Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Faster and Faster, or Rowboats Redux

I recently stumbled on another version of the ‘Three Rowboats’ story, the one I mentioned in my last article. Instead of the fervent believer refusing to save himself from the flood by getting into a rowboat, in this version, the man does finally leave his rooftop perch. The reason he drowns in the end (and gets to ‘meet his Maker’) is because the three rowboat captains quarreled over who would be first into the landing dock, with the result that all three boats capsized. Our f.b. never learned to swim, and everyone else was too busy arguing to notice his plight.

One of my ongoing quandaries in writing these articles is whether or not to revisit something previously discussed or to leave well enough alone. Usually, I go with the latter alternative, but today I’m going to stick my neck out. You may decide if I’ve done the right thing.

Here in The Land, the weather shows no signs of changing: autumn seems eternal and the rains have not arrived. The two chief rabbis have called for a day of fasting, with special prayers at the Kotel at 3:30PM. Things must seem desperate, because even secular kibbutzniks plan to participate in the prayers.

It’s a funny kind of question: why is the sun shining, and whose fault is it? When that question was dealt with two thousand years ago in similar situations, the answer seemed obvious: It’s ours. We are the reason the rains have not come. Today? It probably depends on whom you ask. On Dizengoff St. in Tel Aviv, all signs would point to ‘global warning.’ But in a poll on the Arutz-7 website, a very different crowd, two thirds of the respondent voted that “the drought is because of our sins.” Another article on the same site referred to the mass emigration of farmers in Syria, abandoning their farms in the face of a drought which has lasted for several years, reducing an area that was once fertile to an arid, inhospitable land. From a meteorological standpoint, it would seem to be the same weather pattern. Is it fair to ask whether our sins have caused a region-wide famine?

This is serious business. I remember vividly an incident that happened in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedy in NYC. Someone in Management in the non-profit organization for which I was working at the time had the idea to ‘assemble to troops’ to share their thoughts and concerns about what had just transpired a few blocks away. One young lady, visibly upset, got up to speak. What, she wondered in a trembling voice, did G-d want from her? Did she believe that something she had done, or not done, was the reason that a group of terrorists set out to murder thousands of innocent people? Some questions are better left unasked, let alone answered.

I admit to being responsible for a small amount of the communal discord here in The Land. Last week, I was shopping in the local superrrrrrrrrrr, MisterZol. Normally, when I get to the checkout counters, I avoid…….. Let me backtrack and explain. One of the very annoying things that people do here is place their shopping carts in the checkout line and then disappear for long periods of time, wandering around the store and picking up additional items. Usually, they return – using the same instinctive sense that allows migratory birds to traverse the globe and return to the same tree they left six months before – just in the nick of time, exactly one second before the person in front of them has completed his purchase and they couldn’t complain if you went ahead of them. When you come upon one of these seemingly abandoned carts ahead of you in a checkout line, looking as innocuous as a land mine, the best thing to do – at least for your sanity – is scrupulously avoid that line and go to another cashier. Sometimes wisdom is realizing when you can’t win. And if you get into a confrontation with an irate Israeli, you’re not going to win, regardless of the outcome. Many of my countrymen are holy people – at least inwardly. Others can be described charitably as acting like the five year old children of holy people. They’re entitled to do what they want, they don’t need your permission or consent, and why don’t you understand that?

On this one occasion, though, I forgot myself and fell into the trap. And sure enough, exactly one second before the woman checking out had finished paying, the guy who had disappeared for a good ten minutes, leaving his cart as a souvenir, returned and, even though I had put all my items on the counter, insisted on going first, pushing ahead of me. I have never figured out the best way to handle this kind of situation. If you meekly submit you’re a freier; you’re worse than a freier because you’re encouraging someone else’s bad behavior. Maybe if you’re a true tzaddik, you can explain to the offender in a way that he will understand that his behavior has caused you great emotional distress and is antithetical to the best interests of society as a whole. That’s if you’re a tzaddik. If you’re me, you wind up yelling. I never crossed the line: I did not use profanity or discuss his lineage, maternal or paternal. I do admit to questioning his intelligence. And I did it in English, which he may or may not have understood – although I’m sure he got the general message. If I’m going to argue, I’m going to do it on my terms, using my language. But what good did I accomplish? Minutes before, I had come from an exercise class and was feeling really mellow. All it took was one intemperate outburst at one nitwit to sour my disposition and contribute to the communal discord. But is that why there’s water rationing in Jordan? You tell me.

