Shabbat, Social Justice and the High Court

shabbat candlesIn what is being called a “landmark decision”, the High Court of Justice yesterday rejected an appeal and  upheld a Tel Aviv municipal bylaw that allows certain grocery stores to be open on Shabbat.  Predictably, politicians and news outlets on both sides of the religious/secular divide reacted with the usual hype, immediately recycling old, tired clichés and baseless exaggerations as if reading from an oft-repeated script.  Haredi politicians blasted the decision as an unprecedented attack on the sanctity of the Shabbat which, they claim, enforces the views of a small secular elite in defiance the clear wishes of a solid majority of the population.  Meanwhile, secular politicians hailed it as a historic victory of freedom, democracy, sanity and enlightenment over the forces of darkness and intolerance represented by the religious establishment.

Sorry, but this is all fake news.  In truth, the decision was not a “landmark” – both because it related only to a very narrow legal issue (the division of authority between the national government and local municipalities) and because it may soon be overturned anyway, due to new legislation that haredi politicians have vowed to begin advancing as early as this Sunday.  And for now, nothing is changing in Tel Aviv either – these stores have been open on Shabbat for years.

But actually, there is something fascinating and significant about the debate and struggle behind the ruling.  Although the media and politicians are presenting this as a struggle between religious and secular Jews, it isn’t.  The failed petition against the Tel Aviv law was actually filed by a group of small business owners, most or all of whom aren’t observant.  They want the day off on Shabbat to spend with their families, but say that competition from the chain stores forces them to remain open, robbing them of their right to a day of rest.  Their argument is that the groceries open on Shabbat are owned by big business tycoons who enrich themselves at the expense of their poor minimum-wage employees and small-business competitors who are forced to work on Shabbat.

In other words, in total contrast to the screaming headlines, the fight in Tel Aviv has almost nothing to do with religious coercion.  Rather, it is a struggle for social justice by weaker members of society against oppression by the wealthy class.  I find it sad that politicians from left-wing parties who were elected to support causes exactly like this found it more expedient to abandon those principles to earn a few cheap points by joining another easy attack on religion.

In truth, those of us committed to halachic observance have a lot to learn from the heroic struggle being waged by those small business owners in Tel Aviv.  If you ask most observant Jews what Shabbat is about, they will probably tell you that we refrain from work on the Shabbat to remember God’s creation of the world – just as He worked for six days and rested on the seventh, we are to do the same.  That answer is, of course, correct, as it is based on the Torah’s succinct presentation of the Fourth Commandment in Exodus 20:8-11.

But there is also another, less well-known version of that commandment, in Deuteronomy 5:12-15.  Fascinatingly, there the Torah gives a completely different reason for observing Shabbat: “…in order that your slave and your maidservant may rest, just as you do.”  To be sure, Shabbat is about God, religion and holiness.  But it is also about equality, social justice and workers’ rights.  Indeed, Shabbat teaches that those two objectives must go hand-in-hand, as they are inextricably linked to one another.

In an irony that most commentators seem to have missed, the controversial High Court decision was announced on a Thursday, shortly before tens of thousands of normally non-observant Jews around the world prepare to participate in the 5th annual global Shabbat, organized by South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein’s amazing Shabbat Project.  In announcing the decision, outgoing Supreme Court President Miriam Naor protested that the ruling “does not detract from the status and importance of the Sabbath as a national asset of the Jewish people”.   Whether or not one agrees with that assessment, and while the politicians and courts prepare for the next battle in Israel’s ongoing struggle over the religious “status quo”, maybe the rest of us can use this weekend to focus on the deep, powerful and profound messages conveyed by the unique gift called Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom to all!

 

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“Baseless Hatred” and the Temple Mount

I assume I am not the only one who noticed the significance of the timing of the recent violence surrounding the Temple Mount, during the three-week period leading up to Tisha B’av.  Beyond the tragic loss of life and the general frustration of having to deal with this type of disruption, the recent events also forced us to confront the insulting demand – respected by governments around the world including the White House – that our government protect a “status quo” denying any Jewish connection with the site of the Bet Hamikdash, and that we respect the sensitivities of worshipers at this “important Muslim holy site”.  The sight of our government feeling compelled to capitulate to these demands was simultaneously infuriating and humiliating.  I couldn’t help thinking that if we needed a reminder that in spite of all the blessed accomplishments of our generation, the Temple is still very much in ruins, we got it.

