Havdalah for Being Honored and to Mark 50 Years of the Occupation

Dear friends,
Yesterday, at the graduation ceremony for new rabbis at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I was deeply moved by the introduction with which Rabbi Deborah Waxman, RRC’s President,  and David Roberts, the Chair of its Board, conferred on me the Doctorate of Humane Letters (hon. causa) and by the warm and prolonged response that came from dozens of the old and new rabbis present and from hundreds of their guests.  

And before that, on Saturday night,  there was a dinner that Rabbi Waxman gave for the Board. Phyllis & I were invited to the dinner — and then invited to lead Havdalah. I began with a kavannah. The weekend’s events were for me a true blessing — not just the words of blessing but the feeling of being fully blessed, down to my toes and within to my kishkes.  Below is some of the kavvanah I shared. (There were also more personal comments on how I felt to be in this way honored by the College where I had taught  in the "80s.)

Shalom, salaam, peace, Earth!   Arthur 



For Phyllis and me, Havdalah tonight is more than making the distinction between Shabbat and the work week. I want to share with you what else it is –-  to share with you a kavvanah for this Havdalah. 

This Havdalah  ends the week of the 50th anniversary of the Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Fifty years ago, that moment seemed more a liberation than a subjugation. We could pray again at the Kotel, along with the Shekhinah still in exile. And surely we would wisely relinquish the newly occupied territories for the sake of peace!

 Fifty years later, not so much joy. What comes next? The very last word of the Havdalah itself raises that question. The word is chol--  Blessed is the One Who distinguishes between kadosh and chol. Between holiness and – what?

Our beloved teacher and friend Rabbi Max Ticktin, alav hashalom, taught that chol means not “profane” but “hollow” – chol like the chalil, the hollow flute that can make a melody precisely because it is hollow. It is up to us to fill the hollow space we are about to enter. We can choose to fill it with the melody of holiness. What comes after 50 years of Occupation? We must choose.

That there have been two different approaches to dealing with the Occupation was not in itself surprising . For the Occupation makes utterly clear the knife edge between winning one’s own freedom —  winning for one’s self  enough empowerment to assert and protect that freedom — and letting the hunger for empowerment became an addiction to power — power that becomes the subjugation that  destroys the freedom of another. It is all too easy for human beings to move from one side of that knife edge to the other. 

Indeed, one line in Havdalah teaches us how sharp the knife-edge is. We sing with joy, “Layehudim haita orah v’simcha v’sasson  v’ikar.  Keyn tihyeh lanu!. For the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor. So may it be for us!” But that verse stands right on the knife edge. It comes from  Megillat Esther, close to the end. In the story , within a few moments of celebrating their new freedom, the Jews are killing 75,000 Persians. The knife-edge: How much empowerment of ourselves for freedom, how much power over others that denies them freedom? 

 The danger afflicts not only Israelis but us all. Notice how many of those  Americans who voted for Trump to win their own freedom from economic disemployment and cultural marginalization crossed that edge  into trying to subjugate others — immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, independent-minded women among them. 

 Once we  realize how easy is the slop-over and how hard it is to balance on the edge of the knife,  perhaps we can more easily respond not with the complicity of silence but with the caring of compassionate rebuke, challenge, opposition. Tochecha that comes with ahava.

 So we greet with joy this Havdalah that welcomes us  into hollow time, open time.  I am much more open now than I was years ago to how sharp the knife-edge is, how hard it is to keep the balance. I try to bring much more compassion into my rebuke. I try to focus  my challenge not on Israelis as a whole, but on the government that is more and more leaping across the knife-edge to using its power not to free its citizens but to subjugate its neighbors. 

 So let us plan how to fill this open time beyond Havdalah by making holy melody with the holy flutes we bring to it. And let us take joy in the knowledge that as we pass the 50th anniversary of the Occupation, more and more American Jews are demanding that we renew our own freedom not by continuing the Occupation but by ending it with some new holy melody.  


So  -- Hinei, El yeshuati!   Here! --  O God of transformation!


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