July 4th. Our country celebrates Independence Day. On Channel 13, I hear the Boston Pops play America the Beautiful: O Beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain. For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain! America! America! God shed His grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea!
Not only does the song praise the natural wonders of our country, but it imagines a society based on all citizens caring for one another. And yet, the reality of America never lived up to the hope and promise of the hymn.
Almost every week we read about another killing of a black person by the police. Having been brought up as a child that “the policeman is your friend,” I wanted to believe that these were cases of someone going for the cop’s weapon, or someone with a gun or knife threatening innocent people, or the officer’s adrenaline kicking in during a fight, or just a tragic mistake. But after one case after another, I’m coming around to the view that, indeed, we are dealing with systemic racism.
In a departure from the message of welcome on the base of the Statue of Liberty, we are a country that separates children from their parents at the border, and the detainees- many seeking refuge from violence in their own countries- are held in what can only be described as cages.
Students enter their schools through metal detectors and regularly practice “active shooter drills” in a nation whose politicians are more concerned about the influence of the gun lobby than they are about the lives of first graders.
Local, state, and federal governments seem to be involved in undermining the very basis of democracy- by suppressing the ability of citizens to vote- be it through gerrymandering (where elected leaders pick their voters, as opposed to the other way around) or where voting by mail is made as difficult as possible- at a time when people are deathly afraid of gathering in crowds because of a pandemic.
Anti-semitic incidents are on the rise, including murderous attacks on worshippers at prayer, and skinheads brazenly marching in the streets chanting “The Jews will not replace us.”
Not the “beautiful” America that Katherine Lee Bates wrote about in 1895…
The 5th of Iyar. Israel celebrates its Independence Day. Across the world, Jews gather to sing the Israeli anthem, HaTikvah: As long as the heart of the Jew still beats and the Jewish soul yearns, and as long as the eye of the Jew looks eastward towards Zion, our hope is not lost, a hope that is 2000 years old: To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.
The song reminds us that not only is it a dream about a nation-state for the Jews, it is also a hope that that nation will be based on Jewish values.
Hamas fires rockets from Gaza, as well as balloons which cross the border and set Israeli fields on fire. Hizbulluah in Lebanon has a hundred thousand rockets aimed at Israel ready for the next war. Iran continues to create nuclear weapons and their target is Tel Aviv- and every other Jewish city.
Israelis no longer talk about peace with the Palestinians, with the land divided into two states for two peoples; the Arabs have shown no interest in accepting, or living with, a Jewish state. Instead the alternative is a “One State solution”, in which the West Bank is annexed. That leads to the probability that Arabs will eventually become a majority, while being denied democratic rights, and the world seeing Israel as an immoral occupier of another people.
After three inconclusive elections in a year, Israel is a divided country, with no effective government. The Prime Minister is facing trial for bribery and corruption, and seems more concerned about his own political survival.
Conservative and Reform Jews still have no religious rights in a country whose religious policies are controlled by the Ultra-Orthodox. Plans to create an egalitarian section at the Western Wall have been put on hold by political considerations.
The shooting of an Ethiopian Jew by police in Haifa last summer mirrors the racial problems that America faces, and the gang rape of a 16 year old girl in Eilat this summer raises questions about whether Israel is truly Or la- Goyim, “a light unto the nations” as its founders hoped, or merely k’khol ha-Goyim “like all the other nations.”
Not the “hope” that Naftali Imber wrote about in 1877.
In both America and Israel, the gap between the ideals that both countries were founded on, and the actual reality of everyday life, continues to widen and grow. We’re left with incredible sadness, disappointment, even anger. Perhaps we become cynical, no longer believing in ideals, no longer expecting great things of our country- or of ourselves. Instead we concern ourselves only with “what’s in it for me, right here, right now.”
The 11th of Tishre. When I get in such a mood, I sometimes like to go to the Ocean, alone with nature, alone with my thoughts. Staring at the sea, listening to the crashing waves helps me realize how small we humans are, and how small our concerns are in the universe. I drove to Jones Beach, parked in a near empty lot on a cloudy Fall day, and headed towards the water.
