Wrestling with Israel
Delivered on Friday, December 30, 2016
“Turn it, and turn it again, for everything is in it,” our tradition teaches us. There are 70 faces of Torah, each refracts as the world around us shifts, as we—ourselves evolve, as our contexts change. This is the beauty of Torah study: it does not get old, because it is perpetually relevant, for everything is in it. This is what is also frustrating about Torah study: it is a constant wrestling match, challenging us to make both meaning and blessings out of our lives.
I have to admit a struggle. For several weeks now, I have been wrestling with what to say about what is going on in Israel, with the UN, with Secretary Kerry’s speech, with the incoming administration. I have only wanted to speak from a place that is filled with Torah, seeking guidance from it to help us navigate through what feels like confusing times. I suspect I am not alone in my struggle. In truth, I have been contending with tensions around Israel for several years. Something about the last few weeks both confirms my contentions and further complicates them.
I have colleagues who will not talk about Israel in their congregations. It has become too dangerous, a sort of third-rail for sermon topics. I have had a small taste of the vitriol that exists in the American Jewish community today. A few years ago, after leading a shiva minyan in a house of mourning, I was cornered by someone I did not know, his finger in my chest, questioning me about my take on Israel. He wanted to know if I was one of those young rabbis who supported Israel or was the anti-Israel BDS sort. In a house of mourning, such behavior is inappropriate.
In June 2011, Rabbi Daniel Gordis wrote in Commentary magazine, “Are young rabbis turning on Israel?” When that article came out, I had much to say about it, speaking from my own commitment to and love for Israel. With some hindsight now, I find myself drawn back to that question with a different response: The question is too narrow. I would rather ask: Are American Jews turning on Israel? In what direction does the American Zionist enterprise now go?
Friends, we have arrived at a moment of tremendous communal tension, as we wrestle with Israel.
This wrestling is not new. These challenges are biblical. In fact, turning back to the last few parshiot unlock voices that speak to our wrestling.
Two weeks ago, we read the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. One evening Jacob and his family are along the Yabbok River. Jacob sends his wives, children, and possession across the river. He then goes back to the other side, some say to retrieve the last few items left behind. There, once he is alone, he comes upon an ish, an unidentified figure, and they begin to wrestle. In their struggle together, Jacob has the ish pinned. The man says, “release me!” Jacob responds, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The ish strikes Jacob’s hip-socket, dislocating it. And, he blesses Jacob with a new name, Israel, because he “struggled with God and with human beings, and prevailed.”
When studying this text the predominate question the commentators ask is “who is the ish?” But flip the perspective around. What does it mean for this man to wrestle with Jacob? They battle with one another, and cannot come out of it unless he simultaneously injures and blesses his opponent. Jacob cannot be Israel unless he is both hurting and blessed.
Is that how it has to be for us as well? Does being a part of Israel mean both walking with a limp and seeking blessings for ourselves? Does being Israel today mean we are to be a people both injured and blessed? Are we hurting ourselves while we reach out for blessings?
Shifting to last week’s Torah portion, Israel—now older—instructs his favored son, Joseph, to go out and seek his brothers, who are off shepherding the family’s flock. As Joseph goes looking for his brothers, he struggles to find them. He comes upon another ish, another unnamed man, who asks him, “Ma t’vakesh? What are you seeking? For whom do you look?” “I am looking for my brothers,” Joseph responds. The ish directs Joseph to where his brothers can be found. As he makes his way to them, they see him coming, and they conspire to throw him into a pit, and to mock his death and give him into servitude instead.
Joseph the dreamer is searching for his brothers. As they see him approach, the brothers are not of one voice. Among them they dispute what to do with the dreamer. Toss him into the pit, several say, which is what they do. These brothers are the prefiguration of our tribes of Israel, they represent who we are to be as a nation. As one of us seeks out kinship, what our actions should be is unclear, we are not of one voice, and we end up tossing our own kin into the pit.
How can we search for our brothers in earnest, if our brothers would rather create chaos and strife within our own family. The brothers do not seek peace—they seek blessings and status for themselves. They do what their father did when wrestling with the ish back by the Yabbok River, but on a familial level: they injure themselves and they seek blessings at the same time.
Our text calls out to the contemporary experience.
Part of the discomfort over the last few weeks is the President-Elect’s nomination of David Friedman as ambassador to Israel. Friedman’s nomination is simultaneously not surprising and alarming.
The nomination is not surprising because it follows his approach to nominations overall: Friedman is an outsider to the diplomatic establishment, whose perspective is counter to decades-long bipartisan American policy. Friedman is an advocate for the settler movement, serving as the president of the American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva and the Bet El Institutions. Bet El is a settlement founded in the 1970s, now home to about 7,000 religious residents. In 2012, Israeli courts ordered that 30 families be removed from buildings that had been set up nearby illegally on private Palestinian land. Friedman’s affiliations ring counter to American policy toward Israel, namely counter to the efforts to create two states for two peoples. The settlement continue to be an affront to the pursuit of peace. Former US Consulate General to Jerusalem Nicholas Burns said yesterday, “We saw West Bank settlements as an obstacle to peace, and wrong. They still are.”
