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The Sources of Jewish Resilience

The Sources of Jewish Resilience
Rosh Hashana 2002 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

A Chabad Hasid stood on the corner of Ben Yehuda and Jaffa in Jerusalem doing what Chabadnik's do everywhere, putting tefillin on every passerby. There came along a scruffy looking secular Israeli who began arguing with him. 
-- We don't need this here. Go back to the 14th century where you belong!
-- We need Mashiach! Only Mashiach can save us! Only Mashiach can solve our problems.
-- Keep your Mashiach. We'll solve our problems ourselves! 
-- But you are the problem! 
At this point, a crowd gathered, and with glee, a fellow turned to me to say, 
-- Isn't this great?! It's almost normal again. 
All of sudden, the air is filled with sirens, everyone froze. Then everyone, including the Chabadnik and his adversary, did exactly the same thing, they reached into their pockets for cell phones to call loved ones, to assure that everyone is all right. 

This past summer, against the better judgment of family and friends, I returned to Israel to study, to experience Israel, and to show Israel the face of one foolish tourist. 

Israel today is a place of fear and shock, and most of all, of grief.

The Palestinians knew that they could never threaten the existence of Israel militarily. So they chose to attack its spirit with terrorism. Terror deprives a people of its fundamental sense of security. Terror erodes the basic stability that lies at the heart of all human existence -- the sense that we can predict the course of everyday events and exert control over life. You send children to school in the morning, you expect to see then when they return. You kiss your spouse goodbye in the morning, you know you'll see her at dinnertime. You believe, at the least unconsciously, that the world has order, that chaos is at bay. Terror strikes at this basic order. Everyone in Israel is afraid, all the time. 

Everyday decisions become momentous: Which bus do you take, at which cafe do you pick up your morning coffee, at which market do you shop? 

Israelis play nervous mind-games which provide an illusion of protection. My friends who live in Jerusalem, won't go to's too dangerous. And in Netanya they'll tell you that Jerusalem is unsafe. Take the number 9 bus but not the 24. Every restaurant and cafe has a guard at the door. And everyone inside the restaurant sits facing the door, just to be sure that he does his job. 

What happens to parents who want to protect their children, but there's nothing they can do? The field of battle is not demarcated, it's everywhere, and the combatants are not uniformed, they're everyone. Israel is a unique society where public space and private space are only loosely separated. Israeli children are taught that if ever there's an emergency in the home, you should go outside and stop a stranger on the street and ask for help. The public space outside is as safe as the private space inside. Or it was. Israeli parents never used to worry about where their kids were, even late at night. The whole country was child-safe -- there was remarkable freedom. Now every family has its curfew, its rules and superstitions about where you can go, and when you can go, and with whom you can go. When there's a siren, people stop and listen: One siren is an ordinary emergency -- someone's having a heart attack. Two sirens, may be a fire. But three sirens, and there's panic -- everyone grabs their cell phone to check on those they love. The freedom of public space has been stolen.

Ani mav-teach lach, yelda sheli k'tana, sheh zot t'hiyeh ha-milchama ha-achrona. The words of a popular song after the Yom Kippur War: "I promise you, my tiny child, that this will be the last war." This was the pledge Israeli parents made to their children: I'll fight, I'll don a uniform and carry a gun, so that you won't have to. I'll be the last soldier in this family. I'll face combat for the sake of the nation's future so that you can grow up like every other kid in the world worried about your own future, about schooling and success and creativity and love. This was the dream that Oslo made plausible. Peace was coming, just around the corner. Now they grieve for the death of this dream.

Every Israeli child knows someone who has been killed. Every child has a cousin or a playmate, or the parent of a playmate, a teacher or a neighbor who has been killed or maimed during the onslaught of terror. For every fatality there are dozens who are brutally wounded, and hundreds of family, friends, neighbors traumatized. What happens to kids, 9, 10, 11 years old who are attending funerals on a regular basis? ...who are visiting friends in the hospital trauma ward? What part of their childhood is lost? What part of their innocence is betrayed? The teacher of my friend's 12-year old was killed in one of the bombings. He went in to her bedroom that night to talk with her, to console her. She looked at him with eyes suddenly so much older and said, "Don't worry, Abba, I understand." They grieve this death of childhood innocence.

Even politics, in this most political of societies, has lost its efficacy, its power to shape the world of events. TV talk shows and cafes and op-ed pages were once filled with people arguing the politics of the situation. The right had its vision. The left had its vision. Now, no one has a clue. And every fact is against them: The Palestinians have the highest birthrate in the region, even higher than the ultra-Orthodox. By 2012, according to Israel's most respected demographer, there will be more Arabs living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, than Jews. Just beyond the horizon of the everyday terror of the Palestinians lies the real terror -- weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Iraq and Iran. This week, in preparation for whatever America might do, Israeli are being issued gas masks, atrophine syringes against nerve gas, and iodine against nuclear radiation. There's no light at the end of the tunnel. There is no tunnel. 

