Joshua Weinberg

A Time to Embrace

I was sitting on a bench outside of our synagogue during a break between services on Yom Kippur. A woman in her late sixties approached me and sat down. “I’ve been a lifelong liberal,” she explained. “I protested Vietnam, burned my bra, and voted Democratic in every election since I could vote, but for some reason, I can’t talk to my kids about Israel*,” she lamented. She explained that her two children, in their late 20s and early 30s, have “gone off the deep end. They see Israel as an apartheid and imperialist state and are embarrassed by Zionism and a Jewish State. They’re my kids and I love them, and I feel that I’ve imparted to them my strong commitment to justice, equality, and human rights, AND we took them to Israel several times and sent them on programs … but now when I dare to express any sort of pride in or affinity with the Jewish State they tune out and treat me as though I’m ancient, out of touch, and a supporter of an oppressive regime. It’s heartbreaking.”

We talked for a while, and while there is no perfect response that will ease her heartache over these different worldviews, I offered the following.

“Invite them into your Sukkah.”

“We live in New York, we don’t have a Sukkah,” she retorted.

“Right, of course… but you know what I mean.”

Invite them in and listen to them. Sukkot is a time when we’re meant to leave our comfort zones, to brave the elements and contemplate the fragility and vulnerability of human existence while dwelling in impermanent and ephemeral structures. Sukkot perfectly balances the particular and the universal as we’re told to “rejoice in OUR holiday.” Pilgrims came to Jerusalem from around the world to offer sacrifices for the well-being of all [70] nations (Sukkah 55b)[1].

Sukkot is not only about a temporary dwelling, shaking leaves, and citrus fruit. It’s about welcoming people in – people you know and love, and people you’d like to know better. It’s about our ancient past and future, about following the rules of hosting a guest in one’s tent.

In Bedouin culture, if guests arrive at your tent, they cannot be questioned for three days. Only after three days pass, are the Bedouin permitted to inquire of their guests.

So, ask clarifying questions only. Don’t challenge them. Open your heart and try to understand their worldview. Don’t try to convince them or demonstrate that you know better.  Avoid the old “but, what about all the wonderful things that Israel does…” And please, do whatever you can to stay away from unwieldy comparisons such as “but what about the human rights violations of Syria, Iran, Sudan, Myanmar, Eritrea, China,” or any one of your favorite despotic regimes?

Demonstrate your curiosity.

If you believe that our younger generation realized they are powerful (based on the theory of the mighty and powerful Yelp review), and that they profess to hold a truth weaponized to combat higher power; we must employ a sense of ‘Radical Curiosity,’ which, as author Seth Goldenberg writes, can be “translated into an inquiry-based methodology that has the power to transform the way we live.”

Rest assured, I told my friend, your “legacy narrative” will lose out to their “challenger narrative” every time. The challenger narrative is a new idea looking to replace “legacy narratives.” “Challenger narratives” can feel as if born out of thin air when, in reality, seeds of these new beliefs have been germinating for some time. The success of challenger narratives comes, as Goldenberg explains:

“As a testament to the power of movements – and of those who challenge the social systems that are no longer relevant to enough of us. Too often, legacy narratives serve only a small group of people who possess power or, at their most destructive, actively disempower certain groups, populations, or ways of being in the world. When social systems fail to truly serve vast numbers of people and communities, that is when we see challenger narratives begin to emerge.”
(Radical Curiosity: Questioning Commonly Held Beliefs to Imagine Flourishing Future by Seth Goldenberg)

We are in a profound moment of friction, uncertainty, and change. We are facing a moment known as “cultural interregnum,” or the messy middle space in which both legacy and challenger narratives exist simultaneously. The theory of Radical Curiosity suggests that the most complex challenges of life require us to ask deeper questions, not seek easier answers.

For decades Israel’s hasbara[2] approach has been to equip dedicated “explainers” with talking points, quips, retorts, and tricks to win arguments and improve Israel’s image in the world. This often comes across as cheap, superficial, and futile, as it just doesn’t really work all that well.

Sukkot is not about superficiality and cheap tricks. It’s about grappling with the meaning of life, which is one reason we read the scroll of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes).

Kohelet, traditionally attributed to King Solomon, portrays a pessimistic premise and opens with the famous declaration that “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Kohelet 1:2).

