Fear Not

The patriarch Jacob, in the twilight years of his life, learns that his son Joseph is not only alive and well in Egypt but has risen to become second in power only to the Pharaoh. He prepares to leave his home in Canaan and head to Egypt to see him for the first time in more than 20 years. While on his way he stops in Beersheva to offer sacrifices to God. There God speaks to him: “I am God, the God of your father; fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 46:3). Commentators are puzzled by this Divine reassurance—why must God tell Jacob not to fear going down to Egypt? What is causing him to be afraid? Indeed, Jacob seems to be excited about seeing his son and enthusiastic about making the trip.

The answers offered to this intriguing question are many and varied. Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, a 13th century French scholar, posits that Jacob is afraid that his move to Egypt will bring closer the predicted enslavement of his descendants. God reassures him that while the People of Israel will be enslaved, Jacob’s move to Egypt will also bring closer their redemption from slavery. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, who lived in Lithuania in the 19th century, taught that Jacob was afraid of the possibility that his family would lose their identity through assimilation into Egyptian religious and cultural life. Some have suggested that Jacob was afraid simply because he was elderly, and packing up and moving to a new home, especially in a different country, is a traumatic experience for someone in his stage of life. And Rashi, the great scholar whose words echo across a thousand years, wrote in his commentary to Genesis that Jacob was afraid because he was leaving the land of Israel, the land where his father Isaac remained for his entire life, the land that God promised to his grandfather Abraham as a sacred possession.

It is Rashi’s commentary that resonates with me in a deeply personal way. We have raised our children to love the Land of Israel and the State of Israel, and we are proud that all of our sons are devoted Zionists, having visited Israel countless times beginning in childhood and having spent extended periods of time studying there. Rashi’s teaching that Jacob was anxious because he might have to leave the Land of Israel speaks to us of the power and importance of Zionism. There are many ways to express our commitment to Zionism, including visiting Israel, supporting Israel with our resources, and advocating for Israel when individuals and communities choose to attack the Jewish State.

Perhaps the highest form of Zionism is to make one’s home in Israel, to live there as the patriarch Jacob yearned to do. So I am especially proud to tell you that my son Josh, who moved to Israel upon completing his college education a year ago, will officially become an Israeli citizen this Monday (he will continue to be an American citizen as well). Josh is very excited to become an Israeli. Within a year, he will be drafted by the army and, after a short stint in basic training, will likely serve for six months. Rather than trying to avoid army service, Josh will welcome becoming a soldier in the IDF and doing whatever is asked of him for the State of Israel. For many years now, as his thinking and spiritual life have grown and matured, he has aspired to live his life in Israel as an Israeli. Becoming an Israeli on Monday (the process is mostly bureaucratic and not ceremonial) will be very fulfilling for him.

And it will be very moving and fulfilling for me and Amy as well. Those with whom we have already shared this news have asked us how we feel about one of our children making his permanent home in Israel, halfway around the world. My answer is that a parent’s job, after bringing our children into the world, is to shape their character and guide them toward a life of meaning and purpose. Amy and I have tried to do that by aligning our children with the values and ways of life of Judaism. But children must be allowed and empowered to find their own pathway in life. The Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran expressed this idea eloquently in his poem “Children”:

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

We respect our children’s choices, wherever they may go in life. The patriarch Jacob yearned to live in Eretz Yisrael, and countless of his descendants, the Children of Israel, have sought to fulfill their Jewish identity by living in the land where Jewish civilization came into existence. On Monday, our son Josh will join their ranks and we couldn’t be more proud.

Jewish… and Proud of It!

My earliest memories of celebrating Chanukkah as a child include the usual eating of latkes, lighting the Menorah and playing dreidel. But I also remember my father, someone with a strong Jewish identity but not especially observant of Jewish practices like Shabbat or Kashrut, putting up a large Jewish star decorated with aluminum foil and blue and white bulbs on the front of our house during the holiday. I’m quite sure that he kept our Chanukkah “decorations” up until the end of the Christmas season, regardless of when in December Chanukkah fell. One reason for this display was certainly the fact that we lived in a neighborhood that had very few Jews, and most of the families around us had little or no understanding of Judaism. I doubt that my father had any educational objectives in mind by putting up Chanukkah decorations. Perhaps he did it to rival the elaborate Christmas lights on our neighbors’ homes. But mostly I think he was interested in expressing his Jewish identity and pride in his heritage to the families around us. It’s remarkable that he wanted to do this, given that he experienced a fair amount of anti-Semitism growing up in Chicago and as a soldier fighting in the Second World War. But apparently my father entered adulthood with his Jewish identity, and feelings of Jewish pride, intact.

