Friday, August 16, 2013

Rabbi Graubart Reflects on Sha'ar HaNegev

Congregation Beth El's Rabbi Philip Graubart reflects on San Diego's sister city, Sha'ar HaNegev, in this week's parashah (Ki Tetze Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19). Federation has a longstanding relationship with this remarkable community, located on the Gaza border.

From Rabbi Graubart:
The day before our Israel group visited Sha'ar Hanegev, our sister city in the Northern Negev, ½ kilometer from Gaza City, six missiles fell in the vicinity. When I arrived, I took a quick walk around a youth village with Mayor Alon Schuster and I asked him where the missiles exploded. He smiled and said "not here." I chuckled, but after thinking about it I realized he was communicating something deeper to me, or at least I heard something more profound than on offhand joke.

I've always been fond of His Honor, The Mayor (He calls me "His Honor, the Rabbi," so I can reciprocate) mostly because of his quick, gentle sense of humor - a grace under pressure, and he's been under a lot of pressure with thousands of missiles falling on his little township over the past ten years, destroying schools and playgrounds and businesses. But this trip I saw him suddenly as a kind of Zen Master, or maybe a Rebbe with wisdom to offer: namely that he can't control what's going on in the rest of the country. Missiles fall in Ashkelon or Nahariya; traffic ties up Tel Aviv; the Chief Rabbi goes to jail in a corruption scandal; smugglers sneak drugs into the country through the Sinai - but none of that is his problem, because it's "not here." He can only fix what's in front of him - here, and now, not there and in the future.

This is not only practical, it's a spiritual sensibility and something to cultivate as we enter the holiday season (I'm writing this on Rosh Hodesh Elul, the official beginning of this Season of Awe). In the crudest sense, our task these days is to fix things: our relationships, the hearts we've broken, the lives we've wrecked, our sullied and damaged souls. But we can't fix everything, not even everything that we've personally and directly broken, so we have to prioritize. And the best way to prioritize is with the here and now: my family, in my house. Then, maybe, my friends in my community. Or my extended family, with whom I'm in touch. But never expanding the circle until we've finished with those closest, the proximate, the essential. And making sure we never venture into what we can't fix, what my friend the Mayor would call the "not here," the unsolvable.

Focusing on the here and now disciplines us, helps us cultivate our powers of attention. In a well-known Midrash, God appeared to hundreds of shepherds at the Burning Bush, but Moses was the first to realize the great miracle that the bush was both burning, and not consumed. It's that power to notice that qualified Moses for the job of spiritual leader, how he took in everything in his immediate area, and blocked out everything else. Another Midrash teaches that the Rosh Hashanah shofar blows a distinct message to all of us, all the time, but we're too preoccupied to notice, too lost in the "not here," and the future we can't control.

The fact is we are all part of what must be the most distracted generation of all time. None of us can enjoy a single conversation nowadays without wondering what's coming through our smart phones, or who's posted what on the latest, hippest social networking site (and we care very much about what that site might be). We can't read an online article today without encountering a link to take us elsewhere every line. Mobile technologies have made us obsessed with the "not here." Even as I write this on my laptop, with all the attention I can muster, my mind wanders to the button a quick pinkie reach away where I can check my email, of Facebook, or my texts. I'm writing to you, but I'm thinking of someone else. That's no way to do Teshuvah, no way to repair my world.

So this year, my spiritual hero is the mayor of our sister city, who taught me the discipline of the here and now, and reminded me of the ethic of the proximate: fix what's closest to you, before moving on. You owe it to yourself and your family. And one of my many resolutions this Rosh Hashanah is simply to speak with whom I'm speaking to, one at a time. Here, in front of me, facing me, now.


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