Yael Leibowitz

The hidden power of inconvenient truths

Nostalgia and humiliation. They are powerful, opposing sentiments. And they hide out in our childhood bedrooms. They sit there in the form of journal entries, yearbooks, and summer-camp photo albums. They wait patiently, sometimes for decades, as we morph into adults who settle into the illusion that who we have become is who we have always been. But then, on a random holiday, family get-together, or perhaps when the time comes for that great house to be sold, we wander into that well-trodden territory. The colors seem more faded than we remember, and the space smaller, but every inch is familiar and rife with memories. We open drawers, almost instinctively, to see what is left, and we rifle, unsuspectingly, through letters and trinkets that we never imagined would become relics.

Every personal history encompasses components of pride and of shame. There are choices we are pleased with and accomplishments we worked hard for that, while no longer relevant, are still oddly satisfying. If we are lucky, then sometimes among the trinkets we find trophies, diplomas, or thank-you notes. Tangible evidence of the gratification our efforts once wrought. Those are the parts that are easy to look at. Stare at, even. Because we like the person they conjure. And we like that the origins of us, is someone we still admire.

It’s the other parts that are harder to look at. The parts that remind us of decisions that panned out poorly, of hearts we hurt, and of things we said that we still wish, to this day, we hadn’t uttered. Staring at those parts, is tricky. Because we know they are there, but we also wish they weren’t. Because they remind us of realities, we no longer have the power to change.

Which is where blame comes in. That well-worn, universal defense mechanism. Blame is easy specifically because it’s rooted in reality. Blame your parents and their parenting, your community, and its education. Blame the people in your life at the time, that led you down the wrong path, or the influences that coalesced to inform your bad decisions. Blame external stimuli, and extenuating circumstances, if you are uncomfortable with your past. Because blame absolves, and it vindicates, and it keeps the present you, unconnected.

But blame does something else, too. It stands in the way of progress. You see, those parts of our past that are hard to face, are as, if not more important than, the parts we relish. Because to truly know who we are, and of what we are capable, we have to admit to our wins and our losses. We have to come to terms with the opportunities we maximized and those that we squandered. Doing so is not easy. Blaming entities from the outside is easier. But blame just lands us right back in those very spaces we don’t want to peer.

In just a few days, Jews around the world are going to sit around their seder tables and sing the haunting melody of “Vehi she-amda.” The children at those tables who will likely be distracted by grape juice or hunger pangs, will sing along anyway, because that’s what kids do. And as they sing, they will internalize, perhaps unconsciously, the message some of them already know all-too-well. In each generation they stand against us to destroy us. In every generation, we will tell the next generation through song, our enemies want to annihilate us. And no matter what we do, we cannot escape their baseless loathing, their seething antisemitism, their unstoppable crusades of hate.

Those words are true. And they constitute the story we have been telling for thousands of years. Our enemies destroyed our Temples and exiled us from our beloved land. They persecuted and forcibly displaced us, and when we would not be cowed, they sent us to our deaths.  The words are heartfelt and painful because they are disturbingly, currently, relevant. But they are also not the full story. Those words are the part of the story that relies on blame to evade shame. They highlight the elements from outside that threaten our survival, but in doing so they eclipse what also, always, goes wrong from within.

In 722 BCE, the Assyrians exiled the 10 tribes that made up the northern kingdom of Israel. That is true. And the narrative depiction of it found in Tanakh is easy to read. Not because it isn’t sad, but because we have someone to blame. And that blameworthy enemy is easy to hate. What is harder for us to read are the narratives that precede that one. The ones that describe how corrupt, power-obsessed leaders took bad advice from greedy cronies and tore the nation of Israel in two. In the chapters that follow the schism, we keep waiting for the people, for our ancestors, to comprehend the dangers of that fissure. We wait for the masses to stand up and demand reconciliation. Instead, we watch old resentments linger, and fester, and infect any hopes of reunification. And when the northern tribes are deported and lost somewhere beyond the river, we are horrified by their disappearance. But what sickens us most as we read, is the deafening silence from the south.

In 586 BCE, the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and expelled its inhabitants. That is true. And we read its account, and the poetic dirges written in its aftermath, every ninth of Av. We hate the Babylonians and the evil they embodied, and we hate what they did to us. That hatred has become comfortable. But what about the years before the Babylonians came anywhere near Jerusalem’s gates? Do we read, with equal fury, about the silencing of dissenting voices by our own kings? Or of the imprisonment of those who disagreed with the powers-that-be? Blaming idol-worshipers and imperialists isn’t hard. It’s the obvious move. But when we mourn our losses, do we have the courage to ask how we deteriorated to such a point, that the Babylonians had the gall to show up, armed, at our doorstep?

We rebuilt in 539 BCE, almost lost it again in the 160s BCE, lost most of it in 70 CE, and then the rest in 132 CE. We blame the rock bottoms that we hit on the hideous Greeks and atrocious Romans. And its true, they did things to us that were hideous and atrocious. But the path to that final destruction, slow and jagged as it was, was also inevitable. Because years earlier we had already turned on ourselves. And the moment we do that, we seal our fate. Our enemies are our strawman.

But now we are back, in our national, childhood bedroom once again. In our day, descendants of the northern kingdom who have been trickling in slowly over decades, have been met by descendants of the southern kingdom who fought for, and rebuilt this land. For the third time, we find ourselves in a space littered with shards of our past. Excavations of ancient palaces and fortifications stand alongside modern shopping malls and plaques commemorating recent military victories. We look at our trophies, that seem to collapse time, and we have every right to be proud. But there is a fine line between pride and hubris. And it is the same line that stands between abiding historical accomplishments and short-lived triumphs. It is the line drawn by our willingness to face everything in the room, and to own all of it. The parts we rejoice in, and those that make us squirm. And the endurance of what we are building this time around, will depend on our ability to teach the children sitting around our seder tables to do the same. To show them, through the choices we make today, that the only way to evolve beyond the mistakes of our past is by conceding to, and learning from, them.

It means acknowledging that in our generation, as in every generation, there are still those outside that seek to destroy us. But that we have always been, and will always be, the greatest threat to our own survival. It means seeing that people in Israel, from all different sectors are in pain, and that if we want to be different this time around, then we need to create space for all of that pain’s colors and variations. We need to make sure that every member of our nation knows that there is a place for him or her, in this land. And also, that living together necessarily entails mutual respect and compromise.  We need to sing with the children at our tables, and tell them all of it. Because the pain around us is deep, and it is substantial. But we can surmount this moment if above all, we make sure not to turn into the version of our national self we are most inclined to blame on others.

This time around, we have built something extraordinary. Let’s protect it, fiercely, with the lessons gleaned from inconvenient truths.

About the Author
Yael Leibowitz has her Master’s degree in Judaic Studies from Columbia University. Prior to making aliyah, Yael taught Tanakh at the Upper School of Ramaz, and then went on to join the Judaic Studies faculty at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. She has taught Continuing Education courses at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and served as Resident Scholar at the Jewish Center of Manhattan. She is currently teaching at Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Studies, and is a frequent lecturer in North America and the United Kingdom.
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