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Smashing the Idols of Today’s Jew-Hatred: Lessons learned from Lech Lecha

I had the privilege of giving the dvar Torah at my synagogue this weekend. 

For those who need explanation – Dvar Torah, literally translated as “words of Torah” is a weekly speech or sermon delivered in synagogues about the week’s Torah reading. It can be given by the rabbi, the bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl, or synagogue members.

It allows us, through examination and introspection and study, to put our own take on the Torah reading.

Here’s mine from yesterday:

Has there ever come a time in your life where you had the rug pulled out from under you?

When suddenly there is a shift in the paradigm, and you are asked to get up and move to a distant land or situation?

This is the case with Abraham. In just the third parashah of the Torah cycle, seemingly out of nowhere, we are presented with #Abraham aveinu. Right here, in a sudden shift, the Torah moves from the universal: The Creation of the world and the beginnings of humanity, to the particular:

Abraham. And the history of the Jewish people.

And what do we read in the very first lines of our Parashah?

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃

I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing.

וַאֲבָֽרֲכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה׃

I will bless those who bless you And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth Shall bless themselves by you.”

Right here, from the get-go, God establishes the connection between the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Four times in this parashah, God instructs Abraham to possess the land.

God enters a covenantal relationship with one specific people. God commands Abraham to live by that moral law for his own good and the good of all humanity. In picking himself up and moving to an unknown land for him and his progeny, Abraham demonstrates he is the first to believe in the one, living God. And by willingly picking himself up to settle in Canaan, Abraham becomes the first Zionist.

This is the first passage of hundreds woven into the Torah about the mitzvah of Haaretz, a connection to the land of Israel.  Half of the 613 mitzvot contained in the Torah are specific to Haáretz. Settling and living in the land, according to the Torah, is essential for Jews to create their own, just and righteous society.

From this point on, the Torah establishes the fact that Judaism is more than a religion.

We are Am Yisrael.

The Nation of Israel.

Bnei Yisrael.

The Children of Israel.

Geographically speaking, it is an inconvenient fact that most of the places mentioned in Bereishit, from Abraham’s stop in Shechem, building an altar to God at Beit El,  dwelling in Mamre, attempting to sacrifice Yitzchak on Mount Moriah and finally, conducting history’s first real estate transaction in Hevron are located in Judea and Samaria, territories that most of the nations say are void of any Jewish connection.

There is a theory that is being peddled around:  that being Jewish has nothing to do with Israel, or anti-Zionism, meaning the belief that Jews do not have a collective right to sovereignty in their ancestral homeland, has nothing to do with today’s global rise of hatred towards Jews.

To those who hold these beliefs, I invite them to examine and study the many references about settling in the land and then tell us that Israel has nothing to do with Judaism.

IN 2017, American Zionist groups in timing with Parsha lech lecha, and the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, proclaimed that Shabbat Lech Lecha will now be known as Zionist Shabbat, where American Jews should relearn the significance and importance of Zionism in our religion.

AZM President Richard Heideman wrote: “The first commandment given to a Jew relates to Israel and Zionism. Indeed, Zionism and Judaism are inseparable, and we need to ensure that all Jews who are celebrating Shabbat around the world incorporate our common love for Israel – the land, the people and the culture – in the spirit of the unity of the Jewish people,”

In a 2019 video essay explaining the mutations of anti-Semitism, Rabbi Johnathan Sacks explains how Jew-hatred shifts and mutates through the centuries.  That is why the current hater claims they are not a hater because their hatred differs from the Jew-hatred of the past.

For example, in the Middle Ages, Jews were hated for their religion. In the 19th century, Jews became secular and assimilated and were hated for their race, because they were capitalists, and because they were communists. Now, we are hated because we have a nation-state.

Perhaps, we are hated because we have survived as a distinct, unique people with our own traditions and customs. Perhaps, like Abraham, we are hated because it is in our DNA to go against convention.

