01 August 2014

Devoured by Hope

"The land that devours its inhabitants."

That's reading it wrong.  

The prooftext is from Torah--Numbers 13-14.  Spies are sent by Moses; they head over to report on the land that the Jewish people are poised to enter after a generation spent wandering post-Exodus, where prior, they were slaves for 400 years in Egypt.  The spies see the land as unconquerable.  They see normal sized men as giants, and themselves as grasshoppers.  "It is a land that devours its inhabitants." They repeat a common complaint:  "You brought us into the desert to die?"

Their report is disregarded, understood as a betrayal of faith.  Of all the tribal leaders, only Joshua and Caleb demonstrate the vision and the fortitude to get the job done.  And they are mightily rewarded. The generation of tribal heads is fated to die in the desert.  Joshua and Caleb are permitted to enter the land.  They choose hope over fear.  Life over being trapped in exile, waiting to die.

This is a metaphor.  Let me explain.

I was in David Ben Gurion's house today.  There is an exhibit there of letters sent back and forth between children and Ben Gurion.  In one such exchange, captured beautifully in a video presentation with the child, now grown, a dialogue is recounted with regard to the notion of the Chosen People--did God choose the Jews or did the Jews choose God?

Ben Gurion was direct.  The people chose God.  Joshua 24 proves it, he said.  On the corner of his desk where he wrote these letters, as well as next to the bed where he slept, Ben Gurion kept a copy of the Hebrew Bible close at hand.  He did not believe God wrote these words but he nevertheless knew them as a student of history, a lover of books, a man with a voracious appetite for learning.  "A man who devoured words."  He thought we should be that way, too.  Zionism was as much a personal as a political liberation.

Look closely.  You can see his Bible, next to his sparse bed, under plexiglass protection.  He lived, worked and slept there (as well as in the Negev, in Sde Boker) from 1931-1973.  It was from this house that David Ben Gurion composed Israel's Declaration of Independence and then traveled across town to declare it in May of 1948.  Both the Ottomans and the British were larger empires than the Jews; and the array of Arab opposition to the Jewish state was equally, well, gigantic.  But he was of a generation who refused to see himself as "but a grasshopper in their eyes."
You may find it hard to dwell in such places when the land indeed appears to be devouring its inhabitants.  When Israel's aggressive offensive against the Hamas tunnels and rockets sheds innocent blood along with the guilty; when Jews attack Jews for proclaiming a hope for peace; when it is not safe to be an Arab walking alone in some areas of Jerusalem, a holy city; when Hamas preaches and teaches a doctrine of extermination of the Jews, denies a Jewish claim to the land, uses innocent children and women and schools as mosques as shields against Israel, knowing that the death of innocents will bring down worldwide condemnation of Jews; when communities in Europe, led by a strange amalgam of enraged Muslim populations, radical leftists and neo-Nazis, wreak havoc, vandalism and violence, at times resulting in the murder of Jews in Brussels, Berlin, Paris and elsewhere.   The new anti-Semitism.

You may find yourself not wanting to deal with this at all.  But we are a "choosing people."  The world demands our moral engagement.  

Your Facebook and Twitter are leaden, weighted down with the unresolvable hatred that's boiling over in this land; that Israeli t-shirt you were going to wear stays in the drawer; you remember being glad that Obama ordered the killing of Bin Laden or weeping at the assassination of Rabin but you generally prefer the more Jewish aspects of your understanding of the conflict kept at a distance; it shouldn't ask too much of you.  It's enough already.  Sign on the line.  Make peace.

But the world, alas, doesn't sit still for us.  There is not really an opt-out clause.  It's a complicated, dangerous, unpredictable place.  It requires strenuously difficult, sometimes seemingly contradictory choices.  Interesting, isn't it, that the very nations who attacked Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973, are all lining up to tacitly support Israel in a war--not against the Palestinians in the West Bank but against Hamas in Gaza, whose version of fundamentalist Islam is seen as a messianic, apocalyptic and therefore dangerous force in the world that needs to be defeated.  Further complications:  this morning's paper carries news of an Israeli Army Commander imploring his troops to study Torah and recite prayers while heading in to battle.  War is bad enough, Ben Gurion might have said.  Need it also be holy?

