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.