But I also noticed another irony.  Remember how, just a few weeks ago, the Jewish world was up in arms about who has the right to pray at the Western Wall, in what format, and especially about who “owns” or should “control” that site?  Remember the flood of angry and vicious statements, op-eds and blog posts either attacking the Reform or Conservative movements or Women of the Wall for demanding the right to non-Orthodox prayer at the Wall, or attacking the Orthodox establishment for using their political clout to prevent this?  Is it not symbolic that the Temple Mount humiliations came shortly after all of these harsh attacks and mutual incriminations, and at this particular time of year?  I see this as a reminder that apparently, the Jewish people – all of us – still don’t deserve access to the holy site over which we fight.

A well-known rabbinic adage (Yoma 9b) teaches that the second Temple was destroyed due to sinat chinam, baseless hatred between Jews. When the rabbis said this, they weren’t really speaking about petty gossip, jealousy, spitefulness and the like.  Mostly, they were talking about sincere and passionate disagreements over religious, ideological and political matters.

At the end of the second Temple period, the Jewish people was divided into multiple factions who argued about the correct way to serve God, and about whether and in what manner to confront the Romans (see Josephus Flavius, The War of the Jews II 8:2, V 1, 6:1; Gittin 56a).  In these debates, each side genuinely believed not only that its position was correct, but that all others were wrong and dangerous, and that nothing less than the future of the Jewish people depended on them prevailing over their opponents.  The problem wasn’t the fact that they disagreed, or that each side fought for what they believed was right.  Rather, the problem was how they conducted those arguments.

It is possible to respect a person while vigorously opposing his opinions.  When one does so, the tone of the struggle, and the methods deemed legitimate, will be very different.  Back then, though, Jews fought bitterly with one another, and all seemed to believe that the ends justified almost all means.  When Jews try to defeat each other this way, we all lose.  The only winners are the Romans.

To me, as we prepare again to sit on the floor and mourn the destruction of the Temple, the lessons are clear.  The reason we’re still banished from the Temple Mount is not because some women want to pray at the main Western Wall plaza with tefillin and Torah scrolls.  And it’s also not because other Jews, who believe this is prohibited, are trying to block them from doing so.  But it may well because of the type of rhetoric and methods that both sides use against each other.

Nowadays, I often hear people invoke the idea of sinat chinam, commenting how sad it is that we still haven’t learned the lessons of history.  The problem is that when people say this, they are almost always criticizing other people’s behavior.  Unfortunately, it is way too rare to see Jews look at themselves and make the honest admission that Tisha B’av requires: “The Lord is righteous; I have rebelled against His word…We have transgressed and rebelled, You have not pardoned…Return us to you, God, and we shall return” (Eicha 1:18, 3:42, 5:21).  So for now, our enemies dance on ruins of the Temple, mocking us while we fight over the wall below.

This year, let’s try to finally learn from the past.

Day and Night Intermingled

Twice this week, I led my students at Yeshivat and Midreshet Torah Va’Avoda (respectively) on short night-time walking tours through Katamon, the Jerusalem neighborhood where they live and study.  Our destination was the San Simon Monastery, located in a beautiful park at the top of the neighborhood.  Our purpose, though, was not to enjoy a pleasant walk in the park, nor to visit the monastery. We went there learn about and reenact the dramatic and decisive battle  that raged there on the final day of Passover 5708 – April 30, 1948.

san simon

At the beginning of the tours, I discussed the two commemorative days we’ll be observing this coming week: Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day, on Sunday night and Monday) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day, Monday night and Tuesday).  As anyone who’s been in Israel at this time of year can testify, the moods of these two days are quite different; in fact, they almost seem like opposites – the first is a day of national mourning, and the second of celebration. The sharp transition caused by the observance of these two days in immediate succession is very difficult emotionally, and also deeply profound.

