Who Are “We”?
Friday February 9, 2024 – ל׳ שְׁבָט תשפ”ד – רֹאשׁ חוֹדֶשׁ אַדָר א׳
וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאׇזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע׃
“Then [God] took the book of the covenant and read it in the ears of the people. And they said, all that יהוה has spoken WE will do, and WE will heed!” (Exodus 24:7)
It’s 126 days since the Simchat Torah massacre of October 7 and the ensuing war in Gaza. Beyond the trauma and the bereavement inside Israel, this moment has challenged the loyalties of American Jews in ways that have ripped at the fabric of our organized Jewish community and beyond. In reflecting on this moment and the past four months, I am finding increasing tension with what we, as North American Jews, mean when we say the word “We”?
We are told that when God gave the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the people responded with two distinct verbs. נעשה ונשמע – “we will do” and “we will hear/heed.” Why are these verbs in the first person plural? Our tradition offers these terms as a “we,” a collective, and a jointly unified experience. In one of the most famous and oft-quoted passages of the Torah, this week’s Torah portion tells us that when we received the Torah we immediately responded with two words: נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע – WE will do, and WE will heed!
After the Simchat Torah massacre on October 7th, Jews worldwide experienced a strong sense of unity. We saw this as having happened to “us,” regardless of where we live or what passport we hold. But 4 months later, the rift in the Diaspora Jewish community has widened considerably. How do we navigate the potential challenge of loyalty and commitment to Israel and the Jewish people amidst rising tensions and conflict among our own people with the United States and the Biden administration?
After another visit to Israel by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (his 5th in four months), it was clear that relations between the Biden administration and Mr. Netanyahu have become increasingly fraught. This raises many questions, specifically about how drawn out the process might be to reach an agreement to end the conflict, and whether the Netanyahu administration is willing to risk harming the relationship with Israel’s most important ally to carry out a war whose victory is anything but guaranteed.
Many liberal American Jews remember a previous episode of tension, when in 2015 PM Netanyahu addressed the U.S. Congress surrounding the debate on the proposed Iran deal (JCPOA), circumventing the Obama administration. President Biden has called for everything but an all-out cease-fire, recognizing the risks of doing so, but as the Palestinian death toll rises in an attempt to weed out a Hamas brigade from the Southern Gaza area of Rafiah, the private cautioning by Biden is going to become increasingly public.
How will liberal Jewish America react to such a rift? The tension is clear between the forces that are trying to advance a ceasefire and to end this terrible war, and those who will accept nothing less than an eradication of Hamas – with or without the freeing of the over 100 hostages still in Hamas captivity. The United States is working with Arab allies to offer significant incentives for a peace deal, which include an openness to helping rebuild Gaza, and the prospect of formal diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, if Israel agrees to a process that leads to a Palestinian state and includes [non-Hamas] Palestinian governance of Gaza.
Many liberal American Jews are increasingly skeptical of PM Netanyahu who is seen as prioritizing the preservation of his extremist coalition, and his political standing over a deal that would free the hostages and end the war. Many feel that such a deal comes with too high a price tag and would only serve to allow Hamas to rebuild and fulfill its promise of continued death and destruction in Israel.
Amidst these growing tensions and an unclear outcome and end to the war, how do mainstream liberal North American Jews find balance at this moment?
What do we mean when we say “we?”
Where are our allegiances?
To whom or to what are we loyal?
How do we share in the collective experience of the Jewish people and support what we see to be our Jewish values?
Is there something on which we can collectively agree?
Here are a few basic assumptions about the majority of mainstream American Jews people to which I would like to suggest we can find consensus:
- We want Israel to live in safety and security.
The vast majority of Jews – both in Israel and abroad – think that there is an inherent right and a net positive for there to be a Jewish State in its ancestral homeland. We want the State of Israel to exist in security and safety, and not have to live by our swords or feel a constant sense of vulnerability.
- We want to feel a part of the story of the State of Israel.
While most North American Jews are not planning to make Aliyah, nor do they see themselves as Israeli, they do feel connected to Israel and see that connection as an important part of our Jewish identity. We want to feel proud of the State of Israel and want it to be admired in the international community for more than its reputation as a ‘Start-Up Nation’.
- Palestinian Lives Matter.
Watching the death and carnage in Gaza over the past 4 months has led many liberal-leaning American Jews to question the validity of Israel’s actions. Hearing PM Netanyahu wax on about the unlikelihood of a Palestinian State, and watching hundreds of Israelis protest humanitarian aid to Gazans – which they claim is becoming siphoned off by Hamas terrorists – flies in the face of fundamental Jewish values of seeing every human being as being created in the image of God and deserving of basic human rights.
Finding our collective agreement and consensus is a critical step in building and expanding our base to both support Israel and enable an end to the war and a safe and secure future for all Israelis and Palestinians.
As we enter the month of Adar I, and explore the lessons of our Parasha, let us reflect on our text to help guide us through this critical moment. Rashi’s comment on Exodus 19:1 teaches: “B’kol yom yihiye b’einecha k’ilu hayom nitna” –that every day we should look at the Torah as if it was given today (Rashi, Shmot, 19:1). Perhaps our sages also meant that every day we should endeavor to say: נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע WE will do, and WE will heed! Every day we should strive to affirm: we want Israel to live in safety and security; we want to feel a part of the story of the State of Israel; we want to be proud of Israel; and we want Palestinian lives to matter as well. Every day we should work to re-awaken this sense of unity and mutual responsibility amongst us and find those areas where we can say “we” and really mean it.
Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Adar Sameach (A Happy New Month of Adar)!