Did anyone else find it ironic/hypocritical/oddly humorous that Obama lectured Russia on the immorality of occupying another people, while sitting next to Benjamin Netanyahu?
Did anyone else find it ironic/hypocritical/oddly humorous that Obama lectured Russia on the immorality of occupying another people, while sitting next to Benjamin Netanyahu?
This is the d’var torah that I delivered this week at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.
A boy dreams of a mysterious treasure, hidden in a far-off land. He travels through the deserts of North Africa, in search of the enigma that has appeared to him in his sleep. Journeying with him is an old man, a keeper of ancient wisdom. Through his travels – as is the case in most stories of this type – he learns much about life and his place in the universe. Together on their quests, the boy and the old man are each in possession of stones bearing ancient magical powers. The old man’s stone has the power to turn lead into gold. The boy’s stones have the power to divine the will of God. These are the stories at the heart of Paolo Coehlo’s allegorical legend, The Alchemist.
The world of The Alchemist presents two types of stones that each offer a vision of how to succeed in life. One: search for gold. The other: search for God’s truth. In our own world, there often appears to be two similar approaches to success. One is to direct ourselves outwardly, and search for practical ways to succeed in life. We search for wealth, power, and success in our endeavors. The other is to direct ourselves inwardly, and search for spiritual, introspective success; the things that make us feel worthwhile and valued. It often seems that people swing heavily in one direction, and struggle with finding a connection between succeeding both inwardly and outwardly.
This week, in parashat Pekudei, there appears a symbol of the intersection between our inner and our outer selves. We read of the formation of the bigdei s’rad – the vestments for the Kohen Gadol. Shrouded in secrecy and mysticism, the vestments include the names of the twelve tribes engraved on precious stones, along with the urim and tummim – stones of a mystical and prophetic nature. These are also the names that Coehlo gave to the prophetic stones in The Alchemist. Together, these priestly stones were powerful cultic objects that had the ability to divine the will of God.
The stones and precious gems of the bigdei s’rad carried a great physical and figurative weight. Girded with the names of the twelve tribes emblazoned across his breastplate and on both of his shoulders, we can imagine the awesome sense of responsibility Aaron must have felt towards his clansmen. But for our priestly ancestors, the power of these words was not just figurative, and their weight was not just a matter of their physical mass. When the Israelites wanted to determine the will of God in matters that were beyond human comprehension, they consulted the stones of the priestly vestments. Through the engraved words, the High Priest the power to communicate with God and interpret God’s will.
Towards the end of The Alchemist, Coehlo writes:
God created the world so that, through its visible objects, men could understand His spiritual teachings and the marvels of His wisdom… The world is only the visible aspect of God. And what alchemy does is bring spiritual perfection into contact with the material plane.”
We may not think of alchemy as the most Jewish of subjects, but perhaps a momentary lapse into near-paganism is not so inappropriate, given the cultic nature of the priestly garments. Coehlo suggests that the physical world is a visible reflection of the Divine – whom we cannot see – and that there are ways to bring our two worlds closer to one another. In the same way that our earthly world is meant to be a reflection of God’s domain, how can we make ourselves a reflection of God, upholding the charge that will come later in the Torah – קדושים תהיו – “you shall be holy”?
One answer, I believe, lies in the stones of Aaron’s priestly garments. The stones bearing the names of the twelve tribes are described as being “engraved like seals” – פתוחי חתם (Ex. 28:11, 21; 39:14, 30). The Re’em, Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi, a fifteenth century Greek-Ottoman Talmudist, argued that “the engraving is not of a seal, because a seal is not engraved, but that of the signet, which is made to seal letters” (Sefer ha-Mizrachi, Ex. 39). How is a signet engraved? For its messaged to be received, the text needs to be engraved backwards so that when it is stamped, it appears forwards. Rashi agrees, noting that the letters were engraved “inwardly” (Rashi Shemot 28:11). Our text appears to imply that on the Kohen Gadol’s powerful garments, the names of the twelve tribes were actually engraved backwards. What a peculiar site this must have been!
If this is so, and they were written backwards, for whom were they intended? Even Aaron would have had difficulty reading them, looking down upon his chest. The words of these backwards-engraved stones would appear correctly only if impressed upon something else, or if viewed from within himself. The Rabbi Maharil Diskin, a leading biblical commentator of the nineteenth century, in an attempt to resolve this peculiarity, proposes that the engravings on the stones actually did appear in the right direction. In his view, something mystical and supernatural took place, such that the stones appeared to be engraved both inwardly – as the text suggests – and outwardly, in a way that could be perceived by all. His solution was that in truth, they faced inward and outward at the same time.
We are presented with these stones, very earthly objects hewn out of the rocky desert, yet clearly bearing heavenly, esoteric meaning. According to our teacher, Abraham ibn Ezra, these earthly stones function as mirrors for celestial rocks. A poet, exegetical genius, astronomer, and astrologist, ibn Ezra taught that the names of the Israelite tribes on the stones were symbolic of constellations, and that they mirrored the celestial equator – the imaginary dividing line of the zodiac. He believed that the priestly stones were an instrument corresponding to the arrangement of the heavens, and that when used properly, could even predict the future. He wrote that, mysteriously, “these things can only be grasped by the mind… They were divided in a way that could be perceived by the eye” (Ibn Ezra Shemot 28:6).
