Spiritual Lessons of the Arab Spring: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

(Also posted at Velveteen Rabbi.)

Last winter there was a revolution in Tunisia. It began on December 17, in the town of Sidi Bouzid.

A policewoman, seeking a bribe, confiscated the illegal vegetable stall of an unemployed man named Mohamad Bouazizi. For years, the police had been routinely confiscating his wheelbarrow of produce, demanding bribes. On this day, he had already gone into debt to buy the vegetables he needed to sell to feed his family. And now his vegetables, and his street cart, were impounded, and he was harassed and humiliated by a city official and her aides. Bouazizi tried to see the governor to beg for his cart and his weighing scales, but the governor refused to see him.

Out of despondency, or out of desperate desire to make a statement, Bouazizi set himself on fire. This was not an act of violence against others, but a way of protesting and showing his despair. On December 17, the day when Bouazizi self-immolated, protesters took to the streets. They posted videos of their marches on Facebook. After 23 years of dictatorship under the rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian people were fed up with corruption and misrule. Al Jazeera broadcast this smalltown Tunisian revolution throughout the Arab world. Less than a month later, Ben Ali stepped down from power.

That same month, a revolution unfolded in Egypt. Protests took place in a Cairo square called Tahrir—“Liberation.” More than a million people took to the streets and the square, rallying behind the aims of free speech, an end to police brutality and corruption, and an end to the state of emergency law which had persisted since 1967. They protested high unemployment and food price inflation. They demanded free elections, a say in the management of Egypt’s resources, and justice.

The protestors faced police willing to use tear gas and rubber bullets to drive them back. Ordinary people who lived near Tahrir opened their homes so that protesters could shower, and showed up in the square to cook food and sing songs. You may have seen news footage of Egyptian Christians linking hands to protect Egyptian Muslims as they prostrated themselves in prayer—a prostration which is akin to what some of us will do, later this morning, during the Great Aleinu.

Within days President Hosni Mubarak stepped down and a new chapter of Egyptian history began.

Since last December, there have been revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt; a civil war in Libya; uprisings in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen; protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, and in Gaza and the West Bank. Over the summer, unprecedented numbers of Israelis too have taken to the streets, setting up tent cities and protesting inequities in Israeli life, inspired in large part by the Arab Spring. A vast tectonic shift is underway. The world is changing.

It’s become popular to analyze the Arab Spring in terms of how social media—like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook—played a role in the organizing of protests and the disseminating of information. (Indeed, my husband Ethan has given many lectures on this very subject!) These technologies and their use worldwide have enabled a profound change in how people communicate. As those who were once voiceless connect with each other, they find strength in togetherness, and new possibilities arise.

Others look at the Arab Spring and ask: what does this mean for Israel? Let me be honest: I don’t know yet. I don’t think anyone does. But Israel’s security does not, must not, depend on a status quo where the inhabitants of neighboring countries live under oppression and repression.

The Declaration of Establishment of the State of Israel says that Israel “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture[.]” These are lofty aims. As a rabbi, and as a Jew, I yearn for the day when every woman, man, and child everywhere in the world knows these rights and cherishes them as their own.

For me the most interesting question is what the Arab Spring tells us about the human spirit. What can we learn from these stories as we enter into the Days of Awe? On this Rosh Hashanah morning I’d like to offer three spiritual lessons I find in the unfolding of the Arab Spring.

The first is the lesson of presence. Protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, in Manama’s Pearl Square, in the streets of Sidi Bouzid, began by simply coming together. And where one person’s presence might not have made an appreciable difference, the presence of thousands and tens of thousands is what began to open the doors to change. These were not riots. These were nonviolent protests, where what mattered was simply that people showed up.

And they weren’t just physically present; they were spiritually present, too. I know this because people took care of one another. Grown-ups watched after children. Christians took care of Muslims. Those who could afford to cook food for a crowd did so. Those who could open their homes to offer a meal or a shower, did so. Sometimes difficult or scary situations bring out the worst in people; sometimes they bring out what’s best in us. People who are caring for one another are present not only in body, but also in heart and soul.

This simple presence matters for us as well. On this Rosh Hashanah, may we be blessed with an appreciation of how important it is that we be present. We’re here. We’ve come together to place our bodies, our hearts, our minds, and our souls in service of the common goal of connecting with God and with community. And when we come together, something ineffable arises, something that’s more than the sum of its parts.

The second lesson I take away from the Arab Spring is that hope is a powerful force. Injustice tends to be self-sustaining: when a system becomes unjust, it can calcify and harden. In Torah we read about our people’s history in Mitzrayim, “The Narrow Place”—a place of constriction and constrainment, hard labor and grievous punishment—and that’s often what the name Egypt represents in the Jewish imagination. Torah tells us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart against the plight of the Hebrews. How can it be, the rabbis ask, that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart? And the answer comes: first Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and once his heart was hardened, it was easy for God to let it stay that way. Like the Pharaoh of the Passover story, we too can harden our own hearts against those who are different from us… and when we do, it becomes easier for us to accept injustice as the status quo.

But injustice can be overcome. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, says Torah: justice, justice shall you pursue! And once one person has the strength to stand up, whether in protest or in despair, to take action to create change—then more people follow suit.

