5771 – Shoftim — “A Civilized Disobedience”

03/09/2011 at 21:43 Leave a comment

“A Civilized Disobedience”


Parashat Shoftim

Neil F. Blumofe

3 September 2011


The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development sponsored a recent Gallup poll finding that Israelis are among the happiest people in the world – ranking 8th overall, surprising many who would assume that with the constant threat of terror and barrage of rockets to any point in the small country, the citizens of Israel would be stymied, uncomfortable, and angst-ridden.  The Gallup survey tries to measure happiness – which is a subjective thing to try and measure.  Respondents were asked to rank their satisfaction on a 1 to 10 scale including – how respected they felt, and how intellectually engaged they were – the results were tallied and put into three categories overall – are the people thriving, struggling, or suffering?  Somehow it’s comforting to think that with all of the difficulties bound up in their daily lives, our brothers and sisters in Israel are sanguine about their prospects, confident about their circumstances, and optimistic about their future.


So why, literally as we are speaking, are people gathering all across Israel to participate in what is called, “the demonstration of one million,” – an organized protest against the rising costs of living in the Jewish state?  The one million number is not insignificant in Israel – if truly one million people participated in this evening’s event, that would mean one out of 8 Israelis is now taking to the streets – an unprecedented number.


While the significance, purpose, and goals of this event and others like it – including the erecting of tent cities across Israel – are not uniform, there is a general consensus that for an average person, the cost of living in Israel is too high – that it’s too hard to make ends meet and to create a decent life in the current economic situation.  There are broad and scattered calls of a renovation o some say, a revolution, steeped in social and economic justice.


What creates happiness for people?  Certainly financial security, or wealth is a big piece of the puzzle, yet it is not the only piece – other factors are work-life balance, the strength of family, social, and community networks, and the opportunity to be productive – in other words, having something to do – whether a job or some other positive, directed work.


When one feels that one does not have a firm floor to stand on, or an unobstructed path on which to walk to accomplish one’s goals – or, if one feels that a government or a group of concerted interests are actively preventing one from achieving a modicum of success, a real sense of frustration can surface or worse, a pervading attitude of defeat can take hold, effecting one’s outlook and ultimately, one’s health.


How can such happy people be dissatisfied?  What will be the lessons of these demonstrations?  How can we as Jews or a community in Austin enter the conversation and even participate?  Should we even try to do so?  How do we react with our own government, with the latest poll numbers expressing majority dissatisfaction with our president (51% disapproving) and Congress (84% disapproving)?


What do we need for our own happiness?  How much does governmental policy or food-price indices affect our outlook?  Recently, because of the high temperatures my electricity bill was much higher than normal and could have paid for two months  rent in New Orleans when I lived there 18 years ago.  It’s all perspective – while I struggled to pay rent back then, one could make a good case either way – that currently my happiness is beyond measure based on current goals and family, etc., and one could say that I was happier back then, based on the attitudes and freedoms that were then part of my life.  How much do we need?  How far are we willing to adjust?


The spokespeople for the demonstrations in Israel speak about social and economic justice – and while that is stirring, even they acknowledge that these goals are divergent and unfocussed.  Some people may want a lower price of cottage cheese and then be satisfied – while others may not rest until the entire housing market is overturned and building permits are redistributed.  Different priorities for different  people.


While holding on to these ideas, as we explore Shoftim this week, we are reminded that tsedek, tsedek tirdof is a rallying cry of our tradition – justice, justice, you shall pursue.  What is this justice?  One commentary on this teaches that justice alone is not enough, recognizing that there are many types of justice, just as there are many kinds of truth.    The lesson here is that one must pursue justice justly, where both the ends and the means are just.  As a student of history, this kind of activism is difficult to follow.


While it is impossible to predict what real changes these demonstrations will bring, it is strangely comforting to know that unlike elsewhere in the world, that perhaps only in Israel can throngs of happy people come out to march for a better society without fearing that the government will begin to fire on its citizens, or that groups of people will begin to turn on each other.  This is what is needed in our world – a different paradigm – the way that events are unfolding in Israel allows for this happy, careworn people to be an ohr hagoyim – a light unto the nations demonstrating how things get accomplished.  A civilized disobedience may be just what our people needs to truly change – not to move from one regime to another – not to find empty promises in current candidates and campaigns.  Perhaps this movement now present in Israel is a wave of the future – to demonstrate that persistent and normal inquiry can face down unstable borders and extremists who are both outliers and who reside within.  Convention can defeat fanaticism and ultimately, if one is dedicated to the task can help bring about the small or even grand changes that one seeks.  It is this confidence that perhaps brings deepest happiness – not having to resort to hostility, rather bringing about incremental changes and finding unexpected boons in a willingness to participate in determining a life trying to find economic opportunity and affordable housing within a system.  So, I say to keep marching and resort our priorities again, discovering what is most important and what we must live for – and letting everything else settle.  To change a system, one must sometimes pull on the rope and sometimes let it go.  Taking to the streets with 1/8th of the population this evening can shift some ground, however imperceptibly, and is a fine example to tomorrow’s leaders to continue to walk in dignity and with a meaningful happiness from as far as we have already gone.


Shabbat Shalom.


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

5771 – Re’eh — “There is No Overtime” 9/9/11 — Words of Torah — Celebrating the Installation of R’ Rick Brody @ Congregation Kol Halev

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