For the past week I’ve found myself doing something I promised I would never do again, something I hadn’t done since college – engaging in debate over my right to exist.
Unfortunately, as Jews we’ve become used to this. We’re good at it and perhaps even enjoy it. It’s like some sort of ‘Jewish karate’ – in every situation, against every opponent, we’ve become skilled at employing the most eloquent, fact-based, moral, historical and legal arguments as to why we have the right to live as a free people in our own land. An entire culture has grown from it, and we even have a name for it – Hasbara. What other nation has perfected the skill of justifying their existence to others?
This is a habit I thought I broke long ago when I became tired of explaining myself and decided to speak with my feet by making aliyah. Hasbara can become an addiction and it is particularly widespread among Jewish college students in the United States. There are the endless rallies, the outreach, the debates, fliers, slogans…and now tweets and Facebook posts. Like a college degree, hasbara should be a means not an end.
This addiction to ‘intellectual sparring’ seems to be in our genes. It is not found only on college campuses. A different manifestation of it is found right here in Israel, in the yeshiva world. Of course, the comparison doesn’t fit exactly, as Torah lishma, Torah study for its own sake, is both a means as well as an end.
In this week’s parsha, we learn about Yaakov’s dream of the ladder. Upon awakening from his dream, Yaakov exclaims “G-D is in this place and I didn’t even know it!” The more literal interpretations tell us that the place Yaakov slept that night was the future site of the Beit Hamikdash and there is plenty of evidence to back this up. Still, we are left with questions. The most basic principle of monotheism is that of G-D’s absolute unity. That is, His presence is to be found in every place and furthermore, there is no existence ‘outside of’ and other than G-D. Certainly, Yaakov had this most basic understanding. So why was he surprised that G-D was “in this place” and how could a spiritual giant like himself not “know it”?
ַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה. וַיִּיקַץ יַעֲקֹב מִשְּׁנָתוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהֹוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי
And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven. And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, “Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” (Vayeitzei 28:12,16)
Yaakov had spent 14 years studying in the yeshiva of Shem and Eiver. Fourteen years in the beit midrash, completely insulated from the negative influence and challenges of the outside world. The time came for Yaakov, as it does for everyone, to go out into the world, get married, start a family and find employment.
It was at this stage of life that Yaakov had his dream – as he was on his way to Haran. (Among other things, the metaphor of the ladder tells us how to live in this world while remaining within the framework of kedusha.) Yaakov woke up with a new perspective on life. He was astounded by the realization that holiness, godliness, exists not only within the four walls of the beit midrash, but here “in this place,” in the daily routine of life embedded in materialism.
Trying to escape the ‘outside world’ can lead to all kinds of addictions. Granted, hiding in the world of theory is certainly one of the least destructive but it is far from ideal. If you’ve been in yeshiva for over 14 years, it’s probably time to get a job. If you’re an American Jew who has been trying to convince people of our right to live in peace in our own land for more than five years, it’s probably time for aliyah!
Next: Beit Lavan (lit. “White House”), servitude, trickery and the prototype for antisemitism throughout history.