I asked the students which of the two days they thought we’d be preparing for on the walking tour. Of course, the answer was both. Like many other incidents in Israel’s history, that battle was simultaneously tragic (21 Jewish soldiers were killed and many others wounded), and triumphant (it proved decisive in saving the Jewish neighborhoods of western Jerusalem and enabled the city to become Israel’s capital). So, I told them, when we are mourning next week on Yom HaZikaron, you can think about the things you will hear tonight, and you can think about the exact same things while dancing on Yom HaAtzmaut.

This paradoxical reality may be reflected in a somewhat cryptic comment made by Rashi about these verses at the beginning of the Torah:

God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God divided between the light and the darkness. And God called the light “day”, and the darkness He called “night” …. (Genesis 1:3-5)

What, Rashi wonders, were things like before God “divided” the light from the darkness?

It seems, he says, that the original reality was a confusing state described by the graphic expression “ohr v’hoshekh mishtamshim b’irbuvya” – light and darkness were coexistent and intermingled. Since the light was “good”, however, God decided that this was not appropriate, and so He separated them into light/day and darkness/night.

Many see this imagery as a powerful metaphor for the great but confusing period we are living through today. On the one hand, as we approach Israel’s 69th anniversary, with close to half of the Jews in the world already living in our homeland, and with our economic and security situation constantly improving, it seems quite clear that the miraculous redemption promised by the prophets is well underway. But at the same time, it is also painfully evident that our pain and suffering have not yet ended, and we still face many grave dangers.

Just as the very beginning of the world’s existence was characterized by a confusing mixture of light and darkness (ohr v’hoshekh mishtamshim b’irbuvya), a similar intermingling exists now, at the dawning of the messianic era. Each year, the sunrise of the redemption progresses and the daylight shines more and more brightly – but the night of the exile is not yet over, and darkness continues to overshadow us.

This is a paradox, but it is as true today as it was 69 years ago when the Palmah soldiers were holed up in the monastery of San Simon. At the time, with bullets flying, bombs exploding and their comrades dying, they probably couldn’t have imagined that they were laying the foundations of a beautiful park in a lovely neighborhood in the sovereign undivided capital of the Jewish state.

A generation or two from now, similar words will be written about us and the painful events we’ve experienced over the past months and years. Eventually, when the sun finishes rising and the darkness recedes completely, it will all be clear. Until then, we must mourn and dance on the same week – and perhaps ponder these mysteries while strolling through a Jerusalem park.

Hag Sameah – Happy Holiday!

The OU and Women Rabbis: Look Again!

glgAround two weeks ago in the US, the Orthodox Union issued its now-famous proclamation formally prohibiting affiliated synagogues from hiring women to serve as rabbis or “members of the clergy”.

Predictably, many vocal supporters of the idea of female rabbis immediately denounced the ruling as yet another example of what they see as the intransigence of an overly traditionalist, cowardly, misogynist and increasingly irrelevant Orthodox mainstream. Meanwhile, some of their equally vocal opponents from the other side of the aisle gleefully announced that with this statement added to previous ones from other organizations, there is now a wall-to-wall consensus in American Orthodoxy against any change in policy regarding a role for women as religious leaders.

Unfortunately, though, it seems that most commenters on both sides did not bother to actually read the 15-page OU statement or the 17-page rabbinic position paper that accompanied it (both available here).  Those relatively few people who did read it noticed that while a headline like “OU Confirms Ban on Women Rabbis” is accurate, it is only part of the story.  The truth is that the two OU statements were much more nuanced than the earlier pronouncements, in two very important ways.

First, while its conclusion that women cannot serve as rabbis did echo previous rabbinic statements from both the US and Israel, the OU’s Rabbinic Panel presented a detailed and documented halakhic rationale explaining that ruling.  Like any piece of proper halakhic argumentation, in a number of places (e.g., footnotes 17 and 22) it acknowledged the existence of opposing sources that could potentially lead to different conclusions, and explained why the authors do not view those positions as viable or normative.  And the main halakhic section of the paper concludes by emphatically stating its position that women may not serve as rabbis, while simultaneously inviting further discussion on the topic, correctly noting that “the burden of halakhic proof [now] rests on the side of changing the established practice” (page 10).