The people of Tunisia and Egypt had given up all hope of change. If they could imagine a better life, they imagined it coming after their leaders’ deaths. No one believed that these men, who had clung to power for so long, could be overthrown.

Mohamed Bouazizi’s mode of seeking change is horrific to imagine. This act of desperation is not a way I could ever imagine seeking to further an agenda of transformation. But I think we must feel compassion for a man whose life was so awful that he clutched at self-immolation as a way of sparking hope and change. And I pray that we here today, engaged in our spiritual task of seeking righteousness, may be inspired by his courage, even as we mourn the need for his flames. His sacrifice led an entire region to begin to believe that the change they had thought was impossible could actually happen, not in some distant future but in their own day.

And that’s the third lesson I want to lift up from the Arab Spring: change is possible. Political change, social change, personal change, spiritual change.

Those who have taken part in nonviolent protests across the Arab world this year have put their bodies in service of their hopes for political change. They seek changes in government, changes in how their police and army treat them, changes in the economy and the job market, changes in their rights to assemble and to speak for themselves.

We in this country are justifiably proud of our democracy and of the rights which we know to be inalienable—and yet even we can be prone to slipping in to the familiar comfort of skepticism and despair. It’s easy to knock the other guys—Republicans or Democrats, whoever we think is to blame for whatever’s not right. But the enemy is not those who see the world differently than we do: it’s the insidious voice of despair which whispers in our ears that nothing will ever change.

Some who seek marriage equality in this nation may despair of ever being able to wed the person they love. And yet, earlier this summer, the New York State senate ruled that denying gays and lesbians the right of marriage was unjust, and the first legal gay weddings there took place. Some who believe that global warming is real and dangerous may despair of ever convincing those who don’t. And yet, earlier this year, the windmills at Berkshire Wind in Lanesboro began to turn, generating power safely and sustainably from the winds which whip along the ridge. Change is possible.

People can change, too. That may be the most central teaching of these Days of Awe. This is the time of year when our tradition invites us to do the spiritual work of cheshbon ha-nefesh, taking an accounting of the soul; to strive to discern where our lives and relationships are working, and where we could be doing a better job of living up to our highest ideals. This is the season for teshuvah, repetance or return, re-aligning ourselves so that we are pointed in the right direction again: toward God, toward our highest selves, toward our hopes and dreams of a world perfected and renewed. The Days of Awe come each year to remind us that we, too—with our habits, our customary ways of being, our perennial challenges and stuck places—we, too, can change.

It’s easy to feel distant from what we see on the news, what we read about in the paper. Tunisia, Cairo, Yemen, Bahrain: these places are far away. The people who live there don’t look like us, don’t dress like us. Most of them don’t worship like us. But like us, they are made in the image and the likeness of God; each protester contains a nefesh elohut, a spark of divinity, within them. (And so does each policeman aiming a water cannon…though it may be more difficult for us to see the divinity in those who persecute than in those who are perscuted.)

In more recent months, hundreds of thousands have gathered in Israel to protest an untenable cost of living, lack of housing and jobs, the deteriorating educational system, and issues of social justice. They too have been galvanized by the Arab Spring.

Of course, as the Arab Spring gives way to the Arab Autumn, the stories are not always joyous and inspiring. Even as the Israeli tent city protests offer reason for hope, the recent attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo offers reason for concern. It began as violence against the Egyptian police force, which continues to mistreat and abuse activists with relative impunity—but it quickly became an attack on the Israeli Embassy, and that’s alarming.

Mubarak maintained a cordial relationship with Israel while allowing his thuggish police force to brutalize Egyptians. It makes sense that some Egyptians now resent that relationship with Israel as a relic of the Mubarak years. There is clearly some anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt, which was surely both strengthened by Mubarak’s policies, and silenced by his regime. Now that he is gone, that anti-Israel sentiment is newly visible, which in turn awakens our fears.

I believe that a free and democratic Egypt will ultimately be a better partner for Israel than was Mubarak’s brutal dictatorship…though the road to that partnership may not be easy. Meanwhile, I’m heartened when I read voices from the Middle East—like the recent column in the Jerusalem Post by Gershom Baskin—arguing that what is needed are more bridges between people, even (or maybe especially) those among whom there is mistrust.

(He also notes that many Egyptians believe that the leaders of the mob which torched the Israeli embassy were members of Mubarak’s hated internal security force, actively working to undermine the revolution. If that is true, it also gives me hope.)

Many of us who feel an identification with Israel have the long habit of relating to the Arab world with fear and anxiety. But this season of teshuvah is a time for examining our patterns and discerning which ones no longer serve us. If we can relate to the Arab Spring with empathy, compassion, and hope instead of with fear, what might change in us—and in the world we share?

In Jewish tradition, the fact of humanity’s many diversities and differences is seen as a sign of God’s greatness. We read in the Mishnah, the compilation of rabbinic wisdom which dates from the second century of the Common Era, that “Humanity was produced from one man, Adam, to show God’s greatness. When a man mints a coin in a press, each coin is identical. But when the Holy Blessed One creates people in the form of Adam not one is similar to any other.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

We who are here in this sanctuary, and we who are in every sanctuary in the world this morning, and we who are not in any sanctuary at all—all of us are made in the image and the likeness; all of us deserve to have hope and to know freedom; and all of us are capable of the holiness of change.

Shanah tovah tikatevu v’techatemu: may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

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