The division of the night sky into the zodiac is something that can only be understood by our minds – when we look up into the heavens, we do not actually see twelve distinct areas. For ibn Ezra, the priestly garments are tangible reminders of this important connection to the heavens. They hold up a mirror to the relationship between the “upper” and “lower” worlds; between who we are now, and who we have the potential to become in the future. Ibn Ezra is expressing the connection between the micro and the macro; between the inner and outer. In the same way, Judaism is a framework for connecting to something larger than ourselves. We don’t exist merely within our own selves; we connect ourselves intimately to a community around us.
This week’s parasha presents us with an eminently important question: “how do we live our lives with integrity and authenticity both inwardly and outwardly?” The priestly vestments – a seemingly anachronistic instrument for our contemporary, anti-caste sensibilities – offer a model of how to exist in relationship to God and to those around us. Just as the Maharil Diskin suggested that the stones of the vestments appeared the same facing outwards as inwards, we are meant to live our lives in such a way that we appear the same facing in towards ourselves, and out towards the world. In this way, we can bring about a truly divine existence and mirror God’s holiness.
Yet there is a tension in this idea. Often, the image we broadcast to the world is not that which is emblazoned within our hearts. At times we are victims of what the ancient Greeks called akrasia – knowing best but doing worst. At others, we present ourselves in ways that betray our innermost selves. Indeed, the very word for clothes – beged, comes from the same shoresh as the word for betrayal – b’gidah. The relationship between vestments, and our inner selves is echoed in the Talmud: Rabbi Inyani bar Sason says that the Torah includes the laws for the priestly vestments and the laws for the sacrifices so close to each other, in order to draw the connection between our physical behavior and our spiritual purity (BT Zevakhim 88b).
Rabbi Hanina taught that the various accoutrements of the vestments are actually able to atone for impure thoughts, arrogance, brazenness, slander, neglect of civil laws, and idolatry (BT Zevakhim 88b). Now the notion that we should be honest and just in whom we present ourselves to be is a deceptively simple idea, perhaps even an obvious one. Yet it is one which often remains unaddressed. In many ways, searching for the answer to this question is at the heart of our journey as future k’lei kodesh.
Earlier on his journey through the desert, the boy in the Alchemist was accompanied by an Englishman who was himself in search of the titular character. Pondering the meaning of the urim and tummim, the boy struck up a conversation with the man:
Why do they make things so complicated?” The Englishman responded: “So that those who have the responsibility for understanding can understand… It’s only those who are persistent, and willing to study things deeply, who achieve… That’s why I’m here in the middle of the desert.”
Our heritage is born out of the desert, out of mysteries, and out of the quest to bring ourselves closer to the ideal of who we can be. This is the quest to get closer to God, to become the mamlekhet kohanim that we are meant to be. If we are persistent; if we look beyond the words that occasionally appear backwards; if we are willing to look at ourselves deeply, reject betrayal, and portray ourselves outwardly as we are inwardly; then we will have the ability to become mirrors of the Divine.
This week, as we conclude Sefer Shemot, may we go from strength to strength on this journey.
“Sometimes things so apparent don’t seem apparent at first.” This hackneyed statement is what Richard Friedman wants us to believe when it comes to Canadian PM Stephen Harper and his relationship with Israel. What is apparent for Mr. Friedman, is that powerful forces of Hitlerian evil are still out to get the Jews, there is an international antisemitic conspiracy that has targeted Israel, and that Stephen Harper has apparently distinguished himself as a sort of courageous moral truth-teller who can save the Jews.
In an opinion piece here at the Times of Israel, riddled with dark allusions to Nazi Europe and the international quest to eradicate Jews, Friedman wants us to believe that the world is teetering on the edge of a neo-Holocaust, and that only the Canadian Prime Minister can save the Jews, comparing him to Danish King Christian X. Out of this worldview, Friedman has this to say:
What happened in Denmark proved that the Holocaust could have been prevented. If more European leaders had been courageous enough to stand up on behalf of their country’s Jews, it’s likely substantially fewer Jews would have been murdered.”
This may be historically true, though we can never know. That said, it holds no water as a precedent for a modern foreign policy. In this framework, Canada is supposedly Denmark, Harper is King Christian - the vanguard of the Jews - and the world has regressed to the dark depths of the 1930s. Jews are about to be murdered, and only Canada can save us.
While much can be said about Stephen Harper’s pro-Israel agenda, there is a peculiarity lurking in Mr. Friedman’s recent article. Previously, he has written that Jewish professionals in North America should “refrain from suggesting what Israel should or shouldn’t do,” and instead become what amounts to international Hasbara agents, “helping the media, general public, and… Jewish communities understand the context and rationale behind Israel’s decisions and actions.“
Because Friedman isn’t willing to be openly critical of Israel and its policies, he instead turns his focus to the international sphere, praising or critiquing what others have to say about Israel. In his attempts to shelter Israel from any constructive criticism, he builds an association fallacy – essentially a reverse Reductio ad Hiterlum - where he refutes his imaginary opponents’ views by comparing them to views that would be held by Hitler, arguing:
There are powerful forces on the planet who would gladly continue Hitler’s work.”
