Remembering the Lessons of the Past

Though the purpose of this blog series is to discuss the intersection of technology, defense, and social-religious issues in modern-day Israel, I wanted to take a short diversion to share some thoughts on how recurring themes throughout Jewish history seem to be playing out in our present situation.

Most Israelis, and in fact Jews worldwide, can’t help but feel an increasing sense of foreboding and helplessness.  The hostages are still not free, our sworn enemies are arrogant and seem to be gaining strength, we are vilified on a constant basis by global media outlets and governments, and accused in international court of unspeakable crimes of which we are innocent.   And despite somehow recently emerging relatively unscathed from an unprecedented attack by hundreds of drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic rockets, we know too well that there are many thousands more ready for the next, even larger attack.  In short, we feel exposed, unsafe, vulnerable and not in control.

It suddenly occurred to me, on the last day of Pesach, when we were reading the Torah portion describing the splitting of the sea, that in realty, this psychological reality is an inherent part of the Jewish historical experience.  With the huge Egyptian military on one side, and the impassable Red Sea on the other, our forebearers no doubt felt all these emotions in the most intense, immediate way, and once can almost hear their cries and groans emerging from the text as they grappled with their impossible predicament.   How many times throughout history have Jews found themselves in similar positions which created these same emotional reactions?  While it doesn’t make them any less real or distressing, it is somehow comforting to know that we are not experiencing these feelings alone, but are accompanied by generations of Jews, going back to the times of the Exodus, and through the long and difficult exile, that experienced similar stresses and nonetheless persevered.

Another theme that I found telling was the way the ancient Israelites who were subject to these emotional stresses reacted, and how we hear echoes of those same voices today.  Our national pessimism, and tendency to turn on our leaders the moment things go wrong, are on full display when the Jews cry out (with typical sarcasm) “were there not enough graves in Egypt that you brought us here to die in the wilderness?”  How quickly the sense of unity and shared destiny evaporated!  It’s as if the immediacy of the threat and the feeling of helplessness somehow erases all the previous shared experiences of deliverance and joy, and drives people to break into factions and look for scapegoats.

This parallelism also plays out on the streets of Israel in a remarkably similar way to our early days as a nation.  When threats from outside appear unsurmountable and there seems to be no way out, for many the only solution seems to be to go back to what we had before.  As bad as it was, at least we were used to it!  Pressed in on all sides and distraught, many Jews preferred to depose their leaders and return to bondage.  “Let us make a new leader and go back to October 6th” could be the modern equivalent of how many Israelites reacted to the threat of annihilation on the shores of the Red Sea.

The past also explains the bizarre spectacle of many of Jewish students and activists in the US protesting together with antisemites against Israel.  But through the lens of history, it’s quite understandable.  Many Jews throughout the ages couldn’t stand the pressure of antisemitism and wanted out.  In the old days, they would reject their Jewishness by throwing themselves at the feet of the priest and begging to be taken into the fold, hoping they would finally escape their tormentors.  In this modern, secular age, this takes the form of supplicating before the liberal elites and rejecting their connection to Israel in order to gain acceptance and hoped-for safety.

My point in all of this is not to say that one course of action is better, or that a particular leader is preferable to another; but rather, to remember that being in difficult, even impossible, situations is completely normal for us, and is an inseparable part of our journey as a nation through history.  And to a large degree, it’s beyond our control. Keeping one eye on history, even as we navigate the difficult present, should give us the strength to unite and face these challenges, as one nation with a shared past and destiny.

About the Author
Zev Tyberg attended American and Israeli yeshivas and received Rabbinic ordination from Yeshivas Ohr Hachaim in Queens, NY. He made aliyah with his family in 2003 and lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh. He holds an MBA in International Business and currently works in venture capital.
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