Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Unreasonable Neighbors

After moving to Israel I find myself attributing everyday experiences far more significance than I ever have before. I have begun to consider many of my occurrences, mundane and exhilarating alike, as a microcosm of the country as a whole. Encounters are scrutinized in search of lessons, and a month ago I learned such a lesson.

I am a college student and I just moved into a new apartment building with two other friends. In the new apartment we have been very mindful of the noise emanating from our walls. As of today we are yet to receive a complaint from a tenant in our building. Unfortunately, as I would come to learn, one need not live in the building to make a complaint.

While watching football one Sunday night (American football of course and it makes me sad that I live in a place where that distinction must be made), there began a sudden heavy pounding on our front door.  I went to the peephole and spied two men, very broad and very tall, slamming their fists against the door and incessantly ringing the bell. I decided that at one in the morning it would not be prudent to open the door for two complete strangers, goliath-sized no less, who were already visibly peeved. After approximately fifteen minutes of listening to our front door being physically abused our power was cut (our fuse box being ingeniously located in the hall way).They waited in the hall for us to come restore the power but eventually tiered and went home.

The next day, at around ten at night, the knocks of wrath began again. This time I decided it was time to face the music. After opening the door I noted that the two men were even bigger than they had appeared in the peephole. The older one asked me in broken English if he could come in. I calmly informed him that I did not think that was a very good idea considering I had no idea who he was. He responded that “he lived in the apartment building diagonal from me” with an Israeli inflection that implied that he should  be granted access to my living room while I get him a beer and a sandwich.  Again I politely denied. He then abandoned his plan to enter and began calmly and collectedly explaining his presence. He complained to me that “his apartment suffers from a terrible echo.” He said that he can see that our apartment does not have a rug or enough furniture, and thus our voices, while not being loud, are echoing directly into his apartment across the way. He concluded thusly that we must keep our main window closed at all times. Israel was suffering from a brutal heat and humidity wave at the time and our front window was our main source of air. After simply informing him that he cannot dictate the window practices of our apartment his agitation began to rise to the surface. He threatened to call the police and I welcomed him to, since I had never heard of anyone being arrested for excessive echoing. He told me through gritted teeth that I “did not understand. I can’t sleep, and if I don’t sleep you don’t live.” After I was finished explaining the irony of threatening me with the police and then threatening my life the young one finally piped up. He told me, with his crazy Israeli short-tempered eyes burning holes into my forehead, “you are very brave now, let’s see how brave you are tomorrow.” Sick of being threatened I bid them a goodnight and tried to close the door. The young’n slammed it open and stormed into the elevator with his partner in crime.

They proceeded to terrorize us the next few nights by sending the police to our building. We finally ended it all after our landlord, who happened to also be a lawyer, explained to them that this could not and would not continue.

The events of those nights bothered me for a long time but not because I was scared or upset.  After some consideration I was able to ascertain what was eating at me. The story was a microcosm of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The unreasonable neighbors were a metaphor for Israel’s…well…unreasonable neighbors.

The cutting of our power was an unprovoked escalation of the situation. The next day they were back but with a smile on their faces. Anyone who has seen Arab MK Ahmed Tibi speak knows that he begins with a Cheshire Cat grin (that can transition into a scowl faster than a Porche goes from 0 to 60). The demand that our windows remain closed at all times was blatantly unfair and was never realistic. It was never mentioned that perhaps if THEY closed THEIR windows the echo would not be so bad. They never owned up to any responsibility on their part. The refusal to acquiesce to the outrageous demands led to threats of violence and eventually harassment.

