Friday, December 15, 2023

The Optimism of Seven Lean Years


Pharaoh's Dreams, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902),

gouache on board, Diameter: 5 1/8 in. (13 cm) each, at the Jewish Museum, New York

Optimism is profoundly human. The neuroscientist Tali Sharot, in her book The Optimism Bias, shows that optimism is pervasive, cutting across all cultures. She draws the conclusion that humans are hotwired to imagine an unrealistic picture of the future. It is instinctive to dream of “happily ever after,” even if that often is not the case.


The belief in progress is equally instinctive, because it is nurtured by optimism; and it is just as irrational. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist, wrote The End of History. He saw the fall of the Soviet Union as representing the ultimate triumph of the western democratic order, and the culmination of all history. There would be no further conflicts, now that the world had seen the light.


Unfortunately, that was not true. New dictators arose, and arguably, democracy has been on the decline since he wrote the book.


But the failures of optimism doesn't mean it should be completely rejected. Redemption is one of the foundational beliefs of Judaism. Jeremiah held out hope that a newly exiled nation would return home; Isaiah imagined a world filled with peace and harmony. Jews are called by Zechariah “prisoners of hope”; our soul’s first language is optimism.


But since October 7th, Jews have felt betrayed by optimism. History has gone backwards. It feels like it's 1948 again, with Israel fighting for its very existence. Every dream seems counterfeit. Optimism feels like a cognitive trap, which gives one false hope when hope is pointless.


It is here where optimism needs an unlikely ally to succeed: pessimism. That is a central lesson of Joseph's dreams.


Joseph's life story revolves around three sets of dreams. The first two he has as a child, when he is the spoiled younger half-brother who is deeply resented by his siblings. He dreams that they are in the field, and his bundle of grain rises up, and the bundles of his brothers are bowing to him. Then Joseph has another dream, where the sun and the moon and the stars are all bowing to him.


These dreams seemingly need no interpretation. Joseph is declaring himself the ruler of his brothers.


Immediately, the opposite happens. The dreams stir the brothers’ jealousy, and they sell him into slavery in Egypt.


The second set of dreams occur when Joseph is in an Egyptian prison, and two fellow prisoners, the butler and the baker, ask him to interpret their dreams; Joseph does so accurately, predicting that the butler will be freed and the baker will be executed. Two years later, the butler will recommend Joseph as a dream interpreter.


The third set are Pharaoh's dreams. He has two dreams. In one, seven fat cows are swallowed up by seven skinny cows; in the second, seven healthy stalks of grain are devoured by seven sickly stalks of grain.


Joseph is called from prison to interpret Pharaoh's dreams; he explains that there will be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Luckily, Joseph explains, the dreams offer a timely warning, which will allow Egypt to get ready for the famine and overcome it. Joseph is so impressive, that he is immediately named the viceroy of Egypt.


What jumps out at the reader is how Pharaoh’s dreams stand in sharp contrast with Joseph's dreams.


Pharaoh's dreams project a tragic ending; but because Pharaoh shared them, they will have a positive ending. Joseph's dreams project a very happy ending for him; but because Joseph shared them, he ends up a slave.


Pharaoh's dreams are difficult to interpret; he turns to all of his priests for answers, but none have one. It is clear to everyone that God is communicating with Pharaoh. In contrast, Joseph's dreams are obvious, and need no interpretation. And his brothers assume that these dreams are just the product of Joseph's imagination and nothing more.


Finally the most fascinating contrast has to do with what occurs after a double dream. Pharaoh's double dream indicates that it will come true immediately; Joseph's double dream seems to wait for a long time to come true.


There are many lessons that these contrasts teach. First of all, it reminds us to beware of happy endings. Joseph's dreams feed his own vanity and make him oblivious to his own brother's hatred; in fact, his dreams make their hatred worse. This is a good dream that causes damage, where a sunny picture of the future is actually a liability.


Second, one must recognize that pessimism often allows optimism to succeed. Pharaoh’s nightmares allow for proper preparation, to be ready for the upcoming famine. The unhappy ending in the dream actually helps Pharaoh achieve a happy ending in real life. This is a bad dream that does a great deal of good, preparing Egypt for the future.


Third, good dreams often have a very long runway. Joseph explains to Pharaoh that the double dream means “that the matter has been determined by God, and that God will soon carry it out.” This is a strange assertion, considering that Joseph's own double dream had seemingly not come true.


However, I would argue that that isn't the case; Joseph's dreams actually came true immediately. What his brothers thought to be a mere figment of Joseph's ambition was actually a divine prophecy. However, both the brothers and Joseph misunderstood this dream; they assumed it meant that Joseph would be the recipient of great privilege, an entitled ruler who receives unearned gifts. But actually, the purpose of the dream was to call Joseph to be a true leader, to be a servant of both his family and all of Egypt.


