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Priorities: Inside the Tent and Outside

11/10/2013 08:55:00 PM

Nov10

It’s really great to be back in shul. Last week I was in Israel -  every trip to Israel is incredibly impactful, but this one was uniquely so, and in an unexpected way.

As a way of setting the scene for the parasha, let me say a few words about my trip. I spent Shabbat in the wonderful city of Raanana. And I arranged to eat lunch with the rabbi of the Shivtei Yisrael shul, my old friend Rabbi Danny Beller.

And two things stick in my mind. In that particular shul, I saw something I’d never seen before. When it came time to read the prayer for the State of Israel, there was respectful silence, but no particular intensity – none of Chazzan Lemmer’s Avinu Avinu for them!

But then they said the Misheberach, the blessing for the soldiers of Zahal – the Israeli army. And then the atmosphere changed completely. It felt a little like Yom Kippur. Everyone recited it together. People shokeled. I looked up to the ladies’ gallery and saw some women covering their face with their siddur, or closing their eyes in concentration.

I realized why – this wasn’t just citizens of a country davening for their armed forces – it was parents davening for their children. And it struck me that for at least the past 20 years whenever I’ve visited Israel I’ve tended to daven at shtiebels, or in yeshivas, not usually at a regular religious Zionist community with most families having children in the army. And it was unexpectedly powerful.

Over lunch, with Rabbi Danny Beller, we were joined by another family, of South African immigrants. Around that Shabbat table there were 4 or 5 young men, all children of olim, discussing their army service. A number were based on the border of Gaza; that previous night some soldiers had been critically wounded in a Hamas attack. They discussed the tunnels that Hamas has been digging – with building materials that Israel was pressured into allowing into Gaza. The aim is to build tunnels right into army bases or kibbutzim, and abduct large numbers of Israelis. They discussed their army service, and guarding the border to stop frequent attempts at infiltration – and all of the rigors of army life.

I felt two emotions – pride at these wonderful young men, and a deep sense of embarrassment, of shame. Not because I didn’t serve in the army, or even that my kids don’t have to - all of us here in America have to deal with that. My sense of shame was from the powerful and very sudden realization that I had a distorted sense of Jewish priorities.

As rabbi spend most of my time reading writing, talking, discussing and arguing about Jewish things. There is a lot to argue about, a lot to talk about. From our perspective, these issues can seem not just important, but overwhelming, more important than anything else could possibly be. The divisions and politics of the Orthodox, the Modern Orthodox world are important – but only to a point. The question of the differences between Yeshiva University, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, between this group and that group,this rabbi’s statement and that rabbi’s counter statement – these are all important issues. But for too many of us, for me personally,  they are given far more prominence than could possibly be justified.

In Israel  if anything it’s worse – the politics between the various religious parties, the splitting of the Yeshiva World, known as the ‘Lithunian world’  – the recriminations, accusations, name calling – heresy, the expulsions of supporters of one party from kollels and yeshivas, families split – a 100 year old rosh yeshiva, widely regarded as one of the gedolim, physically attacked by as student from the other party. It’s just not normal.

I thought, sitting at the Shabbat table, that many of the people I know, many of the people I read and listen to, would look down at these soldiers, with their small knitted yarmulkes, their  blue shirts and non-yeshivish dress.

But what would these soldiers say if they knew of the priorities, the agenda of American Orthodoxy, much of Israeli Orthodoxy. Heresy hunting, name calling, splits and denunciations.  And here are these young guys, in any other country they would be having the time of their life – and their job is to put their life on the line, everyday for years, to defend their fellow Jew. That’s what’s important, that’s what really matters. This self-referential bubble, this echo chamber that is so much of today’s orthodox world – and I’m sure its true in other parts of the community too – suddenly felt so – so unimportant, irrelevant.  Try telling those boys that what this or that rabbi did or did not say, is what really matters, is the most important Jewish issue of the day. 

In this week’s parasha we meet Yaakov Avinu, on the run, alone and fleeing for his life. He has taken his brother’s blessings and his brother wants to kill him – and Yaakov is for the first time in his life, alone, afraid, away from home. He is literally running for his life. The sun sets, and he has to sleep in an open field. The Torah says ‘vayifga bamakom’ - and he encountered the place. Rav Soloveitchik explains he is so disorientated, so unsure of his direction he only accidentally comes to this place – he doesn’t even know where he is. Every security, every assumption about his life has changed in the course of a day. Afraid of animals he tries to protect himself with stones around his head and he falls asleep. In that sleep he dreams: an incredible dream – of a ladder, and of angels. He hears Hashem promise him children, destiny, the land of Israel and divine protection. It’s a dream of incredible significance, a moment of the most profound prophecy. Yaakov wakes and the Torah says:

 וַיִּיקַץ יַעֲקֹב, מִשְּׁנָתוֹ, וַיֹּאמֶר, אָכֵן יֵשׁ ה’ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וְאָנֹכִי, לֹא יָדָעְתִּי

God is in this place and I didn’t know!

