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Eikev 5779: From "Them" to "Us"

08/25/2019 02:23:51 PM

Aug25

There's an image that has made the rounds in recent months in Jewish spaces online. It's a still from an online video series that teaches basic Yiddish. As a sample sentence to demonstrate some grammatical point, it flashes the phrase, “the Jews are tired.” And boy, am I tired after this week. I'm tired of dealing with everything that comes with being a Jew in America in 2019. I'm tired of the low-grade anxiety I have every day that my workplace, this synagogue, could become a target for the next anti-Semitic mass shooting. I'm tired of the ongoing terrorism against Israeli Jews that this week claimed the life of 17 year old Rina Shnerb. I'm tired of members of Congress who refuse to listen to legitimate criticism about the ways they talk about Jews and the State of Israel. And I'm tired of having to listen to the President of the United States outrageously accuse the majority of American Jews of being “disloyal” to Israel and the Jewish people. Since I brought it up, let me say this: Republicans, especially Jewish Republicans, have long asserted that American Jews, whom surveys show overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, would be better served by voting for Republicans. They are certainly welcome to make that case and advocate their point of view. But it is quite another thing, especially for a non-Jewish politician, to say that Jews who support Democrats are disloyal to Israel or to the Jewish people. As Americans and as Jews, we can handle policy disagreements, even fierce ones. It's something else altogether, though, to denigrate the character of entire groups. But mostly, after this week, I'm tired of the Jewish people being tossed around like a football in in American political discourse. I'm tired of how the extremes of the American political spectrum reinforce and embolden one another, in what Israeli journalist David Horowitz called a “Dreadful symbiosis [that] sees Israel and Jews pulled into [the] volcanic core of US politics. ” So, I'm tired of non-Jewish politicians talking about “the Jews” in the third person. I'm tired of those politicians pointing to their own Jewish supporters as cover for their antisemitism, making an implicit and anti-Semitic distinction between the “good Jews” who agree with them and the “bad Jews” who do not. “Some of my best friends are Jews,” is no excuse for trafficking in anti-Semitic ideas and imagery. Or, as Rabbi Dr. Ariel Burger, a close student of Elie Wiesel's, wrote this week, “We have been co-opted, used as pawns in other times, other places, and it never ended well for us. …It always starts with the third person. “They”. They secretly control us. They are disloyal. They are on the wrong side of this or that political test, this or that high-stakes battle of succession, this or that war over land or language.” So, as Jews, how do we respond to this moment? Rabbi Burger suggests that we have to turn a conversion about “them” into a conversation about “us.” We have to loudly and clearly narrate our own story, in order to crowd out the voices of powerful non-Jews who would define us to suit their own political ends. As Rabbi Burger puts it, ““We” is a sacred word, one that, in our isolation, is difficult to say. But we are not alone. We are a community. We have our own story to tell, and we don't need anyone telling our story for us.” The question for us, then, is how should we define ourselves? What story should we tell ourselves and our neighbors about who we are in the world? An answer might come this week's Torah portion, Eikev. In it, Moses summarizes the principles that are to guide the people as they create their own society in the land of Israel. Moses tells the people as follows: “Mark, the heavens to their uttermost reaches belong to the LORD your God, the earth and all that is on it! Yet it was to your fathers that the LORD was drawn in His love for them, so that He chose you, their lineal descendants, from among all peoples” (Deut. 10: 14). In other words, the God to whom belongs the entire universe fell in love with, of all people, our ancestors. This could lead to a sense of superiority, to a sense that we are better than others because of that Divine choice, or that we get a free pass and can be held to a lower moral standard. On the contrary, though, the next verses call upon the people to set aside the stubbornness and disobedience that they displayed throughout their trek through the desert. “Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more,” Moses tells them. God's love and choice of them requires a higher moral standard. God's love requires that the people do the hard work necessary to fully walk the path that God has laid out for them. Moses continues, reiterating the point: “For the LORD your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing."You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10: 17-9). As those verses tell it, God is, on the one hand, an imperial and disinterested judge of humanity. God is elevated high above ordinary human reality, neither showing favor nor taking bribes the way a human judge might. And yet, God is also passionately interested in the fate of those most vulnerable to abuse: the orphan, the widow, and the resident alien. So, as this passage depicts it, God is both high above but also intimately involved in human affairs (see Robert Alter's commentary on the passage.). The corollary of this, then, is the next verse: that we are to emulate God's love of the stranger, having been strangers ourselves in the land of Egypt. One might think that being chosen by such a high and mighty God would come with the right to subject and oppress others who were not so chosen. But just the opposite is the case. God love for us is expressed in our own love of the weak and the vulnerable and the outsider. So, putting this all together, we arrive at one story we might tell about ourselves. Who are we? We are the descendants of some extraordinary people whom God invited to be in special relationship. This came with some privileges, but mostly with hardship and responsibility. We were enslaved in Egypt, but God took us out of there in order to create a new society focused on compassion for the weak, a society that would be the opposite of Egypt. Over time we lived up this vision to greater and lesser extents. Eventually we lost that homeland, but we spread out all over the world, creating vibrant communities wherever we went, holding on to our traditions and values, often under very trying circumstances. We cared about our fellow Jews and also about the world around us, which is at times a tricky balancing act. But who said being Jewish was easy? At a time when people in power talk about “the Jews” as a means to their own ends, we have to take back our own narrative. Only Jews get to define the meaning of our existence, and we have 3,000 years of tradition to guide the way. May we merit to do so.  
Mon, February 17 2020 22 Shevat 5780