Can we please talk about the Holocaust with a little more depth and less hyperbole? In the world of internet journalism, there is nothing easier than succumbing to Godwin’s Law when you’re really grasping at straws. Don’t like what someone has to say but can’t come up with any constructive critique? You can always call them a Nazi!
Apparently the opposite also holds true for Friedman. If you really like someone (for example, the Prime Minister of Canada) and want to make them look good, just call everyone else a Nazi. Because Friedman is among those who consider it verboten to say anything negative about Israel in the public sphere, it is much simpler for him to paint a picture of a world where there are evil Nazis out to get us, and lob anyone who disagrees with his view into that group.
But the hazards of doing this are exactly what Dr. Mike Godwin was pleading against when he formulated the law that bears his name. A few years ago, Godwin explained the origin of the now famous principle:
I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler or to Nazis to think a bit harder about the Holocaust.”
Admittedly, Friedman isn’t labeling any one person a Nazi or comparing any specific person to Hitler. But his article is riddled with naive overtones of a battle against the evil forces of the Nazis and the redemptive forces of the Allies. His comparison simply doesn’t honor the complexities of Israel and international relations, nor the memory of the Holocaust as a catastrophic event without comparison. Friedman presents a crudely simplistic understanding of the Holocaust and antisemtism that doesn’t do justice to the reality of Israel’s place in the modern world. Does he really believe that Israel in 2014 – with its advanced army and unprecedented regional strength, not to mention its backing by the USA - can be compared to the state of Eastern European Jews before the Holocaust?
It is certainly true that antisemitism exists today, and in many places significantly so, but this is not 1938 Europe, and any attempts to define the world in this manner are quite simply unrealistic and ignorant. Just this week, Anshell Pfeffer – Haaretz’s military, international and Jewish affairs journalist - lucidly noted that the most pernicious form of antisemitism today does not come from some international cabal, but rather from deep within ourselves:
Anti-Semitism exists today on the furthest margins of Western society, in obscure sinecures, on the Internet, but perhaps most prevalently in our feverish imaginations.”
Pfeffer goes on to argue how antisemitism has transformed in the 21st century from the external injustices of “persecution and open vilification of Jews,” to something of an internal psychosis: “something we define ourselves, something we discover and too often invent where it isn’t at all clear it even exists.”
Perhaps Pfeffer’s argument is also somewhat naive and simplistic in areas, ignoring cases where antisemitism represents a true danger. But he is spot on in his assertion that when it comes to Israel, any notion of the “scourge of antisemitism” is no longer about something others are doing to us that we have no control over. Jews today have the ability to define our own lives – both in Israel and abroad. Any suggestion that there is an international threat to Jewish existence is not only shameful in its simplicity, but also in its implications for the discourse surrounding Israel and Jewish life. Pfeffer notes:
Our fear of anti-Semitism has begun to mirror the hatred itself in its irrationality and in the ways it hinders any serious debate.”
At this point, it should be noted that none of this critique of Friedman’s paradigm has even addressed whether Stephen Harper and Canada are deserving of his praiseful comparison to King Christian and Denmark. So just a few words in this respect:
Friedman argues that Harper is deserving of praise due “to the simple fact that supporting Israel… is right and just” A simple fact, indeed. Friedman doesn’t define what he means by support. Is it just being a cheerleader on the international stage? Is it towing the line of whatever the Knesset has to say? It it being an international hasbara agent?
We are left assuming that this praise is based on Harper’s “understanding of Israel’s unique security dilemmas,” yet Friedman offers as flimsy proof only the news coverage in Canada of his visit to the region, which was supposedly reflective of “the depth of [his] emotional commitment and support.” This completely misses the hearty and open debate that took place in the Canadian media on the implications of Harper’s one-sided vision of what it means to be pro-Israel. (See here and here and here and here and here for just a smattering of what it means to have a little more nuance when it comes to speaking about Israel).
Unfortunately, Friedman also seems to have missed what the Israeli news had to say about Harper. Wouldn’t that be a much more significant indicator of Harper’s supposed “kingly” strength? While much of the media here got caught up in the pomp and circumstance of the PM’s visit, as anyone truly familiar with the place Canada plays in international politics these days can tell you, there was little to say about the substance of Harper’s visit, precisely because there was virtually none to speak of.
With all due respect to the Prime Minister of Canada, his relevance in the international community, his influence on what goes on in the Middle East and his ability to help Israel in matters of life and death are inversely related to the size of his country.”
Setting aside his seemingly ignorant grasp of the reality of Stephen Harper’s and Canada’s role in international affairs vis a vis Israel, Friedman should consider the implications of his Holocaust-oriented paradigm of Judaism and Israel. As the Executive Director of a Jewish Federation, he should know better than to reduce Jewish life and discourse on Israel to such simplistic understandings. As someone responsible for encouraging vitality in Jewish life, Friedman should be presenting an aspirational view of Judaism and Israel, rather than the dark, gloomy, and backwards-looking fear mongering he speaks of. Such a person would be much more worthy of the kingly appellation that he wishes to bestow.
