Recovering Our Sense, Recovering Our Unity …

09 Jan

I find the end of the book of Berishit (Genesis) incredibly moving. It’s an account of how, against the odds, a bitterly divided family became whole, and became a nation.

Yaakov Avinu (Jacob, our forefather) had two wives, two concubines and 13 children from those 4 different mothers. These children quarreled bitterly. There were rivalries, jealousies, suspicions, hatreds and vying for position that led to the most unimaginable acts.

When Yosef (Joseph) was sold to Egypt, it seemed that that was the end of the Jewish people. The brothers had stooped too low for words. They had lied to their father and covered up their sin. The shechina (divine presence of G-d) departed from Yaakov, Yehudah (Judah) left home, and things began to fall apart.

And yet, against all odds, a miracle happens. The family is made whole, the brothers are reunited, Yaakov sees Yosef again, old rivalries are put aside, and all talk of revenge, hatred or jealousies is brushed aside.

As Yaakov’s life is slipping away, the Torah is able to tell us:

כָּל-אֵלֶּה שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר; וְזֹאת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר לָהֶם אֲבִיהֶם, וַיְבָרֶךְ אוֹתָם–אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר כְּבִרְכָתוֹ, בֵּרַךְ אֹתָם.

All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is it that their father spoke unto them and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them. 

How completely impossible that must have seemed a short while earlier.

So what happened? How could a family, a people, divided by hatred, violence, moral shortcoming, slander and rivalry become whole again? And, in our times, when these words so perfectly describe much of what is happening in the Jewish world, how can we make ourselves whole again?

Interestingly, the Torah leaves out so much of what we would love to know. Did the brothers ever tell Yaakov what had happened, or did he prefer not to know?  When Yosef reveals himself to his brothers he rushes to tell them that all that had happened was Hashem’s plan – but after Yaakov’s death there is great unease that Yosef might now take his revenge. Clearly uniting such a family was no easy task.

One can only assume that a tremendous amount of patience, courage, determination on the parts of all concerned was necessary.

But, on his death bed, as Yaakov turns to bless his children, and to name his successor (one of his children who will be considered the leader henceforth), he reveals so much of what was in his heart.

In a scene of intense drama – even suspense – Yaakov explains who will succeed him. He addresses each of his children in turn:

 רְאוּבֵן בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה, כֹּחִי וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי–יֶתֶר שְׂאֵת, וְיֶתֶר עָז

Reuven, thou art my first-born, my might, and the first-fruits of my strength; the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power.

Reuven, you truly are the first born, it should have been you. You should have been my natural successor. You have so many talents and so many wonderful qualities – but that cannot be:

פַּחַז כַּמַּיִם אַל-תּוֹתַר, כִּי עָלִיתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵי אָבִיךָ;

Unstable as water, you will not lead; because you went up to your father’s bed;

Reuven you made terrible mistakes.

When Yaakov’s beloved wife Rochel (Rachel) died, the Torah tells us about Reuven (the first born of Leah) …

וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת-בִּלְהָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו

Reuven went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine

Although Chazal (our sages) insist that what really happened was that he moved his father’s bed out of the tent of Bilhah (Rochel’s concubine), into Leah’s tent to show respect for his mother (whichever way you look at it), this was an act of tremendous disrespect.

Reuven was Leah’s oldest child. He felt it was his job to stand up for his mother, to be the leader – and it was. But – “pachaz kamayim” – he was unstable like water. He was impetuous, and rushed into leadership without thinking things through.

But there is even more to Reuven.

When the brothers saw Yosef coming to meet them that fateful day, they wished to kill him. It was Reuven who put a stop to that

וַיִּשְׁמַע רְאוּבֵן, וַיַּצִּלֵהוּ מִיָּדָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ.

And Reuven heard it, and delivered him out of their hand; and said: ‘Let us not take his life.’

Reuven here is acting as leader. It’s his job, he is the one who considers himself born to lead, to end this madness. No killing, he tells his brothers. Instead, let’s put him into this pit, we can get rid of him without actually shedding blood.

Reuven leads – but his leadership is compromised. He won’t stand up to his brothers and their violence, and their evil plans. A true leader would have said, are you out of your minds? There will be no more of this talk – we may not like Yosef, but enough is enough.

But Reuven’s leadership is yet more flawed. His whole plan of putting Yosef in to the pit was …

לְמַעַן, הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם, לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ, אֶל-אָבִיו

He wanted to be a hero! He wanted to get the glory, the one to bring his brother home and receive the credit.