Last week, at Detroit’s Jewish Book Fair, I had the chance to catch a panel discussion with Tablet editors last week. There, editor in chief Alana Newhouse said the reason why Jews have survived as a unique and distinct people is that we have operated not by going with the flow of general society, but perpendicularly from the rest of society.

Sometimes, as Rabbi Sacks explains, Lech lecha means “go by yourself.”

Often, it does seem like the children are of Israel are alone.

Sure, criticism of Israel’s politicians and policies are fine, just ask the Israelis who do this every day.

Yet Israel stands alone in an often-impossible situation, She faces existential challenges and must make difficult decisions that are not asked by most nations on earth.

But criticism of Israel loses all nuance when it is now more popular to call for the illegality of the existence of Israel in its entirety. That, is anti-Zionism.

Our pro-Israel students on campus must increasingly be feeling like Abraham, standing alone to the taunts and chants that Israel is a Zionist and therefore a racist state.

Little do these accusers know that they are peddling a conspiracy theory hatched in the 1970’s in the United Nations by the Soviet Union and spread through Arab countries by Yasser Arafat.

Don’t believe me? Check out Bari Weiss’s new book: How to Fight Anti-Semitism. 

It’s all in Chapter Four.

Like Abraham, 400 Jewish students this month got up and walked out of a student government meeting at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). They were protesting the body’s overwhelming support for a motion titled  “Condemning Ignorance of Racism and Equating Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism.”

uiuc1

Jewish students tabling at UIUC

This motion denied any link between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. It was written by four student government members aligned with the UIUC chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). No Jewish student organizations or Jewish individuals, including the governing body’s only Jewish member, was asked for input on what defines anti-Semitism.

Student Lauren Nesher acted like Abraham when she led the exodus of Jews from the student government meeting. Nesher is a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and Turkish and Iraqi Jews who were kicked out of those nations because they were Jewish. 

Before she and her Jewish supporters walked out, she addressed the packed room and said:  

Never again will anyone allow the Jews to feel unsafe on this campus, whether we be affected by swastika graffiti, neo-Nazi or university-sponsored presentations that uniquely seek to delegitimize the establishment of a Jewish state.

Nesher is not alone in affirming the Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism connection. The American Jewish Committee just this week released a study titled: American Jews on Anti Semitism in America.  In this survey, 82 percent agreed that the BDS movement and its supporters are antisemitic. 84 percent believe the statement Israel has no right to exist is anti-Semitic.

So, what do we do? How do we combat the rising wave of anti-Semitism that goes under the veil of anti-Zionism?

For one thing, know there are others around you who, like Abraham, do not go with the flow. There are those around you who will not check our pro-Israel and Zionist leanings at the door to fit in or be included or accepted into progressive or intersectional causes.

Finally, let’s take a cue from Bari Weiss who suggests, that yes, we should be like Abraham:

Among Weiss’s many suggestions at the end of the book (spoiler alert) she suggests that we be like Abraham. And I paraphrase:

Abraham’s story is deeply Jewish. He stood radically against the prevailing orthodoxy of his time…..

Today, the idols are more abstract than the ceramics Terah, Abraham’s father, prayed to. They come in the form of power and prestige. The temptation to keep your mouth shut in order to get ahead or get along or to be well liked are very seductive…

But we must face the loneliness to be like Abraham. To be brave enough to say, yes, we are different. We need to be courageous enough to stand apart, ot to bend to the crowd, not to give in to group think.

We should find strength and pride in being an idol-smashing people.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

He Pulled the Ben Gurion Card

About two weeks ago I wrote an opinion piece in the Detroit Jewish News about the paucity of the content in Jewish congregational supplemental schools when it comes to learning Jewish history.

My son, quickly approaching his Bar Mitzvah, knows his Hebrew. Has a decent grasp on his prayers. So it is not the Hebrew content I am concerned he is not getting.

