As I was preparing for a meeting with students tonight, I looked through a lot of poetry, trying to find something that would frame our conversation. I looked at poets who speak to young adults, like Rilke, and I looked at Mary Oliver, who I am quickly falling in love with. But they weren’t right. And then I poked through a book of poetry of Yehudah Amichai, and found this wonderful piece:

A Man in His Life

A man doesn’t have time in his life

to have time for everything.

He doesn’t have seasons enough to have

a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes

Was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,

to laugh and cry with the same eyes,

with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,

to make love in war and war in love.

And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,

to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest

what history

takes years and years to do.

A man doesn’t have time.

When he loses he seeks, when he finds

he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves

he begins to forget.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul

is very professional.

Only his body remains forever

an amateur. It tries and it misses,

gets muddled, doesn’t learn a thing,

drunk and blind in its pleasures

and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn,

Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,

the leaves growing dry on the ground,

the bare branches pointing to the place

where there’s time for everything.

What resonates in this poem is the impulse I wrote about in my letter to a student the other day: that life is not neat and clean, that it is paradoxical and confusing, and that is precisely what makes it beautiful. Time is what makes it challenging: we feel we cannot be in two places, experience two emotions, at the same time. Thus Ecclesiastes: There is a time for every purpose under heaven. And no two purposes can share the same time. Amichai wants to complicate that notion, that life cannot be lived in paradox. Indeed, he turns it on his head: Life cannot be lived without it, he says.

That’s well and good for poets (and blogging rabbis). But what about for soldiers, and civilians in harm’s way? In his post today (sadly not on a blog), Danny Gordis writes, movingly as always, of the reality of life in Israel. The most challenging part of his post is when he writes,

These weeks, with the question of whether or not Jewish sovereignty means anything at all, there is really only one question.  As Joshua said to the angel (Joshua 5:13), “are you for us, or for our adversaries?”  Do you believe that Jews in Sederot have a right to live without bomb-shelter caterpillars in their playgrounds?  Do you think that parents in that whole part of the country have a right to sleep in their own room by themselves, and that nine year olds should no longer wet their beds, night after night, caught in nightmares that will probably hound them for life?  Do you understand that the only point of having a Jewish state is that Jews should no longer live – and die – at the whim of those who hate us just because we exist?  Do you get that Ahrele was right?  That we’re still fighting for the simple right to have the world acknowledge that we have a right to be?

There’s only one question, and it is Joshua’s.  Are you for us, or for our adversaries?  There is no place for mealy-mouthed equivocation calling for an end to the “violence,” for that is nothing more than a euphemism for more years of Jewish kids living in dread and Jewish sovereignty meaning nothing.

This is where I, as a Diaspora Jew, am at a loss. I simply don’t live my life on the line the way Israelis do, and therefore I am in no position to judge. For Gordis, and for his soldiering children, there is no room for paradox when you’re carrying an M-16.

The most powerful encounter I ever had with Israelis was several years ago when the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities was held in Jerusalem. I was living in Jerusalem at the time. The Wexner Foundation, who paid for my rabbinic education, hosted a discussion among fellows of its various initiatives, including Israeli fellows. As we sat there in several circles in a large room, we talked about how we approached Jewish life, how we understood our identities. And we found we had so much to learn from one another, that our perspectives were illuminated and our horizons widened by the dialogue.

After that encounter I had two major thoughts: 1) Jewish life is incomplete without both of these realities–Israeli and Diasporic; 2) No leader in either Israel or the Diaspora can claim to be responsible without being in regular dialogue with someone from the other side. For us in the Diaspora, time–particularly Jewish time–is a bit aesthetic. It’s easier for us to talk about living lives simultaneously. Violence for us in upper-middle-class America is at the margins. We inhabit multiple worlds all the time (just ask the texting-Facebooking-IMing students I work with). But for Israelis–particularly soldiers–time is anything but aesthetic. It is very real–one cannot pop out of Yom Kippur services to attend class in Israel, and one cannot be IMing while hunting for terrorists in Gaza City. Calling home happens after the mission.

Our experience of time, as both liberator (see the first commandment to the Jews in Exodus 12:1, establishing the calendar) and imprisoner , is one of the great paradoxes of human life. Just as the Zionist experiment revolutionizes our notion of place, it reminds us of a different reality of time. But to be appreciated–and occasionally escaped-from, perhaps–it needs to be in dialogue with the Diaspora experience.

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