Something extraordinary happened this week. 280,000 people gathered from across the universe, most of them from Israel and Palestine, to mourn those killed on both sides of the conflict. The joint Israeli Palestinian memorial ceremony, hosted by Combatants for Peace and the Bereaved Parents Forum, and sponsored by dozens of organizations including The New Shul, is laying the ground for a different future. In a time when most Israelis are vaccinated and almost no Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are, the ability of people to transform a day of mourning those the other side have killed into a day of affirming our unity in the face of massive pressure to conform filled me with new energy. Thanks to this event I find myself unusually hopeful on this week of the 73rd anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel. This despite any hope for a solution or even an improvement in the situation there any time soon.
Activism is a funny business. It often involves an ongoing sense of failure. In the Israeli left (what remains of it) that sense is acute and un-ignorable. Here in the US too, when we see another video of a black man killed by police, and then the same week one of 13-year-old Adam Toledo shot with his hands in the air, we feel the despair, the failure of our attempts. But the fruits of one’s actions can, like a fig from a freshly planted fruit, take 70 years or more to appear. In the meantime, we look for a different kind of fruit; One that can be found within our actions themselves.
My father, David Shulman, who we will have the privilege of listening to and asking questions of this Saturday morning at our third Kumah Festival event, has spent much of his life deep in the endlessly thankless world of Israeli-Palestinian activism. Amazingly though, and anyone who has been in the West Bank on some Quixotian mission knows this well, the work is also endlessly rewarding. How could that be?
In his book, Freedom and Despair, he quotes Wittgenstein:
“…it is clear that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the. ordinary sense. This question as to the consequences of an action must therefore be irrelevant….. There must be some sort of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but this must lie in the action itself.”
In working for good we have to divorce ourselves from the result of our action, and instead do it because it is the right thing to do. This sounds like a contradiction. Why do it if it won’t amount to anything? This is the question that leaves the skeptic, the depressed person, the doubter in bed. Sometimes it leaves me in bed. I write about activism today, but what is activism if not a metaphor for any action we take in the world? I come to pray and hear that question — Why do it if it won’t amount to anything? I come to write a play, or sing a song, or teach or read or exercise or write an email, and many times that question creeps up — Why do it if it won’t amount to anything?
Pirkei Avot in the Mishnah teaches the concept of “Lishma,” or “for its own sake.” Torah that we do for its own sake, divorced from what will or won’t come out of it, taught Rabbi Meir, ends up bringing the greatest rewards. Anything we manage to do for no other reason but to do it, is the greatest type of action. Despair, my father teaches, can help us act in that way:
“…speaking of the ground for action I think it’s time to reclaim despair, which is. as good a ground as any and better than most. Since the results are not the point, despair has a role to play. One despairs: the wickedness is all too present and effective, we cannot stem the tide with our bodies or our words, we confront a faceless system embodied in the faces of the soldiers and bureaucrats and settlers that we meet on the hills. I recommend despair as a place to start. It is in the nature of acting, of doing the right thing, that despair recedes at least for a moment, and its place is taken by something else: hopeless hope for example. Those who work these furrows know that hope is not contingent. Sometimes the worse things get, the more hope there is, for hope is an act of the deeper self, or the freer part of the person, what some would call a spiritual act.”
We have no control over the way the world behaves. We cannot see the results of our actions. Let us allow these truths to free us to behave in all the best ways we can. Then we might be filled with an endless supply of hopeless hope, which has the power to move us to keep doing God’s work for the simple reason that we know it to be good.
I’m excited to see you tomorrow morning at 10am.