It is Jewish History. It is learning the Torah Portion of the Week. And learning about the Prophets. It is learning about Israeli history that I knew he wasn’t getting enough of.

So, I put it upon him and I to get this learning done at home.

It is November.

So how is it going?

We have read about eight stories of the prophets, each chapter making some sort of archeologic connection or finding within Israel in order to validate the prophet’s life.

We read a truncated version of the weekly Torah portion, with a little help in livening up each passage thanks to the Youtube video-making geniuses over at  G-dcast.

Needless to say, we do this in the late afternoon or the early evening. And the kid is ANTSY.

We take turns reading. One page for him, one page for me.

While I read, he spins, he dances, he bounces.

Then, as I am trying to get through a chapter of the Golden Age of Spain, he stands on his head.

Now, I get the whole learning through movement thing, but there comes a time when you just have to show this material the respect it is due. Just as I am at my wit’s end and order him to SIT his bottom down in a chair, besides me on the couch, he reminds me:

“Mom! Really! i can learn and absorb all this stuff while I am standing on my head. Standing on your head is GOOD for you. Why do you think David Ben Gurion did it all the time?? HE was VERY smart.”

How do you argue with that?

Sitting on the Floor. Thinking about Jerusalem’s ashes of yesterday and tomorrow. But please not tomorrow.

An Ultra-orthodox Jewish man puts his head in his hands, inside a synagogue that was attacked by two Palestinians earlier in the morning in the ultra-Orthodox Har Nof neighbourhood in Jerusalem on November 18, 2014. Two Palestinians armed with a gun and meat cleavers burst into a Jerusalem synagogue and killed four Israelis before being shot dead in the bloodiest attack in the city in years. AFP PHOTO/ JACK GUEZ        (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

An Ultra-orthodox Jewish man puts his head in his hands, inside a synagogue that was attacked by two Palestinians earlier in the morning in the ultra-Orthodox Har Nof neighbourhood in Jerusalem on November 18, 2014. Two Palestinians armed with a gun and meat cleavers burst into a Jerusalem synagogue and killed four Israelis before being shot dead in the bloodiest attack in the city in years. AFP PHOTO/ JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Today is Tisha B’Av. I am well into my fast.

Now is the time of the day when the stomach really starts to grumble. Mornings of a fast are okay. That is the time when the faster says to themselves: What is eating anyway? Eating is more habitual than anything. I even made it to my garden to do some work this morning.

I am not observing an absolute fast this Tisha B’Av – literally meaning, the ninth of the month of Av. I’ve been drinking water and coffee throughout the day. But still, now that late afternoon is here, the hunger is sinking in. But I will dig in deeper. Mentally, I have not taken a fast from thinking deeply, and my troubled thoughts I allow to linger on this day, the saddest of the entire Jewish calendar.

Last year’s memories of Gaza’s war with Israel linger. Last week’s agreement with Iran, and what disasters it could hold for the future of not just Israel but the whole world, weigh heavily on my mind. As it should with yours, dear reader, however or wherever this lovely summer day finds you.

The outsider must see observers of this fast day pretty much as religious fanatics out of their mind.

Are you the average outsider? I’ll test out my theory. Check it out; Here is the crux of this day and the reason why some Jews fast and mourn today:

Over two thousand years ago, we the Jews had the Great Temple in Jerusalem.

On this day, a bit over two thousand years ago, on this very same day a few hundred years before that, not one but BOTH Great Temples were destroyed. One built by King Solomon, then another one five centuries later, built by King Herod . Both destroyed. The city of Jerusalem ransacked, on the same day.

Lots of other bad stuff happened to Jews on or around this day.

Through the centuries, some of our greatest leaders were killed in and around this date.

Through the centures Jews were expelled, from Jerusalem, from England, France and Spain, in and around on this date.

Because of that, that is why we fast. And in the days leading up to the fast, we don’t have fun in pools. Or chow down on burgers at barbecues. At the height of the summer.

