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The siren in our time of solitude calls to life

The siren's call makes me sorrow for a nation on the brink of extinction -- before it reverses course to rise up like a phoenix, with its iridescent colors of survival
In a different year, when social distancing was not yet relevant: people stand in silence next to graves of Israeli soldiers at the Mt. Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, as a two-minute siren sounded across Israel, marking Memorial Day which commemorates Israel's fallen soldiers and victims of terror. April 18, 2018. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)
In a different year, when social distancing was not yet relevant: people stand in silence next to graves of Israeli soldiers at the Mt. Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, as a two-minute siren sounded across Israel, marking Memorial Day which commemorates Israel's fallen soldiers and victims of terror. April 18, 2018. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

These are strange times. Many of us are scared, anxious, crippled by uncertainty and fed up. The unprecedented scenes we marvel at twice a year here in Israel, when everything stops and everyone comes to a standstill for the siren of Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron, have ironically, become the norm. No cars on the road, no people in the street, no shops open. We are at a permanent standstill.

The siren in Israel has a double connotation that parallels the role of another more ancient siren — the shofar. Its first function was used to herald the approach of an enemy, like the siren today it warned of an encroaching attack awakening feelings of fear allied to a particular danger. Its second function was more ceremonial, blown on occasions such as Rosh Hashanah and ultimately to herald the messiah at the time of redemption. At these times, like the siren on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron, it also provoked feelings of fear, or more accurately existential angst as the people reflected on their individual role in the great national drama as well as the hope allied to the ultimate redemption.

In the last few months, the feelings we align with our “siren” moment in both its guises here in Israel are ones many people have been nursing individually: feelings of loss, grief, fear, anxiety, hope and redemption. We haven’t needed our “siren” or “shofar” to trigger an awakening, the coronavirus crisis has done it for us. Humanity as whole has been traveling a path the well known philosopher Heidegger described as “being towards death.” In other words coming face to face with our mortality, our finitude and in doing so searching for an authentic way to live. Having paused from the distractions of modern living, having been forcefully constrained to the boundaries of our natural habitat, having been faced with the uncertainty and fragility of human existence, many people are reassessing priorities, being forced to reframe their lives, relationships, work and their perception of self. In so many ways, this moment in the history of humanity, is a universal mirror of the particular moment we live every year when we pause our lives during the siren.

In the classes I have been teaching at Matan this year (and more recently over Zoom) I have been teaching the book of Genesis, in particular focusing on the narratives of Jacob. Jacob the father of our nation endures more loss, trauma, growth, transformation and nurtured resilience than the average person. In many ways, his story is one that resonates with us so remarkably today. His is a life lived through a lifetime of scars and a journey of discovery towards self and God. The motifs that surround his central narratives are infused with contrary images, day and night, sight and blindness, light and dark, chaos and order, certainty and uncertainty. If we wanted to believe the black and white narrative of good and bad, right and wrong as the road to the ideal religious character, the stories of Jacob topple that conception almost from the start. At first it seems the categories fit. Jacob and Esau, good and bad — the tent dweller, naïve, righteous, good; the hunter, red covered in blood, deceptive, greedy and impetuous.

And then, in one fell swoop, the categories we are so convinced of that frame our cognitive reality are shattered. Jacob becomes (both literally and metaphorically) Esau, the hero becomes the villain, the simple naïve tzaddik metamorphizes beyond recognition, leaving both us, the dedicated reader, and him, the protagonist being forced to face up to new categories, new interpretations of text and new perceptions of self, new realities that force us beyond our comfort zones and compel us to live with the shadow of ambivalence. And this metamorphosis is not easy or painless, as the very fact of our humanity means we will suppress this realization. We tend towards easy answers and simple and certain constructs that provide us with security and control in a world that often displays the opposite. But as Heidegger and many of the existentialist philosophers suggest, there comes a moment that the fears we all nurse in our everyday lives transform into what can be termed “angst” — that is an anxiety allied to our feeling of mortality and our encounter with the fact that we are “being towards death.” This should ideally trigger a search for authenticity. As I said, perhaps the “corona age” is humanity’s moment of “being towards death” and perhaps we have what to learn in coping with its fallout from our forefather Jacob.

As Jacob returns from his time with Laban and prepares for the encounter with his estranged brother, he sends a messenger to his Esau who returns, informing Jacob of his brothers approach along with 400 men, the text tells us “ וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד, וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ” – he feared and was very distressed (Genesis 32:8). The commentaries question the repetitive phraseology offering various explanations. I want add my own humble suggestion that the text is offering us an insight into Jacob’s inner world. On the one hand, there is a very natural fear of attack by an enemy that presents a particular danger, just as the shofar did for a nation who saw an enemy approaching, or the siren sounding as a missile encroaches. But the second phrase ויצר לו – which generally translates as “distressed him” — I believe is hinting to a much deeper fear. It is the fear or feeling we experience when we hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, or the siren on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron. It is the fear many of us feel at the present time. Fear that begins as a narrowing of our world, a feeling of “being towards death,” a recognition of the smallness of our being and the narrowness of our existence. But it is also a wake-up call, a moment of existential reflection that should move us beyond the confines of our own individual straits. It is a moment that begins with fear and angst, but that if faced head on, if channeled in the right way can be transformative, and ultimately life-affirming.

