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Are We Israel? Are We Yehudim?

Long time readers know that I believe that the Jacob we met three weeks ago was an embarrassment for a patriarch.  He lies, deceives, cheats, and takes advantage of his brother. He earned his right to be considered an honored patriarch last week when he wrestled with the mysterious being that some traditional commentators believed was an agent of Esau, but was actually the problematic part of himself he wanted to project onto Esau.  When Jacob comes to terms with his own past he calls the place of his wrestling “Peniel” because “I saw the God face to face and survived.” (Genesis 32:31)  When he reconciles with Esau the next day he says that looking into his brother’s face is like  looking into “Pnei Elohim” – the Face of God. (Genesis 33:10) Jacob is the imperfect human being who has the courage and ability time and again to acknowledge his mistakes and correct them.

However, improving ourselves is not a one-time event or unidirectional process.  Again this week Jacob errs.  He sets up the enmity between Joseph and his brothers. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow teaches, he will demonstrate that he has learned from his mistakes when he blesses Joseph’s children together. We human beings err and fall, then hopefully pick ourselves up. We often fall again, and again need to reconnect with our highest selves.  This is a lifelong process.

This week the Judah we first meet is not a particularly admirable character.  He is the ringleader in selling his brother Joseph into slavery, although he arguably prevents the other brothers from killing him. He denies Tamar the right of levirate marriage. He consorts with Tamar, when she is disguised as a prostitute. He eventually acknowledges that Tamar is more righteous than he, and will eventually demonstrate newfound concern for his father when he offers himself as a slave instead of Benjamin because he knows that Benjamin not coming home would kill Jacob/Israel.

Jacobs growth was symbolized last week by his receiving the new name “Israel” because he had “struggled with God and humans, and prevailed.” To this day, we are known as “Israel” or “the people of Israel” or “the children of Israel.”  Of course, our state is also called. Israel.  Judah in Hebrew is “Yehudah,” and the word for “Jews is “Yehudim.”

The State of Israel that has always been plagued by human rights violations, but we can only be embarrassed and horrified  that we have now openly and knowingly voted for extremist advocates of massive human rights violations towards non-Jews, the LGBTQ community, non-Orthodox religious Jews and women, and whose first Finance Minister will be an open advocate of neo-liberal policies violating the human rights of Israeli Jews living in poverty. Last Shabbat was also International Human Rights Day.   Israel is drifting farther and farther from the principles of international law we celebrated. We are slapping in the face the many Jews whose Jewish values and consciousness of Jewish history drove them to be primary authors of these principles representing the highest aspirations of humanity.

Now the question is will  we prove ourselves to be worthy descendants of Jacob and Judah?  Will we succeed in wrestling with our demons and prevail? This is our moment of truth. We are being tested.  We are at a moment when each of us is called to say “Hineni – I am here. Count me in to be a part of the struggle for our Jewish values, human rights and decency.  Our side is being dragged across the line in a very serious game of tug of war. Will we collapse, or find the inner resources to dig in and pull back?

Our ancestors teach us that we can and must pick ourselves up. We need not despair when we, our people and or our country act in ways that we cannot be proud of.  The question is what do we do next?

We are being tested. Are we worthy of the name “Israel?” Are we worthy of calling ourselves “Yehudim?”

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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