In order to do that, Joseph would have to learn humility. In order to become an authentic leader, Joseph would need to be a slave first. And so he becomes a slave immediately, which prepares for the fulfillment of his dream.


Joseph could only achieve this dream through great difficulty. But the pain and suffering he endured as a slave got him ready for his ultimate role. And in the happiest of endings for the entire family, Joseph was in the exact right place to save them from the famine.


Right now it is difficult to dream, and optimism is scarce. But the lessons of our Torah reading is that there are no grand dreams of the future without difficulty and sacrifice. But if we learn to prepare for the famine, we will be able to endure.


And we have known this all along. In 1956, Moshe Dayan gave a eulogy for Roi Rotberg, a 21 year old soldier who was ambushed in the fields of Nahal Oz, near Gaza. This eulogy is prescient; it speaks directly to us today in the aftermath of October 7th. Dayan explained that Israel must never be lulled into complacency, imagining that everything will be okay. A country like Israel will have enemies, and she must be ready.


He said:

That is our generation's fate and our life's choice -- to be willing and armed, strong and unyielding, lest the sword be knocked from our fist and our lives cut down.

It was difficult to contemplate this reality in 1956, when burying Roi Rotberg, a young soldier who was brutally killed on a Kibbutz. Is even more difficult to contemplate this reality in 2023, after so many were brutally murdered on Kibbutzim, and much like Roi, young soldiers are giving their lives on a daily basis for Israel. Dayan’s eulogy is painfully pessimistic.


But like Pharaoh's nightmarish dream, this bitter pessimism is the only way forward to a better future. Ordinary optimism might cause us to overestimate what can be, and imagine that we simply can be carefree. But optimism is not a blank check.


Mature optimism is something different; it walks hand in hand with pessimism, to enable one to be ready for each day's crisis. Tomorrow will be another day, another opportunity for hope. But not today. We must not lose sight of reality.


What gives me optimism now is how Israelis are heroically carrying the burden of an awful time; they stand ready to meet the challenges of the seven lean years. Shai Bernstein (whose father, Dr. David Bernstein, taught at Ramaz for many years,) wrote a powerful note about his service in Gaza:


I’ve seen with my own eyes.


I’ve seen injured friends in the hospital who, despite the pain and long recovery process that await them, seem way stronger than me.


I’ve seen Colonel Asaf Chamami’s mom at his Shiva; I almost fell apart right in front of her eyes. She was the strong one, not me.


I’ve seen teachers, doctors, factory workers, and people working in tech, leaving their jobs and families, leaving everything they have and fighting like lions.


I’ve seen Matan (voted for Meretz), Jonathan (Lapid), Guy (Bibi), and Itamar (Gantz) having a fierce political argument.


It looked like a competition of who loved the State of Israel more.


I’ve seen the same four chevra leap with all of their gear into the breach, together as one.


I’ve seen them run to aid the injured after the missile hit us, even though the bullets were still flying over their heads. Each one carrying the stretcher, lending a shoulder, together.


I’ve seen communities across the US buckling down, raising money and working hard to send supplies, to support to the soldiers and citizens of Israel. (Some of the letters we got from kids were so simple, yet special and moving - you could cry).


I’ve seen a polarized and divided nation that became united in an instant.


We realize that we’re fighting not only for our lives, but for our very right to exist.


This letter chronicles the pain of young men and women leaving their families, of injured soldiers in the hospital, of parents burying their children. And yet the letter is not at all pessimistic. It is inspiring that so many people like Shai are willing to carry the burden of the seven lean years, and ensure a better future.


And even during a nightmare, that is worthy of optimism.

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Wrestling Lessons: A Sermon About the KJ Mission to Israel

KJ/Ramaz Israel Thanksgiving Mission - Produced by Elyssa Brezel from Esther Feierman on Vimeo.

When will the war be over? Last week in Israel, this question came up multiple times in conversation. Our group had the privilege of eating lunch last Shabbat with Benny Gantz, and we asked him the same question. At the time, there was a ceasefire; some soldiers were coming home for the weekend, and everyone seemed to catch their breath once again. But this was only a temporary lull; Hamas is still in power, and hostages are still in captivity. Unfortunately, as Gantz and many others explained, there is no quick solution; the war may take several more months to achieve its objectives.


This was a difficult answer for us to hear. Everyone wants things to go back to normal as soon as possible.


We want our hostages home, we want our soldiers home, we want the evacuees back in their homes.


But sometimes there aren't any quick answers. Sometimes you must wrestle instead.

Our Torah reading includes the passage about Jacob's wrestling match with the angel. They wrestle for hours until morning; it only ends then because the angel begs Jacob to let him leave.


The Hebrew word for wrestling, vayeavek, emphasizes how tedious and uncomfortable wrestling is. The Ramban offers two theories regarding the origin of the word. One is that it’s related to the Hebrew word for hugging, chibuk; wrestlers hold each other close as they grapple in excruciating intimacy with their enemy. The other is that vayeavek is related to the Hebrew word for dust, avak. Wrestling is a very slow form of combat; the feet of wrestlers are constantly shifting, in search of a more advantageous position. When wrestlers wrestle, they kick up a lot of dust.


