So Who (What) Are We?
Just what Jews are has been debated for ages. In recent times, the different options have become agendized and politicized. My friend Rabbi Shmuel Goldin recently contributed a delightful, upbeat essay to Torah Tidbits (the OU’s weekly here in Israel) that not only nails the reasons for some of the inconsistencies, shall we say, in the behavior or Israelis, but is actually a serious contribution to our self-understanding.
Some like to insist that we are a religion. That allows them to deny – as the Palestinians do all the time – that we are a nation, with roots in a piece of territory at least as significant as any other nation. Witness the back and forth between Abbas and Bibi last week. The former mocked the notion of Israel being a Jewish state, because it included Russians and Ethiopians. Bibi felt compelled to respond that Jews from Russian and Ethiopia are as much a part of us as anyone else.
Another reason for our foes insisting that we are a religion is that it permits them to dismiss 90% of Jews as unfaithful to that religion, and therefore not deserving of any sympathy as the people of the Bible. There are still lots of anti-Semitic Christians who tout that line.
Many of our admirers come at it from a different angle. What impresses them the most about us is that we live as a community. They sense that this is something they very much miss in their own lives. Christian friends often point to this, as well as conversion candidates in their interviews with beis din.
Rabbi Goldin comes up with an important dimension that we don’t stress often enough. He happens to perfectly capture some of the beauty and craziness of life in Israel. My wife loved it when she read it, instantly recalling so many examples of the same phenomena. I had the same reaction. No spoiler from me. You’ll have to read it!
So there we were, my wife and I, embarking on another of the seemingly endless tasks associated with our Aliyah.
On this occasion, we needed to visit the Misrad Hap’nim, the interior ministry. In order to avoid the long lines at the central office in Yerushalayim, we decided to travel to the Misrad Hap’nim in the nearby neighborhood of Har Homa.
As we boarded the bus, my wife turned to the driver and asked, “What stop do we get off at for the Misrad Hap’nim, please?” [this entire conversation, of course, took place in Hebrew]
To which the driver responded, “Lo Yodea, I don’t know.”
My wife then asked, “How can you not know? You’re the bus driver!”
To which the driver again responded, “Lo Yodea, I don’t know.”
The episode would have ended there, had it not been for the lady in the first row…
She turned the bus driver and, echoing my wife’s words, loudly asked “How can you not know? You’re the bus driver!”
She then turned around to the entire bus, pointed to us, and in an even louder voice asked, “Is there anybody who can help these poor people? They need to go to the Misrad Hap’nim in Har Homa. Does anyone know what stop they get off at?”
At that point, the driver stopped the bus short, and began to yell at the top his lungs, “What do you want from me? This is my first day on the job!”
Immediately, chaos corrupted, as the entire bus got involved…
A number of passengers shouted at the driver, “How could you not know the stops on your route?” Others screamed, “Leave him alone, it’s his first day!’ And yet others yelled, “Just start the bus! Start the bus!!” (As I, mortified, quietly crawled to the back of the bus…)
How do you explain a country that can produce such a scene?
How do you explain a country where, on the fourth visit to the motor vehicle office, you are finally able to get your Israeli driver’s license, and you try pay the requisite fee… only to find out that you don’t pay the fee where you get the license… for that, you have go to the post office (and wait on line there)!
But that’s understandable, because the post office is where you do most of your business… except mail packages (if you want them to get there in timely fashion), and, oh yes, except for registering your car… that you do on a machine at the pharmacy!
Anyone who has made Aliyah could go on and on…
How do you explain a country like this??
Over the years, I have come up with some answers that make sense to me.
1. Israel is a Middle Eastern country with a Western veneer. Beneath the surface it’s the shuk (Middle Eastern marketplace). Anyone who has visited the shuk knows that it operates by its own rules.
2. The Israelis have more important things to deal with. They have neither the time for niceties nor the bandwidth for constant politeness. Consider their miraculous accomplishments against monumental odds in such a short time. They have been forced to, and are still forced to, prioritize. Bureaucratic tasks, therefore, will not always be characterized by finesse. And, if that means you have to go to the pharmacy to register your car, so be it!
Since making Aliyah, however, I have arrived at a more comprehensive perception of Israel. A perception that, to me, explains everything.
To understand, we have to go back in time, to the very origins of our people.
As the Torah reading at this time of the year reflects, Jewish history begins twice. Our story opens with the patriarchal/matriarchal era, when the totality of our history is summed up in the lives of Avraham and Sara, Yitzchak and Rivka, Yaakov, Rachel and Leah, and their families. When that era ends, our story begins again with the advent of the national era. The Jewish nation is born through slavery, the Exodus, and Revelation.
One could well ask (as does Rashi in his first comment on the Torah): Why does Jewish history include the patriarchal/matriarchal era at all? Why not start the “Jewish story” with the birth of the Jewish nation?
