A view from the pew
This Shabbat we begin the reading of a new book of Torah. In English, the book is known as Numbers, because its opening chapters deal with the first census of the Jewish people. In Hebrew, in accordance with the tradition of using the first significant word of the book or the weekly Torah portion as its name, its name is Bamidbar, which translates into “In the Wilderness.” In fact, this census takes place in the wilderness of Sinai, soon after the Exodus, when Moses and the Israelites believed that their conquest of the Land of Israel was imminent.
We readers of Torah, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, know that of the generation counted in this census, only two men, Joshua and Caleb, would enter the land of Israel. The rest of those counted in Numbers would die bamidbar — in the wilderness.
Like the people mentioned in our Torah reading in Numbers, we 21st-century Jews also are being challenged to count ourselves in, and to be counted by others, as members of the Jewish community. Another parallel between our biblical narrative and today is that now, as was true then, we encounter external enemies that threaten us, as well as internal divisiveness, animosity, and rivalry over religious and political issues that challenge our unity.
This weekend, we Americans will commemorate Memorial Day, which was established as a commemoration of America’s bloodiest conflict, the Civil War. Memorial Day is a reminder to me, as an American and as a Jew, that internecine conflicts are the bloodiest but also the most easily avoidable. Saying that my brother is also an other, to whom I owe and am owed respect and love, is simple to state and very hard to achieve. I truly believe that the whole of Torah is an answer to Cain’s question. Yes, I am my brothers’ keeper — and I would add my sisters’ as well. In this second half of the second decade of the 21st century, the greatest challenge to America is not our external enemies, but the lack of civility in our public discourse. I do not believe that American politics have been less civil since the Civil War.
This week it also falls between the Hebrew and secular commemorations of the Six Day War of June 1967. For me, as a 19-year-old college student, that war marked the beginning of my journey as a Jewish activist. Fifty years ago, I believed that the miracle of that military victory would lead to peace between Israel and the Arab world. Ten years later, my hopes, which had dimmed over the decade of conflict that followed, were renewed when Anwar Sadat came to Israel in November 1977. When peace between Egypt and Israel did not lead to an end of the conflict, my belief that peace soon would be achieved were deeply challenged. Fifteen years later, the Oslo Accords of 1992-93 gave me new hope — which were shattered by the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin and the Al Aksa Intifada and the homicide bombings that accompanied it. The failure of American mediation in 2000, 2008, and 2015, under each of the last three American presidents leaves many convinced that a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is unachievable. President Trump, on the other hand, sees it as “the ultimate deal!’’
As a 69-year-old retired rabbi with a lot of time to read and think and continue my journey as a Jewish activist, I actually share President Trump’s optimism that a “deal” can be achieved, and that Israel and Palestine can live side by side in peace. Before progress can be made between these two communities, which share roots and rights in the land we call Eretz Yisrael, however, each side needs to undertake a process of true reconciliation within its respective communities.
For the Jewish people, both within Israel and in the diaspora, our first necessary step is to end the bitter civil war over who is and who is not a Jew, a war in which we have engaged for much of the last 50 years. On the 50th anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem, we, the Jews of the diaspora, along with our Israeli sisters and brothers, must affirm that Jewish unity does not require unanimity of religious or political opinion. From the census in Bamidbar, the people Israel always has been a family with many tribal branches. In the Torah, these divisions are identified by the names of Jacob’s sons. Today, our religious streams and our political affiliations serve a similar role in distinguishing one group of Jews from another. Therefore, as I commit myself, 50 years after the Six Day War, to continue to fight for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish democratic state in the land of Israel, I also re-commit myself to the battle for Jewish pluralism and for mutual respect and recognition for Jews of differing religious streams and political parties, both within Israel and within our American Jewish community.
As an American, on this Memorial Day weekend, 152 years after the end of the Civil War, I invite you all to join me in the great debate over the future of American democracy, liberty and justice, and to do so with civility and respect for those with whom we disagree.
As we begin the reading of the Book of Numbers, may we all count ourselves in as Americans and as Jews. May we also willingly count in to our Jewish community and to our American society all who wish to cast their lot with ours. Then, and only then, can we find ourselves a path out of the midbar — the wilderness of our time.
As I said in blessing the 12th grade graduates of the Temple Avodat Shalom Hebrew High School recently, their challenge and ours was stated most eloquently by my hero David Ben-Gurion, in the aftermath of the Six Day War: “Time works both for us and against us depending upon how we use it.”
Within America, within the Jewish world, and in the world at large, may we use our time, as Psalm 34 mandates us, to “seek peace and pursue it.”