This is very different than most of the other recent public discussions of this topic, which have consisted mainly of ideological pronouncements and slogans.  If and when a detailed response is published by scholars who disagree with the ruling (some discussion has already begun on various internet forums), this will turn the conversation into a proper and genuine halakhic debate, which will enable the move towards an eventual consensus of one sort or another.

Even more importantly, though, while the OU statements emphatically ruled out women serving as rabbis or “members of the clergy”, both of them also affirmed – equally emphatically – that women’s participation in the leadership of our communities is essential, and must be greatly expanded.  For the benefit of those who won’t read the entire statements, here are a few sentences that should be noteworthy even to those who were disappointed by the ruling:

  • “Women should most enthusiastically be encouraged to share their knowledge, talents, and skills – as well as their passion and devotion – to synagogues, schools and community organizations…. We believe that it is appropriate for women to assume…professional roles within the synagogue setting…[including] teaching ongoing classes and shiurim, delivering lectures, serving as a visiting scholar-in-residence…senior managerial and administrative positions…community educator or institutional scholar…professional counselor to address the spiritual, psychological, or social needs of the community…teacher and mentor to guide females through the conversion process” (rabbinic statement, pp. 13-14)
  • “The spiritual growth of our community is dependent upon a steady stream of talented women both serving as role models and teachers, and filling positions of influence. As a community, we need the best and brightest women – and men – to be motivated and well-trained to pursue careers in avodat hakodesh…steps should be taken to properly recognize women who dedicate their lives and their abilities to serving and educating our community, including the attribution of fitting titles that convey the significance of these roles” (rabbinic statement, p. 16, emphasis added).
  • “We, therefore, underscore that the responses of the Rabbinic Panel that we transmit today are but the beginning of a process and not its end. We envision a continuing process of dialogue and exploration to begin to address these – and other – critical issues in a deliberate manner…. The failure to fully embrace the talents of women and encourage women to assume greater lay and professional roles is a tragic forfeiture of communal talent. We should focus on creating and institutionalizing roles for women that address the needs of Orthodox Jews today, by removing barriers that impede women from further contributing to our community, in halakhically appropriate ways…. Consideration should be given, within acceptable halakhic parameters, to developing appropriate titles for women of significant accomplishment, holding professional positions within the synagogue and communal structure, thereby acknowledging their achievement and status….” (OU statement, pp. 10-11, emphasis added).

I will suffice with these quotes, although there are additional significant points in each of the two documents – again, I encourage everyone interested or concerned about this to read them.  Even these short excerpts, though, should be enough to demonstrate that while the OU said “no” to female rabbis, it also said “yes” to much larger roles for women than currently exist in almost any Orthodox community, including official titles for those women reflecting their leadership status.

About fifteen months ago, I published a blog post criticizing the RCA’s most recent statement against women serving as rabbis.  I complained about the statement’s lack of halakhic explanation, and about the fact that it was very emphatic about what women can’t do, but said almost nothing about what they can, should and must do.  On both of those issues, the OU’s statements represent a considerable improvement.

I propose, therefore, that we move the discussion away from the angry shouting that has continued unabated on blogs and facebook pages, and into these two other, much more productive areas: How to begin to create the greatly expanded leadership roles and titles that the OU and its Rabbinical Panel called for, while developing and continuing a genuine, sophisticated and scholarly halakhic conversation about the exact parameters and limits of those roles and titles.

 

Dear Mr. President


An Open Letter to Donald Trump from a conservative Republican who didn’t vote for him

Dear Mr. President,donald-trump

I want you to know that I didn’t vote for you.

Don’t misunderstand me – I didn’t vote for your opponent either, because I strongly opposed her policies and despised her corruption.  And in contrast, your party’s platform matches my views rather closely.  Frankly, I’m thrilled that Republicans continue to control both houses of Congress, and I’m also quite happy with some of the names being floated for senior positions in your upcoming administration.

I also identify very closely with the anti-Obama sentiment that swept you into office.  Specifically when it comes to foreign policy (which, as an American living abroad, I see most clearly), I believe that Barack Obama has single-handedly destroyed America’s influence around the world, and the world is much worse off for it.  Like millions of others who were dismayed by his “lead from behind” diplomacy, I too want to “make America great again”.

