Thursday, September 25, 2008

Rosh Hashana 5769: Values in a Changing World

London was great. It (generally) always is. Not that I think about staying – I don’t. It's just so relaxing (liberating even) to wander around the Heath extension near my parents home, to see friends, to take a break from the intensity of life in Israel.

England always takes a few days to get used to. For starters, there’s the driving on the left (with gears); There's more than one decent radio station to listen to. Weddings are the height of formality.

And then there's the politeness of other drivers (i'm always amazed by how much people wave to one another on the road) It's a reminder of how behavior encouraged (and sometimes necessary) in Israel is often incongruous with England's green and pleasant land - and what works in one place can get you in trouble in another.


The week before I flew, Britain's Chief Rabbi wrote a weekly column, about the Biblical cities of Refuge; safe havens for an accidental killer who would be protected from the revenge of his victim's next of kin. According to Maimonides such a person is forbidden to leave the city under any circumstance – even to save someone’s life. In fact, even if the entire Jewish people need him, the individual is forbidden to endanger his own life.

The Chief's discussion of the differences between Judaism's prioritization of the individual versus the collective emphasis of Greece and Rome is worth a post in itself. But what most interested me was his suggestion that while this individualism aided the Jews in the Diaspora by preventing assimilation into the majority culture, it may undermine the successful building of a sovereign state (which inevitably entails the individual compromising for the benefit of the group).

In a similar vein, Avram Burg suggested that in the Diaspora, the Jews never trusted the system, and survived by going round it. Yet today, in Israel, when we are the system, people still try to circumvent it. We haven't yet fully internalized that it's ours. And when something is not yours, you never feel the need to fight to make it better.


An article in Azure meanwhile described the corruption in Israeli society, arguing that in certain respects it "constitutes a natural, almost inevitable outcome of the ethos created by the early Yishuv."

It explained that the ambivalence toward the Law in early Zionism and the creation of the new Jew – the mischievous, rough hewn, anti establishment Sabra with an aversion to authority and inability to 'follow the rules' – had many positive aspects in the State's early years.

Yet 60 years on, this 'unruly, irresponsible and lawless behavior' is seriously undermining Israel's ability to prosper.


The common denominator of each of these stories is that they involve values that ensure a group's (or individual's in the case of driving in Israel) survival in a certain situation.

Yet when left unrefined, they also undermine it.

And ironically, it's those very same values that initially help, that can ultimately destroy.

Circumventing the system worked in the Diaspora, but leads to 'combinot' when the system is 'us'.

Individualism aided us as a minority, but weakens national solidarity when we set the laws rather than following them.

And an Oleh who doesn’t re-invent himself or his values can become the ultimate freier.

In such a context, the only way to survive is by working out which values need to be kept, and which need to be changed.

And this for me is where the idea of Teshuva comes in…

Because what is Teshuva if not working out what part of ourselves we should aim to keep, and what we should discard? What is the month of Elul for if not reevaluating our lives, our values and our priorities, and seeing if they are still relevant in light of the changes we have gone through?

And what could be more important than ensuring the renewal and survival of our people, our country and ourselves?

Shana Tova LeCulam

Rosh Hashana Post 5768: A Message Against Despair

Rosh Hashana Posts 5767: Wanna Live Like Common People