I can pay you back." Again, the rabbi said, "Don't worry yourself, you'll pay me when you can pay me."

The young man saw the rabbi enter the house, and heard the sound of wood being unloaded and stacked. A few minutes later a curl of smoke began to float upward from the chimney. The rabbi left the house, axe in hand, and headed for home.

The young man followed him back to town. He could, of course, tell no one of what he had seen. But from that Shabbat on, he prayed at the rabbi's synagogue and studied at the rabbi's table. And ever after, when some disciple would remark on the Rabbi of Nemirov's Friday habit of ascending to heaven, the young man would quietly respond, - if not higher.

I spent a considerable amount of time in Israel working with inmates – both Jewish and Arab – who committed a variety of crimes, the details of which I am generally unaware. They would show up at 8:30am at a Kibbutz educational garden. Thrilled to see us, they would approach us with handshakes and hugs, Shalom Yen v'Evan! They would chain smoke cigarettes and drink instant coffee until we called them over to the benches in front of the outdoor Ark. My classmate Evan and I would lead them in a few songs – a camp sing along really – and the men would clap and smile and continue smoking, thrilled to be outdoors, relatively free, and amused by two Americans with poor Hebrew. The Jews and Arabs sat side by side on the wooden benches, Isaac and Ishmael literally and figuratively, grinning and relaxed.

It was common for me to return from the day and tell stories about my experience. “So I was hanging out with the inmates” was commonplace. None of my friends flinched upon hearing it. I forgot this upon returning to America.

“So I was hanging out with these inmates…” You did what? “Yeah, you know, hanging out with these inmates who I volunteered with…” That conversation happened regularly until I realized something. It was frightening for many people to hear that I hung out with jailed convicts. Before I started the project, I remember wondering what it would be like, what kind of crimes they had committed, would it be safe for a young woman to spend time in this environment. The second I got there – all of my prior qualms were put to rest. These men were brothers, fathers, uncles, and friends – not convicts.

Except they were.

Occasionally, one would share a story with me about he found his way to jail. One took the fall for a ring of lawyers involved in a scandal; another killed his best friend in a drunk driving accident. Some made their crime in America and asked to be jailed in Israel because the Israeli jail system has a unique aspect to it. While we have option for parole here – in Israel, one of the equivalent words used for parole is “Teshuvah.” Translated literally this word means something about “Turning or returning,” but we also translate it as repentance, a theme most relevant to Yom Kippur. It is intrinsic in the Israeli criminal justice system that one is able to repent for wrongdoings and turn away from sin in order to return to society. Part of this is the beauty and the challenge of the Hebrew language – many words used for secular life also hold religious meaning. For example, the seventh day of the week is called Yom Shabbat. While in this word it does happen to contain the same root for the letter seven – intrinsically in the Jewish week, is Yom Shabbat – the day of rest. Not the seventh day, but the day of resting. Whether one chooses to observe this day or not, everyone still refers to it as such.

After gathering together for morning songs and prayers, we got to work. Some days we picked citrus from the trees, other days we shook down olives from branches. We created mosaic artwork to lay as stepping-stones, lots of landscaping, and lots of shlepping. I even learned how to brine olives.

After working for a bit, we would eat breakfast together that the inmates had brought with them from the prison. It was delicious and an honor to be able to share their breakfast with them. Following our meal, we would sit together for Torah study. Now remember – Arabs and Jews studying Torah, together.

One morning in November, we were looking at the Torah portion Vayishlach – the story of when Jacob wrestles with an איש - a man or angel possibly- after which he is given the new name – Yisrael, planting in him the yoke of fathering a nation. “What does it mean to make a name for yourself,” we asked them, “how can you grow and change and earn a good reputation?”

Every day these guys have Yom Kippur. Every day as they sit in jail they are reminded of what act they committed to find themselves there. Once a month when they come to the Kibbutz for the morning, they are reminded of the beauty of fresh air and freedom. They understand that Judaism and therefore, the Jewish State, give them an opportunity for renewal, repentance, and return. They can repent for their crime – and it might take a long, long time. They can renew their commitment to humanity through hard work and determination to changing their ways. They can return to society and hopefully will not return to jail.

As the year progressed, I started to forget why these men were here. My curiosity of their crimes became less nagging. They were someone’s brother, father, uncle, nephew, and friend. They did bad things. They were not at their core bad people.

A complete act of Teshuvah, as both repentance and turning, occurs when we are confronted with the situation once more – but this time we do not fall into the trap of our habits, of our prior crimes. Instead we make the choice that is healthy, not harmful, challenging but courageous. There is no “mapquest” route that ensures success or happiness and at times, we might find it easier to drive along the path recklessly. Or at least, it’s faster than stopping to ask for directions. It is a true struggle to make a change in our lives. But how many times have you told your children, “if you don’t stop fighting, I’m going to stop this car and turn around…” Yom Kippur is that warning sign – the pit stop in our year, reminding us to make a change, repent, and return – TURN around…retrace our path and begin again.

We are not Israeli convicts. Nor are we rabbis disguised as woodsmen. But we all have the chance this year to become better versions of our current self.

Oh Source of Forgiveness, Oh Source of New Beginnings, on this day of awe and splendor, may both our smallest acts and our grandest deeds shine brightly in your judgment. Strengthen us as we challenge ourselves to turn away from the things in our lives that hurt us more than they help us. Allow us to turn inward to judge ourselves all the while, holding our judgment of others. In the New Year, may we each ascend to holiness, if not higher.

Student Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz
Temple Beth El
Rocky Mount, North Carolina
Yom Kippur October 2008