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Letter from Israel

by in General, Vayishlach .

Almost exactly 24 years ago, a friend was driving my father z”l to the Los Angeles airport as he used to do regularly at the end of my father’s weekly trips. This was to be their last ride together. My father suffered a sudden heart attack only a day later and passed away. This ride was significant in other ways. My father made a comment in the car that was unusual for him and quite out of context. He told my friend that we would lose Israel for a very brief time before Mashiach came.

I couldn’t understand or even relate to this comment at the time. Although 1991 was a turbulent year in the middle east with the coalition attack on Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait the year before, Israel was nevertheless in quite a secure position by the end of that year. We certainly saw none of the Western hostility to Israel that we experience now. Yet today just after my father’s 24th Yahrzeit, I understand his prophetic warning far better.

We can’t take Israel for granted. The biggest threat to Israel’s existence doesn’t come form its militant Arab neighbors. It comes from the forces of Western Liberal Democracy in their odd alliance with some of our own Jewish liberals who question Israel’s moral right to exist and defend itself. If we lose our moral certainty about our rights to Israel and weaken our resolve to pay any price for its survival and strength, we risk destruction by the entropic forces of left wing political liberalism and left-leaning academia and media. And there is a price to be paid to maintain and build Israel:

The Price for Israel

ר׳ שמעון בן יוחאי אומר: שלש מתנות טובות נתן הקב״ה לישראל וכולן לא נתנן אלא על ידי יסורין, אלו הן - תורה וארץ ישראל והעולם הבא

ברכות ה.

Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai taught that Hashem gave the people of Israel three precious gifts, each of them entailing suffering: Torah, the Land of Israel and Olam Habah (The World of the Future). 

There are many different ways to understand what this suffering is. It is helpful to notice the underlying pattern in this chazal: All three gifts are lenses through which to visualize an ideal. Torah describes an ideal life of sanctity, love and kidush Hashem (elevating G-d’s name). The Land of Israel is a vision of a perfect national existence in which the service of G-d and the preservation of His law are paramount. Olam Habah is a vision of a perfect existence where only truth matters. The suffering referred to then is not just in the struggle of acquiring each of these gifts but more in the challenging feelings they invoke in us: the gap between what is and what could be. (See Rashi Berachot 5a D”H: VeDerech Chaim.

What should Israel be and what could it be?

A Name Change

To understand the very essence of the idea of Israel, consider the first use of the term in Parshat Vayishlach, when Hashem adds Yisrael to Yaacov’s name. Eisav’s angel, with whom Yaacov had just ended his nocturnal struggle, in foretelling him of his impending name change provides him with the rationale:

.וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל

(בראשית פרק לב)

“And he said: No longer will your name be pronounced Yaacov, but rather Yisrael – for you have wrestled with Divine forces and with human forces, and you were able.”

There is a clear reference in the name Yisrael to Yaacov’s having wrestled with the Divine, but there is no reference in the word to his battles with humankind. How does the name Yisrael reflect both battles? Clearly, the answer is that his human battles are represented by his former name, Yaacov; his second name, Yisrael, refers to his battles with Divine forces. His name then was not changed; it was added to. His name became Yaacov Yisrael, and this combined name reflects his capacity to successfully wrestle on two plains: the Divine and the human.

(This explains why although we are not permitted to refer to Avraham as Avram after his name change, the Torah does continue to refer to Yaacov by his original name, because he never lost the name Yaacov.

, בר קפרא אמר כל מי שהוא קורא לאברהם אברם עובר בעשה, א"ר לוי בעשה ולא תעשה, ולא יקרא עוד וגו' בלא תעשה, והיה שמך אברהם בעשה… 

דכוותה הקורא לישראל יעקב עובר בעשה, תני לא שיעקר שם יעקב אלא כי אם ישראל יהיה שמך, ישראל יהיה עיקר ויעקב טפילה, ר' זכריה בשם ר' אחא מכל מקום יעקב שמך אלא כי אם ישראל יהיה שמך, יעקב עיקר וישראל מוסיף עליו.,  

בראשית רבה פרשת וישלח פרשה עח))

“Bar Kafra teaches that anyone who calls Avraham, Avram, transgresses a law of the Torah…does the same then apply to one who calls Yisrael Yaacov? No, we are taught that the name Yaacov was not uprooted, but that Yisrael will be his primary name and Yaacov his secondary name (or according to others, the converse).”

In fact, Avraham never lost the name Avram either; it is incorporated into his second name which is merely his former name, Avram, with the addition of the letter ה’ to make it Avraham. Names, like individuals, do not change; they grow, they expand and they evolve, but they do not change. This is because a person’s name describes his or her essence and one’s essence never changes (excepting in the case of a person who converts from another faith to Judaism). One should be proud of the name one was given at birth and by which one was called growing up. If one takes on an additional name it should not replace the former but add to it. (Orach Chaim, Bereishit 35:10)

Many people who have remarkably opted for an observant life after growing up secularly, change their names at the first opportunity. It is as if they are trying to obliterate who they were and start afresh with a new identity. But we can’t and shouldn’t do that. Who we were is what has brought us to where we are, and remains an inextricable part of our identities no matter how these identities develop and evolve. Just as Avram is integrated into Avraham, and Yaacov is integrated into Yaacov Yisrael, so we should integrate who we have been with whom we are becoming. It is in this integration that we discover and manifest our uniqueness and true Divinity.)

