November 2010

November 29, 1947 is a key moment in Jewish history. On that day the United Nations General Assembly approved Resolution 181, the Partition Plan for Palestine. The plan called for the establishment of separate states for Arabs and Jews in Palestine after the expiration of the British Mandate in May 1948.

The video above tells (it’s short) tells the story of the vote. It is easy to forget how impossible it seemed that the state of Israel would exist, how utterly unthinkable it was that the Jews would re-enter history. Listening to the voices of the people who were there–ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things–reminds us that no matter how critical or cynical we may have become, people really can change the world.

The themes of a parasha don’t change much over time. The words are the same this year as a year ago. So as the years continue, I find myself coming back to the same big themes each time we read the parasha anew. In the past I have written about Vayishlach and the question of borders, the issue of demarcation. Jacob’s wrestling occurs just before he crosses the Jabbok river, the dividing line between the land of the Israelites and the land of the Edomites in the ancient world. When his family settles near Shechem, the abduction of Dinah raises the question of division and borders again: what will be the lines of separation between the children of Israel and their neighbors? Will they intermarry, and on what terms?

Indeed, even the name of the parasha itself–Vayishlach, ‘And he sent,’ implies a crossing. Parshat Vayishlach, like parshat Vayetzei before it, dwells on questions of separation and unity, division and integrity. And the essence seems to be in Israel’s name: ki-sarita im elohim v’im anashim v’tuchal – “for you have wrestled with God and with man and proved able” (Gen. 32:29).

In my line of work I like to point out that Jacob is working out the questions of a young adult. He leaves his home of birth for a long sojourn away, and in the process marries, has children, finds a vocation. Parshat Vayishlach marks the moment when he seems to truly grown into his adulthood, as he acquires a new name, puts to rest the lingering questions of his adolescent rivalry with his brother, establishes a home in his homeland. The narrative now turns to his children. Jacob is at home.

“Where do you feel at home?” is the biggest of the big questions, in my view. It is the question we constantly ask ourselves, consciously and unconsciously, as we situate ourselves in space and time. When we feel at home we feel at ease; when we don’t feel at home, we feel excitement or anxiety; we experience displacement. Thus the value of hospitality to strangers in virtually all cultures, and the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim in ours.

The idea of home is inseparable from the idea of borders, of inside and out. When does a stranger become a guest, and when does a guest become “like family?” How do we cross the thresholds of difference, approaching one another in degrees of kinship and sameness? These are the eternal questions.

Of course, in today’s world, there are fascinating additional wrinkles: How do we maintain our integrity as individuals even as we find similarity and forge a commons? (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the most eloquent writer on this question, what he terms the Dignity of Difference.) And given that the Internet is changing our very notions of time and space, what does it mean to maintain integrity as a nation, or as a person? (Witness two stories out of Israel today: One in which Israeli intelligence appears to have used a computer worm to damage the Iranian government’s nuclear centrifuges; the other in which Facebook has been used to identify Israeli soldiers who participated in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, including their home addresses. It is one of the biggest changes the Internet has wrought: we can conduct warfare from the comfort of our own homes.)

And yet, we all–even those young adults so seemingly at home with homelessness–keep trying to make home. We keep trying to do the work of Jacob, as though it were a compulsion. And so it would appear to be. One of the refrains I have heard in my conversations with young adults this fall, more so than in years past, is this: “I’m not using email on Shabbat.” They’re not doing this from a place of commandedness by halakha (Jewish law), but out of a hunger to find a center, a yearning to be grounded and free from distractions, at least for one day a week. (Judith Shulevitz’s book may well have helped.) Admist this time when they move from place to place on a yearly basis, when they, like Jacob their ancestor, are neither in their parents’ home nor the home of theirs that is yet to be, they–like all of us–long for coherence, hunger for home. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Shabbat shalom.



Jacob's ladder

One of the most wonderful and challenging writers around today is Leon Wieseltier. The literary editor of The New Republic since 1983, Wieseltier writes with a pugnacious streak that is simultaneously endearing and repellant in its self-righteousness. He seems to be able to find what is wrong about everything and everyone, from Barack Obama to right-wing Israeli nationalists. Regardless of the emotions his writing arouses, however, one has to acknowledge how simply stunning his prose can be. And so I always look forward to reading his column on the back page of the The New Republic.

In a recent column (which is fairly representative of his work), Wieseltier critiqued President Obama–as he has repeatedly–for trying to leave behind the past. History is important, ideas are important, parties are important, he maintains: “For there is honor in partisanship, when the differences are philosophical; and for the purpose of social change, politics is all we have.”

While worth a good discussion, this wasn’t the part of the article that really spoke to me. What grabbed me was Wieseltier’s opening, which was about ghosts. “Ghosts are a solution for loneliness. One needs someone to talk to… Ghosts are the natural companions of anybody in estrangement; the invisible officers of tradition, of all the valuable things that have been declared obsolete but, in some stubborn hearts, are not obsolete.”

You can see how he gets from here to Obama and trying to transcend history and partisanship. But then comes this next line, which is nothing short of theological: “It is one of the fundamental properties of the human that the absent may be more significant than the present.” That’s what got me, because it resonated deeply. We frequently feel more attached to something or someone far away–in time or space–than to what is right in front of us. In plainer terms: the grass is greener on the other side.

