Watch Where You’re Going, Not Where You’ve Been –  Shabbat Masei Friday July 29, 2022

It’s always such a joy for me to see a leader of our country visiting Israel, as President Joe Biden did this past week. I don’t care about your political persuasion. For most of us American Jews, watching the president or vice president of the United States spending precious days in Eretz Yisrael is a real rush. It’s a source of pride, as both countries not only recognize the value of our strategic alliance, but also celebrate the connection in our shared values. Upholding democracy. Sustaining humanity. And fostering security.

When I was a rabbinical student studying in Israel for a year, I remember the excitement, the crowds, the energy throughout Israel when President Clinton came to celebrate the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, which he had helped to broker – a treaty that allowed a group of us student rabbis on winter break to be among the first to walk across the Israeli-Jordanian border, Israeli visas stamped into our passports, without trouble, and with a warm welcome.

The following spring, we were among dozens of Americans and Israelis gathered outside Prime Minister Rabin’s official residence to cheer Vice President Gore and his then-wife Tipper, as they came to Jerusalem to promote America’s efforts to bring peace to the region.

It was so wonderful and so important for us to know that they were experiencing Israel in all its modern vibrancy as well as honoring its past.

Which was why the media coverage of President Biden’s recent visit made me so sad.

We know that the president got a briefing on security and defense, including a close-up look at the Iron Dome missile defense system. We know he and his hosts joined in a virtual meeting with their counterparts in other countries to talk about regional priorities like food security and technology innovation. We know he took part in the opening ceremonies of the Maccabiah games, the Jewish equivalent of the Olympics.

But the only news reports I saw were of his stop at Yad Vashem, where he honored the memory of the dead of the Shoah and met with several survivors of the Nazi genocide. It was emotional. It was important. But it is really the only visual content that most of us have of his visit to Israel.

Apparently, the president asked for the visit. But the Israeli leadership was very accommodating. For them, a prominent and highly publicized visit to Yad Vashem is requisite for any foreign dignitary that visits the Jewish homeland. You don’t go home without it.

My first thought was: Why? Why is this all that I’m seeing? Why is this the only thing the world will remember about this visit?

My friend and colleague Rabbi Jeff Salkin, who was in Israel at the time, thought the same thing. And as always, he has written magnificently about it.

In his on-line commentary this week, Rabbi Salkin answered the question this way:

“You, dear visitor,” he wrote, “are visiting Yad Vashem because it tells you why there must be an Israel. Yad Vashem is the story of Jewish powerlessness. We will never be powerless again. This is why there is an Israel.”[1]

I think he’s exactly right. But I also think there’s more to it. I’d suggest that requiring foreign leaders – especially Western leaders – to take part in the Yad Vashem photo op also has to do with guilt. The guilt of the Allies for allowing six million to die when they could have stepped in to stop it. When they –- when we — could have accepted millions of fleeing European Jews but closed our doors instead. When we could have bombed the rail lines that took Jews to the gas chambers. When we resisted allowing Jews to flee to what was then British Mandate Palestine. Never forget, President Biden was reminded, that America – that beacon of freedom and democracy — should have done more then and owes us more now.

And that, for me, is a problem. Because this message of why we need an Israel, why Israel should exist as a Jewish state, can easily be turned against us. It suggests that Israel only exists as a post-war colonialist enterprise, imposed on the Middle East by the victorious Western powers. This message is at the heart of growing antisemitism and Jew-hatred on the left, where many well-meaning people are being deluded by antisemites into condemning Israel and Zionism and Zionists and all  Jews as colonial racists who have stolen the land of the native Palestinian population and want to see them destroyed.

All of it is nonsense and lies, of course. But the PLO and the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have been very successful at promoting it . It has resonance among young people – even young Jews, even young rabbinic students. They agree to leave a huge part of their Jewish identities at the door, because they are so eager to be part of the coalition that is assailing us on the left, as white supremacists are on the right.

Nobody should be forced to do that. And if Israel were not, in some way, pushing that Shoah narrative so hard, maybe we’d be better equipped to educate so many well-meaning people who clearly know so little about the history of the Middle East, the Jewish people and our three-thousand-year connection to the land. Clearly, there’s a lot of ignorance about the modern state of Israel, where the majority of the Jewish population is not European Ashkenazic – that is, non-white. Obviously, there’s a lack of nuanced understanding that the modern Palestinian – Israeli conflict is one of competing valid historical narratives, not one of racism.

As Rabbi Salkin wrote, the sympathy of the world after the Shoah “lubricated the wheels of the creation for the state, but it was not solely responsible for creating the state . . . these stories that connect Israel with the Shoah are not wrong . . . but they are incomplete.”

I’m grateful to Rabbi Salkin for directing me to a decades-old essay by the late Rabbi David Hartman, whose name adorns a trans-denominational institute in Jerusalem where he was studying this summer. Rabbi Hartman challenged us to choose Auschwitz or choose Sinai.[2] Rabbi Salkin paraphrased the essay this way:

“Auschwitz is what they did to us. Sinai is what we did for ourselves.”

Auschwitz, I think, promotes the narrative of servitude and helplessness, while Sinai signifies empowerment and freedom.

I see the choices of this narrative in the start of this week’s Torah portion. Here, we end the Book of Numbers by starting with a long recap of the forty-year journey of our nation from servitude to freedom. Forty-two place-names are listed as stopping points along the way from Egypt to the Promised Land, to remind us what a long, difficult and tumultuous trek we successfully completed.

 In a Torah commentary several years ago, Jane West Walsh and Cantor Gershon Silins noted that at least two of the places are not mentioned anywhere else in the Torah and we have no idea where they were. They were important places of rest at the time – but they are other otherwise forgotten.[3] So why keep them in the story?

Well, maybe it goes back to what my Grandmom Freda used to say so often: “Watch where you’re going, not where you’ve been.” That was especially important for me because I’m such a klutz and I definitely would have tripped over my own feet or something else right in front of me, had I not been paying attention.

But I’ve always taken that wisdom as a life’s lesson. We are shaped by our experience, and memory can be a gift. But we need to be moving ahead, without getting entangled and tripping up in what we’ve left behind.

To add to what Rabbi Hartman wrote, then, Rithmah and Rimmon-perez might be the ancient equivalent of Auschwitz. They were places where we were alone, endangered, and exposed to threats all around us. They were places we survived.

They are stages in a narrative of fear and vulnerability that we always carry with us. But: Between Auschwitz and Sinai, I’ll always choose the latter to define my life as a Jew, and what I understand as God’s plan for me and for all who are part of B’nai Yisrael, whether by birth or by choice. We can say “never forget” and mean it – without being defined by it or restrained by it.

The fact is that, in our Parashah, the list of the 42 encampments is merely a prelude to the preparation that Moses will give us in the entire book of Deuteronomy, so that we can fulfill our destiny in the Promised Land, the land of Israel. Our destiny, our empowerment and our peoplehood also are parts of the narrative we always carry with us.

Sinai is the past, the present, and the future of Israel and the Jewish people of the world. Sinai is our life and our destiny. Sinai is what we create, every day – in politics, medicine, education, entertainment. And yes, fundamentally in faith, and in the covenant – our partnership with God – that continues to shape our world.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission here on earth, as we say together: Amen.


©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin





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