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. 

No comments: