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January Letter from Israel

January 9, 2023

Dear Friends, 
 
I wish you could all be with me here in Israel. It has been a healing and inspiring couple of weeks, and I feel recharged from the contact I’ve had with Israelis, with the other volunteers, and with the land itself. After planting more fennel than I’ve ever eaten in my life, my body feels a bit broken, but my soul feels whole.  
 
As I wrote in my last note, there is insistent hope, a palpable sense of connectedness, and a conspicuous sobriety and lack of rowdiness even in the pubs. Although the country is a raw mixture of shock, trauma, and grieving, it is also unified, determined, and focused. It is a community that is, as it were, on fire but not consumed.  
 
In my farewell to the group at Israel Food Rescue, I referred to the parsha of last week, Shemot, where we read of Moses encountering the burning bush. I referred to it because it took place at the “far end of the field,” where we often found ourselves, and where Moses’ encounter changed his life. It made me think of how we had spent our days in multiple fields, and although we were not directly addressed by God, there is no doubt that our lives have been touched by the significance of showing up for Israel at this time, with our hands in the earth and our hearts joined with the nation.  
 
The metaphor of the bush that was “on fire but not consumed” aptly describes Israel and the Jewish people. As a people, we are on fire all over the world. French Jews are, once again, confronting so much anti-Semitism that they are moving to Israel in large numbers. That October 7 has inspired an exponential growth in expressed antipathy toward Jews, as opposed to sympathy and empathy, is beyond alarming. But we are not being consumed. We are not falling apart; we are coming together. This happens when we face the reality before us. 
 
In the story, Moses first turned away from the burning bush and contemplated what this mysterious thing could be. He then intentionally turned toward it, facing a reality that spoke to him, even if he did not want to hear it. He made himself accountable to the task of leadership, and Jewish history changed forever. We, too, are being called on to look at our global reality and to be accountable for one another.  
 
When we face grief, challenges in family or community, politics, or any significant problem, we are better able to see reality for what it is and the demands it makes of us. It is painful, but it is from this place that we realize our agency to do something about it. This is how old patterns are broken. We are being called to come together. 
 
I have learned the meaning of the ubiquitous motto here in Israel, B’yachad nenatze’ach/Together we will be victorious. The emphasis is not on victory. The emphasis is on unity. Israelis have profound disagreement on what the Jewish character of the State should be or look like, but they have awakened to the reality that no one group can dictate to the rest, that they must figure it out together. The relief and gratitude Israelis have expressed to volunteers showing up is evidence that we in America and around the world have a role to play in Israel’s emergence from this profound crisis. Our task, as Moses decided to do, is to intentionally turn toward Israel and look at the crisis it faces and the painful moral challenges and standards no other country is held to. We are being asked to turn toward our Jewish communities and toward our own meaningful observance and expression of Judaism. It is a complex and painful situation, but it is the reality before us. We can make a difference. 
 
This coming week, we will read parshat Bo, where Moses will once again face Pharaoh and demand freedom for his people. Pharaoh, the institution of familiar and hardened oppression, will refuse to allow the Israelites their freedom. Moses was a burning bush to Pharaoh, but Pharaoh refused to turn toward him. Pharaoh will pay dearly for his stubborn intransigence. We cannot afford to be like Pharaoh; we need to be like Moses.  
 
As I prepare to leave Israel, my body is a little sore, but my soul feels restored. B’yachad nenatze’ach, together we will be victorious. We need each other now more than ever, as a community and as a world-wide family. I look forward to sharing more reflections at Mishkon and around the Shabbat table. Now that I have test-driven this volunteer project, I fully endorse the Israel Food Rescue program for any of you looking to use your own hands to help Israel at this time. Go to their website, Israelfoodrescue.com, and I will be happy to answer any questions you may have. And please reach out to have coffee with me or come to services. I look forward to discussing what connecting more deeply as a Jew and community can look like.  
 
Am Yisrael Chai. 
 
--Rabbi Katzan 

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Fri, April 12 2024 4 Nisan 5784