And finally, as an Israeli resident of the Judean Hills (they call me a “settler”, whatever that means), I’m grateful for the possibility of an American administration that might finally recognize the truth.  I’m hopeful that you and the officials in your administration will differ from your predecessors and understand that the real “obstacles to peace” are not me and my Jewish neighbors, but rather the religious and political leadership of my Arab neighbors.

Perhaps, therefore, I should have enthusiastically supported you in the election.  But I didn’t.  Instead, for the first time since I turned 18 over three decades ago, I chose to not actualize my right to vote for a realistic candidate.

Although we’ve never met, I think you know exactly why I didn’t vote for you.  It’s the same reason that many others (including some very prominent members of your own party) refused to support you: we were deeply offended and alarmed by your rhetoric, and by your persona.

Interestingly, the reasons that I didn’t support you are closely tied to the reasons I didn’t support Clinton and Obama.  In large part, I opposed them because I don’t buy into the distorted political and intellectual culture they represent.  I reject their distortion of liberal values into demands for willful blindness, their refusal to state the truth that militant Islam is currently the single greatest threat to world security, and their condemning anyone who disagrees with them as immoral.

Like most of your supporters, I’m frustrated that one can’t criticize “Black Lives Matter” without being called a racist, can’t advocate a crackdown on militant Muslims without being called an “Islamaphobe” and can’t object to transgender people using bathrooms that don’t match their anatomy without being called a bigot.  And I’m amused that Hillary Clinton’s supporters continue to speak of a “glass ceiling” that ostensibly prevented her from getting elected.  In reality, her failed candidacy was the ultimate success of the feminist movement: she was judged on the basis of her qualifications, not her gender.  She was subject to plenty of criticism and attacks, but none of her detractors – not even you, Mr. Trump (!!) – ever said anything about her being a woman.

So it seems you calculated that enough people were upset about these things that you could ride those sentiments all the way to the White House.  Apparently, you were right about that.  I’m no strategist; perhaps you were right that your offensive, anti-establishment tone won you many votes.  But it also lost you many, including mine.

You see, I am very against the politically correct definition of racism, hatred and bigotry.  But even more, I am against real racism, hatred and bigotry.  I expect the President of the United States – the leader of what is still the greatest nation on earth – to reflect the values that America stands for.  And the world also needs you to act with caution and responsibility, characteristics you haven’t shown yourself to possess.  You’re about to become the President, so it’s now your obligation to change your words and your actions.

Mr. President, you were elected legitimately and democratically.  Personally, I respect that and therefore, as an American citizen, you are now my president.  I’m excited about what I hope your administration will accomplish, even as I continue to be very worried about what you might do and how you might act.

On January 20, you will become the most powerful person on this planet.  I hope and pray that you will internalize that awesome responsibility, rise to the occasion and surprise us by becoming a great leader.

May God bless you.

Sincerely,

An expat who still loves America

Shimon Peres’ Final Rosh Hashana Gift to the World

obama-peres-funeral

Getty Images

Many have already written about the extraordinary scene we witnessed last Friday: the funeral of Shimon Peres, an extraordinary man who led an extraordinary nation.

 

The exceptional scene was made even more remarkable by the fact that it took place on the morning before Parshat Nitzavim would be read in the synagogues (a fact which President Obama alluded to in his speech) and just a few days before Rosh Hashana.

Peres himself was, of course, an extraordinary person.  It’s not that everyone agreed with his positions or his actions.  I certainly didn’t. And it seems that neither did just about anyone else; in fact, during his long political career he managed to do at least one thing that angered pretty much everybody.  But, as Herb Keinon pointed out last week in the Jerusalem Post, the flip side of that is that he also did something else that just about everyone approved of.  And as Amotz Asa-El wrote (also in last week’s Post), it was in the final phase of his career, when he led the country as President, that he became the collective grandfather that the country adored and the world almost universally respected.

Asa-El also pointed out that the extraordinary nature of the event goes beyond Peres himself.  After all, Peres’s life story mirrored the path traveled by his entire nation during that same time period.  When Shimon was born in Poland shortly after World War I, the Jewish people were not in a good situation, by any measure.  But his funeral in Jerusalem 93 years later took place in an entirely different reality that was frankly unfathomable even just a few decades ago ,when Peres was Prime Minister.