So now is your turn to respond: You are in mourning in 2015, in modern times, for the destruction of a building? And the destruction happened

HOW many years ago? But that was then and this is now. That has NOTHING to do with today. Seriously, get over it! 

My I am getting dizzy now. 

I’m a religious nut, right? You’re thinking this. But the older I get, the more the messages of Tisha B’Av have to do with today.

In all honesty, I didn’t even know about Tisha B’av when I was a kid growing up in Staten Island. It was a summer holiday, and let’s just say that with an afternoon congregational Hebrew school education, it is safe to say that any Jewish commemoration that takes place in the summer is glossed over. Even not taught.

I only learned about it from friends who went to Jewish summer camp. So when my own kids went to summer camp, I decided to observe Tisha B’av.

You start the fast at synagogue sitting on the floor. Mourning brings you mentally to a lower, less comfortable place and you want to match this mood physically.  So you sit on the floor.

It is customary for the sanctuary lights to dim. Some bring flashlights or light candles to follow along in their prayer books.

Then, in a mournful melody, a leader or a group of leaders chant the entire book of Lamentations. Eicha in Hebrew.

The imagery in Lamentations is so very sad and graphic. There is no comfort. Gd has abandoned His Chosen People to be starved, stoned, burned, raped and humiliated by our worst enemies. There is no one to comfort them and no one to answer Jerusalem’s cries.

There are mothers sitting in the ashes of what were once the glorious golden-paved streets of Jerusalem. The passage of babies suckling the empty breasts of their starving mothers always gets to me. I can hear the cries of the starving in the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem as the Romans attempted to starve them out from behind the walls. You can smell the burning and feel the heat.

“The tongue of the suckling cleaves to its palate for thirst. Little children beg for bread. None gives them a morsel.” 

Fast forward a few centuries. Are the images that the author of Lamentations paints in the reader’s head any different or remote than those from the ghettos of Rome? Prague? Warsaw?

The foes set upon our sanctuaries…Our steps were checked. We could not walk in our squares.

Is it any different now? As Jews are afraid to openly show their Jewish identity and safely walk in the streets  In Paris? In Brooklyn? Even Jerusalem?

And the hardest lesson to swallow from the book of Ecclesiastes, is that the Jews of Jerusalem had no one but themselves to blame for their destruction. Gd turned His face from the because of their baseless hatred and pettiness towards one another. We were punished because, according to the author, we showed no regard for priests (we had priests, not rabbis during the time of the Temple) and no respect for tradition or our elders.

And how is this different now? In an age where commitment to Jewish education falls to the bottom of priorities, upstaged by everything else from soccer to scouting? Where learning about Jewish history has been scrapped for a bare-bones Jewish education that leaves nothing more than some tutoring lessons to learn how to pronounce some transliterated gibberish for a kid’s big day on the bimah?

I am hungry now. But the hunger has not made me melodramatic. I’m speaking from true experience here. And this is going widely unreported, why I don’t understand. Are we afraid to admit that in our comfortable complacency we are failing to transmit to the next generation their rich heritage?

Ask your typical Jewish kid if they can name one Jewish leader from modern times or ancient times. Ask if they know what countries border Israel, Ask them what Hebrew letters spell basic words like Shalom, Shabbat, and even Moses, and you might get a lot of blank stares.

Will these same kids, once they get off the bimah and for the most part, exit their Jewish education and find themselves in college five years, will they know how to answer in college to cries that Israel is a pariah of a nation, an apartheid state? Who will teach them their heritage and history then?

“The mouthings and pratings of my adversaries…Our pursuers were swifter than the eagles in the sky.” 

And now, we are faced with Iran becoming legitimized as a playing power, as a nuclear entity, in the eyes of the world. You don’t have to read every page of this deal to know this deal is a bad one. Will the world wake up in time?

“Our doom is near our days are done – Alas our doom has come.” 

The way I see it, those words could have easily been written today.

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