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70 photos of the Empire State Building

by Nigel Savage

Yom Ha’atsma’ut 5778 | Hod she’b’Tiferet | 19th day of the Omer | 19th April 2018

Dear All,

Something I read somewhere, recently:

Every book begins with a thought.
Every company begins with a thought.
Every building begins with a thought. Every political party. Every new conscious thing in the world – it begins with an idea.

This is a really amazing observation. Maybe it had occurred to you, but it had never occurred before to me.

Hamlet and Hamilton and Hagia Sophia and the Hudson Yards. Apple and Google and Facebook.  Everything starts with an idea, a thought. With someone, somewhere, having an idea or a thought. Words have meaning and thoughts have consequences and the world is changed by our speech and by our imagination.

And so to the 70th birthday of the state of Israel (today) and the 49th Earth Day (this Sunday). Each of them is an idea brought to life, seizing (in very different ways) people’s imagination, and summoning us to life and engagement. They are not analogous, and the State of Israel is far more consequential (thus far at least) in its impact. But they are important and they are now and thinking about their significance is itself one part of our work.

When we think of Israel, I think we should bear in mind the phrase I love in the Talmud: “shivim panim l’Torah.” Seventy faces of the Torah.

I sometimes understand this by imagining 70 people each taking a photograph of the Empire State Building. And each one is of the Empire State Building – but each one is different. It’s a good analogy for shivim panim, because you can play with it and learn more from it.

If the photo you took is of the Eiffel Tower, for instance, then it’s actually not a photo of the Empire State. So shivim panim includes multiple perspectives, but there are boundaries.

And if you only take the Empire State at night, that’s a true picture, but it misses out entirely the Empire State in sunshine. Or in the snow. Or struck by lightning.

If you’re a toilet-cleaner you have a different sense of what it is and is like than if you’re a window-cleaner. If you work on the 6th floor or the 76th floor. If you’re a real estate lawyer or a marriage therapist.

So “shivim panim” is an appropriate and useful frame for Israel on its 70th birthday. When we think of the Empire State Building, it is relatively easy to have a sense of how this single reality can be depicted in different ways, and how each perspective will in some sense be true, and each will be incomplete.

And somehow with Israel – which is so much more than a single building – we struggle to maintain the same sense of perspective.

Clichés are based in truth – we too easily forget that. So Israel really is, first of all, a hope and a dream and a return and a miracle.

Because of my Dad’s death I’m davening every day, and I feel in a new way the power of facing towards Jerusalem, and saying so frequently, in Hebrew that I understand, words about Zion, the temple, the sacrifices, the land of the psalms. What was it like for my Zaydie, saying those words in the 1900s and the 1910s and 1920s? What was it like for his Zaydie and his Zaydie, going back for centuries?

(According to 23andme my ancestry composition is “99.8% European” and “96.4% Ashkenazi Jewish.” I don’t have a genetic or essentialist understanding of being Jewish: on the contrary, I think that anyone can be Jewish, regardless of your ancestry. My point is different: simply that my ancestors, certainly my male ones, really said these words, day after day, century after century. Those words shaped them, they influenced them, they persisted across centuries and countries, and – here and now in our day – the third Jewish commonwealth did indeed come into being.)

Those words influenced Israel in other ways. That Israel was the only country in the world that ended the 20th century with more trees than it began is testament to the JNF, but even more than that it is testament to the power of “etz chayim,” “the tree of life,” as a central motif in Jewish tradition. We said the words, and we meant them – in their contradictoriness the words of the tradition have a repetitive thread which leans us in certain directions.

This is true not just of “etz chayim.” The commitments, for instance, to life and peace and right-relationship with land, and the link between these things and relationships amongst people – and the word “shalom,” repeated over and over and over in the davening, just rubbing away at oneself, sinking in, a mantra and a kavannah and a critique and a hope and a redemption.

So Israel is all this.