In short, wrestling is both painful and painfully slow. But Israel is born in a wrestling match. At daybreak, the angel changes Jacob's name to Israel, in recognition of Jacob's courage; the angel declares to Jacob, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome,” and these words in Hebrew contain the root of the word “Israel.”


Here we need to pause for a moment. Names are powerful reflections of plans and perspectives. Is the Torah suggesting that the people of Israel are fated to wrestle?


And the answer is: absolutely yes.


Wrestling is part of every life; there are no easy solutions for the endless challenges of life. This is all the more so true of a people who have held tight to their destiny for 3,300 years; to survive, an aptitude for wrestling must be part of Jewish DNA.


We are once again facing a time of wrestling for Jews; and the lessons of Jacob’s wrestling match are now more important than ever. I’d like to share three insights from this section of the Torah today.


The first is: you know it won't be easy.


Side by side with this horrific massacre in Israel is a dramatic uptick in antisemitism around the world. Many Jews have been stunned by this. In truth, I am among them. Had you asked me a few years ago, I would have told you that antisemitism was disappearing.


But now antisemitism is back with enormous intensity. This is profoundly disconcerting for us. But it's disconcerting only because we had the wrong expectations. We had forgotten that being a Jew won't always be easy, that wrestling is a part of Jewish destiny.


At the same time, this attack by Hamas shocked Israel, which was completely unprepared. As Ronen Bergman reported yesterday in the New York Times, although Israeli intelligence had reliable reports of a planned Hamas attack, it was dismissed it as being improbable.


This type of mistake is sadly a common one. People evaluate the future based on what they see in the present; and they have a predisposition to optimism and tend to accept the most positive view of their own situation. The desire “to dwell in tranquility” caused Israel to forget the most important rule: it won't come easy. And frankly, you can't expect a high-tech fence to fight a war. Just ask the French; it didn’t work in World War II either.


The first, and most difficult, wrestling lesson is that it doesn't come easy. Not life, not being a Jew. But this name change reminds us that we can handle it. We are Israel, we are wrestlers.


And we are fortunate to have so many heroes ready to wrestle. Dan Polisar of Shalem College spoke to our group about his son, who is a commander currently on duty in Gaza. A piece of rubble had fallen on his helmet, and he was taken to the hospital to be checked out. Thankfully everything was good, but the doctor wanted him to stay home for a few days of monitoring. But that outcome was not acceptable; the commander knew his troops needed him. So, Dan and his son argued with the doctor; she still refused to let him go. They insisted she speak to her supervisor. That didn’t work, so they insisted that she speak to the head of the hospital; finally, the medical staff reluctantly allowed the commander to return.


But Dan related one other point, which was the most powerful part of this story. During the back and forth with the doctor, Dan and his son were discussing their problem in the waiting room. There, a soldier, who Dan described as having “a bruise the size of Texas on his arm,” sees them talking and asks them what had happened. When the soldier hears their predicament, he laughs and says: “Who cares if the doctor doesn’t give you permission? Just grab a transport and go back to Gaza!”


Jacob gets injured during his wrestling match, but he forges ahead; so do these heroes, bruises and all. Yes, wrestling isn’t easy. Israel’s soldiers know that, but they are ready to take on the challenge anyway.


The second lesson is you don't let anyone wrestle alone.


At the end of the wrestling match, the angel injures Jacob on his thigh. Because of that, the Torah tells us that Jews are forbidden from eating the sciatic nerve.


But the reason is somewhat unclear. Why would we commemorate this injury, and why with a prohibition?


The 13th-century French rabbi Hizkunni offers a fascinating explanation. He says that the prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve is a penalty; Jacob's family is being punished because Jacob was left alone and vulnerable. Jacob's sons should not have neglected their father and left him unaccompanied. And so, for generations, Jews have accepted this penalty and not eaten the sciatic nerve.


The lesson is you don't allow someone to wrestle alone.


We can be proud of how united the Jewish people are. In Israel, everybody is getting involved, whether it be soldiers in the reserves or volunteers in the streets.


We met an injured soldier who was fighting alongside Yossi Hershkovitz, the principal of the Pelech High School for Boys in Jerusalem; prior to that, he had taught at SAR. Hershkovitz died when a booby-trapped tunnel claimed his life.


The injured soldier told us that all of the younger members of the unit asked Hershkovitz why he reported. Hershkovitz was 44, had five children, and was exempt from service. Hershkovitz told them that he was there because the younger soldiers needed his experience and his help. He wasn't going to let them remain alone.


This is the story of Israel today; remarkable sacrifices, all in the cause of helping each other.