Yesterday, we were learning with Dr. Paul Frosh, Professor of Communications at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. We were discussing Israeli media coverage of Second Intifada terrorism, and the media’s role in constructing a national identity around the conflict. He introduced us to his thesis that Israeli news media has the ability to create “civic and national solidarity through… depictions of catastrophic events (especially terrorist attacks).” In Israel, television news has the ability (either inherently or deliberately) to bring people directly into events, addressing them (us?) in a way that assumes they (we?) are a part of the story from the very beginning. We were asked to question how nationhood in Israel is built and reinforced through coverage of collective trauma.
Interesting concepts for a group of North Americans who have little-to-no connection to collective trauma. I asked myself: “In the intersection between traumatic events and the discourse prompted by news outlets, is there a parallel in Canadian society?” I cannot think of any. Those who accuse Canada of being a boring place may be blissfully right in this respect. Things are pretty quiet in the Great White North.
So I moved to thinking about American society. Of course, the immediate inclination is to hold up news coverage of 9/11 as the obvious American mirror to Israel. But I would actually argue that this is not an exact parallel; it’s more of a simulacrum. While the news coverage of 9/11 depicted trauma on a national scale, it was a singular event. While the event remains a touchstone of supreme importance, after a while the story – at least on a national level – was able to be “wrapped.” Contrast this to Israel, where coverage of intifada terrorism never truly wrapped up; you can hear this in the language of newscasters at the time, who opened their broadcasts with phrases like “This time, it happened…”and “A particularly bad day of attacks.”
So is there a more direct parallel in American society, and if so, what are we to make of it; how can it help us understand the intersection between media and trauma?
I think the closest phenomena you can get to in the United States is mass shootings. While the spate of shootings in recent history are not as common as terror attacks in Israel, they are more frequent than you’d think, with the death toll often higher than in past suicide bombings. In their coverage, many news outlets have used language similar to that of the Israelis, establishing a patchwork connection between attacks. It’s actually gotten to the point where officials are searching for new language just to describe such shootings:
And yet, outside of anti-gun advocacy groups, there does not appear to be a narrative on a national scale linking these events together through the media. While dismay is certainly conveyed at another attack, most appear to be treated as tragic, local events (with notable exceptions such as Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook – though I would argue this is due to the unique child-oriented character of each trauma). I’m curious as to why there is no national trauma evoked at the senseless murder of American citizens and subsequent ongoing national conversation. Shouldn’t there be?
Traumatically, mass shootings in America and terrorist attacks in Israel appear different, as the motives behind the attacks are not the same. In America, they are not necessarily directed at a population solely based on their collective identity. But should this negate a collective response on a national scale? Couldn’t American news media adopt a sense of national responsibility and direct itself towards mobilizing responsible civic nationhood?
Ultimately, the question we were presented with by Dr. Frosh – and the one which I believe should be directed towards the leading American national newsrooms – is this: How does a country comes to discuss with itself how to move past trauma? In Israel, this has meant searching for ways to overcome the national trauma of terrorism and move forwards in support of peace negotiations.
In America, this question is different, since the discourse is not yet taking place in a substantial way on a national scale. America needs to ask itself: How do we discuss with ourselves how to respond to a gun-oriented culture that makes mass shootings possible?
As Dr. Frosh argued, the ability for a country to have a national conversation is built upon a great deal of national consciousness. Without the ability to consider or express these concepts, the trauma can’t be dealt with. As a result, America is bleeding-out from thousands of open gun wounds.
There is an apocryphal story that in the 1980s, when my High School was built, they were offered a million dollar choice by the Board of Education. The school was to receive $1,000,000 earmarked for one of two options: either the school could finance a football team, or they could landscape the entire property for decades to come. The two towering maple trees in the school’s atrium attest to their choice.
As a result, I’ve never really been acquainted with the institution of cheerleading. Lacking a football team at school, we had no cheerleaders. My university’s mascot – the Yeoman - didn’t really lend itself to a popular cadre of cheerleaders (though York’s women’s sports teams were somehow referred to as “yeowomen”). And they are (thankfully) mostly absent from professional hockey.
That said, I’ve recently been introduced to a new type of cheerleader. This is particularly fortuitous given the upcoming Super Bowl. As the lone Canadian at my school in Jerusalem, I have needed to brush up on some NFL particulars. Thanks to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, I’m now up to date on what it means to be a cheerleader.
Harper’s recent visit to Israel has been something of an anomaly to me. With US Secretary of State John Kerry conducting monthly shuttle diplomacy here, the US-brokered nuclear talks in Iran, and a daily focus on America’s lack of involvement in the situations in Syria and Egypt, it has been a largely American-centric year here in foreign affairs news.
Then all of a sudden, and with great fanfare, the streets of Jerusalem were draped with Canadian flags, welcome signs were rolled out at the hotels, and an entourage of 220 Canadians arrived in Jerusalem accompanying Prime Minister Harper on his first official visit to the country. (For those interested in the intricacies of foreign relations, Google has informed me that 220 Canadians works out to approximately 198.79 Americans.)
But Harper’s speech before the Knesset, along with the messaging of his entire trip was largely nothing new. It lacked nuance, gave scant attention to Israeli-Palestinian relations, did nothing to advance Canada’s role as an international peace broker, and left little room for growth in this international relationship. Harper wanted Israel and the entire world to know how much Canada loves Israel, how we’re the best of friends, and how nothing can tear us asunder.
