Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Not Perfect. Better. / Parshat Toldot 2014/5775

On Tuesday morning, November 18, 2014, two Palestinian terrorists from East Jerusalem, armed with a gun and meat cleavers, burst into Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem at 7:00 am; they brutally killed four worshippers and a police officer and injured another seven people before security forces shot them dead and ended their murderous rampage.

President Obama issued a statement that said, in part, there is and can be no justification for such attacks against innocent civilians. Secretary of State John Kerry also condemned the attack, saying, "People who had come to worship God in the sanctuary of a synagogue were hatched and hacked and murdered in that holy place in an act of pure terror and senseless brutality and murder To have this kind of act, which a pure result of incitement is unacceptable The Palestinian leaders must condemn this and they must begin to take serious steps to restrain any kind of incitement that comes from their language, other peoples language and exhibit the kind of leadership that is necessary to put this region on a different path. Perhaps the most telling word is begin”—Palestinian leaders have yet to take a single serious step toward peace, nor even countering the rampant hatred that is taught, reinforced, and nurtured among their people. It comes at no surprise that the Hamas and Islamic Jihad immediately praised the attack and a Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called for more operations like [this one].

But operations like Tuesdays terrorist attack are not attacks on military targets: this was an attack on worshippers in a synagogue. This was not an attack on Israel as a political entity: this was an anti-Semitic attack against Jews. Those who have shielded themselves from the accusation that their anti-Israel and anti-Zionist stance was anything other than anti-Semitism no longer have a screen to hide behind.

This week we read Parshat Toldot, which begins with the story of the progeny of Isaac, who like those of Abraham, his father, are locked in conflict. In this generation, conflict begins quite literally in utero:
This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac. Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddam-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived. But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, If so, why do I exist? She went to inquire of the Lord, and the Lord answered her, Two nations are in your womb; two separate peoples shall issue from one body; one people shall be mightier than the other; and the older shall serve the younger. (Genesis 25:18-23)

The twins in Rebekahs womb are Jacob and Esau. Esau, the progenitor of the Edomites, emerges first and is therefore the elder. Many centuries later, the Rabbis identified Esau with the Romans, whose oppressive and destructive policies culminated in the Destruction of the Second Temple and the decimation of the Jewish commonwealth in the first century of the Common Era. Traditionally, Ishmael, the half-brother of Isaac, is identified as the father of the Arab nations. In both cases, Torah suggests that the animus is eternal and derives from the very propinquity of brothers born to the same mother (in the case of Ishmael and Isaac) or who gestated together in the womb (in the case of Esau and Jacob). And indeed, the Jewish people and the Palestinian people gestated in the womb of the Middle East; Israel claims her small section of the womb and unfortunately, the Arabs claim the entire womb. In the case of both Jews and Arabs, claims to the land rest on a mixture of history and religious myth. It is being reported that the terrorists who murdered worshippers at prayer Tuesday were motivated by an exclusive Muslim claim to Har ha-Bayit, the hilltop in the Old City where the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are located; it was here that the First and Second Temples stood long ago.

I have heard many people naively and simplistically say something along the lines of, Why cant they just sit down and make peace”—as if the situation called for the skills of a teacher sitting down with two kindergarteners who have been fighting on the playground and instructs them, Shake hands and make up. Would that it were so easy. But when has it ever been that way?

The Book of Daniel, which we seldom encounter because it is not part of the cycle of Haftarah or Festival megillah readings, has a fascinating and illuminating passage in which Daniel is brought before King Nebuchadnezzar to interpret his dreams (following the motif of Joseph interpreting Pharaohs dreams in Genesis).  Daniel boldly says that no wise man, astrologer necromancer, or demonist can interpret the kings dream, but he, Daniel, can tell the king what God in Heaven is revealing through them, and it is none other than the secret of when the End of Days will arrive. Daniel describes a giant statue that appeared in Nebuchadnezzars dream:

