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‘The pliancy of Hebrew genius’

Some years ago, Matan Yaffe was riding his motor scooter in the south of Israel. It was an ordinary sun-baked Wednesday afternoon in the Negev Desert. He moved to the right to let a pickup truck pass. It soon became clear that the passengers, rowdy Bedouins in their early twenties, were trying to run him off the road. They climbed out demanding he give them his motor bike.

When he refused, they said, “We can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way.” A couple of them went back to the truck to retrieve lead pipes. As they came toward him with menacing intent, he removed a handgun from his satchel, saying “Why don’t you just get back in your truck and be on your way.” They did decide to retreat, but not without shouting expletives at him. The experience was most unpleasant.

What did Matan do in response? After returning safely home to his wife and their newborn child, he decided to establish an organization dedicated to changing the future for Bedouin youth. This is a population that’s been riddled with substance abuse and low rates of professional initiative. Today, Desert Stars has grown into one of the region’s most effective NGOs, instilling responsibility and promise in the lives of tens of thousands of Bedouin teens and young adults.

When people ask me, What is Zionism? I tell them stories like this one. Zionist stories tell of turning trouble into opportunity. They dismiss the trap of victimhood. They turn over the soil of low points, unearthing their fertility. Novelist George Eliot marveled at what she called ‘the pliancy of Hebrew genius’, its capacity to turn every difficulty into a new device. Particularly when we were hunted and hated, we generatively enlarged our spiritual storehouses.

Today it’s entirely understandable to feel despair. A new wave of Jew-hatred has begun to endorse and even mainstream what they duplicitously call violent resistance against us and our institutions. Despair is what our adversaries seek to instill. Where then can we turn?

This week’s portion of Torah offers the original recipe for what the Zionist spirit normalized. Moses hits rock bottom. Having been bombard by complaints and metastasizing rejection, his lowest point comes when he says to God, “And if this is how you treat me, kill me, if I have found favor in your eyes, let me not continue to see my suffering” (Num. 11:15). God responds practically. The Lord tells Moses to invite seventy elders to collect at the Tent of Meeting so that Moses’s spirit can be placed upon them. So much does this strengthen Moses, he is soon be ready to declare, “would that all of God’s people were prophets” (Num. 11:29). The more eyes on a problem, the shallower it gets.

Zionism is simply the most recent incarnation of this brilliant alchemy that activates us when we’re most susceptible to despair, at times when the heaviness of overwhelming challenges continues to mount. Not only do ominous attacks spark restorative initiatives, our resilient fiber turns threats into productivity engines.

Paraphrasing the words of Tel Aviv-based writer and political leader Einat Wilf, “You can’t bully a people that knows itself, that knows it has nothing to be ashamed of, and isn’t looking for the approval of others in the first place.” Instead, we respond to bullying not only by stoping it as Matan Yaffe did, but also by inventing fresh ways to lend strength and hope to others.

When you’re feeling worn down, torn down, or let down, may your proud history remind you of your people’s royalty in resilience.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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