Moral Murkiness

To further understand the unique mission if Israel, it is helpful to notice the point in the Yaacov narrative at which Hashem does change his name. It is not after his fight with Eisav’s angel nor after the successful reconciliation with his brother later on. It is after the episode where Dinah goes out unaccompanied into the public domain and there is captivated by Shechem who seduces her.  In retaliation, her brothers Shimon and Levi scheme against the people of Shechem, persuade them to convert and circumcise their men, and then attack them when they were suffering in pain from their procedures. Yaacov is furious with their deceit:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֜ב אֶל־שִׁמְע֣וֹן וְאֶל־לֵוִי֘ עֲכַרְתֶּ֣ם אֹתִי֒ לְהַבְאִישֵׁ֙נִי֙ בְּיֹשֵׁ֣ב הָאָ֔רֶץ.

(בראשית פרק לד)

And Yaacov said to Shimon and Levi you have made me murky to be perceived as dishonest (see Seforno) among the residents of the land.

They answer him on a matter of principle:

וַיֹּאמְר֑וּ הַכְזוֹנָ֕ה יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה אֶת־אֲחוֹתֵֽנו. 

Can we allow our sister to be made into a prostitute?

Shimon and Levi’s response appears to be heroic and admirable. Why was Yaacov fearful of confronting the people of Shechem and punishing them for their dastardly act? And why did Yaacov not accept their explanation? We see later on when he blesses his sons on his deathbed that he treats Shimon and Levi harshly, clearly indicating his displeasure with what they did until the very end of his life. To Yaacov, they caused a moral murkiness, when clarity was called for. 

Principle and Politics

Yaacov was not suggesting that they do nothing to rescue Dinah and punish Shechem. He was arguing that it was wrong to employ deceitfulness in that response. Yaacov had become a master of knowing when to act with political strategy and when with uncompromising moral directness. When fighting principle one is operating in the Divine, spiritual sphere, and this requires directness, stature, and certitude. It is only when fighting a political battle, that one may need to employ political strategy, sometimes even a little deceitfully. The situation of Shechem and Dinah called for forthright confrontation, not for political strategizing because this conflict was a matter of principle, not a matter of politics.

Yaacov and Yisrael

The two words that make up Yaacov’s name, Yaacov and Yisrael, indicate not only the different spheres in which he simultaneously operates but also the different modes with which he battles. The name Yaacov, which connotes his struggles with humanity also connotes an element of strategy, politics and scheming. Yisrael on the other hand, the name that refers to his struggles with the Divine, connotes uncompromising directness and straightness (yashar) and great stature (sar). It is only after this display by Yaacov of clear mastery of how to battle politics and principle, how to engage with the human dynamic and with Divine power that Hashem changes his name and acknowledges his mastery of both the heavenly and the human.

The art is to accurately discern when a battle is one of politics and when it is one of principle so as to know which mode to employ. When fighting on principle (the Divine sphere) we are not to use politics. We are direct, and using our moral stature rather than our diplomatic guile we confront issues without apology and without compromise. We are Yisrael. However when we are fighting human political and emotional issues, we use the diplomacy and strategy of Yaacov, we negotiate and we compromise.

Yisrael: A National Mission

It is further interesting that when Yaacov is referred to as an individual, he continues to be

referenced as Yaacov. But when the nation is referred to as the descendants of Yaacov, we are called Benei Yisrael and never Benei Yaacov. It almost seems as though as individuals we sometimes have to grapple with human issues and do so diplomatically and politically. As a nation though, our ultimate role of Or Lagoyim (light unto the nations), is to confront issues on the Divine, spiritual plane, and to confront it with the utmost straightness, uncompromising truthfulness and majestic stature. This is the Israel that could and should be but is not yet fully so. The yissurin (suffering) of Eretz Yisrael is the suffering we feel when we acknowledge the gap between who we could be as a nation and who we are.  

Israel: A Personal Journey

I write this piece on the first day of my month-long visit to Israel. I’d like to say I have come because Israel needs me and that is partly true. But more important I have come because I need Israel. I need Israel because it is easier here than anywhere else to check the alignment of the Yaacov and the Yisrael in my own life. Knowing what aspect of the things I deal with and grapple with are Divine and principled and therefore need uncompromising directness and which are human and negotiable. Perhaps even more important is to check in with myself to make sure that in no area of my life am I stuck in a single plain, viewing issues either as purely human and material or purely Halachik and principled. Rather to be sure that I see every issue I grapple with from both its spiritual and its physical perspectives at once, and that I grapple simultaneously with both using the appropriate modes for each. Having Israel as a place in which to achieve this recalibration is one of the three precious gifts that Hashem gave us, and one which we can never take for granted.   

Latest update: December 01, 2015

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