Bethlehem: Burial place to birth place

A fence is erected across a road. A reformer goes up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” A more considerate reformer, according to English novelist G.K. Chesterton, will respond: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

Dismissiveness reigns supreme in today’s political climate.  Yet perhaps something can gained from discerning an approach’s validity prior to its disposal.  Such an exercise is far from futile.

Bethlehem is introduced to history in this week’s portion of Torah.  The town is first mentioned as the burial site for our matriarch Rachel (Gen 35:19).  The circumstances of her sudden death are tragic.  She dies because she is unintentionally cursed.  The person who loves her most, her husband Jacob, is unaware that she is culpable for having stolen her father’s idols.  So when Jacob rashly swears “Let the one who is found in possession of your idols not continue to live” (Gen. 31:32), Rachel’s demise is irreversibly determined.  Her destiny might be associated forevermore with ill-fated tragedy.

But her burial plot’s proximity to Jerusalem makes her available as an eventual witness to her descendants’ march into Exile many centuries later.  Hope is born when God promises a grieving Rachel, “there is a reward for your lamenting, your children will someday return home” (Jer. 31:14-16).  Rachel’s death and burial are transformed by history from a story of tragedy to a story of hope.  Sometimes when we linger and ponder over ill-fated approaches something helpful comes to pass.

This paradigm feels more fruitful in today’s free-for-all.  It certainly trumps the ‘zero-sum world’ that only makes space for winners and losers.  It also seems more effective that ‘victim-villain world’ which makes us too passive.

Infantilizing opponents is more likely to inflame than influence them.  We like it when people treat our views with nuance and curiosity.  This is no less true for those who see entirely different problems and solutions than we see.  The recklessness of their worldview is repugnant.  Yet if we endeavor to seek some validity in the worries and wishes of others, they just might return the favor by seeing worthiness in our worries and wishes.  Fight them by growing them.

Condemn what’s wrong.  But if you want the electorate to behave more responsibly, begin at home before turning to your neighbor’s house.  Ascertain why the erected fence is useful before you dismantle it.  If Bethlehem could begin as a burial place and become a birthplace, perhaps we can work to turn today’s trials into touchstones for worthier tomorrows.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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