I quickly saw that I wasn’t alone. Apparently, another man had the same idea as I did. He was sitting in the sand, knees bent, elbows on his knees, face in his hands. I thought he might be weeping. My first instinct was to walk the other way and to leave him to his private grief. But then I became worried; had he come just to stare at the ocean, like me, or was he planning, God forbid, to walk into it, drowning his troubles, and himself? He must have sensed that someone was nearby, and he raised his head and looked at me. “Hi,” I called, and he nodded in my direction, and wiped his eyes. I expected him to pick himself up and storm off, or to make an angry remark like “With all of Jones Beach, you have to sit right here?” Instead, he simply said: “Have a seat.” “You OK?” I asked. “Just having a tough day.” I sat a few feet away, and we were both quiet for a few moments. I suddenly realized that he looked very familiar. He appeared to be in his seventies, but he was incredibly well-built, the arms, and legs and chest of a weight lifter. He had grayish hair, and a whitish-grey beard. He reached out his hand to me, and I extended mine to shake his, but we were just a little too far apart; he stretched himself out and leaned closer to me, and I did the same towards him. Our hands still didn’t reach, so he extended his index finger- as did I, and the tip of his finger touched mine. Then suddenly it came to me! He looked exactly like the man on the right side of the famous Michelangelo painting in the Sistine Chapel, “The Creation of Adam.”
“What brings you here?” he asked. “I watch the news and it’s all bad; it’s getting me down,” I answered. “I know exactly what you mean,” he replied. He was silent for a moment, and then he started to talk. “I spent all of yesterday listening to people tell me over and over again how rotten they were. It would be one thing if they meant their confessions, and intended to make some changes in their lives. But I’ve been at this for a long time, and I can tell when people are sincere, or whether they are just telling you what they think you want to hear. They promise to change, to do the right thing. And then I don’t see them for a while, and when they finally come back, it’s the same old story.”
From what he was telling me, I assumed that must have been some kind of therapist, depressed about his patients. But then he told me another story. “Many years ago, I built a small garden for the neighborhood. It was really gorgeous. An ideal place to get away from the harshness of the city and the realities of Life. You won’t believe what people did to it- it was ruined! I had to kick people out and close it down. It was so depressing.”
Now he had me stumped. Here I thought he was a psychologist, but now I wondered if maybe he was a gardener, or worked for the parks department, or maybe he was just some nice civic-minded guy in the neighborhood.
I figured that if maybe he was some kind of therapist, he could give me some free advice, here on the beach. “So how do you deal with your disappointments? What do you do when the ideals that you’ve dreamed about, and planned for, and worked so hard to create- come to naught? Are you angry? Are you depressed? Do you decide not to care anymore? What do you do?”
“See the ocean?” he asked me. “The water keeps trying to come ashore. But it can’t. Sure, every month there’s a high tide and it reaches farther and farther up the beach; and once every ten years there’s a hurricane, and the water makes it all the way up to the highway- though in a day or two it retreats back. That’s what inspires me: Not the ocean overtaking the land, but the determination to keep trying, even in the face of failure. It’s not achieving the goal that’s important; it’s the trying that’s so ennobling. Here’s what I’ve learned: You’ve got to have goals, and you’ve got to set the bar high. Then you’ve got to work hard to achieve those goals. You will make progress, but ultimately, always, you will fall short. That’s OK. In a year, in a lifetime you will make significant progress. It will never be “ideal”, but it will be better. Life is all about fixing what’s broken, one small job at a time. I came today to the beach to remind myself of that lesson.”
He stood up and brushed himself off, and took a few steps closer to me, and we shook hands. “A Shanah Tovah” he said. I was stunned- how did he even know I was Jewish? But before I could respond, he was gone.
I looked to the ocean, and watched the waves break and creep in, then slowly retreat. America will never be perfect, neither will Israel. Neither will I, for that matter. But as the New Year commenced, so did the work of trying to make it better, and failing, and then trying once again.