Posts Tagged 'Mission'

Start of the Mission

Any story are defined by their beginning. This idea is put forward by Rashi in his first commentary on the Torah. There on Genesis 1:1 he wrote:

Rabbi Isaac said: The Torah which is the Law book of Israel should have commenced with the verse, “This month shall be unto you the first of the months”(Exodus 12:2) which is the first commandment given to Israel. What is the reason, then, that it commences with the account of the Creation? Because of the thought expressed in the text (Psalms 111:6) “He declared to God’s people the strength of God’s works (i.e. He gave an account of the work of Creation), in order that God might give them the heritage of the nations.” For should the peoples of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan”, Israel may reply to them, “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be God; God created it and gave it to whom God pleased. When God willed God gave it to them, and when God willed God took it from them and gave it to us” (Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 187).

Rashi on Genesis 1:1

Why not just start with our story of us as a nation? Rashi’s answer is that the creation story gives us a claim to the land of Israel. But like most things the question is better than the answer. I would offer that a stronger answer might have been that this singular origin story creates a common context for the beginning of our story as humanity. This start forms the ethical foundation for our society ( see: Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5). No one is better or more important than anyone else because we all come from the same beginning. By starting with our common biological origin we all live in the context of a story where despite or because of our differences we have moral obligations to each other.

But, we read Bereirshit a few weeks ago. Why am I bringing this question up now when we read Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion?

Here at the start the story of the first Jewish family. There we read:

The LORD said to Avram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you.And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth. Shall bless themselves by you.” Avram went forth as the LORD had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Avram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.

Genesis 12:1-4

Why doesn’t Rashi ask his question here? Again we could have started our collective story with “This month shall be unto you the first of the months”(Exodus 12:2) which is the first commandment given to Israel. You can claim the same answer that this is the proof of God promising to give Avraham and us the Promised Land. But, I would argue that just as Adam and Eve gave us a common biological origin, Avram and Sarai give us a common ideological origin. By starting our national story with Lech Lecha, our ideological origin story, we all live in the context of a story where despite or because of our ideological differences we are bound to each other. Even if it does not always seem like the case we are all on the same mission. Though we might debate and fight, we are all beneficiaries of their project. No one is better or more important than anyone else because we all trace the idea of Judaism back to this moment when Avram set out to ” make a great nation”. Lech Lecha literally and figuratively gives birth to Judaism as a movement.


Holy Scut Work

In Naso, this week’s Torah portion, we learn that the children of Gershon were assigned to carry the curtains and tapestries of the Tabernacle. The children of Merrari were assigned to carry the beams, poles, and sockets that comprise the walls. (Numbers 4: 21- 34)Why does the Torah go into detail regarding the minutia of all of the schlepping?  To get a job done everyone needs to plays a role even if not glamorous. What do we see as the goal of our project? What is the not-so-glamorous part of our work? While few enjoy doing the schlepping, if we are truly committed to the mission, it does not feel like meaningless scut work.

A story is told of Reb Aryeh Levin, the Prison Chaplain of Pre-State Jerusalem, getting up early each morning for prayer. The story goes:

On his way to the synagogue, he made it a point to greet everyone he met on the street; and he was especially careful to wish a good morning to the street-cleaners, who also rose early to work. Once he told me why he did this: ‘I have affection for the street-cleaners. Just look: When everyone is still asleep, they take the trouble to come and clean the streets of Jerusalem, so as to support themselves by their own honest labor. Their work is not respected; they are not esteemed for it; their salary is niggardly. And still they take their pains to do their task faithfully.’” (Raz, A Tzaddik in Our Time 101)

We all have what to learn from the children of Gershon and Merrari. Just because we schlep things, that does not make us schleppers. If we commit ourselves to a holy mission, we become truly holy.

A Sleep

Recently there was another fiasco with an advertisement campaign done by Israel regarding their relationship with Diaspora Jewry. This campaign wanted to encourage Israeli parents to get their children to return from Galut- Diaspora. There were a few out there, many have been taken down. But this one is still up.

The first image is of a lovely American suburb. Inside you see a sweet boy wearing a football jersey (and not the soccer kind). He is drawing in the foreground and his father is passed out in the background (clearly tired from making their suburban life a reality). The son calls “Daddy”. With no response he goes to where he is sleeping to call “Daddy” again. When that does not work he whispers “Abba”. Immediately the man is roused from his slumber. Words come on the screen saying that your children will always be Israelis, but their kids will not. You should help your children who left move back to Israel. The simple meaning is clear, Israelis have fallen asleep in Galut.  I fear that even the creators of this well done and horribly misguided video missed the deeper meaning of their work.

In the Talmud we learn:

Rabbi Yohanan said: This righteous man [Honi] was throughout the whole of his life troubled about the meaning of the verse, “A Song of Ascents, When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like unto them that dream”( Psalms 126:1) Is it possible for a man to dream continuously for seventy years? One day he was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so I also plant these for my children. (Taanit 23a)

We all know how the Jewish Rip Van Winkle story ends. Honi goes to the mountains where the mountain forms around him and he sleeps for 70 years. When he wakes up he goes down to the valley to see the next generation benefiting from the fruit of the labor of the previous generations work in planting the carob trees.  But how did this resolve for Honi the meaning of “we were like unto them that dream”- the line that we say in Birkat HaMazon– Grace after meals. As we see in Jeremiah (25: 11 and 29:10) the original Diaspora was only to last 70 years. That explains the number of years, but, how could all of those years pass as if in a dream? What does it mean to be asleep in Galut?

We have lulled ourselves into certain comforts and we have forgotten our mission. Being Israeli has to be more than speaking Hebrew. It is clear to me that we are still inGalut even in Israel. We have found ways to lull ourselves to sleep there as well. But, it is not as simple as saying that Israelis need to return to Judaism. Judaism itself need to return to Jews.  As we have seen in recent events in Israel the religious right has lost it moorings. We need to learn to wake each other up and rise to the occasion of seeking our higher mission. How will we as Jews make and enduring contribution to the world?

If we are willing to learn from Honi, we need to be willing to sit with the question our whole lives. There is no quick fixes to these issues. We must sow the seeds today and be patient to see the fruit of this labor in future generations. To mix metaphors, we need to set the alarm now to wake us up in the future to ensure that we do not stay asleep in our Galut, where ever that might be. This dream is becoming a nightmare.

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