And this took me to a comment of the commentator Aviva Zornberg on this week’s parasha, Vayetzei, as Jacob leaves his ancestral home for Paddan-Aram and his years of service with Laban. On his way out of the land of Israel, the Torah relates that he comes–suddenly–to a place: vayifga ba-makom. The language here connotes a jumping out, an instantaneous assault. (The derivative word pigua, in modern Hebrew, refers to a terrorist attack.)

Zornberg cites classical commentaries that develop this notion, indicating that somehow Jacob was transported instantaneously to this place (which turns out to be Jerusalem), or that, even more boldly, the land of Israel itself changed in order to enable Jacob to arrive there in an instant. But the greater point, she claims, is that Jacob is capable of being in two places at once, and in this he is quintessentially human. (Looking back on my dvar Torah from last year on this parasha, it seems I was interested in the same quotation.)

The issue of absence is particularly resonant in Jacob’s story. He is the first of the Patriarchs to undergo a prolonged absence from his family and homeland in the land of Israel. And after he returns, the absence of Joseph will radically alter the next chapters of his life. In Jacob’s life, something always seems to be missing–the half of him represented by Esau, the perfect family life he imagined with Rachel, a peaceful livelihood in his homeland when he returns. And those things which are absent become the points of his most acute desire, his deepest longing.

Much is made in the contemporary zeitgeist of living in the moment. And living in the moment is certainly important for achieving a peaceful existence. But this important part of Jacob’s legacy reminds us that memories from other times, people and things in other places, have enormous power and tremendous importance. Jews are a people of memory, a people conditioned by a Diasporic existence for most of our lives. We live in the moment and out of the moment, inhabiting the land where we are and longing for the land where we should be. And in this we are inheritors of Jacob our ancestor.

Shabbat shalom.

Dear Jonathan,

You were just born in 1993, when Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn with President Clinton and Yasir Arafat. You were just a toddler when, two years later, fifteen years ago, Rabin was assassinated.

I was in high school and college during these years, and, like many other grown-ups, I remember those moments like they were yesterday. I remember the tears of hope we shed in 1993, when it really seemed that peace might finally come to be. I remember the tears of sorrow and pain when we gathered for memorials and said kaddish, when Rabin was killed.

You have come of age during a decade marked by terrorism, by a dominant narrative of fear and enmity between Jews and Arabs, between “the west” and the perceived world of Islam. And yet you have grown up at a time when the world has become smaller, when we have become more interconnected through travel and technology. It has been a time of despair on the one hand and hope on the other, a time of possibility, a time of confusion.

I grew up just before all this came to be. What 9/11 and Iraq have been for you, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union were for me. What a lousy inheritance we gave you.

Around the time of 9/11, my wife Natalie and I were at a Shabbat dinner at the home of my rebbe, Avi Weiss. Rav Avi has always been known for his passionate commitment to the people of Israel and to the State of Israel. He was a key leader in the Soviet Jewry movement. He has largely been known as a right-winger on Israel. He strongly disagreed with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres: he did not see in Yasir Arafat a partner for peace.

At that dinner was a young man who had grown up under the influence of Rav Avi. He had gone to Soviet Jewry rallies and picketed at the Soviet consulate in New York. At the time of the dinner, he was working as a political consultant for a back-bencher member of the Knesset, Avigdor Lieberman. At one point, the conversation turned to Israel and the then-raging second intifada. “Rabin and Peres have blood on their hands,” the young man said. “They brought this about.”

I remember Rav Avi’s face at that moment. His eyes grew serious, his mouth turned down a bit. He looked the young man in the eye across the Shabbat table. It was as though he were talking to a younger version of himself. He said, calmly but firmly, “You can’t say that. You can’t say that. As much as I may have disagreed with them, as much as I think they were wrong, they did what they did because of ahavat yisrael, because they love the people of Israel–every bit as much as you or me. You can’t say they have blood on their hands. They are ohavei yisrael, they love the Jewish people.” The young man was silent.

“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya said: Make for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a friend, and give every man the benefit of the doubt” (Pirkei Avot 1:6). A teacher in the Mishnah is one to whom we submit our authority, someone acknowledged as a master. A friend is someone who we trust has our best interests at heart. We can only have teachers, we can only have friends, if we give people the benefit of the doubt–if we assume that their intentions are good, and that their mistakes are honest. When we are confronted with evidence that someone is being deceitful or dishonest, then we have to be sober, and we are entitled to suspicion. But until that point, says Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya, we have to give people the benefit of the doubt.

It is hard to trust. It’s probably the hardest thing we have to do in life: to surrender our suspicion, to give up our desire for complete control. It is hard to give people the benefit of the doubt, to live in a state of suspended disbelief. But learning, the product of a teacher-student relationship, and warm (not cold) peace, the product of friendship, require it. The alternative is a life of fear and suspicion, a life that corrodes itself from within.

The world is not an easier place to live in than it was 15 years ago. Suspicion and fear, cynicism and anger, seem to be the dominant moods today, as they have been for what seems like most of your life. I’m sorry things are this way. I hope that today you’ll watch some of those old videos of Yitzhak Rabin, that you’ll learn about him and remember him, that you will experience a bit of the hope we had and the despair we felt. I hope you will internalize the power of words to inspire and to destroy, and that you’ll take responsibility for your language.

And most of all I hope you’ll find the capacity to give people the benefit of the doubt, to find a way to trust. If Rabin’s legacy begins anywhere, it is there.

In hope,

Rabbi Josh