A powerful sense of awe, of awareness of the presence of the divine. 

But what exactly did Yaakov mean? He didn’t know that Hashem was in that place? How could he not know? Did he think Hashem was this specific place? That can’t be, because Hashem said he will be wherever Yaakov goes? So what is the cause of Yaakov’s awe and astonishment? 

I believe an answer is as follows:

Yaakov until that very morning had been, as the Torah describes it – an ‘ish tam, yoshev ohalim’ – he lived in tents. Esav was the hunter – the ish sadeh, Yaakov was the person who stayed in tents. Not just a home boy - these were the tents of Torah and Tefillah. His experience of the world, of the Divine was predicated on being cloistered, enclosed, in a bubble - cut off. Tents of Torah and Tefillah – yeshivas, batei medrash, shuls – these are vital institutions of Jewish life,. Yaakov's commitment to them and spending as much time as possible in them was exemplary. But there was just one problem; that Yaakov didn’t understand. You can’t live your whole life in a tent, in a bubble, in an echo chamber, in isolation. If you do, you will never fully encounter the divine.

At the heart of this narrative is an incredible paradox – Yaakov until that moment had lived for his whole life – decades – in holy tents. This was the first time in his life he had ever left those tents, literal and metaphoric, and slept in the big outside world. And only then does he have the most profound spiritual experience of his life -  a moment of clear, imminent prophecy. ‘Yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh’ Hashem is in this place, and I did not know. I thought Hashem was in the tents, I thought he was only to be found in this cloistered world, with its own values and priorities, now for the first time I am bamakom hazeh – in the big wider world – and now I realize – yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh – Hashem is here too – vanochi lo yadati…and I did not know.

Yaakov never rejected, chas veshalom, his tents - his greatest priority was always spiritual values – but he learnt something important that day – that his vision, his experience had been so limited.

Yitzchak himself hinted at that when he said to him:

רְאֵה רֵיחַ בְּנִי, כְּרֵיחַ שָׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר בֵּרְכוֹ ה’

The fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of the field which the Lord has blessed. Its not just the tent that Hashem has blessed, but the field as well.

And I want to suggest that perhaps this is what Rivka, Rebecca, had in mind all along, in getting Yaakov to dress up as Esav and trick his father. She wanted Yaakov to be forced to flee, because to be the next Patriarch, the founder of the Jewish people, it’s necessary, but not sufficient, to be a yoshev ohalim – you have to see the wider world, you have to see the bigger picture. If your whole world is the tent, the bubble, then you will never know the importance of the tent; you will never have a clear set of priorities.

And that my friends is what we see in today’s Jewish world. Exactly 75 years after Kristalnacht, Iran is on the verge of acquiring a nuclear bomb. Young Israeli boys, kids, are risking their lives on the border, at a time when our own American Jewish community is evaporating, as the Pew Report shows. But all of the energy, all the passion of the Jewish world, at least far, far too much of it, what seems to be the best and brightest of Judaism, is engaged in polemics, divisions, hatreds, arguments and sectarianism. Are these important issues? Yes. But are they the most important – should they be what all our energy is focused on ? Absolutely not.

Yaakov Avinu himself realized that just because in the tent it seems there is nothing more important, Hashems priorities for us cannot be discovered by confining oneself to the tent – ‘yesh Hashem bamakom hzeh, vianochi lo yadati’. 

And  so, at the end of that Shabbat meal, which incidentally was absolutely delicious, as the parents around the table listened to their children discussing mortars and guns, a friend that had been injured, the latest incidents, one mother turned to another and said – “do you remember when they were little – all we needed to worry about was they shouldn’t fall over and cut their knee.?”

And then one of the fathers turned to me, and said, “so tell me- what do people in New York discuss at their Shabbat table?”

And at that moment, I had nothing to say, and I wished that the ground would swallow me up.

Shabbat Shalom

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Mon, October 22 2018 13 Cheshvan 5779