Reclaiming history

As seventy Nations have gathered to tell the Jews what’s good for them — because the members of the “global community” know so well how to ensure peace, security and tranquility within and without their own borders — it’s time for a small rant:

This week in particular, I noticed it’s good to pay attention to our fundamental Text (especially Parshat HaShavua) now and again. This week’s parsha, coincidentally, reminds us that Jewish claims to Hevron and Jerusalem are far more legitimate than, say, John Kerry’s right to a home in Back Bay in Massachusetts (yes, a pure Native American name). It would behoove European transplants to North America — whose forebears are supremely guilty of colonizing an indigenous people and forcing them onto Reservations — to think twice before telling other people, halfway around the world — who were serially run off their land but prayed for millennia to return to it, and finally have — that they are “illegal settlers” who must now surrender that land to relatively recent colonizers from Arabia – who now claim indigeneity …  I’m just sayin’. It is remarkably galling, as well, to be lectured on “international law,” democracy and human rights by those whose ideological commitment to those concepts begins and ends with Israel.

As the Torah Parsha of last Shabbat set the stage for the paradigm of Jewish national exile, the text went out if its way –twice — to mention the heritage of Jacob with regard to Hevron, in paticular. That’s striking – or should be for anyone sensiive to the text.

Yes, history is “complicated,” but made all the more so by the fact we often don’t regard our own seriously enough to speak the truth about it – and take all of it to heart with the profundity it merits. Why we have adopted the narrative of the West and allowed our cousins to paint us as European colonizers is becoming less and less obvious to me.

The raw ideational power of the Tanach is astounding, if one but takes the time and effort to absorb its messages and stops viewing it as merely “ancient history.” I’ll stack it unapologetically against any other ” founding narrative” on the globe for the radical universalism of its message, when properly understood. Its messages still resonate and it’s no accident that our nation punches way above its physical weight in the world. We are hardly paupers in the marketplace of ideas.

A huge portion of what was great about America, which now chooses to shed all notions of “exceptionalism,” were the utterly exceptional values it nursed from authentic Jewish heritage.. The Hebrew Bible is the source of the Western notion that all of Humanity began from a single set of parents and therefore are family. Stunning. Add to that the notion that all Mankind shares Divine Breath and is meant to steward the Earth and are partners in Divine creation. That’s the bedrock foundation for the otherwise totally counter-intuitive declaration of the “self-evident” truth that all Men are created equal. In that context, it is worth recalling that Jewish law forbade the return of runaway slaves (while failing to return a runaway slave was a capital offense in America, until not so long ago.) Just for fun, reconsider the Old Testament notion of a woman captured in battle. … usually painted as a nod to barbarism. But wait – the conquering soldier is mandated to let a captured woman mourn her parents for a month. She can not be abused. What? a subdued enemy has feelings? Parents? … They are fellow humans and not merely spoils for the victor? In the period and geography when and where these passages became law, such notions were beyond radical. Indeed they remain so today. The Land of Israel was meant to be the Petri dish for an exceptional idea of what nationhood is meant to be.

Only in a sovereign country – not subject to others’ authority … where a People – as well as individuals – must grapple with what it means to wield national power, can Jews fulfill their potential. It is time to shed the stifling mentality of 4 Exiles. We have learned their lessons. This last one has decimated us physically and now threatens to divorce us from our national mission. Enough. Since we have just come off of Chanukka and are barreling towards Purim, I’ll mention one other tidbit. The Purim story occurs 70 years after start of Babylonian Exile… When the prophecy said that exile was to end – but the populace was still sitting in Bavel… so unconscious that they were feasting from the vessels of the Beit HaMikdash. We read that verse in Eichah trop, no less – but we are still too stupefied to to pay attention. The clear, if implicit, message of the story’s narrator is that the turn of fortune which results in great physical danger to the Jews is a direct result of not returning when they had the chance…

At the end of the Purim story, the Jews are still sitting in Bavel. The message is not learned.

Returning to the Land is not enough, either. The very land Ertetz Yisrael is spiritually sensitive. If Jews do not live in Israel properly, they get thrown out. The paradigmatic punishment for moral failure is, after all, Exile.

It is hardly coincidental that the Tanach begins with the the creation of Heaven and Earth and the final Chapter in Devarim is book-ended by Moses calling Heaven and Earth as witnesses. Moshe spends the last chapters of his life entreating and warning Jews to pay attention to their mission  and to beware the consequences of failure. The Prophrets after the Pentateuch are mostly devoted to telling us why we were thrown or would be thrown out again. We are one of the most self-crtical nations on the Planet – and that’s a good thing. Those who demonize and delegitimize our national aspirations — or hector us for failing to live up to them — should only be blessed with but a fraction of that quality.

Israel is a particularly dangerous place to get a big head. I can’t help but think that now is a particularly auspicious and necessary time to stop living a truncated Judaism and to again embrace the fullness of our Heritage. We have tried living Torah outside of the Land that all of Genesis sets the stage for inhabiting and developing and building a Mikdash that is meant to be a called a House of Prayer for all nations. We have also tried living in the Land and pitching the “outdated” portions of the very Torah upon which our claims to the Land ultimately lie. We have tried living Torah in the Land but absorbing only the lessons of Vayikra to the exclusion of Bereishit … and vice versa. Maybe it’s time to finally reintegrate ourselves – to re-member whom we were meant to be … who we truly are — and live that.

About the Author
Elihu D Stone practiced law in Boston, Massachusetts and is currently a member of the Israeli Bar; He is involved in the Al Durah Project, an initiative dedicated to understanding and countering the dilemmas and vulnerabilities that face democratic cultures in this age of aggressive asymmetric and cognitive warfare. Elihu has been privileged to serve in leadership roles for a variety of Jewish communal organizations and is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Foundation. The writer currently maintains a U.S. life insurance clientele and lives in Efrat, Israel
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