By Rabbi Josh Weinberg December 31 2020
וַיַּ֥רְא יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יוֹסֵ֑ף וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מִי־אֵֽלֶּה׃ וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יוֹסֵף֙ אֶל־אָבִ֔יו בָּנַ֣י הֵ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־נָֽתַן־לִ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּזֶ֑ה וַיֹּאמַ֕ר קָֽחֶם־נָ֥א אֵלַ֖י וַאֲבָרֲכֵֽם׃ וְעֵינֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ כָּבְד֣וּ מִזֹּ֔קֶן לֹ֥א יוּכַ֖ל לִרְא֑וֹת וַיַּגֵּ֤שׁ אֹתָם֙ אֵלָ֔יו וַיִּשַּׁ֥ק לָהֶ֖ם וַיְחַבֵּ֥ק לָהֶֽם׃
“Noticing Joseph’s sons, Israel asked, “Who are these?” And Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” “Bring them up to me,” he said, “that I may bless them. Now Israel’s eyes were dim with age; he could not see. So [Joseph] brought them close to him, and he kissed them and embraced them.” (Genesis 48:8-10)
These days, many are having trouble connecting with the next generation. Often, our children, or our grandchildren, seem unrecognizable to us. They speak a different language. They display an uncanny comfort with technology. And they seem to see the world in a radically different way.
In a strange twist of history repeating itself, Jacob does not recognize his grandsons Ephraim and Menasheh when it comes time to offer them blessings. Just like his father Isaac, the text excuses him with the simple explanation that Israel’s eyes were dim with age; he could not see. For some commentators that explanation is not sufficient. Simply put, they would say, Jacob’s grandchildren were unrecognizable to him.
When Jacob asked Joseph the direct question “Who are these?” – especially after he spoke so extravagantly about his closeness to his two grandsons, Ephraim and Menasheh – was it simply because of his failing eyesight? Or, as another commentator suggested, was it because the boys, having been brought up in Egypt, were indistinguishable from Egyptian youths? Had Ephraim and Menasheh assimilated into their host culture – no longer identifiable as children of Israel?
For many American Jews of an earlier generation the ultimate aspiration was to assimilate into the host culture. European immigrants worked hard to learn English, dress in a modern way, send their children to American public schools in order to completely acculturate to American life and fully integrate into society.
The generation of our parents and grandparents were raised in the aftermath of the Holocaust. They remember the miraculous establishment of the State of Israel. They lived through the triumph and euphoria of the Six-Day Wa. They were instilled with a fundamental sense of pride in the Jewish State. Today’s generation is not. Our parents and grandparents admired the mythic character Ari Ben-Canaan of Leon Uris’ Exodus. Today’s generation has grown up on images of Israel from the stories of “Fauda” or “Our Boys,” in which Israel and Israelis are painted in a still heroic, but much more complex and fallible light.
The strong generational difference on Israel is not a new phenomenon, but one that will continue to grow. And some will say that it is not necessarily a generational divide, but also an ideological divide – with a healthy split among the Jewish community which can be defined by where one stands on Israel, Zionism, and Jewish peoplehood. As that wedge goes deeper, each side will see the other as lacking fidelity to Jewish values while each casts the other as lacking awareness of the dangers that face Israel and the Jewish people. How can we develop common ground between one generation of Jews, who grew up with one vision of Israel, and the current younger generation of Jews, who have entirely different experiences?
It essentially goes something like this:
In a generational twist, this intra-community conflict involves the young telling the middle-aged and elderly that they are guilty of political naiveté. Their celestial Israel no longer bears much resemblance to the earthly one. It is almost as if an imagined Israel froze sometime between the election of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 (the last time the Labor Party had a healthy plurality in Israeli politics), and the unsuccessful ambition of the Oslo process which unraveled in the summer of 2000. Those who see Israel in that light, imagine that it is still just one election, one prime minister away from “normalcy.” Whereas the other side see a frightening rightward trend that embraces the status quo, and lacks any incentive or real need to end Israel’s now more than half-century of military rule over another population. This is the battle between those arguing for more stringent condemnation of Israeli Occupation – championing dignity and rights for Palestinians as a direct expression of Jewish values – versus those insisting that Israel retain its qualitative military edge and its ability to deter potentially existential threats from such enemies as Iran and its proxies.
So, are we doomed to be divided? Is Israel going to lose the young generation unless it drastically alters its current trajectory? Are those two positions necessarily mutually exclusive?
The answer lies in Jacob’s own actions. “So [Joseph] brought them close to him, and he kissed them and embraced them. (Gen. 48:10). He embraced them and offered them a blessing – the same blessing we offer our children every Erev Shabbat. In a dramatic moment of deep intentionality, Israel (Jacob) crosses his hands and offers the first-born blessing to the younger child Menasheh. He embraces the younger son, and thus ensures that he – despite having been raised in a different context and in an unrecognizable reality – will perpetuate the name “Israel” and eventually return to the land that God promised to their ancestors.
The challenge is to embrace those whose views are unrecognizable or even repugnant from one’s own. To embrace and not let go. To listen with patience and understanding, and to bequeath a sense of ownership in the future of our people and our State.
In his landmark 2018 novel “Here I am,” American-Jewish writer Jonathan Safran Foer wrestles with these exact questions. His character Jacob struggles with the old-fashioned views of his grandfather Isaac, as he himself wrestles with his own identity.
Foer’s message should be our message, when towards the end of the book (p.454) he writes the following:
“The Majority of the Jewish people have chosen not to live in Israel, and Jews do not share any one set of political or religious beliefs., and do not share a culture or language. But we are in the same river of history.
To the Jews of the world, those who came before you – your grandparents, your great-grandparents – and those who will come after you – your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren-are calling out: ‘Come home’
Come home not only because your home needs you, but because you need your home.
Come home not because you agree with everything Israel does, not because you think Israel is perfect, or even any better than other countries. Come home not because Israel is what you want it to be, but because it is yours.”
It is exactly the future of the Jewish People and the State of Israel that is at stake. As the largest Movement in North American Jewish life, we (ARZA and the Reform Movement) are actively working to bridge these gaps, and bring our people close to one another. Now is the time to invest in our work. To embrace Israel and one another and take ownership over the greatest achievement of modern Jewish History, the creation of a sovereign State for the Jewish People not because you agree with everything, but because it is yours.