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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur

Posted by rabbiart on September 18, 2009

It begins with a story. Everything begins with a story. Parents long for a child, but are unable to conceive. The father in particular needs a son to take delivery on promises made to him earlier by G-d. A still-hoping-to-become-mother makes a selfless act – as mothers will always do.   She appoints her handmaiden Hagar as a surrogate. A child is conceived. Yet even before the son is born, selflessness has spawned contempt and jealousy. Hagar’s pregnancy makes her triumphant, and she looks down on Sarai. Sarai responds by blaming her husband, who takes – perhaps – the easy way out, cedes control of the handmaiden back to her.


It appears from the text that Sarai does everything she can to make Hagar’s life miserable. To the point where Hagar flees and is found in the wilderness by a running stream. A new set of promises is made. Hagar’s son shall be her own and produce a multitude of descendants. Why? HaShem has listened and heard Hagar’s affliction. She must only return and submit to her mistress.

This seems to go well for a time. The physical symbol of the covenant is cut into all the men of the extended family, including the son, Ishmael. In fact, as this chapter of our story ends, the Torah speaks of him as -referring to Abraham – Ishma’el his son. In the background is simply the reiterated promise that Sarah will have her own son.

Amidst laughter and rejoicing the new son is born. He is called Yitzhak – whose name can mean many things; laughing, or playing, or rejoicing. When he has grown sufficiently, he goes out into the field to play with his brother. The text is deliberately ambiguous – we do not know what they were doing; only the reaction it causes. Sarah demands that Ishmael and Hagar be kicked out of the family. G-d agrees, and Abraham goes along.

The story that began with love, sacrifice and selflessness has turned to love lost, estrangement and banishment. A story of a family torn apart, each fulfilling its own destiny.

Yitzhak is followed by Yakov who produces twelve sons from four women; two wives and two handmaidens. There are good times and bad, and eventually worse. They have their own Great Recession, and preceded by Yosef, take refuge in Mitzrayim.

In this story things are going very well, but then…

וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ, עַל-מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע, אֶת-יוֹסֵף

There arose a new king – over Mitzrayim – who knew not Joseph.

In the background, a jealous fearful king develops an attitude toward the not-yet-known-as-the-Jewish-people Israelites. There are too many of them to live here, they are a danger, but if there is a chance during war, they might leave.

Soon mothers – the midwives – are commanded to kill but instead safely deliverf new-born Israelite sons. Asked to explain themselves, they claim that Hebrew women deliver babies to fast; before the midwives can come to help them. The midwives, and the people, prosper.

But soon the story takes a turn for the worse.  We descend into servitude, but we are rescued and set free. And we are commanded to tell the story of our escape, and to fulfill the purpose of our freedom.

We take our own walk in the wilderness. Moshe climbs a mountain.    We find out where we are going, and why we are going there.  In the words of Devarim

…כִּי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מְבִיאֲךָ אֶל-אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה: אֶרֶץ, נַחֲלֵי מָיִם–עֲיָנֹת וּתְהֹמֹת, יֹצְאִים בַּבִּקְעָה וּבָהָר
וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ–וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ

HaShem your g-d brings you into a good land, a land of flowing water, of springs and fountains in the valleys and the hills (a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranites, a land of olive-trees and honey, a land wherein you will eat bread with no shortage, you won’t lank anything at all, with iron in the ground and brass in the hills. And you shall eat, and be satisfied and bless Adonai Elohecha for the good land which he gives you.

And to bless HaShem we have, among other practices, the celebration of Shabbat, an echo of creation and apiece of the very design of the world.

This is turning into a good story! We set up a nation, we struggle with building a just and righteous society. Kings and priest and prophets all try to set the course for the Israelite nation. We have our ups and downs. Battles with hostile forces. We are invaded, conquered and sent into exile. But in almost no time we are set free to return to what we now call aretz yisra’el.

Not everyone goes back, but everyone adopts the story “Next year in Jerusalem”. Even before we are completely defeated and exiles, we already have a story of returning.

The Great Defeat comes at the hands of Rome who view the Jewish nation as this strange people unlike any other. Worshiping an invisible g-d and giving over one day in seven to an unseen master. This is what our story looks like to people living outside of it, people living in a story mostly about power, triumph and mastery to a human ruler.

Yokhanan ben Zakkai creates a new story, turning Temple Sacrifice into study and tefilah. Biblical Judaism turns into Rabbinic Judaism. Roman occupation is only a “small” problem in ben Zakkai’s story.

Bar Kochba – last of the revolutionaries – wants a different story. In his story, a small insignificant people throws off the greatest military power in the world. But the story turns out to not have a Hollywood ending.We, the Jewish people, are sent wandering into the wilderness, not near Be’ar Sheva, but over almost the entire planet; all of G-d’s creation. We sometimes prosper, but too often suffer, at the hands of a King who knows not Joseph.

