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Peter J. Rubinstein
One Step at a Time (Yom Kippur 5754)

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  September 25, 1993

In past days, we have been tripping over our own rhetorical feet attempting to fully and precisely express the wonder of the recent events in the Middle East. It is clearly an incomparable historical moment in the often cataclysmic history of the region.

The signing of a document by Israeli and PLO officials is pivotal. It may in time be appraised as the single most important act of recent international reconciliation. Or (and this is obviously on many of our minds) nothing more than spectacular camouflage of another dramatic false start in the imperfect process of international peace.

The meeting on the White House lawn was breathtaking. It culminated negotiations that had at the end occurred at breakneck pace. The first we knew of a formal meeting between representatives of the PLO and the State of Israel was on August 6. Only at the beginning of September did we learn the story of a year of clandestine meetings in Norway.

As I was considering these events, I recalled a fable recently used in a movie, but for years the perfect metaphor for the Middle East. It is a story with two different endings.

A scorpion and a camel wanted to cross the Red Sea. Neither could get across by itself. The camel could swim but not high enough in the water to see where to go. The scorpion could see, but not swim. The scorpion suggested that it could sit on the camel’s hump and direct it. Together they could make it across. The camel was doubtful and asked, “What if you sting me?” To which the scorpion sensibly replied, “Silly, if I do that, we will both drown!”

The camel saw the logic in the arrangement and they started across. About halfway across, the scorpion stung the camel. In disbelief the camel, beginning to drown, looked up at the scorpion and asked, “Why did you do that? Now we will both die.” To which the scorpion answered, “Well, that’s the Middle East.”

That is the first way I heard the story. This version reflects a resignation that there is no logic and no control over developments there. The nature of the conflict makes it insolvable. Enmity is fated. Two claimants, one land. It will not work.

Now rewind the tape. The camel is swimming with the scorpion on its back. The scorpion stings the camel. Beginning to drown the camel asks the scorpion, “Why?” to which the scorpion answers, “I can’t help it. It is my nature!” This response articulates the inherent antagonism of the adversaries. Some argue that Arabs and Jews cannot suffer each other. The stereotypes are too poisonous. History is not only the story of the past. It is a prophesy for the future. The descendants of Isaac and Ishmael will never kiss and make up.

The two versions of the fable define an irreconcilable problem, whether due to the issue or due to the adversaries.

Whatever it be, many of us acknowledge the persisting concern that we not be too naive to think the signing of the document the end of the story. We, who probably watched Mr. Rabin more closely than Mr. Arafat on the White House lawn, knew that he spoke to us in two ways. First he spoke his public words. His magnificent, honest phrases raised the newest banner of hope from the abyss of despair in this now famous proclamation: “Let me say to you, the Palestinians, we are destined to live together on the same soil in the same land… enough of blood and tears. Enough!”

But Mr. Rabin also spoke in a more cryptic and yet just as powerful manner that perhaps only Jews understood. The shifting of his body from one foot to another, the discomfit of his hands, his scanning eyes belied trust. He is still the tactician, always scouting his adversary, concerned with motivation, flanking maneuvers, weighing his options. He is not going to be caught defenseless. In more than words, the prime minister reflected the tension between hope and reality, between cynicism and resignation.

The euphoria of the signing has already receded, giving way to the difficult reality of peace. In the last ten days, Syria has taken sharp aim at Israel and the PLO. Jordan has agreed only on an agenda for future peace negotiations. And of course, Chairman Arafat, the signatory, is vilified and threatened with death by his own constituents. There is a long road ahead.

So it is proper for us to consider what it is we have learned: what have we discovered about ourselves and our enemies? What might be relevant on this Yom Kippur?

Above all else, we continue to exalt the ineffable bond we have with Israel. It is an incredible nation that in less than five decades has built a society that opens its doors to all Jews and many non-Jews: the downtrodden, the refugee, the indigent, the unschooled. Unlike any other nation in the world, it is a place that accepts the expense of decency. Our love for the country may be inexplicable, but it is solid. Even when disaffected by government policies, even when infuriated by its bureaucracy and its stubbornness, we respect its principles and the sacrifice of its people. It is a unique place that gives special meaning to the authenticity of Jewish existence. For the land, its people, and the nation, we thank God.

We have also learned the difficult lesson that there are acts so heinous that we can neither forgive nor forget and no one should ask it of us.

How can we obliterate from our minds the bloody massacre of schoolchildren on an outing at Ma’alot, or the decimation of Israel’s Olympic team at Munich? The symbol of Jews again being slaughtered in Germany was ghastly. How can we forget the incursions by terrorists into Israel, which made infant houses their primary targets and made victims of the babies asleep in their cribs in places like Misgav Am, Nahariya, Ma-agan Michael?

It is not ours to forgive. The murdered cannot speak and yet it is they who would need to pardon. And we cannot forget, for those scenes of horror are too deeply chiseled into memory. They will dwell alongside our memories of Camp David and the White House lawn.

But we need neither forgive nor forget in order to pursue reconciliation. Sworn enemies learn that martyrdom leads nowhere. They will need to live together in toleration and in acceptance, even if it cannot be in love. Love is not essential for decency.

People who ask us to “forgive and forget” also consider Jews paranoid when they stand in self-defense against perceived or actual attack. We should be a stiff-necked people, especially when it comes to our survival. We are taught “Al tadin et chavayrach ad sh’tagia Limkomo—Do not judge another until you stand in his or her place.” (Pirke Avot, 2:4) No one can tell us to compromise our existence. No one else will stand in for us when threats are executed. So let no one tell us that we are too sensitive. Our fate has been shaped by our singular history, which makes us especially alert to casual slight or implied threat. When it comes to defense, even those who are the best meaning help us too late.