The Jews of America are doing their part as well. A few weeks ago, there was an unprecedented rally, where 290,000 people stood in solidarity with Israel. To my mind, the most powerful speech came from Natan Sharansky, who explained to the crowd why unity matters. He spoke about how he and his friends resisted against the former Soviet Union, and said:


Many people thought that our cause was hopeless. How could a few men and women beat an empire all on their own?


But we knew very well that we weren’t truly alone. Israel and the Jewish People stood with us. From the small demonstration that four students organized at Columbia University in 1964, to the massive rally when 250,000 Jews gathered right here in this very place in 1987, three generations of World Jewry dedicated themselves to our struggle. Many of your grandparents fought for us. Many of your parents fought for us. Many of you fought for us. And this fact, this togetherness, gave me strength in my years in the Soviet Gulag.


My jailors tried to tell me that I am alone, that I am doomed, that our struggle will fail. But all I had to do was to remember the many Jewish visitors who came to see us in Moscow over the years to know that they were lying. I knew you. I knew how devoted and loving you were. I knew that we were one fighting family. And so I knew that there was only one possible outcome for our joint struggle….victory.


Coming together matters. That’s why our mission went to Israel. And at every stop we were thanked for coming, by cab drivers, soldiers, and even by Benny Gantz.


And that is why I tell everyone I see they must go visit Israel now. We cannot allow Jacob to wrestle alone.


The third lesson is we are wrestling for something bigger.


The night after the conclusion of the mission I went to the wedding of our friends' son Yoni Troy, to Tali Miller. It was a beautiful wedding, the children of two families that had made Aliyah, building their own home together in Israel.


Underneath the Chuppah, there were several prayers recited. An uncle of the bride recited the prayer for the Israeli soldiers. Cousins of the groom, whose homes are on the Gaza border, recited a prayer for those who have been evacuated. And Naor, Yoni’s commanding officer, who rushed in from his base and was still in uniform, recited a prayer for the hostages. Naor is from Sderot, and ten people he knew, including family members, were killed, and five others were taken hostage. There was not a dry eye when Naor recited the prayer.


Afterwards, something troubled me. Here we were, at the picture-perfect Jewish wedding of two wonderful people from two wonderful families in Israel. For centuries, Jews have prayed under the Chuppah “od yishamah b’arei yehuda,” that soon we would return to Israel, and the rejoicing of brides and grooms would once again be heard in the cities of Judea. And now we were at a wedding in the hills of Judea, where everything we prayed for has come true; and even so, we have to offer these heartbreaking prayers.


The question is: What point was there in praying for weddings in Israel for all these centuries, when now, weddings in Israel need new prayers?


But the answer is simple: the centuries of wrestling were for something bigger than comfort or happiness.


Yes, Israel comes with crises, challenges, and hardships.


But at least we're back in our homeland.


Herman Wouk, the playwright and novelist visited Israel in 1955. He was invited by David Ben-Gurion, who was out of politics at the time, to visit him in Sde Boker in the Negev. At that point, terrorists were regularly coming across the border from Gaza, and they needed to provide Wouk with an army escort, and Wouk had to return to Tel Aviv before sunset.


At the end of the visit, Ben-Gurion turned to Wouk and said, “When are you moving to Israel? You know that this is the only place for Jews like you. You know only here you will be free.”


Wouk responded with a bit of shock. He said: “Free? Free? The enemy has armies surrounding you, their leaders publicly threatening to wipe out the Zionist entity, your roads are impassable after sundown, and you say that you're free?


Ben-Gurion responded, “I did not say safe. I said free.”


And that was the ultimate lesson of our trip. We've seen Israel at a difficult time; but this is also Israel's finest hour. We are wrestling once again, and that’s never easy; but we are wrestling for something bigger. And thank God we have our own sovereignty, our own state, our own army.


Thank God we're free.


And that's worth wrestling for.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

A Letter From Israel: It's Time to Start Dreaming


A Scene from Kfar Aza

It was a landscape of horror. Kfar Aza, one of the Kibbutzim ravaged during the Hamas massacre, is filled with rubble and burned-out buildings. (The terrorists came ready with gasoline and tires to burn down the homes of those who wouldn't leave their safe rooms.) While all of the bodies had already been taken for burial, there still were the outlines on the grass where they had sat, unmoved, for over a week. We heard first-hand reports of the brutal murders and the extreme sadism of the terrorists. Shock, heartbreak, and anger competed for control of my heart.


I was visiting Israel as part of a group from Kehilath Jeshurun and Ramaz. But this was no ordinary trip; our group made multiple difficult visits, where we could see the hurt and suffering of Israel up close.


One stop was at Shurah, the army base tasked with processing the 1200 people murdered during this massacre. Rabbi Bentzi Mann, who was first called to serve at this base on October 8th, spoke about the overwhelming task of identifying and securing a dignified burial for the dead. He told us that during the first days of the war, refrigerator trucks that ordinarily transport chocolate milk and yogurt were filled with bodies instead. When they would open the doors to remove the bodies, blood would come pouring out. Now, every time he sees a yogurt truck, Bentzi is reminded of death.