The idea of pride in being Jewish lies at the heart of the Chanukkah story. The Chanukkah tale that we carry with us, the one about God enabling the Maccabees to win an unlikely victory over the forces of tyranny and reclaim and rededicate the Temple to the service of God, and the miracle of the small cruse of oil lasting for eight days when it should have lasted for only one, is charming but historical fiction. It emerged centuries after the actual events of Chanukkah took place as an alternative understanding of the origins of the holiday offered by the Talmudic sages who, having witnessed thousands of Jewish people killed in a war with Rome, were reluctant to inspire another generation of Jews to fight another war by recounting the military prowess of the Maccabees. The actual story is centered on political and religious factors that were in play in the land of Israel around 165 B.C.E. In brief, the Chanukkah story is about a political struggle over control of the High Priesthood and a social struggle about how to live as Jews, both of which escalated into a civil war and finally into a full-fledged revolution against colonial authority (for a concise history of Chanukkah see Ron Wolfson’s Hanukkah: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration). The civil war that erupted was waged between Jewish “Hellenists” (those who favored the abandonment of outward signs of Jewish identity and assimilation into Greek culture) and those who opposed assimilation out of the fear that Jewish identity would be entirely obliterated. While Chanukkah is certainly about freedom from tyranny, it is also about our willingness to be who we are and carry around a feeling of pride in our religious identity.

The way we are supposed to light the Menorah reflects this idea. After lighting the candles the Menorah is supposed to be placed in a window where it can be seen by passersby, in fulfillment of the mandate to “proclaim the miracle of Chanukkah” (Pirsum Ha-Neis in Hebrew). In the Old City of Jerusalem, many of the homes have built in to the stone façade a box with a clear plastic door meant to house the Menorah during the eight days of Chanukkah (a safer alternative to putting burning candles next to a window that could have cloth curtains). The Menorah is supposed to face out so that passersby will see the candles loaded from right to left. Some place an electric Menorah in the window to fulfill this mitzvah safely. The mitzvah of Pirsum Ha-Neis is in no way evangelism or encouragement to others to either celebrate Chanukkah or proclaim faith in God. Rather, it is simply meant to be an expression of pride in Jewish history and Jewish values.

Chanukkah reminds us that religious freedom is a right, not a courtesy bestowed by those in power. The victory of the Maccabees reminds us that tyranny is the enemy of good and decent society, and that intolerance toward the rights of others diminishes all human beings. But Chanukkah also reminds us to have pride in our Jewish identity, to resist feeling that we ought to hide what we believe and what we do as Jews out of apprehension that others may not approve or understand. Whenever I need to make an appointment or arrange for some type of service and I’m offered a Friday night or a Saturday, I will quickly respond by saying that I’m Jewish and Sabbath observant and require an appointment that’s at a different time. Those who know that I’m a rabbi might assume that those restrictions apply only to me, but it’s certainly feasible for any Sabbath observer to say the same thing. Demonstrating a sense commitment to our religious practice is a way of demonstrating pride in our Jewish identity. This is a message that especially our children need to hear.

I am Jewish, and proud of it. Are you?

The Limits of Compromise

As I write these words, outrage and disbelief over the failure of a Grand Jury to indict the police officers responsible for the death of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have not subsided. Television and cable news stations, talk radio programs, and news and opinions offered in print and on the internet continue to express a sense of shock at the apparent indifference of the judicial system to hold accountable members of law enforcement who clearly acted recklessly—perhaps criminally—and whose actions, in the case of Mr. Garner, were captured on video. It’s frankly hard to find someone who does not think that the actions of the officers who encountered and tried to arrest Mr. Garner amounted to police brutality, for which they should have minimally stood trial in a court of law. I am among those who feel a sense of bewilderment and deep frustration at the absence of a clear pathway to justice. To be clear, those who protest the outcome of the Staten Island Grand Jury’s deliberations do not necessarily demand punishment for the officers. What is demanded is justice, to open the door for those who may have committed a crime to be judged by a jury of their peers in the light of all available evidence about what happened.

Further, it’s clear that this episode is another symptom of serious racial tension in our society. American citizens are rightly outraged, concerned and frustrated, as we should be. If you’re possibly wondering about whether or not this is an issue of race and why this is a cause to be upset, ask yourself how you, as a Jew, would feel if the victim in the Garner case happened to be a Jew who was the latest victim of brutality. If Jews were repeatedly the victims of policing gone wrong, would we not feel that the police have a different standard of behavior toward Jews?

What are we to do? I suggest two responses. First, let us reaffirm that in matters of justice there can be no compromise. We know this from numerous Jewish sources, especially the Torah, in which we read “Justice, Justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Why is the word justice repeated, ask the scholars and sages? In order to emphasize the importance of providing the equal and timely application of justice for all, we are told, for justice is the foundation of a decent, upright and orderly society.

And we know that there can be no compromise on doing what is right and just from this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev. In the parasha, we begin to read the story of Joseph, favored by his father and despised by his 11 brothers. When Jacob inexplicably sends Joseph to check on his brothers who are tending flock, they see him coming toward them and plot to kill him. Judah, among the oldest of the brothers, suggests instead that they sell him into slavery. A good compromise, you might think? Not at all, say the sages, who pounce on Judah and criticize him relentlessly for not standing up for what is right and, instead, tempting his brothers away from murder with a financial incentive. There are some things, say the rabbis, on which we cannot compromise, and doing what is right and just is one of them.