It is not paranoia in Israel or among us here that stirs vigilance. Whatever Jews do, whatever Israel does to guard itself and its children, is done with good reason. We have cause to be prepared for the worst even as we hope and work for the best. We need no apologies. One need not have a Holocaust mentality to have learned from the Holocaust. We stand ready, never again to be unwitting victims.

It is precisely our strength and our self-reliance that made it possible for Israel to work with others for mutual benefit. When Hillel taught “Al tifrosh min ha-tzibur—Don’t separate yourself from the community,” (Pirke Avot, 2:4) he meant it as a lesson for each Jew. It is also an important dictum for nations. After all, Israel lives in a community of nations, in a region in which all its neighbors will influence the level of its security. It could no longer deny the implicit reality of interdependence. This understanding made possible the new promise of the Middle East.

What happened? Why were the cups of bitterness set aside and how did confirmed enemies come to sip from the fountain of hope together? Because both were thirsty enough. One hundred years of bloodstained funeral shrouds had transformed calls for total victory into hollow echoes on both sides. As long as either side wanted all or nothing, neither would gain anything. Neither would rest contently.

The demand for absolute and complete solutions had induced paralysis. When the only choice is “all or nothing,” the outcome is typically “nothing.” From the few preliminary descriptions of the first exploratory meetings in Norway, we gathered the secret of accomplishment. The entire process was a series of small, sometimes imperceptible steps: a meeting, a conversation, an offer, a meal, jokes, and laughter. They added up.

At first, those who talked were friends of informal representatives, academicians, then lower level operatives, then assigned spokespeople, finally authorized government representatives.

At first, there was only an agreement to meet, then an agreement on where, then a conclusion on what had to be withheld from discussion, then consensus about what they would continue to disagree on, then principles, then statements, then a letter, and only then a signing. One simple step after another, described as, “Thunder built gradually… there was no startling pronouncement that suddenly made it happen.”

The Oslo meetings had high hopes but no expectations. Every small accomplishment was a victory. Therein was the key. The process reflected the way each of us lives and the only way we grow. Our life happens in small steps.

When I was young, I ran long distance. I competed in track and cross-country. It was a far less popular sport back then in what my children call the old days. A friend who could not comprehend my affection for the sport asked me how I could tolerate regularly running three, five, and more miles every day. If I thought about the entire race, I might never run. “But I don’t run the whole race at once,” I told him. “You just lean forward. Put one foot in front of the other and make sure that you don’t fall on your face.” Later I realized any improvement in my running came from perfecting each single stride, making each step the best possible.

Long-distance running became a metaphor. Life is just that, a series of small strides, sometimes imperceptible steps. Each one is an attempt to move forward. Human nature urges and our tradition commands that we make each step excellent and hope that our journey will be a good one. We read in the Kol Nidrei liturgy, “Life is a journey. We see that victory lies not at some high place along the way, but in having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.”

That journey has twists and turns. It has joy and accomplishment. Several weeks ago, one of my children and I talked about the love between children and parents. He asked me if I loved him more now or when he was first born. In typical parental fashion I told him they were different kinds of love. But he likes quantifying abstracts. He pursued the question. He made me think and I realized that each day with a child, each year adds to the full bounty of love. One thinks that it could never get greater, that love for a child when young and dependent and obedient must be greater than for a child who is independent, contentious, challenging. But it isn’t that way. Love grows and moves through every byway of our emotional landscape. What we share evolves into great, deep, and powerful ties. At times it happens so casually we are not even aware. The best of our friendships, our greatest accomplishments, our most powerful loves happen slowly.

It is wonderful when life bears the fruits we planted, sometimes long ago.

But we also know the darker sides. Life is not without blemish. The events of life, even the small ones, may be painful. I knew parents who rushed their child to see their pediatrician at the hospital’s emergency room. They despaired because their toddler, just learning to walk, had fallen down a flight of stairs. The doctor comforted them with advice. “Remember, your baby bounced only one step at a time.”

We sometimes feel that way, don’t we? Not always according to our plan, the cumulative effect of those bounces can wear us out. When struggling with illness, especially of someone we love; when suffering the loss of a job or a business reversal; when something that is ours is taken away; when marriages don’t work out according to dreams when first they began; when we bury one we love; when our world collapses and the pain sears and we wonder how we will ever make it to tomorrow, we wonder if we can ever climb out of the pit of despair. We know that life will never be the same. We simply want to feel better.

Our minds tell us we need be optimistic. Our hearts don’t follow suit so quickly. When life seems that dire, the clue again is one foot in front of the other, so as not to fall on our face. Our instinct, our mission, is to endure. Small steps finally bring the dawn, and hope revives. Hope urges willingness to move onward, to take chances, to live fully.

That is how the miracle of the Middle East began. With no expectations but great desires, enemies leaned forward and moved together a step at a time. They climbed the stairway together, even stumbled, but they always moved from weakness to strength, “from innocence to awareness.” They made the journey “stage by stage a sacred pilgrimage.” They compromised. They negotiated. They listened. They learned.

Those recent events call to us. They manifest the triumph of vision materialized one step at a time. Dared we envision it one year ago? Dared we imagine the PLO and Israel ever pursuing peace together during the Yom Kippur War twenty years ago this day? Probably not. Yet it has happened and we are called to attention.

If the familiarity of Yom Kippur and its liturgy, which we have been through so many times before, lulls us into apathy, we will have missed a wonderful opportunity. This is a new day, a new year for us all. Let it make a difference in our belief that something more can happen.

From unexpected quarters, we have been given reason to believe in dreams. Let us pursue those dreams and make our life a sacred journey, one step at a time. With God’s help. Amen.


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