These difficult stories were everywhere we went. We heard from people who had witnessed the murders of their loved ones. We spoke to the families of hostages, and visited the wounded in hospitals. We saw firsthand the pain and horror Israelis are experiencing.


At the same time, this heartbreak was mixed with inspiration. We met heroes who on October 7th, rushed down to the south on their own accord to take on the attackers; we met medics who risked their lives to pull the wounded out of the battle zone.


At one point, we stopped at a gas station. Coincidentally, it turned out that Masad at the cash register, from Israel's Bedouin community, was a hero who had saved the lives of 14 people on October 7th. We visited grassroots organizations that are helping evacuees from the north and the south; we met with doctors who have been working 16 hours a day, and volunteers who have given up their jobs to help those in need full-time. This sense of unity is what is holding Israel together right now.


Most inspiring is that Israelis still have dreams. On Shabbat in Jerusalem, we read Parashat Vayetzei, which begins with Jacob's dream. Dreams have long been a metaphor for hope, with Aristotle calling hope “a waking dream.”


Jacob's dream is the ultimate vision of hope. It is of a ladder on which angels are going up and down, symbolizing that God is sending His emissaries to watch over Jacob. 


This vision comes to Jacob at the lowest moment in his life, when he's being chased away from home, and his brother Esau wants to murder him. 


And now Jacob has his dream, from which we learn that it is at the worst moments in time, one needs to dream the most. As Langston Hughes put it:


Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.


Jacob holds fast to his dream; and that changes his perspective. Rashi explains that after he wakes up, Jacob's “heart lifted his feet up,” because he was now filled with hope.


Jews have always understood that you are what you dream. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev points out in his commentary that the Hebrew word for dreaming, “chalom,” is similar to the word for healing, “hachlamah.” And that is because dreams of hope can give a tattered soul the strength to continue forward.


Right now in Israel, there are still dreams amidst all of the nightmares. On Shabbat morning I joined the aufruf of Yoni, the son of dear friends. At the Kiddush, Yoni, a soldier so devoted he had to be pushed to go home for Shabbat by his commanding officer, gave a D'var Torah. In Jacob's dream, there is a ladder whose feet are on Earth, and whose head extends into heaven. Yoni explained that this is symbolic of the times we are in. Even if the ladder is stuck in our muddy and ugly reality, our heads must always be in the skies, filled with vision and values.


This vision is one and the same with Isaiah's, who tells us that one day swords will be beaten into plowshares. And, as Yoni reminded us, we must not forget this, even now. Yes, it is a horrible time; unquestionably there are many Palestinian civilians who are suffering profoundly in this war. Of course, it must be pointed out where the blame lies. They are largely in harm's way because Hamas has turned all of Gaza into human shields; Hamas relishes civilian casualties, because they are of strategic value to this terror group. Supporters of Israel are sometimes reluctant to speak about the tragedy of Palestinian civilian casualties because it has been weaponized by Hamas and its enablers.


But that is no reason for us to forget Isaiah's dream; and there are so many who have not lost sight of this vision. Eli Beer, the CEO of United Hatzalah, has a son who is a medic and serves in an elite combat unit. The soldiers don't have their cell phones while on duty, and often can only speak to their families sporadically for a very short time. When Eli spoke to his son, he asked him to share the highlight of the previous week; and his son told Eli that he had found a 12-year-old Palestinian girl who was injured, and he had treated her and sent her in an ambulance to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba. Isaiah's dream is still alive even during this bitter War.


There are many other inspiring dreams everywhere. I met Shelli Shemtov, whose son Omer is one of the hostages. She told me that she's keeping his room exactly as Omer left it, cluttered and messy. She said that when he gets home, (and I emphasize, she said “when,”) she will hug him, then kick him in the behind and tell him to go back to his room and clean it up.


What an inspiring mother, what a powerful dream.


Racheli Fraenkel, who spent Shabbat with our group, spoke to me about the Day of Unity which she and her husband established after the kidnapping and murder of her son Naftali in 2014. She mentioned to me that this year, and in the years to come, this day will be even more important. Israel was on the brink of a civil war just days before this war; unity was a distant possibility. Now, after this catastrophe, we must dream once again of unity.


In Kfar Aza we were taken around by Doron Libstein, whose late brother Ofir had been the head of the regional council. Ofir was among the first people murdered. Doron took us to the spot Ofir was killed, and asked us to sing Hatikvah, Israel's anthem of hope.


And Doron has hope. He wants to help Kfar Aza rebuild, and become bigger and better. He wants to bring more people to this beautiful corner of the Negev, and fill it with life and vibrancy once again.