Friedman’s prior involvement around Israel is alarming to those of us who are committed to seeing Israel be both a democratic and Jewish state, and an advocate for and pursuer of peace. The alarm is sounding double-fold, though. For Friedman has also cast liberal American Zionists as acting worse than kappas during the Holocaust.
Has the American Zionist enterprise become the worst version of itself? We are Israel’s children, fighting with ourselves, throwing our own kind into the pit. When the man who may serve as US Ambassador to Israel uses Holocaust rhetoric to describe those with whom he does not agree on policy, we have arrived at a new communal low point.
In last week’s Torah portion, when Joseph’s brothers see him coming, they say to one another, “Come let us cast him into the pit.” When Reuben heard his brothers threatening, he tried to save Joseph from them. He advocated for his brother Joseph, but they did not listen. Judah then asked, “What do we gain by killing our brother?” And instead, he advocates to sell him off to nearby Ishmaelites. This is what the brothers do, then simulating Joseph’s death, lying to their father about what happened.
Joseph the dreamer went looking for his brothers. He sought kinship, and his brothers sought to undo him. In doing so, they also undid their family. I am deeply concerned that we are doing something similar to ourselves within our own Jewish community. When we threaten one another, we unravel the threads that tie our community together. Perhaps I am a dreamer, though. Perhaps we have never been aligned as a community all along.
In this week’s Torah portion, we have our third scene in the narrative of Israel and his sons. Joseph, who found his way into the house of the Egyptian Pharaoh, has foretold of seven good years, which are followed by seven years of famine. In those years of famine, Joseph’s brothers make their way to Egypt, to request relief. Joseph has built up his power and influence, and now stands in position to help his brothers. They do not recognize him, and he does not reveal his identity to them. He is now like the ish with whom their father wrestled, and he is like the ish who he encountered when searching for his brothers.
The famine drove the brothers to a place where they now need their brother. They are not responsible for the famine, but their prior interactions now inform how Joseph approaches them. “We come from Canaan to procure food,” they tell him. He says they have come to work as spies. No, they say, we are here to procure food for our family.
I imagine Joseph in a moment of internal turmoil. Here were my brothers who cast me into a pit. Yet now they need me. My family needs me. His response is far from compassionate, “If you [are not spies], then let one of your brothers be held in a place of detention, while the rest of you go and take home rations for your starving households.”
The brothers react, “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother [Joseph]!” Joseph turned away in that moment and wept. The family of Israel was separated. Circumstances brought them together again. And the challenge: How to heal? How to grow? If and when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, will doing that bring his family back together again? In the end, it does. Yet it also takes tremendous strength and bravery on his part.
Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a speech at the State Department that others labeled an elegy to the two-state solution. Some labeled it as evidence of the Obama’s administration’s continued antagonism toward the current Israeli government. I agree with Haaretz journalist Barak Ravid who wrote, “John Kerry’s speech was Zionist and pro-Israeli. All who support a two-state solution and support Jewish democratic Israel should welcome it.” Kerry maintained the position that our country has put out to the world for over twenty-five years now: That the best way to assure a Jewish and democratic state is the Two-State Solution. Yet, this speech felt too little too late. In a response published on The Times of Israel, David Harris, President of the American Jewish Committee asked if in Israeli’s (and I would also ask American’s) kishkes, do we really believe that peace in the Middle East is possible? Perhaps a Palestinian state would end up a failed state, Harris posits, and noting that Israel has moved politically-right, just as we have. Seven good years for the land, followed by seven years of famine. Landscapes change. The Middle East political and religious landscapes have shifted.
Yet we are not to lose hope. This week’s Torah portion encourages us to be skeptical of permanence. Joseph, who’s life was dramatically altered by his brother’s hostility, found a way to reconcile with those brothers, coming into his father’s house again, making it whole. Situations are rarely permanent. Still, this dreamer is struggling to tap into his ongoing optimism. I fear we are facing profound conflict among our own when it comes to how we approach and engage with Israel as American Jews.
The liberal Zionism with which I was brought up I fear will not weather in this new reality. Where to go from here, I am not certain. A part of me longs for a new Zionism on which I can continue to love and support Israel. I hold onto hope that both our United States and Israel will strive to be lights to other nations.
In our weekly prayers, we offer a blessing on the State of Israel, even when we wrestle with her. In that, we ask that God might “bless the State of Israel which marks the dawning of hope for all who seek peace… Establish peace in the and and fullness of joy for all who dwell there.”
May peace and wholeness in Israel and among Am Yisrael be made real, speedily and soon..