With the impending collapse of yet another sad excuse for peace negotiations Israel is bracing itself for another avalanche of world condemnation for refusing to meet unreasonable demands and unwarranted harassment from their neighbors. The somber lesson I learned from this Israel adventure is that perhaps there are people in this world that are content to bully and harass others. They may hide behind a mask of calm and reason but underneath they live to badger their neighbors. The chances of making peace with people like that appears bleak to me. Luckily for us winter has finally arrived and we both have closed our windows. Sadly if Israel were to close its window the world would throw a proverbial brick through it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Lesson of Rabbi Uriel Malka

For a large number of people, our very existence in this world is a test. What exactly this test entails has always been a point of serious contention. While I would never assume to hold the answers to the universe (especially considering my struggles with Algebra 2) I do believe that one of the world’s greatest tests is our spiritual and conceptual response to tragedy. As Israel begins to emerge from its greatest natural disaster, the devastating fire in the North, a few public figures have already failed this test in my humble opinion.

I believe that as Jews we must strive to see G-d in all things, good and bad. However, we mustn’t blame him or interpret his intentions, no matter how tragic or unjust things may seem. It is no surprise that many “respected media figures” in the Arab world have attributed the catastrophic blaze to “G-d punishing Israel for occupying Arab land”. Likewise, it is hardly newsworthy that now that the fire has begun to subside the political finger pointing has commenced. However, it is incomprehensible that Shas spiritual leader Rav Ovadia Yosef proclaim with conviction that the fire in the North was a clear result of “the desecration of Shabbat”. While I respect Rav Ovadia for the Torah giant that he is, and while I am sure he means no malice in his statement, it must be emphasized that assigning tragedy to specific human actions is a treacherous practice. 

It is irresponsible and misguided to assume we as human beings can assume to know G-d’s true intentions. The Talmud in Avot (4:10) supports this concept stating, “Do not act as judge alone, for none judges alone except One”.  While this decree falls upon each and every one of us, the onus of this diktat sits far more heavily on the shoulders of our public figures and spiritual leaders.

I vividly recall a story I heard after the explosion of the Columbia Space Shuttle that killed the first Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, and the unsettling feeling the story left me with. A rabbi at the elementary school I had attended told his students that it was clear to him why the shuttle had exploded, killing the seven astronauts inside. He told his students that it was clearly because Ilan Ramon had brought a Torah scroll with him on the mission and since he was not religious the explosion was his punishment for desecrating the Torah scroll. The certainty with which the rabbi said this disturbed me equally as much as the content of his drivel.  An elementary school rabbi has the daunting task of molding a child’s early interaction with religion and G-d and to irresponsibly pass off crack-pot theory to impressionable children is beyond the pale.

I honestly believe that the correct response to times of tragedy is an admission that we understand nothing. What we must understand however, is that G-d’s hand guides these event and that he is just in doing so. It is his world to build or destroy, we are merely renting space. That is not to say that we should not cry out to him for mercy. On the contrary, it is G-d, and only G-d, who can truly console us in these harrowing times.

The tragic irony is that the world was introduced to a hero of these very principles after he was killed by the raging fire. Rabbi Uriel Malka, a 32 year old prison chaplain and former teacher at the Denver Academy of Torah, was killed among 39 others on a prison transport bus that was surprised by the spreading flames, sadly robbing the world of what surely would have been a profound and thoughtful response to this time of tribulation. Rabbi Malka came face to face with death a number of times while serving in the IDF during the Second Lebanon War. Many from his unit were killed. Although he faced many terrors, he was described as a “simple and warm person, full of happiness for life, and a spreader of optimism to everyone”.  His own brother recounted Uriel’s telling of his near-death experiences. “During his life he met death a number of times. G-d was always in front of him and saved him at the last moment.”  While he was surrounded by devastation he chose to see the good in G-d’s actions. Rabbi Malka was an educator, who put nothing before the importance of the future of the Jewish people. In direct contrast to the Rabbi who denounced Ilan Ramon, Rabbi Malka chose to spread the eternal message of finding G-d’s light in the surrounding darkness.  This is the way tragedy should be met with by members of the Chosen People.

Chief Rabbi of England Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once wrote, “The beauty of Judaism is that it did not become traumatized by tragedy… It is that central affirmation of G-d as life, and therefore of finding G-d in the midst of the blessings of life, that we must not lose”.  Rabbi Uriel Malka personified this message to the letter and although he was introduced to us through his heartbreaking and untimely death  we should all strive to learn the immortal lesson of his life.