As a child I used to collect coins. Whenever my grandparents would travel internationally they’d always bring back a handful of coins for me as a souvenir. I kept my coin collection in a small treasure box with a built-in lock that was easy to crack. Until about the age of 10 my coin collection brought me great joy and hours of interest. Then I moved on to other things.
As a coin collector I took a particular interest in the “One Cent Penny.” I’m not sure of the exact history of the penny, but once upon a time the back of the penny used to have the words “One Cent” spelled out in pretty large letters. Y’all know what I’m talking about…
I had a zip-loc bag dedicated for these pennies. I probably had 30-40– a very modest collection.
As an adult I discovered that I’m not the only person in my family that has a connection to coins. My mom believes in what she calls, “Lucky Pennies.” A lucky penny generally means one of two things– either her thinking about a difficult decision is headed in the right direction (the penny serving as confirmation), or, a deceased loved one is letting her know that they’re watching out for her and our family. Lucky pennies are lucky not only because they appear at the right time but because they appear in peculiar places too. For example, when downsizing and moving out of my childhood home my mom found a penny on the driveway of the home she and my father eventually purchased. When meeting my wife for the first time, my mom found a penny. At my ordination ceremony etc… One question is whether any of these lucky pennies might’ve been conveniently placed by my dad, but we’ve never caught him in the act. To be clear, I love my mom’s theory of the lucky penny.
Yesterday I found a lucky penny.
If you’re still with me here, I think that means you care about me and my story, at least enough to spend a moment or two seeing where this is headed. Thank you for listening to my story.
Being in NYC means having more loose change rattling around than usual. Atlanta is a credit card city. In NYC you need cash. Yesterday I was shuffling through some coins and I found a “One Cent Penny.” It reminded me of my childhood coin collection for the first time in a long time.
I flipped the penny over to see the year it was minted. The year was 1948. The state of Israel was established in 1948. Had that penny been minted in 1947 I would’ve likely put it in a JNF Blue Tzedakah Box with the hopes that it might contribute in some small way to the establishment of a Jewish homeland. In 1948 I probably would’ve done the same, but with a very different Jewish reality– the reality of a sovereign Jewish state reborn. Reborn at great cost. Unquantifiable and incalculable cost. Or as Robert Hunter (who I just saw in concert) might say (though I don’t think he wrote this Grateful Dead lyric), “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
Like other people of conscience and concern I stand at the threshold of despair. Aside from the fact that I’m a Jew, a rabbi, and a human being, I have no right or reason to weigh in on the horrible violence that is unfolding in Israel and the Gaza strip. Aside from the fact that I have friends and colleagues in Israel as well as a deep personal connection to the country, I have no right or reason to weigh in.
In recent weeks I’ve read hundreds of Facebook posts and comments and I’ve felt the anguish, fear, hope, and despair. I’m trying, desperately, to use this lucky penny to find some renewed optimism. Recently I heard the author, Daniel Silva, speak. I asked him what he thought the main characters of his Gabriel Alon series would say about the war between Israel and Hamas. He said he was absolutely certain that it would get worse before it gets better. Much worse.
What would Abraham Lincoln, immortalized on the penny before me, have to say?
I think Lincoln would be deeply troubled by the tragic circumstances of innocent Palestinians living in Gaza. I think he would hold the Hamas government accountable for failing its people. I think he would say that at each moment those of us who have power can choose how we exercise that power. Rather than pursuing diplomatic channels they’ve chosen armed resistance. Rather than investing in their people’s future, they invest in their martyrdom. Rather than building schools they are digging tunnels. Rather than pursuing true autonomy and freedom they have further enslaved their own people. Lincoln would acknowledge that Israel and the “International Community” (to the extent that there is one) share some of the blame. But Lincoln would look at Hamas and say that an unjust government that oppresses its people is no government at all. I think…
I think Lincoln would, with a heavy heart, acknowledge that Daniel Silva is right. Throughout the course of history our oddly enlightened species has, particularly in matters of politics, generally crossed thresholds where things will by necessity get worse before they get better. Lincoln would offer the American Civil War as an example of the heavy price that must be paid when confronting a political regime founded on injustice, oppression, immorality, and the annihilation of another people.
He’d point out that plantations had churches and that the “word of God” was proclaimed from their pulpits but that God’s messages were so thoroughly distorted and abused that they became part of the yoke of slavery rather than the inspiration for liberation. He’d point out that pulpits of hate, be they churches, mosques, or synagogues, should be eradicated from this earth.
He would hold all the powers that be to the highest moral standard. When considering Israel he would state unequivocally that the extent to which Israel’s actions in this conflict are justified is based solely on whether Israel is honestly committed to liberating an oppressed people from an oppressive terrorist regime while simultaneously protecting her own citizens and interests. If Israel is truly dedicated to the annihilation of all Palestinians, then Israel is no better than Hamas. But Lincoln would be able to rise above the absurd rhetoric that has turned social media into one unending sermon and know that this is not the case.
Like all American currency the penny says, “In God We Trust” and “E Pluribus Unum.” If God is present in this conflict at all, let God be present in the teacher who is trying to provide a sense of normalcy to his students knowing that the basement of his school is a storehouse for rockets and grenades. If God is present in this conflict at all, let God be present in the hearts and homes of Israeli mothers who are comforting their children in bomb shelters or praying for their sons and daughters on the front lines. If God is present in this conflict at all, let God not be the excuse for celebrating the deaths of innocent people. Let God shield humanity rather than turn human beings into shields so that they might be added to the annals of the lists of collateral damage forever lost to history. Let God remind us all that to live in God’s image is to create rather than destroy.
As for “E Pluribus Unum”– It is long past time to take our individual narratives and bind them together. It’s time to take the many and find the One. We need to care deeply for one another’s stories and see them as our own. We need to take all of our stories and anthologize them. We need to bind them in a book of life and teach our children and ourselves to read from this book. We need to take our billions of individual stories and turn them into one epic narrative of humanity. Only then will innocent Palestinians and innocent Israelis be able to look one another in the eye and begin the human work of reconciliation. It’s a hell of a lot harder than lobbing missiles, digging tunnels, and lazily using God and history as our excuse and justification. Tragically, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.