A multitude of answers can be offered to this question (in addition to Rashi’s own answer). Perhaps the patriarchal/matriarchal era is recorded to create a balance between individual and society before the national era begins. Perhaps the Torah’s purpose is to establish the gift of legacy; to enable the Jewish nation to be born into a proud pre-existing history. Perhaps the Torah documents the lives of patriarchs and matriarchs because of the manifold lessons that can be learned from their personal behavior. Perhaps Hashem wants to underscore the family unit as the most important educational unit in Jewish experience.
After two years as an Israeli citizen, however, I have come to another conclusion.
The patriarchal/matriarchal era is recorded in the Torah because God wants us to always remember that we began as a family.
In a very real sense, the journey of the patriarchal/matriarchal era is a journey towards family.
A grand experiment commences with Avraham’s first steps towards Canaan. Set your selves apart, God says to the patriarch. Pit yourselves against the world. Do not allow the tribe, the society around you, to raise and educate your children. Raise them within the context of your home.
Imagine the loneliness of that journey… We all know how difficult it is to parent children when we are surrounded by others who think and believe as we do. To create family alone, against the world, must have been a monumental challenge.
And ultimately, the story of the patriarchs and matriarchs cannot end until, after difficult travail, we arrive at the journey’s final scene. We must reach the point where, Yaakov, the last patriarch, lies on his deathbed, surrounded by all his sons, each present and accounted for, each part of the unfolding destiny of his family for the first time in three generations.
The patriarchal/matriarchal era cannot end, and the national era cannot begin, until the family is whole.
But, then, with the arrival of nationhood, the next step must be taken. For while God wants us to begin as a family, even more importantly, as we become a nation, He wants us to remain a family.
That is why He commands us, on the eve of the Exodus and the onset of our national journey, to return to our homes and share in the Korban Pesach, essentially a family meal. That is why Hashem introduces the majestic Revelation at Sinai with the words: “Thus shall you say to the House of Jacob and speak to the Children of Israel…” You began as a family, ‘the House of Jacob,’ and you remain a family, ‘the House of Jacob,’ even as you become a nation, ‘the Children of Israel.’ That is why the very definition of Jewishness is so unique and complex. We are at once a nation and a family, to be joined by birth or by choice.
And today, as we watch the miraculous birth and growth of the State of Israel; what are we witnessing, if not the extraordinary scene of a family coming home, from all corners of the globe?
We can now return our original question. How do you explain a country like Israel?
Simple-you just have to accept one basic fact.
Israel is not a country, it’s a family.
The minute you accept that fundamental truth, everything made sense. Everything; the functionality and the dysfunctionality… The love and the “edge.”
This truth explains, for example, why a whole busload of passengers will get involved in a couple’s search for the Misrad Hap’nim in Har Homa.
It explains the way Israelis drive. Rules? What rules? This isn’t a public road, it’s my grandfather’s parking lot. What, I should put on my turn signal? You should know that I plan to turn; I shouldn’t have to tell you. Really, did I honk you? I didn’t even notice. What? You are waiting for the light to turn? Traffic signals are just suggestions…
It explains why, when you come out of the voting booth, people you don’t know greet you with the question, “Who’d you vote for?”
It explains why those same “strangers” are also comfortable asking you other questions such as, “How much did you pay for your apartment? How much do you make as salary?”
It explains why the niceties are often ignored. Conversations in Israel start at a different level, with the preliminaries unnecessary. What, I have to say “hello?” I have to ask “how are you?” We are past pointless platitudes. Let’s get to the meat of the matter. A few days after our aliyah, Barbara and I were discussing our experiences while sitting on a bus. Suddenly, two women, who didn’t know each other and certainly didn’t know us, sat down in the seats facing us and seamlessly joined in the conversation. After all, we’re family…
It explains why the mail never seems to come on time; yet when the postman tries to deliver a package and finds no one home, he calls my wife (whom he doesn’t know from Adam, or Eve, for that matter) offers to pick her up, give her the package, and bring her home.
It explains why Israelis will push and shove, but will be the first ones to pick you up when you fall; why a driver will scream at you for stopping traffic, then quickly jump out of his car to help you when he realizes your car won’t start.
It explains the woman who approaches my friend outside a museum, where he is having difficulty calming his infant granddaughter. “The baby is clearly hungry,” she says. “I’ve been nursing my own child. Would you like me to nurse yours?”
It explains why mothers strolling their infants on the street, on the bus, in the mall, will receive a continuing flow of advice from passersby: the baby should be wearing a hat; sit him/her up straight; don’t hold the baby like that, it’s not good for him/her; etc., etc., etc.
It explains why everyone across the country is totally shaken by the death of a single terror victim; why each soldier is everyone’s son or daughter; why tens of thousands will attend the funeral of a lone soldier whom they never met.
It explains all this, and so much more…
As I said, it’s simple. To live in, or even visit, this country successfully, you only have to realize one thing.
It’s not a country, it’s a family.
It’s a family, and we are finally coming home.
And when you realize that, you will also realize that there is no other place in the world where you’d rather be.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, New Jersey, and Past President of the Rabbinical Council of America. He is the author of a five-volume set on Chumash, Unlocking the Torah Text, and Unlocking the Haggada. He currently resides in Jerusalem with wife, Barbara.