Arik Ascherman

If Not Higher

Every few years, I write a new modern version of Y.L. Peretz’s “If Not Higher.”  Having prayed my penitential selihot prayers this year as often as possible in the shepherding communities that we did not succeed in defending from state backed settler terror, or in those we are now defending, it seemed right to do another version this year. As opposed to my previous modern versions in which the protagonist was a rabbi (often a woman rabbi), this year’s version reflects my belief that true change can be initiated by one person, but no person does it alone and it isn’t the responsibility of any one person. True change is collective. It requires many people who also recruit others in expanding circles.  The next version may also reflect my belief that tikkun olam is not only about Band-Aid solutions, even though the Band-Aids can mean a lot. What we do in the field and to influence others must be backed by what we do in the corridors of power.

If Not Higher

There is a small moshav near Jerusalem.  They are beloved by their neighbors. Many tales are told of the deep faith of the residents, and there are even those who insist that they are miracle workers.  But there is just one strange thing. During the month of Elul and during the Aseret Yamei Teshuva between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, when most religious Jews arrive especially early every morning for the selihot penitential prayers, the synagogue is entirely empty. Nobody shows up for morning prayer.  In fact, while the children can be found in school, there isn’t a soul to be found in the rest of the moshav. The men and women are nowhere to be found.  However, this doesn’t bother those living nearby because they know that their neighbors ascend to heaven as Yom Kippur approaches to plead the cause of the Jewish people.

Well, it never bothered most of their neighbors. But, it did bother some.  Down the road there is a community mostly of retired academicians. Whenever they would meet others from the area at the local gas station or restaurant or pub, they would either argue or scoff, “Who in the 21st century believes in miracles and ascending to heaven?”

In fact, some of them just couldn’t let go. It drove them crazy, and they became obsessed with the question where the moshavniks really went to. A few years ago they decided they would put the whole question to rest by determining where the moshavniks disappeared to during Elul.  They would hide themselves one night at different locations around the moshav, in order to discover when the moshavniks left, and where they went to.

Already around 7:00 in the evening they saw that parents brought their children to the community center. From their positions outside the moshav, they couldn’t hear what was being said, but saw that some of the parents hugged and kissed their children, and teenagers from the moshav led them inside. A few of the parents went in as well.  “Ah,” one retired professor chuckled. ”The moshavniks are kibbutznik wannabees.  They are bringing back communal children’s houses. Let’s see what happens next.”

The retired professors carefully remained hidden, texting each other with their smartphones in order to determine what was happening at each location.  The rest of the parents divided themselves into a number of cars.  The academicians quickly texted each other to get back to their cars, carefully making sure they weren’t detected.  Keeping their distance, things became more difficult as the cars travelled in different directions.  The skeptics managed to split up as well. One car followed each group of moshav cars.

Back at the community center, one daring skeptic snuck up to a window and surreptitiously peaked inside. The youngest children went straight to sleep. Some of the teenagers played games with slightly older children, and the older children gathered in a circle to study and discuss what appeared to be sacred texts.  Straining to hear what was being said while not being discovered, they couldn’t hear much.  A few words such as “Tzedek (justice),” “hemla (compassion),” “tikkun olam (repairing and sanctifying the word),” “heshbon nefesh (soul searching)” and “God” wafted through the windows.

One group of adults headed out of Jerusalem into the Occupied Territories.  The skeptics travelled behind, doing their best to keep a good distance. The skeptics had no idea what was going on, as the moshavnikim were joined by additional Israelis, and turned off onto a very poor dirt road.  In order not to be seen, the academicians parked on the main road and entered carefully and cautiously on foot.  From afar they saw the group of skeptics could hear the bleating of sheep, and saw the Israelis change greetings with shepherds living in simple tents.  Suddenly, there were cries of alarm as they were detected.  Having been outed, they approached the tent and explained that they had followed in order to find out why the moshavnikim were absent from the synagogue during the month of Elul.  The moshavnikim explained that they had come to spend the night in a shepherding community being terrorized by settler outposts surrounding them, often entering the encampment in the middle of the night and sometimes acting violently, and during the days chasing them away from the grazing lands and forcing them to pay astronomical sums for bought feed.  They invited them to join their midnight selihot prayers, occasionally interrupted when they had to rush out to let approaching settlers know they were being watched and filmed by Israelis.  The shepherds explained they would have fled a long time ago, without the protective presence of Israelis.