The sight of the leaders of over seventy nations flying to Jerusalem on two days’ notice to pay their final respects to a retired statesman from a tiny country of 7.5 million people may be completely unprecedented in human history.   And its full significance might become a bit clearer if we ponder another interesting fact: On the day of Peres’ funeral, in accordance with a proclamation issued by President Obama, flags were flown at half-mast at U.S. government buildings around the world.  It turns out that it is quite rare for the U.S. to honor a foreign leader this way.  In fact, only seven other people have ever been accorded this sign of respect.  Here’s the full list:

  • 1961 – U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold
  • 1965 – British Prime Minister Winston Churchill
  • 1981 – Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat
  • 1995 – Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin
  • 1999 – Jordanian King Hussein
  • 2005 – Pope John Paul II
  • 2013 – South African revolutionary and President Nelson Mandela

Together with Peres, this means that a total of eight foreign leaders have been honored this way by the U.S.A.

Now look again at this list of the eight people who, according to the world’s greatest democracy, have made the most positive impacts on the world. Two out of the eight were Israeli Prime Ministers (making Israel the only country represented more than once).  Another two were Arab leaders who were honored for making peace with Israel.  And one can also add that Winston Churchill’s greatest achievement was helping to defeat Nazi Germany, and that Pope John Paul II was noteworthy to a very large extent because of the significant steps he took to improve his church’s relations with the Jewish People.  That leaves only two of eight great people whose mark on humanity didn’t relate very directly to the tiny nation known as the people of Israel.

Which brings me to the incredible timing of Peres’ funeral, the morning before Shabbat Parshat Nitzavim.  It was, after all, in yesterday’s Torah portion that we read the Biblical prophecy promising that one day, after centuries of exile, we will return to our land:

“It will be that when all these things have come upon you – the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you – that you will take it to your heart among all the nations where Hashem, your God, has dispersed you. And you will return unto Hashem your God and listen to His voice…then Hashem, your God, will bring back your captivity and have mercy upon you, and He will gather you in from all the peoples to which Hashem, your God, has scattered you. If your dispersed will be at the ends of heaven, from there Hashem, your God, will gather you in and from there he will take you. Hashem, your God, will bring you to the Land that your forefathers possessed and you shall possess it; He will do good to you and make you more numerous than your forefathers.” (Devarim 30:1-5, Artscroll translation)

The sight of all these world leaders flocking to Jerusalem – the sovereign capital of the Jewish people, regardless of where their embassies are – to pay their respects to the last of Israel’s founding fathers marks another stage in the manifest fulfillment of this prophecy.

It is also eloquent testimony to the fact that the entire world recognizes the importance of the Jewish People.  For some reason, many of us often have trouble understanding this, but pretty much the entire rest of the world sees it. This makes Peres’ funeral an incredible Kiddush shem Shamayim, sanctification of God’s name.

And the Kiddush Hashem was greatly magnified and increased by the fact that Peres himself, a man not who was not generally associated with religion, specifically asked in his will for the prayer Avinu Malkeinu to be sung there.

Was there some kind of Divine inspiration behind this?  Could Peres have possibly known that he would be buried so close to Rosh HaShana?  I have no idea.  But it is incredibly fitting that this was the final point in the great and long legacy of Shimon Peres: The scene of the leaders of most of the world’s nations solemnly listening to a Rosh Hashana prayer, less than 72 hours before the Jewish people will gather to recite that very prayer, as well as many others for the peace and well-being of the entire world.

Wrestling with Our Enemy – Then and Now

Jacob_Wrestling_with_the_Angel“And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, [saying] ‘for I have seen God face to face, and my life was saved.’  And as he passed over Penuel, the sun rose over him, and he was limping on his thigh.  Therefore, the people of Israel shall not eat the displaced sinew, which is in the hollow of the thigh, unto this day” (Genesis 32:31-33)

This has been a difficult week here in Gush Etzion, as we’ve been mourning three holy Jews (my friend and neighbor Rabbi Yaakov Don, American yeshiva student Ezra Schwartz, and Israeli seminary student Hadar Buchris, may God avenge their deaths) who were murdered in recent days at the Gush Etzion junction, just down the road from my home.