That is Doron’s dream. And we all must dream with him because it is dreams that have kept the Jewish people alive.


We know that at the worst of times, we need dreams more than ever. And now is one of those times.


Now is a time to dream.

Friday, November 17, 2023

The Magic of The Twice Dug Well


Excavations. Tell Jemmeh, (Gerar). Solomonic level. Excavated section of the mound

 Where was Gerar located? Determining the location of biblical cities requires careful evaluation of archeological, historical, and literary evidence. It is both an art and a science, and because of that, opens the door for multiple opinions.


Several archaeological sites, or “tels,” have been identified as Gerar. Eliezer Oren of Ben Gurion University has argued that Tel Haror, located between Ofakim and Netivot, is Gerar. It is a large city, and the location also seems to correspond to an ambiguous description given by the Church Father Eusebius in the 4th century.


Many other archeologists and Bible scholars take a different view. In the 1920s W. J. Phythian-Adams and Flinders Petrie identified the excavations at Tel Jemmeh with Gerar. They did so because a Byzantine village, Umm Gerar, (essentially the same name,) was nearby.


Yehuda and Yoel Elitzur, (father and son Bible scholars,) note that the biblical record corresponds with this identification. Gerar is described in the Tanakh as being close to Gaza, which is true of Tel Jemmeh but not of Tel Haror. Tel Jemmeh also is a place of abundant well water, which is characteristic of cities closer to the coast. A place like this is somewhere that one would naturally go to during a famine. Tel Jemmeh best fits the biblical description of Gerar.


Gerar’s location was just a matter of academic interest until a month and a half ago; but it is now part of the geography of tragedy. The area of Tel Jemmeh is about a mile from Re’im, where the Nova Festival took place and over 350 were murdered. It is also very close to many of the Kibbutzim that were destroyed during the horrific, depraved Hamas massacre. Gerar is near to all of these sites of tragedy; and after October 7th, this text speaks to us with a different voice.


Genesis 26 begins with Rebecca and Isaac leaving home in a famine in search of food. They arrive in Gerar, on their way down to Egypt; but God tells them to stay there and not leave the Land of Israel.


In Gerar, they become extremely successful, to the point that the local people are jealous. The Philistines stop up all of the wells in Gerar that Abraham had dug; Abimelech the local king tells Isaac: “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.”


And so Isaac moves into the Valley of Gerar, and there “Isaac dug again the wells of water which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father, (for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham.) He called them by the names which his father had called them.” Isaac digs two more wells, but the Philistines claim them as well; finally, after digging a third well, the Philistines leave him alone. Isaac continues on to Beersheba; finally, after all this, Abimelech comes to offer Isaac a treaty.


Every commentary approaches this text with one question in mind: What relevance do these wells have? The purpose of the biblical record is to inspire and enlighten future generations. Who once owned which well under which name thousands of years ago seems to be an unimportant detail, a narrative without any abiding purpose.


Because of this question, the Ramban offers a mystical interpretation that sees this text as a prophecy for the future. A similar allegorical approach is taken up by many later commentators, who offer interpretations that see the wells as symbolizing the search for spirituality and inner faith.


Other commentaries see this narrative as a reflection of contemporary struggles. Saadia Gaon, who was a fierce opponent of the Karaites who had rejected the rabbinic tradition, saw in Isaac's decision to give the wells the same names as his father a comment on the importance of preserving the traditions and customs of previous generations.


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who lived at a time when Jews were fighting for acceptance and equal rights, saw in the Philistines' jealousy of Isaac's success a reflection of his own time; that just like Isaac, even after reentering society, Jews would remain the subject of harassment and envy. He explains that even after receiving equal rights, the struggle was not complete. Jews would need to aspire to an honored place in society, and work to become a true light unto the nations, cherished for their teachings and values.


At its core, this narrative is about Isaac’s response to discrimination; however, the meaning of the text is unclear. Don Isaac Abrabanel and the Ramban have contrary views regarding what Isaac actually did. The Ramban says that Isaac left Gerar and traveled far away, where he was no longer subject to Abimelech and the people of Gerar. The wells Isaac restores are not the ones in Gerar; rather they are a second set of wells, found elsewhere, and not a matter of dispute. This reading has Isaac acting submissively, avoiding conflict with the people of Gerar. (Abrabanel notes that this is why the Ramban sees no real purpose to this text. By the Ramban’s reading, Isaac does nothing.) But the Ramban’s reading is a forced, contorted explanation, because it assumes that the text is talking about two different sets of wells that were closed up by the Philistines; and that is divorced from the simple reading of the text.


Don Isaac Abrabanel, as mentioned, offers a very different perspective. While Isaac does move from Gerar, he does so for a logistical reason; the land cannot accommodate his livestock and the livestock of others. But Isaac remained very close by, despite the Philistines’ demands that he leave. Abrabanel then explains that “Isaac lived there against their desires, and not only that, he dug again the wells that they had closed. And to further assert his rights, he gave the wells the exact same names his father had.”