Yes, it was nice to hear about the deeply ingrained mutual respect our countries have for each other. Yes, it was wonderful to hear Israel spoken of in such a positive light from a foreign dignitary. Yes, it was exciting to hear my home and native land spoken of so highly from abroad. The Israeli press ate up the entire week-long spectacle, with Harper repeatedly gracing the front-pages of Israeli dailies. People were fawning over Canada. As the token Canadian amongst my circles, I suddenly became the expert on all-things Canada.
But something was missing. Depth. Nuance. Relevance.
I found Harper to be mostly superficial in his description of the substance of Canada’s relationship with Israel. Couched in language of “light vs. dark,” “fire and water” and “good vs. evil,” Harper presented a rather simplistic understanding of Israel and the Middle East. It lacked the complexity, depth, and nuance that one would expect from a supposed international leader when it comes to supporting Israel. Jeffery Simpson, at the Globe and Mail, observed this about Harper’s worldview when it comes to Israel and the Middle East:
[It] leaves no room for nuance, balance or understanding of complexity, just a dualistic clash between good and evil, progress and darkness, stability and danger. Of course, this is not how other Western countries behave in the Middle East, including those who strongly support Israel. But it is now Canada’s way.
That said, there is room for someone who has this paradigm. There is a place for this type of player on the international stage. We need look no further than the upcoming Super Bowl for the model of this figure par excellence: The Cheerleader.
The entire worldview of the cheerleader is limited to two and only two potential outcomes: a win or a loss. What cheerleaders want most of all – more than dialogue, more than depth, more than nuance, more than constructive discussion, more than engaging international activism - is for their side to win. Yes, there is a role for the cheerleader, but it is not one of great substance.
Harper’s Mideast is a football game, with Canada newly enshrined as Israel’s cheerleader, jumping around wildly on the sidelines. Yes, there is certainly a role for the cheerleader, but it is confined to the sidelines.
Harper offered no substantial commentary on the main issues confronting Israeli society today that Canada might play a role in. Little of consequence was said about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the African refugee crisis in Israel, matters of religious pluralism, or environmental crises facing the country.
The sad reality facing Harper was not missed here in Israel. Ha’aretz noted this, with a steely grasp of the ultimate reality of Canada’s role:
With all due respect to the Prime Minister of Canada, his relevance in the international community, his influence on what goes on in the Middle East and his ability to help Israel in matters of life and death are inversely related to the size of his country.
Harper’s love for Israel may come from the depths of his gut. It may be a very real and true part of his identity and what he wants Canada to reflect. But in viewing Israel and the Middle East as a football match, with a zero-sum outcome of a win vs. a loss, Harper has overestimated Canada’s role. We are not the Quarter Back. We are no longer the internationally respected honest brokers of peace. Instead, Canada is dancing wildly from the sidelines, cheering and screaming, yet somehow inexplicably feeling as though we’re contributing to the outcome of the game.
Stephen Harper seems to have forgotten that cheerleaders don’t get to win the Super Bowl.
Israel’s Negev Desert is not a hospitable place. Vast, dusty, and scorching hot, it takes a great deal of effort to live on this land. Yet it was out of this very land that the Jewish people emerged, and from which the modern State of Israel was birthed. Anyone who has walked its canyons can attest to the feeling of ancient history pulsing out of the stones. Anyone who has laid their head down on the rocky bed and gazed up at the bowl of stars has felt the awe-inspiring power that emanates here. This is the place of the still, small voice.
David Ben-Gurion said that it is in the Negev that the creativity, vigor, and spirit of Israel will be tested. He prophesied that it would be there that the standing of Israel in the history of humankind would be determined (The Significance of the Negev, 1955)
Perhaps he was more correct than he knew. Today, close to 60 years after Ben-Gurion presciently spoke of the relevance of the desert, Israel faces a monumental test in this place. Israel’s treatment of its Negev Bedouin population is a trial that has the potential to unravel the dream Ben-Gurion envisioned over half a century ago. The Negev is not only the place where the creativity, vigor, and spirit of Israel are tested; it is the place where the conscience, values, and social values of Israel are being tested today.
What is happening in the Negev? Here are a few facts on the ground – the desert floor, as it were:
How can we respond to this situation? Like most things in Israel, it may be viewed from a number of paradigms. Politically, it is crucial to understand that this is not simply a matter of people alleged to be living illegally on land in unrecognized communities; Israel itself created the legal “status” of the Bedouin communities and imposed it on them. Much like the desert land itself, this is a rocky and precarious situation.
More importantly, this is clearly an issue of basic human rights. As a rabbinical student, this is the most pressing paradigm for me. There is no dearth of Jewish commentary on human rights and the paramount supremacy of protecting the rights of the strangers living under Jewish rule. Yet perhaps the most pointed call for the need for Jews to protect the rights of the Bedouin comes not from our ancient texts, but from a rather unlikely source…
Summoning the voice of the fictional Tevye, actor Theodore Bikel recently called on us to not forget the lessons of life in the shtetl. He passionately and poignantly shared: “What hurts is the fact that the very people who are telling them [the Bedouin] to ‘Get out’ are the descendents of the people of Anatevka. My people.”