Of course, violence, terrorism and senseless murder are nothing new.  We Jews have experienced this many times before – in recent weeks and months here in Gush Etzion and every other part of Israel, and before that for the past hundred years or so since the local Arabs adopted terrorism as their primary weapon against us, and before that all over the world throughout centuries of exile.  But still, human nature is such that when it hits close to home and affects people you know or have some personal connection to, it feels different.  So it’s been a pretty depressing week here in the Gush.

We are facing bitter adversaries who see great glory in the act of randomly and mercilessly cutting down the lives of good people whom they have never met.  We are infuriated at these enemies, horrified by the depth of their evil, and frustrated that our security forces have not yet found the tools to effectively prevent this newest pattern of atrocities.  And, as always happens when tragedy strikes good people, the religious questions about why God allows these things to happen – questions we usually live with because we understand that humans can never have an answer – bubble up to the surface and dominate our thinking.  At times, even for a diehard optimist like myself, it becomes hard to know how to keep on going.

Perhaps an insight can be found in today’s Torah portion (Vayishlach).

This morning, we read about the strange prohibition on eating the gid hanasheh (literally “displaced sinew”, interpreted in Jewish law as referring to an animal’s sciatic nerve).  As the above-quoted verses tell us, this commandment recalls the strange encounter between our forefather Jacob and the mysterious “man” who wrestled with him all night long.  Our sages identify Jacob’s opponent as an angelic figure, and Rashi tells us that it was the spiritual representative of his earthly brother and opponent, Esau.  Regarding the commandment itself, the medieval Sefer HaChinuch says that it is meant to serve as an encouraging reminder: by refraining from consuming the gid hanasheh, we are to remember that even though we may suffer much throughout history at the hands of our enemies, we will always survive and ultimately prevail, just as our ancestor Jacob did when confronted by his enemy.

This explanation always seemed strange to me.  If the mitzva is meant to encourage, then why choose something which reminds us that Jacob’s enemy managed to wound him, rather than a symbol of his eventual triumph?  And also, how is a prohibition meant to help us remember something?  If the gid hanasheh somehow reminds us of Jacob’s victory, then perhaps the mitzva should not be to abstain from it, but rather to specifically eat it as a reminder, just as we do with matza on Passover.

In our current circumstance, though, I think the Sefer HaChinuch’s point becomes clear.  At times, just like our forefather Jacob, we will be wounded.  But we will survive – not only in spite of the injury but in some sense because of it.  The wound is excruciatingly painful, it is crippling, and for a time it seems as though we can barely move ahead.   Though we managed to squeeze some sort of a victory out of the last round of fighting, we wonder if we’ll win in the long run.

This is when the gid hanasheh comes and reminds us, first of all, that in the perspective of history, these setbacks – however painful they may be – are temporary (in the very next chapter, we read that Jacob’s injury was fully cured; see Rashi on 36:18).  And as a mitzvah that is observed passively through the mode of shev v’al ta’aseh (sit and do nothing), it reminds us that this is also how Jacob achieved his victory:

“And he wrestled with him until daybreak.  And when he saw that he could not defeat him, he touched the hollow of his thigh [wounding him]…. and he said ‘Release me, for the morning has come’, and [Jacob] said ‘I will not release you unless you bless me’… and he blessed him there.” (32:26-30)

Although he fought long and hard, Jacob didn’t manage to defeat his enemy.  All he was able to achieve was a stalemate – a bitter night-long struggle that wore both sides down, with no winner.  In that situation, he wasn’t able to actually do anything; just to absorb the blows, and persevere.  But the gid hanasheh teaches us that sometimes, when there is no action to be taken, shev v’al ta’aseh is enough.  Sometimes, the key to victory is just staying where you are and refusing to be knocked down, and to keep on going without paying too much attention to the pain.

After the long night of exile, the morning eventually comes.  And when it does, the enemy melts away and asks for a release, which he receives only after issuing a blessing.  Until then, we have to continue the struggle.