Oslo offered the prospect that Israel's destiny might be amenable to rational negotiation and its conflict with the Arabs to rational resolution. Oslo offered the promise of progress, all it demanded was the courage to make peace. So Israel sent Ehud Barak to Camp David and he offered everything -- perhaps more than he should have. Not only did he offer more than any Israeli government had ever offered before, he offered as much as any government could ever offer. Territory, sovereignty, Jerusalem, economic assistance. And Arafat said no. And no one can explain why, not even his own negotiators. 

The Palestinians then turned a new weapon against Israel. The broken bodies, broken lives and broken dreams left in the wake of terror attacks are horrifying. And equally horrifying is the unspeakable depth of hate and rage expressed very concept of a suicide bombing. To strap high explosives to the bodies of young men and women and send them to destroy themselves in markets and on busses, in restaurants and on street corners. Then to cheer and celebrate self immolation as sacred acts of martyrdom and heroism. Can we ever have peace with a people who turn the bodies of its children into weapons? This isn't simply an adversary with interest at odds with our own, but a culture, a world view, whose rationality is totally outside our universe, totally incomprehensible to us. If you don't yearn for something better for your children, what have we to talk about? If death is a more attractive prospect for your children than life, what have we to negotiate? 

Then the world weighed in with its judgment. In a recent interview, novelist Amos Oz confessed that he's haunted by his father's observation that, before the Holocaust, European graffiti read, "Jews go to Palestine," only to be transformed in our time to "Jews out of Palestine." The message to Jews, notes Oz, "Don't be here and don't be there. That is, don't be."

Under Oslo, Israel was welcomed into the community of nations. Now, Israel is terribly isolated; its world so much smaller. Much of Europe, Asia and Africa believes that Israel massacred 500 innocent Palestinians in Jenin and that suicide bombing -- the use of children as weapons to kill other children -- is a reasonable exercise in political resistance. This is not a disagreement about policy, but a fundamental difference in sensibility: What is it like to point out a phenomenon and say, "This is madness! This is insane!" And no one will acknowledge that you're right. In fact, they tell you that you're the one who's crazy. This happens enough times, and you begin to question your own sanity. You start to think, maybe it is us. Maybe we're the ones who have gone mad. That's why, for all its many flaws and omissions, President Bush's June 24th speech on the Middle East was widely and wildly applauded in Israel. He gets it! Somebody gets it! Terrorism is evil and evil must be fought. We're not crazy and we're not alone. It was precisely what Israel needed so badly to hear. 

Israel today is a place of fear and shock, and grief. But miraculously, it is still a place of life, of courage and hope. 

I never got over my jet lag. Every morning, I woke promptly at 4:30 AM. This had its advantages. I love to walk Jerusalem. And terrorists, I reasoned, never blow things up that early, so I'd go out walking, to enjoy the cool air and light of sunrise reflected off the golden stones of Jerusalem. One Friday morning, I took my early morning walk to Machne Yehuda, Jerusalem's farmer's market. I was sharing a very large house, and we had invited everyone in our program for Shalosh Seudot, Shabbos supper. I volunteered to prepare the main dish. I had in mind, a nice poached salmon with a lite dill-yogurt sauce. So very early in the morning, I went to Machne Yehuda, the best place in Jerusalem to get good deal on a whole fish. I arrived at the market about six AM to find that my favorite fish-seller is open and ready for business.

Boker tov, adonee, salmon yesh lecha hayom?
Good morning, sir, do you have salmon today?

Lamah salmon? Tikah Nilus...zeh tozeret ha-aretz.
Why do you want salmon? Take Nilus -- a product of Israel.

Nilus is a domestic trout that's grown in Kibbutz ponds all over Israel. It's about 80% bones and skin and not the sort of fish one would want to poach for Shabbat supper. So I tried again. 

Lo, ani tzareech salmon. Yesh?
No thanks, I need salmon. Do you have it?

He's dejected: ken, aval zeh lo tari. Zeh ba kafuee m'chutz l'aretz.
Ok, but it's not fresh. It comes in frozen from abroad.

M'aifo zeh ba?
Where does it come from? I ask. Simple question. Big mistake.

Norvegiah. Atah yodeah mah zeh norvegiah? 
It comes from Norway, he says with rising anger. Do you know what Norway is?
You need to know that all summer, Israeli TV and newspapers were filled with images of huge anti-Israel demonstrations in Norway. Norwegian supermarkets specially tagged Israeli products so that they could be easily boycotted. 

Novegiah zeh midinah scandanevi...makom dey yafeh.
I respond innocently: Norway is a Scandinavian country, a nice place.