With the pleas of Tevye in my mind, I have added my name to a petition to the Israel government from 780 other clergy members and clergy-in-training to protect the basic human rights of the Bedouin. The petition and letter from Rabbis for Human Rights and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, calls on Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop the Prawer-Begin Plan. In addition to my own signing, I am proud of the principled and courageous stand that my Movement has taken in standing up to this injustice.
Certainly, the Israeli government has the right to determine how to best respond to the needs of the land and its citizens. Yet the current proposal is one which disenfranchises a significant population, further reduces their access to basic human necessities, and only exacerbates a problem that the government itself created through misguided and inhumane policies.
It is incredibly painful to view this situation as a Jewish resident of Israel. With the recent decision to evict Bedouin residents of Umm Al-Hiran and replace the village with a religious Jewish community, it hard to not presume that the government is simply destroying the Bedouin communities to make room for new Jewish settlement of the Negev. Israel already has one demographic crisis on its hands (see: Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians) – why would it willfully create another?
Heeding Ben-Gurion’s charge, we must ensure that the Negev is the birthing ground of Israel’s moral vigor, not an ethically desolate and suffocating environment.
When you’re an Israeli author looking to translate works from other languages, the Bible is as good a place as any to turn for inspiration for words that seemingly don’t have a translation. So when author Yemima Avidar-Tchernovitz first translated L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” into Hebrew, a 2,500 year old book served as a great launching pad.
Having already looked at the Hebrew translation of the Wizard of Oz years ago, I had a moment of sheer delight last week in our Tanakh class as we started reading the book of Job. Job opens with the line: “אִישׁ הָיָה בְאֶרֶץ עוּץ אִיּוֹב שְׁמוֹ” (There was a man from the Land of Uz, his name was Job). We don’t know much at all about this Land of Uz, though there are theories that it is a generic term for an unknown, easterly place. Sound familiar? Perhaps a place you can’t get to by a boat, or a train. It’s far, far away. Behind the moon, beyond the rain…
Turns out that the Hebrew title of the Wizard of Oz is “הקוסם מארץ עוץ” – or, “The Magician of Uz.”
The Wizard of Oz is the Wizard of Uz. Not only are the English and Hebrew words phonetically related, there’s an awesome depth to what the Hebrew name evokes. The word choice is brilliant. It connects a book that examines the question “why do bad things happen to good people?” (Job) to another that examines the question “what are good and evil?” (Oz).
I wonder what Israeli kids who have studied Job in school think when they watch or read Oz – does it have a different connotation to them? Do they associated it with their religious/ethnic heritage? Or is it just a damn good story?
This is the sermon that I delivered this Shabbat at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem. It was my first of the year, and my first official d’var torah at Rabbinical School.
“Don’t you see how many of us there are, and there’s only two of you‽”
Thirteen years ago, late in the afternoon of a cool autumn day, I was waiting at a bus stop with a friend. A large group of teenagers approached us, asking if they could borrow some money. All that was in my pocket was an empty wallet and bus tickets. I said I didn’t have any cash. “Don’t you see how many of us there are, and there’s only two of you‽” Within seconds, my friend was on the ground, being kicked and beaten, and I was running for help from nearby strangers.
In the aftermath, there were some who thought it unbelievable that I ran, instead of staying to defend my friend. At times, I had my own guilt about the situation. But I was reassured that my reaction was the normal, human response to the situation, and very well could have saved us from more harm.
In 1932, Walter Bradford Cannon, an American Physiologist, coined the term “fight or flight response,” to describe the physiological reaction that occurs in response to perceived harmful events or threats to survival. This is our body’s way of protecting us when it senses danger. We give ourselves over to something more powerful than our consciousness to hopefully emerge safely.
Confronted with an approaching force of 400 men sent by Esau who had vowed to kill him, what does Jacob do? He splits his camp in two to protect his family, sends envoys to Esau, and prays to God for protection. He doesn’t flee, nor does he prepare to fight. Perhaps, Jacob isn’t the wisest person.
We can forgive Jacob for not being familiar with the body’s Autonomic Nervous System, but how are we to understand his reaction to his fear and loneliness? This isn’t just a frightening situation that confronts Jacob; it is a dilemma of existential proportions. And there is a significant difference between fear and existential dread. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks teaches:
A [moral] dilemma is not simply a conflict. There are many moral conflicts. [But] these questions have answers. There is a right course of action and a wrong one… A dilemma, however, is a situation in which there is no right answer… A moral system which leaves room for the existence of dilemmas is one that does not attempt to eliminate the complexities of the moral life… Judaism recognises the existence of dilemmas… we may be faced with situations in which there is an ineliminable cause for distress.
Certainly, there are moral complexities confronting Jacob. He is faced with a potentially violent standoff against Esau, yet he wants to reconcile and make peace with his brother. Rashi teaches that the Torah says Jacob was both frightened and anxious to evoke the dread that Jacob must be feeling: frightened that he might be killed, and anxious that he might have to kill others. Rabbi Jacob bar Idi, an Amoraic sage, elucidates this dilemma, noting that in his stunning vision of the ladder, Jacob was promised by God that his offspring would be as numerous as the dust of the earth and the sand in the sea, but now he faces potential death and the destruction of that promise.
How does Jacob reconcile this existential dilemma?