Again, Reuven takes a stand – but his leadership is flawed. It’s not principled. It’s not moral and, ultimately, it’s self-serving.

So Reuven cannot be the leader.

The Ramban (Maimonides) says that, although Reuven was the first to offer to guarantee Binyamin’s (Benjamin’s) safe return from Egypt, he had lost credibility in the eyes of Yaakov – and that’s why he couldn’t succeed him.

And when I think of Reuven, so much of what is happening in Israel and the Jewish world seems to be relevant.

There are those whom we regard as natural leaders. We look to them for leadership – but the leadership is flawed.  Rather than saying, לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ, now lets live together, they use crisis to their advantage. Their leadership is moral, not political. It’s an opportunity to make themselves look good, without really leading and taking a clear moral position.

This week in Israel, we have seen (aside from genuine moves to reconciliation that I will talk about shortly) more and deeper division. The sickening sight of Chasidim dressed up, and dressing their children up, as victims of the Nazis, shakes us all to the core. It’s an attempt to play the victim card, to use these terrible events to foster, not unity, but rather advantage.

And, as I said last week, and want to re-enforce, at the same time, the vast majority of the Charedi community have no part in this extremism, but rather have been made the objects of group defamation and attack by much of the hard line secularist leadership.

Sadly, hardliners on both sides are using these events as a way of gaining political advantage. The tragedy we see before our eyes is that the tremendous advances that have been made (with Charedim entering the army and the workplace), all stand in jeopardy because those who claim to be leaders, who feel entitled to lead, aren’t leading, they are using this crisis for their own ends

And next come Shimon and Levi.

שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי, אַחִים

Shimon and Levi are brothers.

What this means is, more than the fact that they are each other’s brothers (or even that they are unusually close) is that they are good brothers. They have an unduly developed sense of brotherhood, loyalty, and commitment to their entire family – more than anyone else.

When Dina was raped, it was Shimon and Levi, with their love of their siblings, who stood up for her.

And with that sense of family and commitment, Shimon or Levi would have been natural successors for Yaakov.

But that must never be, because …

כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם

They are men of violence.

They committed unspeakable outrages (Chilul Hashem, desecration of G-d’s name) of mass proportions, and Yaakov utterly rejects them – unambiguously, strongly, in ways we long to hear from even more of our leadership.

אָרוּר אַפָּם

Accursed be their anger!

And here is one of the paradoxes of modern Jewish life. In some of the most extreme parts of the Jewish world you find the most incredible sense of achva (brotherhood) and chesed (kindness) for fellow Jews. It never fails to astound me that, for example, Satmar is known both for its utterly extreme derech (path/philosophy), that often leads, on the part of some of its followers, to verbal and physical violence of the worst kind, and it is also known for its outstanding chesed. Anyone who has ever spent time in hospital in New York City will have been amazed at the Satmar Bikur Cholim system who will bring food, often cooked to order, for any Jew.  They do this with an incredible sense of giving. There are many Satmar Chasidim who wouldn’t hesitate to give you the shirt of their back if you needed it, and at the same time are part of a sect associated with violence and extremism. The same is true of other Chasidic groups, too. It really is amazing.

Yet Yaakov was uncompromising. You may be achim, good brothers, to your family, but you are not our leaders, and you are not our role models. Your anger and violence is completely rejected.

(And the same is true, regrettably, for extreme parts of the religious Zionist movement which are descending into violence. And Rabbi Riskin has condemned this – utterly and absolutely.)

And so, at long last, we come to Yehudah.

יְהוּדָה, אַתָּה יוֹדוּךָ אַחֶיךָ–יָדְךָ, בְּעֹרֶף אֹיְבֶיךָ; יִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ, בְּנֵי אָבִיךָ.

Yehudah, it is you that your brethren praise…your father’s sons shall bow down before you.

Yehudah, all agree that you are right for leadership, in you all the people are bnei avicha, a united family.

Why Yehudah? Why the fourth born child? Why the one who left the home, the one responsible for selling Yosef? Why is he to be the leader?

Yehudah is an individual who lived by his name – hodah – to acknowledge. He confessed (vidui) when his daughter-in-law Tamar was pregnant and he had condemned her to death. She sent word, privately, that he was the father. How easy it would have been for him to deny all – his reputation would have been saved, nothing ever known about what he had done. Instead, he allowed himself to be shamed and humiliated. He admitted – tzadkah mimeni – she is more righteous than I am. He confessed, and she was spared.