‘Jacob Wrestling with the Angel,’ by Rembrandt, circa 1659. (Wikimedia Commons)

According to this reading, Jacob’s fear is composed of two elements and thus Jacob’s response takes on two guises. The first is that he confronts the immediate threat by his brother; he splits his camp, he prepares his people for war. But the second, the angst of being finds redemption in his struggle with the “stranger/angel” at the edge of river — the crossing into new terrain (the ambivalent space between places). Jacob’s deception of his brother and father, is perhaps more poignantly a deception of self. From that moment on, he no longer seems to recognize himself. Having exited the black and white constructs as the boy of the tent, he enters into the “entangled” world of deceit and complexity. He tries to forget and suppress that “unrecognized” side of self.

Filled with a litany of repetitive words and motifs the text invites a subconscious sub-textual reading. The repetition of the root פנים (peniel, panai, panim, lefani לפני panav) suggests that this encounter forces Jacob to come “face to face” with his past, with covered identities, with the very essence of his being – facing himself as himself Jacob must learn to reach down to the depth of his real authentic self.

At a climactic moment during this encounter the angel/stranger asks Jacob his name — in a sense, forcing him to “relive” the moment of deception from many years earlier that threatens to overwhelm him in the present. His adopted mode of denial and avoidance results in the obvious response, “Jacob.” Acknowledging the act of betrayal would be tantamount to the destruction of his old identity. Jacob craves the simplicity of one identity, one self, of simple structures and unitary truths. But the stranger refuses to accept his answer denying Jacob this return.

And he said: ‘Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men, and will prevail.’ (verse 29)

If our actions and life travails do not change us than we have missed the purpose of being.
Time and history change our identity – both individual and national, and though there are moments of deep nostalgia for what was, it cannot and will not return. We must learn to live within new dimensions and frameworks, identities and relationships that allow for the integration of past and present.

Authentic living is not easy or simple. To choose autonomy in a life that often feels chaotic and out of control is a struggle. But as the angel tells Jacob, the struggle is one we can prevail over. We can turn fear into blessing. And that is precisely what Jacob does. He insists that the angel not be released until he has imparted a blessing. This time he is not grabbing it by “the heel” — yaakov — eikev, from behind, disingenuously. This time he wants to receive a blessing in a yashar – yisrael way, as his authentic self. No disguises, no deception — blessing that comes through engaging with our authentic self.

Heidegger spoke of “being towards death.” I believe Jacob’s message and that of our nation, Israel, is “being towards life.” In confronting his own demons and understating that the past can be redeemed in the present not through repression, but rather through integration, Jacob teaches us a lesson that has served us throughout our tumultuous history. To redeem the pain of the past is a struggle that requires knowing how to integrate its downfalls, failures and sorrows into the present. The search for authenticity is not simple it is riddled with challenges and requires engaging with our deepest and darkest fears and transforming them into a meaningful and elevated life in the present. Jacob teaches us that in every struggle, transformation will come if we are able to create a space for ambivalence and uncertainty not as a recipe for fear but as ingredients to an authentic existence. But most importantly he shows us that in every moment of transformation there is a blessing if we are brave enough to hold on until the dawn.

Every year, I feel that the sirens and all the emotions they engender tell the story of a nation tottering on the brink of extinction, which then rises up like a phoenix displaying its iridescent colors of survival.

The siren so piercing, so fear inducing reminds us of the turbulent history of our nation, a history that could have ended in a fear induced rage or hopeless death, but instead insisted on affirming a full, rich, flourishing life as a nation – an ancient people in its ancient land in a modern democratic state. What could be more life affirming than that? If Heidegger teaches us that “being towards death” is a recipe for authenticity, Jacob teaches us “being towards life” is a recipe for national survival and fortitude. It is this “being towards life” that we need to be cognizant of today more than ever. Let the siren this year be a reminder that even in the most vulnerable moment humanity has faced in modern times, fear and angst need not spiral into blame and hopelessness, but rather can be used to generate life, unity and blessing both within our own individual selves and that of our nation.

About the Author
Tanya White is an educator who teaches Tanach and Jewish Philosophy in Israel and abroad. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Jewish Thought. She writes a weekly blog on the Parsha combining Jewish thought and current affairs at www.contemplatingtorah.wordpress.com
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