And – shivim panim – it is also the Eritrean refugee wondering if their kid will be safe or not.
The techie getting started, working flat-out but loving it and excited.
The guy who did the IPO, who’s now collecting wine – and worrying about his daughter, who decided to go into a combat unit.
The Israel of Herzl – Jewish policemen and Jewish hookers.
The hippies in the desert. The Druze in the Golan, worried about their family members over the border.  Tova Hartman and Tanya Zion and Sarit Hadad and Idan Amedi.
The Iraqis and the Persians and the Ethiopians and the Brits. The Jew with the Muslim lover, trying to figure that out. The French who are scared of attacks on Jews in France. The artists and the cafes and the activists, the worlds of Ashdod and Ra’anana, Bnai Brak and Tivon, the restaurants, the real estate folk, the queer activists. Intentional communities. The people on the trams. Baka and the moshava and café lalo and tmol shilshom. Sarona Market and the train stations.
I wish more people in this country had a sense of shivim panim in relation to Israel.

I was at an AIPAC dinner in southern California a few years ago, chatting with the woman who sat next to me. She “supported” Israel but I felt queasy at some of the things she was saying. And I was interested to know where her particular perspective on Israel came from and (perhaps naively) I said, “When were you last in Israel?” And her answer was, “Oh, I’ve never been there.”

So I don’t think it works to have the single frame of “defending embattled Israel.” That’s a perspective on Israel. It’s one of seventy maybe. It’s important. But it’s not the only one. So too “ending the occupation.” It’s a perspective and a view – and it might be ideal, though it’s unclear how it will be possible. But if you’re in favor of “ending the occupation” – I think that’s a legitimate view, and many Israelis will agree with you, and many will disagree with you. But those Israelis also go to work and school and pay taxes and speak Hebrew and Arabic and Russian and ride the buses and see a doctor. It’s not their only take on Israel.

I’m proud that in this, Israel’s 70th year, Hazon is taking a record number of people to Israel, on at least three (possibly four) separate trips. The week after next Rabbi David Ingber and I are co-leading a first-ever Hazon Romemu Sustainable Israel Tour. Then we have more than 200 people on this year’s Israel Ride (sold-out and registration closed and our largest by far; we had to close registration because we ran out of appropriate beds in the south of Israel). And then at least one, and possibly two, Hakhel Israel Tours.

All of those trips – our participants go with curiosity. They go to learn. They go in the expectation of being challenged and provoked. We’re meeting some of the most astounding changemakers in the world, never mind in Israel alone. Israelis and Palestinians. Jews and Arabs, capitalists, activists, environmentalists, teachers. It is overwhelming and inspiring and humbling.

I want to say a last word about Earth Day, in relation to the State of Israel.

The State of Israel is an experiment, as life itself is. How do we live together, cope with human emotions, feed ourselves and our families, provide a social safety net, find meaningful work? Not a one of these things should be taken for granted, though almost all my life, till very recently, I did.

But we shouldn’t take them for granted. The State of Israel is the Jewish people’s attempt to live in right relationship with each other, with our neighbors, with those who agree and don’t agree with those, with those who share our values and language and background and those who don’t. It is an imperfect miracle, and it is upon each of us to help it be our best self.

But it is also our people’s attempt to sanctify the whole world through one piece of land – eretz yisrael, the land of Israel. These (different) particularities are true of so many of those who are most serious about sanctifying the world as a whole – you start somewhere. It is true of native peoples and indigenous peoples. It was true of John Muir in northern California. It was true of Alfred Wainwright in relationship to the Lake District. It is true of Wendell Berry and the land in Kentucky his family has farmed for five generations.

This is why – with 7 billion people on this planet, and counting – we need to sanctify both the land of Israel, and wherever we are right now. We need to foster our love for a sense of place, and its people, and do so with eyes open wide with curiosity and questions and love. It’s why we need to mourn, to celebrate and to stand up; to learn, to act and to advocate.

I celebrate the land and people of Israel, I celebrate this beautiful world that sustains us all; and I pray that we all, each one of us, learn to love and protect, so that generations to come may yet get to live in peace and amidst bounty.

Chag sameach, Shabbat shalom,

Nigel