However, by the third chapter, we are given a list of 14 couplets of 28 activities that find their proper time under the sun. Each of them is the opposite of its counterpart. Yet, the fact that these activities are the opposite of the one with which they’re paired doesn’t change the fact that there’s an appropriate time for each of the activities mentioned.

עֵ֣ת לַחֲב֔וֹק וְעֵ֖ת לִרְחֹ֥ק מֵחַבֵּֽק (קהלת ג:ה)

“A time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces;” (Kohelet 3:5)

Now is the time to embrace. Embrace your children. Embrace those whom you love, but don’t agree with. Embrace others doesn’t mean embracing their views. You can find the time to embrace, and at the same time disagree.

Understanding the difference here is important. While I advocate for “embracing” (engaging, speaking with, listening to) graduates of our programs, camps, and schools who tout views antithetical to what I regard as the core values of Judaism, I do not say the same about those who are threats to all that is good and decent in the world. I do not embrace White Supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and other evil actors (nor do I invite them into my Sukkah). I also avoid embracing popular Israeli politicians such as Itamar Ben Gvir, Avi Maoz, and Betzalel Smotrich as their vitriolic hate is, arguably, Israel’s greatest threat from within.

The distortion of what Israel really is is exacerbated with simplistic stories of settler violence resulting in the deaths of either IDF soldiers or Palestinians as a consequence of violence in the West Bank.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian writer and storyteller shared a poignant observation about the flattening of the world in her aptly titled landmark TED Talk “Dangers of a Single Story”:

“I recently spoke at a university where a student told me it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had recently read a novel called American Psycho, and that it was a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.”

We have to tell more than one story about Israel, to emphasize that it is a complex and diverse nation with people from around the world. If we fail to embrace our children, despite their challenging views, we risk doing far more damage than good.
Maya Angelou said:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Sukkot is about feeling that warm embrace, and that despite our differences, we are family and a People.  It will take time to get to the heart of the matter. Time that cannot be rushed. The Sukkot approach of welcoming in, listening, and embracing is what’s needed now. The Yom Kippur approach is over. Beating our chests in sorrow and in repentance for our misguided ways is unlikely to generate the outcomes we desire.
Kohelet reminds us that:

וְשַׁ֣בְתִּֽי אֲנִ֗י וָאֶרְאֶה֙ אֶת־כׇּל־הָ֣עֲשֻׁקִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר נַעֲשִׂ֖ים תַּ֣חַת הַשָּׁ֑מֶשׁ וְהִנֵּ֣ה ׀ דִּמְעַ֣ת הָעֲשֻׁקִ֗ים וְאֵ֤ין לָהֶם֙ מְנַחֵ֔ם וּמִיַּ֤ד עֹֽשְׁקֵיהֶם֙ כֹּ֔חַ וְאֵ֥ין לָהֶ֖ם מְנַחֵֽם׃ (ד:א)

“I further observed all the oppression that goes on under the sun: the tears of the oppressed, with none to comfort them; and the power of their oppressors—with none to comfort them.” (4:1)

This year as we finish our week of Sukkah-dwelling, and as we contemplate life, the future, and our legacy narratives, maybe it is our children who remind us that there are a lot of oppressed people out there. Most of us have the luxury of going back inside after our week when so many more will still be vulnerable, unstable, and oppressed. Who, if not we, should hear their cries?


*For further reading on this please see this important book by Rabbi John Rosove:
Why Israel Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation (New Jersey: Ben Yehuda Press, 2019)

[1] אמר רבי [אלעזר] הני שבעים פרים כנגד מי – כנגד שבעים אומות…

  1. [Elazar] stated: “To what do those seventy bullocks [that were offered during the seven days of the Festival] correspond? To the seventy nations of the world…

[2] The term hasbara – הסברה literally means “explaining,” as in “I will explain to you how this works,” or “let me explain to you the reason why that happened.” But essentially refers to P.R., advocacy efforts, and could refer to spin doctoring or even propaganda. (Interestingly enough, the modern Hebrew invention for “mansplaining” is: “להסגביר”, which is a portmanteau of הסברה = explaining, and גבר = man, but I digress…)

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Vice President for Israel and Reform Zionism for the URJ, and President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York.