Friday, October 20, 2023

We Will Rebuild, Even After This


Love at the Western Wall, Jerusalem.

Jewish history seems to be impossible. How can a tiny nation persevere despite centuries of persecution? This question has been posed many times by many observers. Mark Twain wrote the following in an essay for Harper's Magazine in 1898:


All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?


Many countries mastered Empire-building. Twain lists the empires that once dominated the world but have since shriveled away: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. They had dominating militaries and well-developed economies. But once these empires fell apart, they couldn't rebuild.


On the other hand, Jews have always known how to overcome adversity. The Yiddish phrase mir zaynen du, “we are here,” is both a description of Jewish history as well as the vow of Jewish determination.


After the barbaric Simchat Torah Massacre, we have once again seen Jewish determination in action. Israelis have come together to fight for their country, and the Jewish world has stood in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Israel. Rabbi Joe Wolfson in Tel Aviv described it this way: “I have lived 100 years in 5 days. If there is one thing I know it's this: If we are like this we are truly undefeatable.”


This courageous response is far from instinctive. Grief is an all-encompassing emotion. The darkness felt after experiencing trauma seems to lead in only one direction: resignation.


Comfort seems unattainable at such times. And this is what happens to Noah. After the flood, after the entire world is wiped out before his eyes, Noah immediately plants a vineyard and drinks its wine. George Bernard Shaw once remarked, “Alcohol is the anesthetic which enables the bereft man to endure the painful operation of living.” Noah is simply searching for a way to numb the pain.


Another Biblical character, Lot, does much the same. After witnessing the destruction of Sodom, including the loss of several family members, he too turns to the bottle and gets drunk.


At first glance, their response is reasonable. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 70a) remarks that “wine was only created in order to comfort mourners.” Noah and Lot are mourners searching for a way to cope with the pain.


Yet the verdict on their drinking is negative. Noah falls into a stupor and lies naked in clear sight of his children; he is later humiliated by his son and grandson. Lot, when he gets drunk, is seduced by his daughters. The outcome of these Biblical episodes is meant as an editorial comment; Noah and Lot’s drinking is implicitly condemned. But the question remains: What did they do wrong? Didn’t the Talmud say that is what wine is for?


The answer can be found in a Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 36:3). It quotes the verse (Genesis 9:20) that says, “Noah, a man of the soil, began to plant a vineyard,” and comments:


Noah, a man of the soil, began [vayaḥel] – he lost his holiness and became ordinary [ḥulin].


Using a play on the Hebrew word vayahel, the Midrash deems Noah’s behavior as merely ordinary, rather than holy. This itself is a bit puzzling; what status of holiness did Noah have? Generally, it is the Kohanim (priests) and sacred items that are considered to be uniquely holy because they are involved in the Temple service.


But that is exactly the point. Kohanim are prohibited from drinking when they are on call to serve in the Temple; they must be fully focused on their divine service. Like the Kohanim, this Midrash argues that Noah also had a divine mission.


Noah’s failure is that he didn’t realize this. Another Midrash criticizes Noah for not wanting to leave the ark. Perhaps for an ordinary person, that would be completely understandable; who would want to go out and witness the destruction the flood left behind?


But more is demanded of Noah. If God selected him to be the only survivor of the flood, that means that Noah is being designated for the mission of rebuilding the world. He must not hide in the ark; and like a Kohen, he must remain focused on his mission and not get drunk and distracted. Noah must go out and rebuild the world.


The Midrash concludes by saying:


And he planted a vineyard.” Should Noah not have planted something else that was constructive, perhaps a fig tree branch or an olive tree branch? Instead, “he planted a vineyard.”


Noah missed his calling.


Jews see rebuilding as sacred. In the previous generation, many of the Holocaust survivors, broken in both body and soul, saw their mission as rebuilding what was destroyed. They fought to create the State of Israel, established Jewish communities, schools, and synagogues, and built beautiful Jewish families.


Here, one can find the elusive secret of Jewish survival: the determination to rebuild.


This belief in rebuilding is part of Israel’s DNA. Even during the worst days of the intifada, Israel moved forward. Greg Myre and Jennifer Griffin, two journalists who lived in Israel between 2000-2007 wrote that:


We were consistently amazed at how quickly Israelis returned to places that had been bombed. The police, the rescue teams, and the cleanup crews restored a bomb site to an outward semblance of normality within hours of an attack. Debris was swept out. Hoses washed away blood from the sidewalk. Shattered windows were replaced. The yellow police tape came down.…. For Israelis, combating terror is not just a security question. It's a social, cultural, and psychological issue and the whole country is required to play its role. It's often measured in small deeds, like going back to a favorite cafe after an attack.


One must never allow destruction to be the final chapter.


Israel today is filled with grief, anxiety, and heartbreak. A cartoon now circulating shows a caricature of the map of Israel lying on the couch, while Sigmund Freud listens. The caption reads: “How does one find a psychologist for 9.3 million people?” So many families have experienced horrific loss; the families of hostages sit helplessly as their loved ones are held by a group of depraved murderers. Every Israeli, and every Jew, is heartbroken.


Even so, Israel is rebuilding. In Kibbutz Be’eri, where Hamas destroyed dozens of homes and murdered over 100 people, the famous printing house, which is the largest business in the area, has reopened. The surviving children, who are now housed in a hotel in the center of Israel, once again have a kindergarten in their hotel. Photos of it were posted online. They look pretty ordinary: toys, books, cheery signs, and sippy cups with each child’s name. Yet that kindergarten is quite extraordinary.


The weddings are also extraordinary. The Talmud says that every rejoicing bride and groom is the equivalent of rebuilding one of the destroyed buildings of Jerusalem; and today in Israel, young couples are coming forward to take part in the heroic act of Jewish rebuilding.


Tamar and Adir had not yet made plans to get married. But once the war broke out, they decided it was time; the future could no longer wait. They had a joyous wedding near the front, and walked down the aisle in their military uniforms. The video of them dancing with their parents into the Chuppah has gone viral in Israel. There are so many weddings of this kind, that one newspaper wrote an article about all of the “Weddings Under Fire.”


Total strangers have come forward to help with these celebrations. Aviva and Yisrael, one of the engaged couples that moved up their wedding date, had decided to have a simple affair; their family, who lived in the South, couldn’t leave their homes to attend. They asked a local rabbi to help with a minyan for the wedding. The Rabbi shared the request on social media.


Aviva explains what happened next:


Two amazing guys from Ramot, Naveh and Ori, stepped in and helped organize everything. A hall, food, a photographer, musicians, and a DJ all materialized seemingly from thin air—the goodwill of Jewish people wishing to celebrate with a brother and sister they’d never met.


Every wedding is another step towards a better future. The Jewish tradition encourages the brokenhearted to find the inner strength to marry, have babies, and build communities, even after they have experienced death and destruction. The Jewish way forward is the way of rebuilding. And that has been the secret of Jewish survival.


We are all uncertain what will happen in the next few months. But one thing is certain: Israel will rebuild. Jews have always been ready to write the next chapter of Jewish History.


Am Yisrael Chai!

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