Abrabanel reads this text as a story of defiance. This is even more remarkable because until this point, Isaac's life had been guided by others: he was nearly sacrificed by his father, had his wife chosen by his father's servant, and he settled in Gerar because God told him to. But when the chips are down, Isaac rises to the occasion and defies Abimelech. Even Isaac will stand up for his father's legacy.


Abrabanel’s explanation of the wells is exactly what we need to read right now. Defiance isn’t only found in confrontation; it is found in resilience too. Yes, many times during Jewish history we have had to retreat; many times Jews looked like the Ramban’s description of Isaac, a man who avoids conflict with a more powerful adversary. But the overarching theme of Jewish history is that Jews will find a way to make a comeback, even after failures, retreats, and catastrophes. No matter how disappointing a defeat may be, the Jews will not give up, and will return to dig the wells again and again.


A people that knows how to rebuild what is destroyed is here to stay. And that is the magic of the twice-dug well.


This magic can be found all over Israel. Sivan Rahav Meir shared a fascinating WhatsApp message written by Nogah Ashkenazi, a German convert to Judaism. Nogah wrote that when the war started, she planned on immediately returning to her family in Germany; they were urging her to come back as well. But then Nogah changed her mind. She was part of a local WhatsApp group; and there she read her neighbors’ messages to each other. And that changed her mind.


She wrote a message to her WhatsApp group to explain:


...My first thought was to leave everything and fly to Germany to my parents with the children. My family was already preparing for our arrival.


But when I opened this group on Monday and saw all the messages here, and saw all the strong women, and how you put all your efforts to help on all fronts with whatever is needed, I was so impressed. I was amazed to see the strength of our nation. And it just kept getting even more and more impressive. This is what changed my mind.


I am not going to run away, not going to leave, because I too am very much a part of all of this. I am Jewish, and this is what I chose; and this is the vow I made in front of the rabbis during conversion, and more importantly, the vow I made in front of God. Germany is no longer my home; I am not German, I am Jewish, and this is my place.


And I'm not leaving. On the contrary, I have become even more Jewish in my identity.


So I want to thank each of you for supporting me. My family in Germany doesn't understand my choice, and I can't blame them. You don't know what it is to be part of the Jewish people if you haven't lived it with every cell in your body….


This is a powerful message, a declaration of the Jewish spirit. Even though Nogah is new to the Jewish people, she speaks with Isaac’s voice. It is a voice of defiance, which refuses to accept destruction and persecution.


Today, as we fight another conflict near Gerar, Isaac’s example will guide us. We will find strength in each other, comfort in our dreams, and hope in our history. 


And no matter what, we will restore, we will rebuild, we will return.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Our Family Has Arrived


A local Eilat brewery changed it's label with the new slogan of Israel: "Together we will win."

 "Abram ha’Ivri" is a curious term, most often associated with Egypt, and first used in our Torah reading. The meaning of the word Ivri is unclear. But one interpretation in the Midrash is influential in its own right. Rabbi Judah interprets Ivri as meaning "the entire world is on one side and Abraham is on the other (m'ever) side." Rabbi Judah sees in this phrase a critical aspect of Abraham's mission: to stand apart from the rest of the world. Jews are meant to remain eternal iconoclasts, beginning with the rejection of idolatry.


To live apart need not mean living alone. Abraham himself had close allies; Mamre, Eshkol and Aner are mentioned in the very same verse as having formed a covenant with Abraham. There were people, then as now, who appreciated the Jews for their differences, not despite them. 


These allies are exceptionally important now. As I traveled through Israel this week, Israelis of every political persuasion told me how grateful they were for stalwart support, both military and diplomatic, that the United States and President Biden have offered to Israel during this war. And it is not just the United States; England, France and Germany among others have come forward in support. Israel is not alone. Abraham would have found it difficult to fight the war against the four kings without the the support of his allies; the same is true of Israel today. 


Even so, living apart has had a profound impact on our history. The stubborn Jewish insistence on being a nation that dwells alone drew derision from the Greeks and fury from the Romans. Jewish rejection of Christianity and Islam provoked further hatred; the insistence on dwelling apart stoked theological animosity.


Through the centuries these negative attitudes morphed into antisemitism, an amalgam of attitudes that made the Jew the protagonist of all the world's ills. 


Culturally, antisemitism has shaped how Jews see themselves. Because of it, Jews were constantly under the spotlight, with the behavior of a single Jew becoming the standard by which every Jew is judged. 


The legacy of this spotlight endures. Even after being granted political rights, many Jews made sure to carefully modify their behavior to become more acceptable to non-Jews. At times, they would cut off their Jewish legs to fit the shortened bed of "tolerance" the hostile world offered them, and imitate the very people who ridiculed them. 