We read that as part of Jacob’s peace overtures, he sends messengers to Esau with messages of reconciliation. But the Torah’s word for messengers – מלאכים – may also be read as “angels”. The Rambam suggests that as angels are non-corporeal beings, they can be understood more broadly to refer to other non-corporeal phenomena, such as human intelligence and intellect. The very name of this parasha, וישלח (and he dispatched / and he sent out), conveys the idea that when assessing and dealing with a potentially life-altering challenge, we must dispatch our own “non-corporeal” beings – such as intelligence and intellect.
Defying an instinctual fight or flight reaction, Jacob hatches an ingenious plan. Hopeful that peace will be reached, he is also pragmatic and protects his family – and through them, the realization of God’s promise. Jacob’s actions are a model of how to avoid reactionary extremism, and use our intellect to overcome existential dilemmas.
We know that Jacob’s life is one of great struggle. Many look up to him as a leader and father, but he is a complex man who spends much of his life searching for things seemingly out of his grasp. To be sure, struggle is something that is baked into Jacob’s essence from his time in Rebecca’s womb. He physically struggles with his brother even before they are born. He struggles for a birthright. For his father’s love. For a wife. With an angel of God. He struggles for his distant son. Jacob is not a comfortable man.
Rabbi Levi Lauer, Director of the Israeli human rights organization, Atzum, teaches us that in fact, “Comfort is not a Jewish value.” While too much fear, struggle, and discomfort may be debilitating, these can also be forces of good when they keep us safe, when they expand our horizons, and when they open the doors to new journeys, as in Jacob’s story.
Jacob’s story is not the first in the Tanakh of a volatile, discomforting conflict between brothers. Nor is it the last. But his is one which offers a compelling vision of how to reconcile an existential dilemma of two competing truths. When the lines between good and evil are not black and white, Jacob forges a pragmatic, centrist path that avoids both idealistic naiveté as well as a hard-line, extremist reaction. His is a solution that results in life renewed.
We should know that this centrist approach has deep roots in Jewish spirituality. The kabbalistic teaching of tikkun olam is not merely a social-justice, “feel good” philosophy. It is an expansive cosmology, which teaches that at the beginning of creation, the world was in a spiritual state of chaos, called Tohu. This state of existence was full of Divine light and energy, but lacked balance and order, and ultimately collapsed in on itself in a cosmic shattering. But this collapse was part of a Divine order so that our universe could be rebuilt through humanity’s fixing of this shattering – through tikkun.
Rabbi Yanki Tauber teaches that “the Kabbalists see Jacob and Esau as the embodiment of this cosmic twinship.” Esau is the chaotic energy of Tohu, while Jacob represents the opportunity for tikkun. The challenge is to bring together these twins and the forces they represent. As Rabbi Tauber argues:
The struggle to achieve this synergy is the life-history of the biblical twins, and the essence of human history as a whole. Esau and Jacob emerge from the same womb (where they were already fighting), and the rest of their lives is defined by the effort to bring them back together.
The quest to unite Esau’s Tohu and Jacob’s tikkun continues today. On a daily basis, we are confronted with realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To be sure, this is a struggle based on an almost familial relationship. Israel – like Jacob – is faced with two competing truths. One the one hand, we long to heed the Psalmist’s call: “ורדפהו שלום בּקש” – seek peace and pursue it, yet at the same time, Israel cannot be naïve about the threatening realities of life in this neighbourhood.
Can we turn to Jacob, the primordial political centrist, for some wisdom? Yossi Klein Halevi makes the case for such a paradigm. In a recent article, he writes:
I am looking for the vanished Israel. To be an Israeli is not like being a centrist in any other political context. There is nothing wishy-washy about being an Israeli centrist. An Israeli centrist embraces two strong, diametrically opposed conclusions about the Palestinian problem. One is that a Palestinian state is an existential need for Israel, and the other is that a Palestinian state is an existential threat for Israel. That’s what it means to be an Israeli centrist… I see the emergence of a political center as an expression of Israeli maturity.”
Klein Halevi’s moral charge is made all the more powerful when we read it keeping in mind Jacob’s other name. Klein Halevi isn’t just looking for the vanished Israel; he’s looking for the vanished Jacob, searching for a solution to a moral dilemma that stretches back thousands of years into the womb of our history as two peoples. Just as Jacob matured through his pragmatic, centrist approach to reconciling with Esau, Israel must mature through a similar paradigm.
There is a Chassidic teaching that Jacob’s name change to Israel marked this point of maturation from a childhood of struggle and strife to a more harmonious realization of his relationship with God. But this is also a mystery: even after he is named Israel, Jacob continues to be Jacob. The Torah continues to use his old name throughout the rest of his life.
Leonard Fine, the preeminent MIT, Harvard and Brandeis professor, and profound Reform thinker, questions this peculiarity in the text: “How is it that Jacob, who is twice told that his name has been changed to ‘Israel,’ continues to be remembered in our liturgy by his former name?”
It is a simple truth, yet often forgotten: when we pray the Amidah, we refer to “Elohei Ya’akov,” not “Elohei Yisrael.” I believe this seeming inconsistency recognizes the profound truth that Jacob continues to struggle and wrestle, even after he is transformed into Israel.