Yehuda made no pretensions of being perfect – far from it. But he acknowledged his imperfections. He rose above them. Because he was humble, he could be accepting of others failures as well. He became a leader because he wasn’t arrogant, he was trustworthy.

People knew that, even if it was against his own interests – overwhelmingly so – he would do what was right.

That is why when he looked Yaakov in the eye and said – אָנֹכִי, אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ – I will take responsibility for Binyamin, his father believed him.

And when the unknown stranger was tormenting the brothers, accusing them of theft and threatening revenge – Vyigash elav Yehudah – it was Yehudah who stepped forward to save the family. He had learned what he was capable of, and he felt compelled to save his people. Not for glory, but out of love

And so Yehudah becomes the king, the true successor of Yaakov, the ancestor of Mashiach (the messiah).

When I think about Yehudah, I think of a remarkable group of people. I think of the community, the growing beautiful daati leumi, modern orthodox community of Beit Shemesh, and many other towns. Religious Jews, idealists – a huge percentage of them olim (immigrants) – committed people who gave up so much material comfort to make aliyah.

And I think of their idealism – genuinely committed to achdus – to being a bridge, a link between all parts of the Jewish world. They are raising their children to learn Torah and to earn a living, to love the land and State of Israel, and to serve in the army, if necessary, chas veshalom (G-d  forbid), to pay a price beyond our imagination.

A community that all through this crisis has acted with dignity and love.

We should be proud of them – yodoocha achecha – your brothers will acknowledge you. They are committed to being a bridge, holding together all the parts of the Jewish world – we in the diaspora, those in Israel, secular, religious, Charedi.

I spoke to a friend yesterday, who has lived in Beit Shemesh for over 10 years. He described how Bnei Akiva meets with secular youth, how members of their community set up roundtable groups for the entire spectrum of the city to come together, how Charedi women come to the Orot school and give the kids cookies for Shabbat,  how they have even reached out to (and met with) people from the Edah Charedis. These Yehudahs are at the center, in the midst of hate, of repairing the Jewish people. They are working, not to take advantage of the crisis, but rather to heal the Jewish people.

It’s moving beyond words, and it actually gave me pause.

Whenever there is a tragedy in the Jewish world – a terror attack, the awful murder of Leiby Kletzky, a forest fire in Israel, someone, somewhere is going to start fundraising. (I am not saying that that is necessarily a bad thing – there are wonderful organizations, Magen David Adom, the JNF, etc, do incredible things, and they know that people want to help.)

After a terror attack, G-d forbid, within an hour, I have usually received two or three emails from organizations raising money. I don’t think it would even occur to the idealistic, religious zionist community of Beit Shemesh to do that.

Who among us wouldn’t have written a check to the Orot School to help them after what they are going through? But just like the Biblical Yehudah who did not look to act out of self interest, so, too, this strong principled idealistic community is not interested in profiting from a crisis.

But the fact is, all Jews are named after the tribe of Yehudah – for all of us have this capacity.

Last week I spoke about how desperate I was to see condemnation from the Charedi leadership, at least for the violent extremists in their midst. And this week has seen incredible things. Hamodia, the ultra orthodox newspaper, and many important figures are speaking out.

The head of the Ponoveitsh Yeshiva issued a strong, heartfelt statement to the Ultra Orthodox community, telling people that it’s sinas chinam, baseless hatred, to blame the secular media for their attacks. Rather that this is a time for genuine soul searching on the part of Charedim, where we all have to look inwards.

The fact is that there are many different types of observant Jews. We all have our opinions, and our beliefs. And I hope we are passionate about them.

But beyond our group, is a people.

It is true that there are fanatics, and we have to speak out. And there are groups interested in tearing other groups down, or taking advantage of a crisis. But that’s not the way. And in Israel, I genuinely believe – and we all certainly have been davening (praying) for this these past weeks – that the spirit of od Avinu chai, our father Yaakov still lives, that Yaakov Avinu’s determination to leave behind one people – defined by a sense of unity and led by people who care for each other as much as for themselves – lives on.

Let us all strive to be Yehudahs. Let us reach out to Jews who are different from ourselves, learn to respect and love even those from whom we differ, and let us make sure that Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) remains a nation of Yehudim (Yehudahs), people who see greatness in each other.


One response to “Recovering Our Sense, Recovering Our Unity …

  1. Allan Leicht

    January 10, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    Dear Rabbi Robinson,

    Very beautiful. Fortifying. Thank you.

    Allan Leicht

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