I worry about American Jewry on this trip more than I ever have.  I worry about their increasing alienation from the notion of a Jewish people, each of us inherently obligated to one another despite our differences; I worry about our understandable abhorrence of the killing of innocents that too quickly shifts to blame, guilt and distance from Israel; I worry about internal Jewish hatred of, about a willful and angry persecutory impulse, even violence, toward Jews who seek peace or express remorse and sadness over the loss of innocent Palestinian life; and I worry about a kind of liberal American Jewish hopelessness toward the Jewish national project, the dystopian other-expression of the very spirit that created this improbable, historically miraculous, wildly creative yet weighted, complex, imperfect nation.  

And finally, I worry (with no small amount of paranoia) of a Hamas operative, reading these words, laughing and rubbing his hands in a diabolically cartoonish gesture:  The Jews, he says, can be worn down.  Eventually, they'll give up and leave.

So I wake myself from this nightmare.

Earlier this week I had lunch in Jaffa with my friend Rabbi Meir Azari.  He's an ingenious entrepreneur of new Jewish life who straddles worlds in Jaffa and Tel Aviv like no other rabbi I know.  After eating and walking around, we went to visit a Jaffa native, an Arab Israeli shop owner who is suffering economically, as are many businesses, because of the war.  Meir, his own family many generations of Jews from the Galilee, knew the Arab shop owner's family in Gaza, in Nazareth, in Jaffa, and he asked after them in Arabic and Hebrew, with the compassion known among neighbors and friends not despite of but because of their differences.  The richness of difference which in baser expressions can cause war, in fact, has the power to redeem.

Sunday night I'll be in Jerusalem with my friend Rebecca Bardach.  She helps run the Yad b'Yad schools and since violence broke out, parents and students of the school--Jerusalem's only bi-lingual, Hebrew and Arabic school--have been walking from the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa to the Old Train Station in Jerusalem as an expression of unity and solidarity.  At breakfast this week, where we sat down moments after hearing the news that her child's kindergarten teacher's son was killed in Gaza, I asked her if the school (comprised of Jewish and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem) is tearing apart because of the war.  "No," she said simply.  "We come into the school committed to the framework.  As people, we know peace is possible.  It's the leadership we need, on both sides, to make peace happen."

Just when you think this land can break you, devour you, there is another who steps in to the breach to again raise the flag of hope.  

This morning we woke to a seventy-two hour truce.  May the hours of peace grow.  May each of us rise from the ashes and destruction of war's evil embrace.  May the righteous among both our people's prevail. 

If we are to be devoured, let us be devoured by hope.


Update:  Not two hours in, the truce is broken and an Israeli soldier, Hadar Goldin, 23, has been taken captive.  With a heavy heart, we dig deeper--for strength and hope and peace.


judaloo said...

It is a sad, confusing and frightening time for everyone. We ordinary citizens receive contradictory reports and messages and we don't know what"reality" to believe. It seems to me that lending economic support, providing education and instilling hope for those who would be seduced into becoming our enemies, makes more sense than the continuation of these tragic and seemingly endless cycles of violence. It is truly a gift to hear of the efforts being made by those involved in this joint school!

Martin Vesole said...

I think we both did the choosing. Abraham "discovered" God - a unitary moral God - and God chose Abraham because He liked the way he was and the way he thought. Those mutual "discoveries" are ongoing to the present day. God has to measure up to what we expect of Him (see the Abraham-God debate over Sodom and Gemorah) and we have to measure up to what He expects of us. Either side can cancel the covenant at any time, but so far neither side has (although the holocaust makes me wonder if God stopped living up to His end). We need God to survive (for some reason, we are not well-liked and never have been), and God needs us to tell the world what He is like (because without us they just don't get Him that well).