Second, let us ensure that dialogue and education about matters of race and justice do not fade away when this story is gone from the headlines. There are a great many people that do not have a clear sense of the lack of trust of law enforcement that exists in communities of color. We can help to build a just and upright society through continuing discussion about the problems we face in our society. I would very much like to see a forum at Oheb Shalom at which we can discuss issues of race and justice in our society and exchange ideas about ways to increase tolerance and trust among people. This is something we must do, for when it comes to justice, there is simply no compromising what is right.

Inner Turmoil

The patriarch Jacob, on the eve of a reunion with his twin brother Esav after a 20-year separation, finds himself left alone on the banks of the River Yabok. Having prepared for a possible conflict with his brother who, when he saw him last, swore to kill him, Jacob has a mystical experience in which he wrestles with a Divine being until he extracts a blessing for himself at the break of dawn. The Torah does not provide an explicit description of this being, which commentators identify either as Esav’s alter ego or as an angel sent by God to confront Jacob. I have always preferred the explanation that the Divine being is none other than Jacob’s own conscience and that the wrestling match is an inner struggle to purge from his soul the less than upright attitudes and behaviors that threaten him with destruction. In the end, he wins the battle and emerges with God’s blessing, a change of name from Jacob to Yisrael, the one who has struggled with beings Divine and human and has prevailed.

I thought of this story last night as I listened to Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-born Israeli author and journalist and Senior Fellow at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, talk about the implications of the collapse of the current Netanyahu government and how we can best understand the likely results of the next general election in Israel, set for March 17, 2015. The analysis, sponsored by AIPAC for Rabbis in our area, was eloquent, insightful and profound and I want to share some of the highlights with you.

The story of Jacob told in this week’s Parasha is, in some ways, analogous to the dilemmas faced by the State of Israel. Israelis, by and large, experience an inner struggle of their own. The overwhelming majority of Israelis are best described as centrists (which does not mean that the electorate will vote for a centrist government). One statistic in particular quoted by Klein Halevi caught my attention. Fully 70% of Israelis believe in a two-state solution to the Palestinian question…and fully 80% of Israelis believe that a two-state solution will not bring peace and security to Israel. That statistic can be interpreted by understanding that the left in Israel has won the argument about the destructive, immoral and unjust effects of being an occupying power, of dominating another people and denying them sovereignty. And the right in Israel has won the argument over security and stability. It would be insane at this point in time, when the map of the Middle East is undergoing incredible transformation and countries dissolving into chaos (there is no more Syria, Iraq is on its way to breaking up, and there is no longer a central government in Libya), to create another Arab state, especially in the heart of Israel, that would almost surely become another unstable regime soon to be taken over by extremists like Hamas, Hezbollah or even ISIS. Israelis want peace within themselves, the peace yielded by not occupying and dominating another people, and they want the peace that results from stable relations with their neighbors. At this point in time, it seems they cannot have both.

What should be done? Klein Halevi suggests that they do nothing, at least in the near term. He advises that the peace process, negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, be set aside and left dormant for now. And, he advises that all settlement construction (with the exception of Jerusalem, he notes) also be abandoned. That position of neutrality would be the safest course for now, at least until the fate of the Middle East, and the fate of negotiations with Iran in particular, become clearer. Whether or not the next Israeli government takes that position remains to be seen (it’s likely, from snap polls released shortly after the announcement of new elections, that Netanyahu’s Likud party will be reelected with even more Knesset seats, and that the centrist parties of Tzipi Livini and Yair Lapid, which balanced the now collapsed coalition, will lose many of their current seats). Israel’s inner struggle cannot be solved solely on its own initiative, as outside factors must be considered.

Another powerful point made by Yossi Klein Halevi merits passing on. At this time in Israel’s history, AIPAC has never been more important. AIPAC, which has unjustly been characterized by some as a right-of-center organization, is actually centrist. It alone has demonstrated the capacity to talk to those on the right and those on the left, both in the halls of Congress, in the Knesset and here in the United States. Klein Halevi spoke about being able to raise issues, as a speaker engaged by AIPAC, with right-leaning groups like Yeshiva University about the need to halt settlement construction and with left-leaning groups like HUC about Israel’s pressing security needs. AIPAC devotes itself to building relationships with Democrats as well as Republicans, all with Israel’s security interests in mind. The months ahead will be potentially difficult for Israel and AIPAC’s resources and advocacy in Congress will be needed.

So I encourage you to attend the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington D.C. on March 1-3, 2015. I will be there, along with a number of Oheb Shalom members. We still have a few discounted registration packets available but time is running out to take advantage of a lower cost to attend this crucial conference. Contact Mark Blumkin or Michael Schechner for more information.

Israel, in ways perhaps similar to the patriarch Jacob, is experiencing inner turmoil, a choice between two courses that are difficult to harmonize. We can help by being informed advocates on her behalf. Let’s not be complacent.