Friday, December 14, 2007

Parashat Vayigash - 2007

Cab rides in this country are always fascinating. From politics to education to society in general, the taxi driver is an expert in all and will tell you, with surety, the fastest way to get from point a to point b and the key to Peace in the Middle East. There are even games that I play in the taxi cab adventure. One of them is the “Fare” game, where you decide whether you want to pay the inflated fee proposed by the cabbie or to go by the meter. Turning on the meter is the law, but it rarely happens without asking. In the end, you choose between paying the flat but higher fee in order to arrive at your destination more quickly or insisting on the meter and being taken where you want to go in the most roundabout way possible. Choosing the meter almost always means paying an even more inflated fee than you would have had you succumbed to the cabbie in the first place.

There is another game I play frequently that I call “The Identity Game.” Here, the challenge is to figure out if your driver is Israeli Jew or Israeli Arab. I don’t care either way. I learn something from either driver. But I have noticed a troubling pattern lately. I get into a cab and when I ask the driver how the day is going, he responds, “Baruch HaShem” “Blessed is God.” Nothing unusual here, until I look up to find the driver’s name and discover that he is Muhammad al Yussuf or Ziad or Ahmad. This is a dead giveaway that the driver is an Israeli Arab and not an Israeli Jew . I dig a little deeper but the driver still plays the role of Israeli Jewish cab driver.

Why the pretending? I have a suspicion. I wear a kippah all the time. Many people, therefore, assume that they know who I am and what I believe. Perhaps the Israeli Arab taxi driver fears that upon discovering his Arab identity, I will get out of the taxi and find an Israeli Jewish driver. The more questions I ask the longer the play goes on until I ask the driver where he lives. When he asks me if I know where the Mt. of Olives is, I know I have won. I ask him if he lives in A-Tur or Ras-al-Amud or Silwan and he has to tell me, and I have now relaxed him enough to know that I am not bothered by Israeli Arab taxi drivers. The rest of the trip results in delightful conversation about the need for all of us to live together in peace.

I was recently coming home from a wedding in a part of town that was completely unfamiliar to me, far away from Baka-land. I told the driver where we were going, and he immediately turned on the meter, without being asked. Being directionally challenged as I am, I made a passing comment about having no idea where I was. I didn’t think twice about it. When we got back to the Mt. Scopus area, near Hebrew University, I looked and said, “OK, now I know where I am. I have my bearings back…” The driver responded very politely, but let me know that he was taking me the absolute quickest way and that I should not worry about him taking advantage of me.

And then I realized that he thought I was subtly accusing him of going out of his way to run the fare up. I quickly reassured him that this was not the case at all, that I am simply terrible with directions, felt out of sorts in the part of town where we were, and was relieved by the familiarity of Hebrew University. I looked at the name plate on the cab and saw that Ziad was driving. So I asked where he lived and got the familiar Mt. of Olives reply. And now I understood. In the darkness of winter in Jerusalem, driving past the Old City, the site of The Holy of Holies, the lights of the Channukiot burning out for the night, Ziad was reassuring me that although he was an Israeli Arab, I should not automatically assume (which I did not) that he was going to take advantage of me.

It is very sad, that we live in a world, in a place, and at a time when people feel the need to pretend, to cover up their identity. I am not naïve. I don’t think that just being honest about who we are will change the world or bring Peace to the Middle East. But I do know that revealing who we are can lead to rapprochement, or at least to the start of rapprochement. Mikketz and Vayigash show us the dangers of covering up our identities and of telling only half of the story. These parshiot also show us the blessings that can come from honesty and from revealing ourselves. Yehudah seems to express regret and Yosef ends his play. He reveals his true identity to his brothers and the family healing begins.

When the day comes when cabbies no longer have to pretend to be those that they are not, when I don’t have to play a game to draw out their true identity, and when people don’t make assumptions based on names or headgear, then we will know that we are approaching an era when Peace and mutual understanding can reign in our wonderful, dysfunctional Middle Eastern family. Until then, I can only hope that each time I win the game with the cabbie that I, in a very small way, make a contribution to the arrival of the rapprochement that will make that era possible.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Loren Sykes

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