Among non-Jews, the constant and careful examination of Jews to see if they are actually worthy of being treated as equals became a stealth form of antisemitism, an expression of disgust hidden under the mask of "honest criticism." Under this protocol, every Jewish criminal is highlighted, and every Jewish misdeed exaggerated.


Both of these responses are on full display during this conflict. Jewish students who desperately want acceptance avoid expressing public support for Israel; a small group of them have become her fiercist critics. It is a Jewish Stockholm Syndrome, an unhealthy need to identify with those who detest you, the product of centuries of exclusion. 


At the same time, Jewish students are watching their friends rush to go out and protest on behalf of Hamas, even before Israel responded. These students feel profoundly betrayed by classmates and teachers who celebrate those who murdered their fellow Jews.


This one-sided perspective of "honest criticism" of Jews leads to this. A monstrous massacre of burning, beheading, raping and kidnapping is quickly ignored and put on the back burner. At the same time, any misstep by Israel is immediately seized upon. If Israel is thought to have bombed a hospital, the world is up in arms. When it turns out that Islamic Jihad actually bombed the hospital, the very same Palestinian deaths are no longer worth discussing. 


Although I could certainly go on, I want to turn to another aspect of Jewish identity found in this week's parsha: a deep loyalty to family.


The Torah speaks at length about Abraham's war. Four kings come from the East to Canaan, to reassert their control over five local kings. Abraham rushes to defend the local kings. 


One might wonder why this is relevant to Abraham's biography and included in the Torah's account. Is it to show that Abraham is a capable general? Is it because he felt deeply connected to the local nations? 


The answer is offered by the way the Torah phrases how Abraham heard the news. It says "and Abram heard that his brother was taken captive..." Lot, Abraham's nephew, was taken captive during the war; and Abraham rushes to set him free. The Torah actually calls Lot a brother even though he's a nephew, to let us know that for Abraham, Lot is a brother. And this perspective that Jews are a family, rather than an ordinary nation, stands at the center of Jewish identity. 


Abraham's war to free Lot is the first example in Jewish literature of what the rabbinic tradition calls pidyon shevuyim, the ransoming of captives. Charity must be raised to ransom any Jew, even a compete stranger; and pidyon shevuyim is considered by the Talmud to be the highest form of charity. No Jew can be left behind.


The Jewish passion for ransoming captives became so large, that the Talmud had to insist that no ransom exceed the normal price one would pay for a slave; they didn't want kidnappers to target Jews. What is fascinating is that Jews continued to pay large ransoms, and developed halakhic rationales to allow it. The long history of ransoming captives is best explained by this: The Jewish people consider themselves to be one large family. 


I was in Israel this past week with Rabbi Josh Lookstein on a mission on behalf of our community. Everywhere we went, we repeatedly spoke about this bond of family. Israelis I met were moved to hear about all our community has been doing on behalf of Israel at this time. The metaphor of family came up often; and the remarkable organizations that have sprouted up everywhere to help the soldiers and the displaced are a reflection of this idea. I will have more to say about this on Shabbat, when I deliver the Leah Modlin Annual Lecture on Caring and Community Service. There are so many exceptional stories. 


But one last story for this article. In Ichilov Hospital, I met a young man, Omer, who was saved because someone in his group messaged a friend, who then drove down to save them. I was told that this was not unique; multiple people, after getting a text jumped into their cars to help family and friends.


One such story, which has been reported widely, is about the Tibon family. Amir and Miri Tibon and their two little daughters live in Nachal Oz. They entered their safe room after hearing the sirens; a little while later they heard gunshots, and Amir immediately understood there were terrorists in the Kibbutz. He immediately texted his father, Noam, a retired general, saying Nachal Oz had been invaded. His father wrote back: "I'm coming."


Noam drove south. Much happened to Noam along the way, including a firefight with Hamas terrorists and transporting wounded soldiers. It took a lot of time. Noam finally met up with another retired general, and together they drove to Nachal Oz. There, they joined forces with a small group of soldiers that were getting ready to liberate the Kibbutz.


Meanwhile, inside the safe room, the two young girls were barely able to remain disciplined. But Amir told them not to worry, their grandfather, Saba, is coming. They just had to stay quiet a little longer.


Finally Noam made his way to the house, knocked on the window of the safe room and said, "I'm here." The two little girls jumped up and shouted: "Saba Higiyah," "grandfather has arrived."


I have thought about this story throughout the last two weeks. Family shows up when their relatives are in need. What I can tell you is that Israel's needs are enormous, economically, militarily and emotionally. This the greatest crisis since the Yom Kippur War, and may even be larger than that as well. Before I went to Israel, I had monitored the news constantly. I imagined then I understood what was happening; but now I realize things are even more desperate than I previously thought. 


I know our community has done so much already. But this is going to be a long journey, and we must not quit. We will need to give more, lobby more, demonstrate more, and just do more of everything. Because when family needs you, no distance is too long.

Just ask Noam.