Passover in the Shadow of a Gunman

4/14/14 This post first appeared in Haaretz

The article I planned on writing revolved around the Golden Age of television we are now experiencing. I was going to write specifically about how Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews and Neil DeGrass Tyson’s Cosmos have had huge emotional effects on me.

I was going to comment on how Schama’s show is a work of staggering achievement that manages to make the Jewish experience accessible to everyone. My plan was to contrast this with the universal majesty of Cosmos, a series that depicts the history of our universe. The tension between the particularism of the story of the Jews and the grandeur of the Cosmos is a theme baked into the Passover Seder, as we struggle between these different concepts.

I was going to finish the article by comparing this tension to that found within the writings of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, whose work “The Lonely Man of Faith” speaks to the tension of the Jewish condition as one between majestic man and covenantal man. This tension between the awesomeness of being created in the image of G-d and simultaneously being created from the dust of the earth.

I was going to remark that there is no synthesis between the particularism of Jewish Peoplehood and our Universalist values. That we have to expect to continue to struggle through the challenge of what it means to be Jewish today.

Yet as I sat down to write this blog, three people were killed in a shooting at the Jewish Community Center and a Jewish assisted living center in Kansas City. Here in the most integrated, comfortable and successful Jewish community in the history of the world, peoplewere targeted and killed because they were Jews.

This is not supposed to happen. Yet it still does. Hate finds a way forth and Jews are killed because they are Jews.Kids and pensioners both targeted and killed. Young and old gunned down due to this hate.

One can look at Jewish history and know that the line from the Haggadah “In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us,” is true.

Yet what should our response to this be? We are within our rights to be hostile to the outside world, to close ourselves off and be suspicious of all those around us. Yet by doing so we would be failing in our duty to be an or l’goyim (a light onto nations.)

Being Jewish is not easy. We need to be able to deal with the tensions that our traditions demand from us. We need to understand our own particularism while being open to the universalism of the world around us. Sadly, even today, there are those who rise up to destroy us, but we cannot allow them to destroy our way of life.

Our resilience is shown by not withdrawing from the world and enclosing ourselves in the comfort of our particularism. Nor is it found in assimilating into the universalism of all of that around us. Rather, our quest to demonstrate what it means to live as a happy and free people, celebrating our traditions and impacting those around us, is found in balancing the wonder of the cosmos and the glory of our rich history together.

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Flying into Israel on the wings of hope

Haaretz 4/3/13

When the Jews left Egypt, G-d did not take them the quick way up through Gaza lest they be scared by war. Instead, he took them the long way around to help turn them into a nation. On my own trip to Israel for Passover this year, I too was made to go the long way around, not to avoid war, but for the sake of peace. Why? The day that my flight arrived in the Holy Land happened to be the same day that U.S. President Barack Obama departed from it.

A presidential visit always has a tremendous amount of logistical nightmares for a host country. The hellish traffic jams, closed off streets and cordoned off attractions are the cost the public always pay for having the leader of the free world pop by for a few days.

One of the main effects of this presidential visit was the closed off airspace while Air Force One was at the airport. This would be a challenge for Ben Gurion International Airport on any normal day. Double that challenge when considering that Obama left on a Friday – the day when passengers flock to Israel in an attempt to arrive before Shabbat. Then triple it when considering that it was the weekend before Passover, when thousands of Jews from around the world arrived ahead of the holiday.

The airlines were briefed and delayed accordingly. I was on a British Airways flight from London to Israel that was scheduled to depart at 8:30 A.M. and land in Israel at 3:30 P.M. My wife and I had come in from New York earlier, and the London to Tel Aviv leg was supposed to be the shorter leg of the journey.

At Heathrow Airport, we were delayed by an hour to make sure that we would not arrive while the Israeli airspace was still closed. We were warned that we might have to circle for a little while, but that the airline had extra fuel to allow for this.

The flight itself was a normal affair: lots of small children, a few religious folk, and your average northwest London Jew on his way to Israel for Passover. But things went awry when the plane arrived to Israel before its airspace had been reopened, and after 45 minutes of circling, the pilot informed us that he had run out of fuel. So instead of landing in Israel slightly behind schedule, we had to land in Cyprus to refuel – and wait until Israel’s airspace was opened.

At this point, we passengers realized there was no chance we would make it into Israel in time for Shabbat. Cut off from the world, many on the plane silently cursed the supposed lackadaisical attitude of Air Force One and wondered why Obama could not just take a helicopter to Jordan anyway.

Upon landing in Cyprus, there was a flurry of text messages sent by people waiting at the airport. While every El Al flight had managed to hold enough fuel and would land only an hour or two late, we, together with another flight, were pushed back to after 7 P.M. Israelis desperately tried to find out the score of the Portugal-Israel soccer game, flight attendants reassured the elderly passengers that despite the current Cypriot economic difficulties we would be able to buy fuel, and angry British passengers started talking about refunds.

Surprisingly, the religious folk were calm. Without any control of their situation, there was no point complaining that they would not make it in time for Shabbat, and instead they just sat silently, waiting to find out when we would take off.

After an hour on the ground in Cyprus, we were informed that we were clear to take off, and away we went, flying the one-hour trip to Tel Aviv.

When we did land, we discovered that our detour was for the sake of peace: the delay of Air Force One was due to Obama pulling a diplomatic rabbit out of his hat and getting Israel to apologize to Turkey.

Getting waylaid for the sake of peace was a nice start to my Passover trip. A diplomatic ray of light, the delay was a phenomenal way of demonstrating the message at the Passover seder that the Jewish people do not despair; it is not in their vocabulary. We are a people that have survived the challenges and tribulations of each generation of the world, always searching for new ways of looking at difficulties. While in this case we needed a little help from our friends, flying into Israel on the wings of hope, however slight, was the best way possible for me to start my Passover.