Now he's screaming at me: Norvegiah ha-makom ha-achi anti-shemi b'olam! Sonim am yehudi, sonim yisrael, sonim elohay yisrael...Norway is the world's most anti-Semitic place. They hate the Jewish people, they hate the state of Israel, they hate the God of Israel. Lama ata rotzeh salmon, zeh dag anti-shemi?! Why would you want salmon, it's an anti-Semitic fish! Ani lo mocher l'cha dag anti-shemi k'zeh. I refuse to sell you this anti-Semitic fish!

By now, a large crowd has gathered -- shoppers, merchants, policemen -- sharing our conversation. While he continues shouting about the anti-Semitic fish pulled from the Jew-hating waters of Norway, one fellow takes me by the arm, ta'seh l'cha tova -- kach et ha-Nilus, Do yourself a favor, he says, take the Nilus. Lo t'heye lo hat'ka'fat lev. Otherwise, you'll give him a heart-attack. 

Ok, Ok, ten lee kilo Nilus.I surrender. Give me a kilo of the Nilus.
He smiles broadly, B'vakasha...shabbat Shalom! With pleasure! And a good Shabbat to you!

One small moral victory against our vicious Norwegian enemies; it represents a miraculous resilience, a refusal to capitulate to hopelessness. How do they endure the pressure, the fear, the grief? A healthy dose of denial; a streak of Israeli chutzpah. And something else. 

In moments of candor, I asked my friends in Israel, olim, immigrants from America, kibbutzniks of my parents' generation, the old guys in the Machne Yehuda market, Why are you here? Why do you stay if its so dangerous, so difficult? And they look at me with a quizzical look. Zeh shelanu. Zeh bayit shelanu. Hazarnu ha-bayita. This is our home. We've come home. 

This came to me as a surprise. I have worried, often from this very pulpit, about the forces destroying the Jewishness of Israel -- the intense polarization between the secular post-Zionist ideologies that would make of Israel anything but a Jewish state and a lunatic Jewish fundamentalism Jewish preaching racism and murder. I worry about the culture of global consumerism, the mall, eclipsing any idealistic youth culture. I worried about an Israel shorn from its Jewish roots. 

This year, I discovered something surprising. A new Zionism is being born in Israel. Israel may be a place of fear, shock and grief, but all that matters is, hazarnu ha-bayita. We've come home. Old Zionism, the Zionism of Theordor Herzl and David ben Gurion advocated a Jewish state as the only place on earth Jews could be safe -- safe from violence, fear, hatred. Today's situation has overturned that vision. Israel is the least safe place on earth for Jews. It doesn't matter, zeh shalanu, this is ours. Old Zionism was embarrassed by Jewish history and its long memory of helplessness, impotence, and pain. Zionism would liberate the Jewish people by liberating the Jew from his memories. For Israeli schoolchildren, Jewish history goes directly from King David to David Ben Gurion, with no stops between. New Zionism is rooted in Jewish memory. New Zionism asserts a sense of mission: Israel must survive precisely out of a historic duty to the generations of Jews that suffered and struggled in exile, and could only dream of returning to Israel. Hazarnu habayita. We have come home.

Israel draws it resilience from the most ancient source of Jewish courage and resolve, from Jewish memory.

As a human being, I express my identity in the story I tell of myself. As a Jew, I choose to tell the story of my life embedded within the narrative of my people's history. 
B'chol dor va'dor chayav adam leerot et atzmo k'ilu hu yatza m'mitzrayim. The Mishna teaches: In every generation, each one of us must see himself and herself as if we personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt. 

My story doesn't begin with my birth or the birth of my parents. And it won't end with my death. My autobiography is a chapter in a narrative begun long ago, a narrative preserved in Jewish memory. That narrative defines our core values. It presents a vision of what it means to live a full and happy life. And it expresses what we hope for our children. Israel's poet laureate, Yehuda Amichi wrote:

All the generations before me

donated me, bit by bit, so that I'd be

erected all at once

here in Jerusalem, like a house of prayer

or a charitable institution.

This binds me. [ze m'hayev] My name is

my donors' name.

This binds me.

The shared narrative gives meaning to life. In the light of that narrative, a fish is not just a fish. It becomes a symbol of something much greater, something worth fighting for. In the light of that narrative, personal struggle and suffering are not just someone's bad luck, life's random absurdity, but is elevated to the level of the heroic. In the light of that narrative, Israel isn't just a place to live, it's home. And one lives in Israel despite the daily danger because what's at stake is an ancient question: Do Jews belong anywhere? Do they have a place in the world? Do they have a home? Living in Israel today it places us heroically within world's longest and most magnificent dramatic narrative, the great epic of Jewish exile and return. We've come home.

Coming home carries special responsibilities.

