Puzzles and Visions

I find puzzles absolutely fascinating!  Crossword puzzles, Find the Word, Jigsaw Puzzles, computer games (not the violent ones) as well as optical illusions, are great ways to exercise the mind.  There is one puzzle, however, with which I and the world have been most fascinated and intrigued:  The Jewish People.

By all accounts, we Jews should no longer be walking this earth, disappearing millennia ago because of reasons, so obvious, there is no need to repeat them here.  In fact, according to the late and, as far as I am unconcerned, unlamented British historian, Arnold Toynbee, Jews are nothing more than “fossils of history”.

Nu! He’s dead and we’re still alive; back to puzzles.

For those who hate, the anti-Semite, Haman, Pharaoh, Hitler, or the anonymous anti-Semite spewing garbage via social media, the Jew is ever-present, ever-threatening, ever-hovering.  The anti-Semite sees what he wishes to see:  Jews are the ultimate cause for every natural, economic, and societal disaster.  For the one who loves Jews, the philo-Semite, the Jew might seem to be everywhere, but it’s not a problem.  One is puzzled by Jews and hates them for it; the other, also puzzled by Jews, but loves them because of it.

Neither one concerns me as much as the Jew who is puzzled about her own Jewish identity and finds nothing of value or meaning to it.

What triggered this train of thought was the above photograph.  Six massive pieces of granite, delicately balanced on top of the other, seemingly ready to topple over at any moment, and between them, a spire, ready to pierce the very heavens.  Located at Yad VaShem, it is a memorial to Jewish soldiers and Partisans who lost their lives, fighting against the Nazis and their allies.

Oh yes, the stones also form a Magen David, the Shield of David, the Jewish Star.

Why do I consider this object to be emblematic for Jews, puzzled by their Jewish identity?

Because the Magen David can be visualized, only when the invisible lines formed by the stones are connected in the viewers’ mind.  To see it, one is required to not only observe what is, but have a vision of what might be, to focus, not on that which is seen, but rather, on the empty spaces between the jagged edges of the stones.

Like moments in Jewish history, our people have been blessed with numerous opportunities to focus on vision, those empty spaces between the jagged edges of stones and visualize what could be.   At times we have followed the vision, at other times, rejected it.

An example of that rejection of vision is found in Exodus 13:18b: “…the Israelites went up, armed (חמושים) from the land of Egypt.”  In the “Mechilta”, an almost 2,000 year old collection of Midrashic commentaries on Exodus, is found a different (though equally correct) alternative translation of the word, חמושים, not meaning “armed”, but rather: “1/5th or 20%.”  Using that translation, the verse would now read: “20% of the Israelites went up from Egypt.”

What happened to the other 80%?  They remained in Egypt, preferring to remain slaves, rather than acting on the vision of freedom.  They preferred their status quo as slaves, rather than visioning a journey into the unknown, as a free people.  Of the remaining 80%, nothing is ever heard from them again! They died out and disappeared, “not with a bang, but a whimper.”

And the ones who left, following the vision of freedom?  One of their descendants is writing these words.

Predating the Pareto Principle: “80% of the work gets done by 20% of the people,” by almost 3,000 years, our People’s narrative became written by those Jews who maintained the vision and succeeded in connecting the lines.  They taught that we, who have followed in their footsteps, how to see the Magen David, found in the empty space between the jagged edges of the stones, for ourselves.

For the Jewish People of today, the descendants of the 20% who left Egypt, following the vision of freedom, those granite stones represent a proud People, who, despite tenuous, terrifying, and uncertain times, remain strong, still look forward, still celebrate the holiness of Life and Oneness of God.  We dare not dismiss those who may have never learned the history that vision or how to see the Star for themselves, for they are us, part of that same 20% who once did.

A puzzle can be solved in several ways:  Discovering the solution, asking for help, looking in the back of the book for the answers or just throwing it away.   Throughout the ages, many of those solutions were tried upon us, including attempting to toss us onto the trash heap of history.

We’re still here, while the perpetrators, joining Toynbee themselves, have been relegated to the dusty bookshelves of history.

The Puzzle of the Jewish People can be solved only through personal inner spiritual struggle, honest questioning and actively seeking answers.  If and when we are asked to describe our own solution to the Jewish Puzzle, we must answer with pride and yes, with excitement, how, the surviving remnant of Israel, our family, with Chutzpah, Mazel, and Grace of God, has changed the world.  To remind the questioner, as well as ourselves, that Jewish history has been made by those 20% of our people, who have followed a dream, worked toward fulfillment of the vision, and promise of a better tomorrow.

By remembering that we are not just descendants, but also ancestors for the next generation of questioners, will our personal answers to the eternal Jewish Puzzle be solved, invisible lines be connected, and a vision, vaguely seen between the ragged granite edges of our story, begin to take shape, at last.

About the Author
Rabbi Norman S. Lipson is Founding Rabbi of Temple Dor Dorim in Weston, Florida. Israel advocacy and education have been in the forefront of Rabbi Lipson's more than 50 years in the rabbinate. Having led numerous Pilgrimages to Israel, he teaches about Israel and Judaism through inter-faith and adult education programs in South Florida. A graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, he holds a Master's Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. He is the author of two books: “How Many Memories Make a Minyan?” and “Rabbi, My Dog Ate My Shofar!” both available on Kindle Bookstore.