Early in the morning, a fresh group of Israelis arrived, and moshavnikim invited the skeptics to travel with them a short distance to a horrific sight.  There were remains of abandoned tents and shacks. Abandoned kitchen utensils, children’s toys and other signs that once until recently this had been people’s homes strewed this abandoned encampment that until recently had been home to a community – to families. Settlers poked their heads out from the outpost dominating the access road, and laughed.  The moshavnikim recited the morning selihkot prayers as the sounds of prayers wafted from synagogues throughout the country. They faced the outpost as they sounded    the shofar.

A second group from the moshav travelled to a low income neighborhood in Jerusalem.  They joined a number of other people who entered the house and began to lock themselves inside.  From posters that had been put up the academicians understood that there was a single parent mother of two young children in a public housing apartment, and that they were to be evicted in the morning.  The night passed quietly, but the skeptics striving to remain undetected could hear the melodies of the evening selihot prayers from within. Starting around 5:00 in the morning, police came by every once in a while to check on what was happening in the home.  Again, just as people were gathering in other synagogues to recite the morning selihot prayers, the skeptics heard prayers being recited inside the home. While there were more and more police as the morning wore on, there was no attempt to evict the family, perhaps because of the presence within. Perhaps other efforts were also made.

A third group travelled a longer distance, to the Negev. They arrived at cluster of tin shacks, again joining other Israelis who had gathered. Here too the trackers had to be even more careful not to be detected, because there any strange car would be recognized.  It just so happened that one of the professors knew something about Negev geography, and that they had arrived at an “unrecognized” village.  Again the night passed quietly. However, shortly after the moshavnikim began their selihot prayers, bulldozers arrived and began to plow under the planted Bedouin fields because the State has ceased to honor Bedouin land ownership documents from before Israel existed.  The moshavnikim and the others tried to stand in front of the bulldozers to no avail, and they finished their prayers as they were pulled aside by the police and detained.

A fourth group traveled to South Tel Aviv.  They said their selihot prayers while guarding a safehouse for asylum seekers threatened with expulsion.

A final group remained in the moshav until morning. Even before dawn broke, this final group departed, and travelled an hour to a private farm.  The confused skeptics, striving not to be seen, saw the moshavniks exchange some words with the farm owner, and than went out to pick tomatoes, cucumbers and other produce. “What?” asked the academicians? “The moshavnikim don’t work their farmland anymore, and now go to work elsewhere as hired laborers?”  Synagogue goers around the country were waking and preparing to go to their places of worship. The skeptics were even more perplexed as they saw that, rather than being paid for their work, the moshavnikim took some of the produce as payment. “What? Times are tough, but they don’t have enough to eat?” Rather than returning home, they too arrived at a low income neighborhood in Jerusalem just as other synagogue goers arrived in their places of worship.  The moshavnikim divided up and knocked on several doors. Outside one, the skeptics barely made out a small, faint voice from behind the door. “Who is it?” “Friends with some food” came the reply. “But I am ill and have no money.” “Woman of little faith. Have you doubt that God will repay us?”  They entered and began to both recite selihot prayers, clean the simple room and prepare a meal as other synagogue goers recited their selihot prayers.  They closed the door behind them and said the final verses of selihot, as the selihot prayers were concluded in other synagogues.

If you visit the moshav and the surrounding communities today, nothing as changed.  They residents of the moshav are still beloved by their neighbors, and even in the 21st century there are stories of miracles and ascending to heaven during the month of Elul.  The only difference is that the residents are also absent in the mornings from the retirement village during the month of Elul. And, when the retired academicians hear stories about the moshavnikim ascending during the month of Elul at the gas station or in the restaurant or the pub, they don’t argue any more.

They only add quietly to themselves, “If not higher.”

This year, may we all collectively go higher.

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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