Mattot or Masei and Fraying Threads

Diaspora Jewry and Israel are out of sync. In fact we have been reading different Torah portions.

Since the concluding Shabbat of Pesach Israeli Jews have been reading the portion ahead of that in the diaspora. Let me explain. In Israel, Pesach is celebrated for seven days. In the diaspora for eight days. The reason for this is ancient. Millennia ago when the rabbis delineated the calendar they determined that the months and their holidays would be determined in the physical, and later spiritual, center of the Jewish world: Jerusalem. Worried that the message might take too long to communicate from Jerusalem to distant communities they instituted a second holiday day for those living outside of the land of Israel. And thus in the diaspora a one day holiday becomes two days and a seven day holiday becomes eight.

This year, in Israel, the first day of Pesach fell on Saturday and the seventh on Friday. There on the Shabbat following the conclusion of the holiday they moved on to the weekly portion and read Achrei Mot. We on the other hand read the portion assigned to the second Shabbat of Passover. We did not return to the portion of the week until the following Shabbat. We have been behind Israel ever since.  Finally this week we arrive at the double portion Mattot-Masei with which we conclude the Book of Numbers.  In Israel they read our double portion over two weeks.

Now the entire Jewish world is back on the same page.

Still this rare circumstance has caused me to ponder the growing distance between Israel and the diaspora, most especially among our youth.  Sometimes I wonder if this growing divide is not the most serious threat facing the Jewish people.  Zionism set out not only to resettle the land of Israel and there build a sovereign Jewish state, but also to rehabilitate the Jewish people.  Zionism was not only about protecting the Jewish body but also about reinvigorating the Jewish soul.  In some regards this has been a remarkable success.  Here is but one example. Hebrew poets and authors are translated into a multitude of other languages.  I cannot imagine a modern Jewish identity without a passionate relationship with the State of Israel.  And yet in other ways I see a widening chasm.

Israeli leaders continue to speak about security and the country’s many external threats. Many American Jews, most especially our youth, do not understand, appreciate, or even agree with these assessments.  They see a powerful, modern army that can most certainly defend itself.  They see Israeli soldiers working check points, some of which will forever be necessary because of continued terrorist attacks, and some of which are only required because Israel maintains a presence in much of the West Bank.  Our children are rightly in love with democracy and the values they have learned here in the United States.  This is the gift of America.  They see a Jewish state growing more distant from these democratic values, the very same values upon which Israel was also founded.  It is these values that bind our two countries together.  It is not just about shared security interests and defense budgets.

That is their perception. No talking points memo or video or email chain is going to undo this perception. It is not just about better PR.  It is not only about our saying, “If only our children read what I read or could see what I saw or understood what I understand.  If only they could remember our feelings of terror that preceded the 1967 Six Day War.  We really felt that Israel might be pushed into the sea!”  To their ears such words sound condescending and patronizing.

I do not wish to take sides in the great debates facing Israeli society as much as dwell on the distance and gap between the diaspora and Israeli Jews.  I worry that it may be a threat that is even more significant than all the rockets turned against Israeli cities.  The majority of the world’s Jews live either here in the United States or in Israel.  If our children will not rise up to defend the Jewish state then who will?  That is what I most want.  Children, and students, who will love Israel with all their hearts and souls.

And so perhaps we should listen to our children.  Perhaps we should hear their concerns and worries.  If we believe that loving Israel is an important part of being Jewish in today’s world then we had better start supporting them and helping them to figure out what their love might look like.  It may come with more criticism than we are comfortable with but as long as such critique comes from love then we should be not only accepting but proud.  If it is first about love then it should not matter if their love looks different than our love.

You can criticize our youth for favoring liberalism over Jewish peoplehood, but that will not help.  Let’s be honest about the cause of this gap.  The majority of our youth do in fact favor the rights of the stranger over settling all the land of Israel.  I am interested in traversing the divide. As long as Israeli leaders speak more about the land rather than minority rights the chasm will grow wider. We would do well to hear our children’s voices.

Nonetheless come next week we will once again be on the same page.  Throughout the Jewish world we will open our Torah scrolls to the first words of the Book of Deuteronomy, set on the edges of the Promised Land. “The Lord your God has given you this land…” (Deuteronomy 3:18)

And I for one will relish in this Shabbat gift. The thread that binds Jews together will seemingly be repaired.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L'Dor V'Dor, a community serving Long Island's North Shore. He began his rabbinical career in 1991 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He travels every summer to Jerusalem to learn at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow. Rabbi Moskowitz is married to Rabbi Susie Moskowitz and is the father of Shira and Ari.
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