This remains true for us in our day, as well. As residents of Jerusalem, we don’t have to search far for cases where it appears that Israel has forgotten itself and is acting like the old Jacob. But can we look inward as well, and see the same struggle in ourselves? Certainly, Jacob did. HUC Professor Norman Cohen suggests that Jacob “was conscious of all the different forces in his life with which he struggled: God, Esau, the side of himself that haunted him like a shadow,” and that these forces manifest together as the being with whom he wrestled.
So let us learn from Jacob – from Israel – someone with whom we can identify. Someone whom, as Rabbi Sacks notes: “…we understand. We can feel his fear, understand his pain…”
We are all Jacob, struggling to find the holy space between the chaos of Tohu and the reconciliation of tikkun. When Jacob himself first finds that place, the Torah says “the sun shone on him.” Rashi teaches poetically that this refers to the process of healing that was beginning to take place. So may we continue to search for the vanished Jacob, for his healing, and for the holy space between Tohu and tikkun.
 Gen. 32:8
 Gen. 32:25
 Gen. 32:7
 Gen. 32:8-9
 Gen. 32:14-22
 Gen. 32-12
 Based on Gen. R. 76:2
 Gen. 28: 14-15, 32:13
 BT Berakhot: 41
 Maimonides, Moses: Guide to the Perplexed (2:10)
 As quoted by Rabbi Avi Orlow: http://www.saidtomyself.com/2012/11/30/achilles-heel
 Ps. 34:15
 Cohen, Norman J.: Voices from Genesis. Vermont: Jewish Lights, 1998. Pp 125.
 Gen. 32:32
With fiery and insulting rhetoric coming from Netanyahu about the Iranian nuclear negotiations, and firebrand (and sometimes racist) Avigdor Lieberman freshly reinstated as Israeli Foreign Minister stating that the US and Israel should hide their policy disagreements, it has certainly been an interesting 24 hours in Israel.
Sometimes it feels like I’m watching a bad romantic comedy, where one of the people in the relationship keeps messing things up and saying stupid things, even though they’re so close to having a meaningful and fruitful relationship.
I’m looking at you, Israel. Stop being the douchey guy. Stop being the gorgeous klutz.
Far be it from me to offer relationship advice to the masters of the house in which I live. But sometimes I just want to cringe.
If you want to be in a relationship with the United States (which, let’s be honest, you absolutely need to if you want to have any semblance of positive international relations), then perhaps it’s time to stop shooting yourself in the foot.
Israel doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s shocking to watch it’s leaders acting as if it does.
A couple months ago we were learning about the creation of civil religion in Israel and how in the early days of the State, there was a need to create days of national importance to help forge a sense of nationalist identity. Our (British) teacher remarked how every country needs to do this in their nascent days, including the United States. Afterwards – in an attempt to stand my ground as the only Canadian in our class – I remarked to him (with that typical Canadian quasi-inferiority complex) that Canada is different, that we’re not an über-nationalist country, and that we don’t really have any national holidays of this import. At least not anymore in 2013.
He responded: “But you have Remembrance Day.”
After 30 years of living intimately close to the holiday, through ceremonies at school, parades with my Zaidy (a Royal Canadian Air Force Squadron Leader, ret.), and years of wearing poppies, this simply hadn’t occurred to me. I had aways felt the significance of the day, but didn’t realized its paramount place in Canadian culture until I was almost 10,000 kilometers away from home.
Rick Hansen writes today in the Globe and Mail that “Remembrance Day is one of the most important days we have on our national calendar.” I would go further and say that it is the most important day on the national calendar. Certainly, for most, Canada Day is simply a day off in the middle of the summer with fireworks at amusement parks and little nationalist sentiments. Victoria Day is an excuse to get drunk at the cottage. Most Canadians likely don’t know what the real meaning of Canadian Thanksgiving is.
But Remembrance Day is ceremoniously observed in schools, houses of worship, and national halls across the country. There is unity and solemnity in observing the day and remembering our national heroes together. We mark ourselves with a common symbol in our communal observance. We recite the same words of memory and memorial. To be sure, it may be the only day on the Canadian calendar that is on the level of civil religious observance.
Observing Remembrance Day from outside of Canada has taken on new significance for me. It has become much more intentional – requiring a special effort to mark the day and remember what it stands for, since it doesn’t just happen around me anymore. I suspect this might be akin to how Israelis feel about Judaism when they leave Israel and go down into the diaspora.
While I don’t write about family that much on this blog, keeping matters more to commentary on religion, philosophy, and other such boring matters, today, in keeping with the “religious” spirit of the day, I will break from tradition…
I am so blessed to have been raised closely by my Zaidy, who has imparted a deep appreciation of the role of the Canadian military in shaping the lives of Canadians – and specifically of Canadian Jews. Far from a hawkish or militaristic inculcation, he has taught me to understand and appreciate the personal way that Canadians have fought for each other, and how incredibly important it is to recognize, mark, and honour these commitments and sacrifices.
I am even more-so blessed that my Zaidy – RCAF Squadron Leader (ret.) Jack Cahan, will be turning 90 this December, and that I was able to see and talk with him this Remembrance Day, from 10,000 kilometers away. I am so proud to be his grandson, and I hope each day that I can carry just a fraction of his dedication and honour with me.