You, O king, were watching and behold! a huge statue; this statue, which was immense, and whose brightness was extraordinary, stood opposite you, and its appearance was fearsome. This statue: its head of fine gold; its breast and arms of silver; its belly and thighs of copper; its legs of iron; and its feet, partly of iron and partly of earthenware. As you watched, a stone was hewn without hands and struck the statue on its feet of iron and earthenware, and crumbled them. Then they crumbled together: the iron, the earthenware, the copper, the silver and the gold. They became like chaff from summer threshing floors, and the wind carried them away and no trace was found of them. And the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the entire earth. (Daniel 2:31-35)

Daniel proceeds to interpret for the king the meaning of the statue; Ive interpolated several explanations to make it easier to follow:

You, O kingto whom the King of kings, Who is the God of Heaven, has given a strong kingdom, power, and honor, and wherever people, beasts of the field and birds of the sky dwell, He has given them into your hand and made you ruler over them allyou are the head of gold. And after you will arise another kingdom inferior to you [the Persians], and then another, a third kingdom, of copper [the Hellenistic empire of Alexander the Great], which will rule the whole earth. The fourth kingdom [Rome] will be as strong as iron: Just as iron crumbles and flattens everything, and as iron shatters all these, it will crumble and shatter. The feet and the toes that you saw, partly of potters earthenware and partly of iron: It will be a divided kingdom and will have some of the firmness of iron just as you saw iron mixed with lay-like earthenware. As for the toes, partly of iron and partly of earthenware: Part of the kingdom will be powerful and part of it will be broken. That you saw iron mixed with clay-like earthenware: They will mix with the offspring of men, but they will not cling to one another, just as iron does not mix with earthenware. Then, in the days of these kingdoms, the God of Heaven will establish a kingdom that will never be destroyed nor will its sovereignty be left to another people; it will crumble and consume all these kings, and will stand forever [the End Time kingdom of God]. (Daniel 31:37-44)

Abarbanelidentifies the feet with Christianity and Islam, but given that the Book of Daniel was likely composed in the mid-2nd century BCE, his interpretation is clearly anachronistic. Yet his point is well taken in the sense that it is the nature of history that one kingdom passes and another takes its place. The Land of Israel, once the land of Canaan, saw the first and second Jewish commonwealths, and was ruled by the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans all before the Destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Since that time, although it has been under the control of many entities, most recently the British (under the Mandate) no other sovereign country has existed in the land until the State of Israel was established in 1948. Yet it still ignites hearts and mindsand sadly inspires violence. Is there no end in sight?

Chipotle, under the stewardship of writer Jonathan Safran Foer, adorns it cups and bags with words aimed at Cultivating Thought. One contribution is this short piece by Steven Pinker,
Harvard professor of psychology who writes extensively on language, mind, and human nature, who offers us an alternative lens through which to view the world:

Its easy to get discouraged by the ceaseless news of violence, poverty, and disease. But the news presents a distorted view of the world. News is about things that happen, not things that dont happen. You never see a TV crew reporting that a country isnt at war, or that a city hasnt had a mass shooting that day, or that millions of 80-year-olds are alive and well.

The only way to appreciate that state of the world is to count. How many incidents of violence, or starvation, or disease are there as a proportion of the number of people in the world? And the only way to know whether things are getting better or worse is to compare those numbers at different times: over the centuries and decades, do the trend lines go up or down?

As it happens, the numbers tell a surprisingly happy story. Violent crime has fallen by half since 1992, and fiftyfold since the Middle Ages. Over the past 60 years the number of wars and number of people killed in wars have plummeted. Worldwide, fewer babies die, more children go to school, more people live in democracies, more can afford simple luxuries, fewer get sick, and more live to old age.

Better does not mean perfect. Too many people still live in misery and die prematurely, and new challenges, such as climate change, confront us. But measuring the progress weve made in the past emboldens us to strive for more in the future. Problems that look hopeless may not be; human ingenuity can chip away at them. We will never have a perfect world, but its not romantic or naïve to work toward a better one.

Pinkers view is positive and hopeful. Even amidst violence and tragedy, such as we saw Tuesday, there is still reason to be hopeful and to believe that better is possible. Perhaps that is enough to sustain us at times like this.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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