This is our home and we have a right to defend it. There are those in the Jewish community who feel guilty about the exercise of power by Jews. There are those in the community outside who believe that any exercise of power is by definition immoral. They live in a fantasy -- a fantasy inspired by a deep desire to end the profound pain and ugliness of this conflict, but a fantasy nonetheless -- that the past two years can easily be put behind us, that all it will take is one more negotiation, one more concession, one more attempt at reconciliation, this can all be resolved, and the nightmare will end. Through the glaze of this fantasy, every Israeli act of self-defense is judged as aggression, every note of caution spoken by Israel's leaders is judged intransigence. We've come home and we've a right to defend our home. And we have no need to feel guilty for it. 

But it is easy to forget that defending one's home is not just a matter of military power. You can defend your home and poison it at the same time. There are others in our community, equally driven by the suffering and the sadness, who live in a different fantasy, envisioning Palestinians not as human beings but merely as obstacles to the attainment of our redemption. So who cares if a dozen children are obliterated, as long as we got the terrorist hiding in the building? So why worry about the fourteen innocents burned to death, we take out that militant, that terrorist? But what has happened to us when we stop caring about the dozen children we killed or the fourteen innocents we incinerated? We can win a war and lose our soul. We can win the conflict and secure the state, but lose the reason why the state was established. The security of Israel rests on more than weapons. It rests as well on remembering what we fight for, what we live for, what we've come home for.

This touches a deep place in the Jewish heart. For centuries we were powerless, impotent, unable even to protect our children. So we dreamed of redemption. But we also harbored, deep within, compensating fantasies of vengeance. Now, for the first time in millennia, we have power. And there is a nearly irresistible temptation to vent those fantasies upon this population. Arafat is a very evil man. But he's not Hitler, he's not Chemlitzky, he's not Torquemada, he's not Titus, he's not Nebuchadnezer, he's not Haman and he's not Pharoah. Humiliating ordinary Palestinians, destroying their homes, their fields, their dreams, does not further the cause of peace, nor does it somehow balance centuries of Jewish suffering. Because you were a slave in the land of Egypt, you haven't license to dehumanize and destroy the Other. Because you were a slave in Egypt, teaches the Torah, you must treat the Other with compassion and justice. We must defend our home. But we must not lose ourselves in the process. 

Finally, if Israel is home, where are we? If Israel is home, what is it for those of us who have chosen to live outside Israel? The American Jewish community has responded this past year with remarkable energy, commitment and generosity. VBS has raised more than $1 million, in addition to the Magen David Adom ambulance purchased and donated by the families of the VBS Day School. This is very impressive. We are animated by a sense of emergency. We are energized by the moment of crisis. But just a few years ago, Israel was out of our minds completely. The Milken JCC in the West Valley displayed a banner proudly proclaiming: "Over 65% of your UJF dollar stays in our community!" What does that mean? That we're proud to have whittled down support for Israel to only 35%? Crisis has brought Israel back to the center of Jewish consciousness. But you can't build an identity, a relationship, a commitment on the basis of crisis. To a community, crisis is a drug. It's a fix. It raises the level of adrenaline, but only for so long. And then it comes crashing down. 

This year, I'm not going to ask you for more money for Israel, or for political action, or even to visit Israel. You know how important all that is. This year, I ask you for something much more difficult: To reflect and decide what claim Israel has on us and on our children? Where does it fit into our Jewish narrative, the story of our Jewish lives? Our response to the current crisis, impressive as it may be, is a form of infatuation. I'm interested in love. I want you and your children to love Israel like you would love a home. Not a house, a home. 

We are at a critical moment in our history when Israeli Jews and American Jews must decide if we will be one people with one narrative, or two peoples with very distinct and separate identities. One family or two? One story or two? One destiny or two?

Old Zionism preached shelilat ha-golah, denying that Jews could live anywhere outside of Israel. In the new Zionism, you are permitted to live away from home, in a place of your own. But that doesn't release you of responsibility, to call, to visit, to share the upkeep of your home. Even here, we are part of the story, we share the narrative that makes Israel's struggle heroic, and its tenacity miraculous. 

The most surprising thing I found this summer was that everywhere I went -- every shop, every restaurant, every home I visited -- people thanked me for coming. It was embarrassing. You live here, you fight in the army, you put your children on buses, and walk the streets and eat in the cafes every day, and you're thanking me? 

Why do they thank us for visiting? Their resolution and courage in the face of terror is drawn from the strength of the historic Jewish narrative we share. They need us, they need our side of the family to tell the story, to confirm its truth and affirm its vision. 

So we will diligently heed the teaching of the Psalmist:
Shalu shlom yerusahalim
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem;
For those who love you shall flourish.
May there be peace within your walls,
And prosperity within in your citadels.
For the sake of those I love,
I pray for your well-being;
for the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I seek your good.

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.


Sat, September 26 2020 8 Tishrei 5781