The theme repeats itself for almost two thousand years, so often it seems that is has itself become the complete story. In a serious vein, the situation becomes labeled “The Jewish problem”. On a lighter note, is has become an oft-repeated and well-known holiday time joke. What’s the theme of the holiday? “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”In 1875 a German journalist – Wilhem Marr – publishes a pamphlet and forms a society whose purpose is to combat the alleged threat to Germany posed by the Jews and their influence. The society is called “The League of antisemites.” Let’s not spend any time on their story, because we know it all to well and we know how they proposed to deal with “The Jewish Problem.”


At more or less the same time, Jews are deciding to change the story on our own. The heck with waiting for the Mashiach to bring us out of exile, let’s just get up and go – to Palestine. One such group pretty much adopts that as its name – Bet Ya’akov L’Chu V’Nelchu – the BILU movement. It means “House of Jacob, let’s get up and go”. Their solution, articulated by the early Zionists? That the Jewish problem would be best solved by creating a jewish country, a normal state like all others.

How is a normal state defined? One well-known saying, ascribed to David Ben Gurion among others, is that there would be a Jewish country that was normal when a Jewish cop chased a Jewish criminal down a Jewish street.

Well… that ship sailed a long time ago. There is street crime, and there are Jewish cops, in Israel.  But that didn’t make Israel a normal country, judging by how Israel is looked at and treated around the world and most especially in certain world forums that don’t need to be named.

So like economists in the past year looking for signs of “green shoots” in the economy, I went on a search for signs of Israel being “normal” and treated in a normal way on the world stage.  Where Israeli public figures could go around and not be subject to protests, agitation and being singled out for “special treatment’.

Living in the Bay Area we are accustomed to a high level of criticism directed at Israel, to the point where in a community not too many miles away the current Prime Minister of Israel could not even give a speech because of the threat of conflict.  So I went looking for “non-controversial” Israeli figures.

I eliminated politicians and religious figures right off the bat.  The the SF Jewish Film Festival and the protests around the Toronto film festival celebrating Tel Aviv made me rule out the fine arts.  Academics in the UK have been in the forefront of discriminating against Israelis, so I had to rule that out. Even an organization like Oxfam – on all its webpages describing its good works – has one page that is not like all the other pages, so I had to let them go.

The search for normality was not going too well.  Remembering Rabbi Bloom’s comment about watching MTV to stay in touch I decided to consult my favorite secular magazine – Sports Illustrated – and being a red-blooded male (praise HaShem and rabbinical authorities for having a healthy attitude toward sex) in particular the Swimsuit Issue.  And who should be on the cover – last February – but none other than arguably the most well-known Israeli in the world, supermodel Bar Rafaeli (sorry guys, no links to pictures here :-)) .  And when the NBA draft came around in June and the Sacramento Kings drafted Omri Caspi in the first round, I looked into him as well.

Sports Illustrated (thank you Chris Mar) reported that in the three years that Israeli models have appeared in the swimsuit issue they have not received so much as one protest letter.  The Sacramento Kings Director of Basketball Operations told me that they drafted Caspi and didn’t give a second thought to his being Israeli. They don’t expect to require extra security, and they don’t expect protests for having an Israeli on their roster.  (Good thing they don’t play in an arena in Berkeley!)

Finally!  Two Israeli figures safe from protests.  Well, only one, because Bar Rafaeli has been protested by Israelis (remember – two Jews, five opinions…minimum) for dodging military service.  So that left one… Omri Caspi… as an example of a citizen of the one Jewish country in the world, who could answer my search for “normality” among the Jewish people.

(Added after Yom Kippur – we were watching the TV show “NCIS” when it occurred to me that this show has an ongoing plot line involving not just an Israeli but a Mossad lisason agent as an ongoing character. but I’m not going to attempt to ascertain if they have received protests from the usual suspects because it is clear that “normality” is not something the Jewish people or the Jewish country should aspire to or ever will be.)

The only problem left was… what’s so great about being normal?  Is being normal what Moshe led us out of Mitzrayim for?  Is being normal why we have the Torah? Do Jeremiah and Isaiah issue ringing prophetic calls for Israel “to be normal”?

And… does anyone really think the Jewish people or Israel will be treated like any other people; like any other country?  I don’t think so.

“Normality” is not the story of the Jewish people; I don’t think it ever will be.

We are special. Dare we say it, we are “chosen”.  We are a light unto the nations.

So if not normality how about hope?  Hope for living in the world that is the blueprint of the Torah, and in the Torah that is a blueprint for the world.  Or in the words of the Alenu prayer (in translation of course). “On that day the Lord shall be one and His Name One”.  (even to secularists and atheists).

I found hope on a bicycle ride in the Negev, at a place in the Negev desert, at a place where Jewish Israelis, Palestinian Israelis (a new term, see the September/October edition of Moment magazine, Palestinians and Jordanians all study together and form lasting friendships without giving up their own stories.

I’m going back for another Israel bike ride in October 2010. I hope some of you will join me.  You know who you are, but maybe I don’t know who you are, so contact me and help me form an East Bay or even a California team.

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a healthy, peaceful and holy year.

Hatimah Tova


One Response to “Between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur”

  1. Shirley Gould said

    I read, and I learned, and I enjoyed. It fills me with joy, to say nothing of naches, to read these words which make so much sense and hold so much information.
    Yaasher Koach and G’mar Chatima Tova.

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