However, as far as communal discord as a possible cause of our ‘liquidity crisis,’ there are bigger issues at stake than my tempest in a tea pot. For example, recent events in the Shas party, whose main raison d’etre is defending the rights of the Sephardic majority in The Land. One of their members of the Knesset, the only one who is actually a rabbi, is Chaim Amsalem. Always something of a maverick, he apparently went a little too far this time. In an interview with an Israeli newspaper, he put forth what might be considered a program for his party. The top level of yeshiva students, the ones who might conceivably be the next generation of educators and rabbinic leaders, should continue to have their studies subsidized by the government. The others, the ones whose heinies are warming the backbenches, let them go out and earn a living, learning part time. Let them, gasp, serve in the army. Provide a more comprehensive education in the yeshivas, so that the graduates have the knowledge and skill to earn a living. Defends the rights of Sephardic children to attend the best schools. Deal with issues around conversion of the large number of Russians and others in The Land who are not halachically Jewish. Ooooooooow, did he stir up a hornets’ nest, and did he get yelled at by his party’s leaders and the rabbis on whom they rely. You would think he said something radical, like it’s OK to watch TV, or something like that. The crescendo of criticism reached the point that the party’s newspaper Yom leYom likened Rabbi Amsalem to Amalek. That was going a wee bit too far, and the party leadership had no choice but to retract this libel, although I don’t think they went as far as issuing an apology. Meanwhile, the Shas party functionaries tossed the rabbi out of the party and demanded that he resign his Knesset seat, which he has so far refused to do.

As much as possible, I try to stay away from the internal workings of the various groups, factions, and parties, religious or secular, that collectively mis-manage the government and the affairs of state. There are kerfuffles of various kinds in the political parties all the time. If some Labor MK broke party discipline, perhaps certain ‘privileges’ would be withdrawn for a period of time. But there is a limit to what the secular party bosses can do, and they know it. Can you imagine finding posters in North Tel Aviv neighborhoods attacking a Meretz MK who might have hinted that the latest Kassam rocket falling near Sderot might be an obstacle to peace? Would the Kadima apparatchniks insist that its followers shun a recalcitrant party member, or that the local Aroma coffee bar refuse to serve him?

No such wimpy behavior for the Shasniks! They made it clear that Rabbi Amsalem (whom they demoted to ‘Mister’ in attacking him) was “a thief” and a “hater of Torah sages,” and that people should “stay away from this man and his opinions.” In case any of their followers hadn’t seen or heard the message, posters to that effect went up in certain neighborhoods all over Israel.

Do you see the slippery slope looming in the distance like an iceberg? Suppose our shunned rabbi should want to strike out on his own and run for the Knesset with a group of supporters. Might there not be similar posters everywhere threatening anyone who votes for this man with his “strange and heretical opinions?” Imagine if you thought that voting for him would mean that you would never again get an aliyah in the place where you daven. That might influence a few people!

Speaking of ‘strange opinions,’ consider the remarks of Katzele (Ya’acov Katz on his identity card), the leader of the National Union party (for whom I voted in the last election). As reported in the Jerusalem Post, “The current travails of Police Cmdr. Uri Bar-Lev are a punishment from God for his role in the Gaza Strip withdrawal National Union MK Ya’acov Katz said over the weekend. Bar-Lev, who commanded the police’s southern district during the disengagement, is under investigation of suspicion of sexually harassing Dr. Orly Innes, an adviser to the police.” We will all have to wait for the outcome of this matter, because the state prosecutors are currently on strike (you gotta love it!) and they have announced that they will not deal with the case at this time.

Wouldn’t you like to have Katzele’s clairvoyance? Let’s say the guy with whom I was arguing in the superrrrrrr got into a fender-bender on his way home. I could thunder, “You think you can cause mischief with the four wheels of your shopping cart; now the four wheels of your car will cause you trouble.” Or the Shasniks’ high mindedness? Gee, I could plaster the walls in the shopping mall with posters denouncing this guy’s ‘strange behavior.’ Life would be good!

In answer to the question raised by the apprehensive young lady described above, my suspicion is that G-d wants us to act in a semi-reasonable manner towards one another. I’m willing to go out on a limb and surmise that He would be that more impressed by that than by our temporary reductions in caloric intake and all our supplications. If we are going to cry out, let it be for the strength to forgive each other for all the terrible things – real and imagined – we have done to our fellow. May the sun stop shining, and may the rains come.

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