Friday December 17, 2021 – י״ג טֵבֵת תשפ״ב
וַיִּשְׁלַח יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־יְמִינוֹ וַיָּשֶׁת עַל־רֹאשׁ אֶפְרַיִם וְהוּא הַצָּעִיר וְאֶת־שְׂמֹאלוֹ עַל־רֹאשׁ מְנַשֶּׁה שִׂכֵּל אֶת־יָדָיו כִּי מְנַשֶּׁה הַבְּכוֹר׃
“But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh’s head—thus crossing his hands—although Manasseh was the first-born.” (Genesis 48:15)
Joseph was not prepared for this moment. Having now been reunited with his father and been together for the last 17 years of Jacob’s life, Joseph had the unique opportunity to bring his sons to his father for a blessing (may we all be so lucky!). In a dramatic twist of fate, defying all traditional expectations, Jacob pulls a fast one and crosses his hands – offering Ephraim, the younger brother, the blessing with his right hand. Joseph tried to protest the crossover but to no avail.
It may be easy to miss the significance here and easy to ask: “So what?!?!”
However, our tradition attributes great significance and power to the “right” hand (pun intended).
In the enigmatic poem, Ana B’Koach, recited almost precisely as Shabbat begins, Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah, (who lived in the early centuries of the Common Era) waxed poetically about the right hand in supplication to God.
“We beg you! With the strength of Your right hand’s greatness, untie our bundled sins. Accept the prayer of Your nation; strengthen and purify us, O Awesome One.”
Note as well the famous line from Psalm 137:
אִם־אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלָ͏ִם תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי׃
“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right-hand wither…” (Psalm 137:5)
The Psalmist compares the loss of the Holy City of Jerusalem to losing the powerful cunning of our right hand. In this context, one might imagine Joseph’s dismay as he followed the unconventional move of his father’s right hand.
The blurring of right vs. left in our biblical story twisted the plot and added both drama and a forward trajectory for our ancestors. But what about today?
This week marked the six-month anniversary of the Bennett-Lapid government, whose coalition exemplifies the true blurring of “Right” and “Left” in Israeli politics.
Since the signing of the Oslo accords in the 1990s and the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000, the left-right divide has continued to become fuzzier. The signing of a peace treaty with the Palestinians in the 90s resulted in shifting the political goalposts considerably to the left. Just prior to the signing, the PLO was an outlawed organization in Israel, and talk of a Palestinian state was taboo among large sectors of the Israeli electorate.
At the same time, those goalposts shifted back with the violence brought on in the early 2000s after Oslo’s collapse. “Left-winger” (שמאלני – Smolani – or the popularized colloquial and derogatory “סמולנים” which echoes the English word “small”) has become a slang epithet hurled at those who dare criticize the actions of the government and Defense Ministry / IDF, and who raise moral issues. Those activists who work actively for Palestinian and minority rights are not to be spoken about. The meaning of “Right-wing” has also changed over time.
The mainstream right-of-center demographic has now moved further to the right, embracing even the extremist elements of Israeli society. The tolerance and approbation of Jewish communities over the Green line (i.e. Settlements) has moved considerably more into the Israeli mainstream and many still are holding the anachronistic (in my opinion) view that there should not be a Palestinian State. Astoundingly, the notion of self-preservation, defense, and security are regarded by some as values only touted by the Right..
This week, two important articles appeared in the Haaretz newspaper, generally known to be a left-of-center publication, challenging those who hold both “Right” and “Left” positions.
The first is a haunting and disturbing expose by historian Adam Raz titled “Classified Docs Reveal Massacres of Palestinians in ’48 – and What Israeli Leaders Knew.” The piece shares vivid and deeply troubling accounts of IDF soldiers carrying out brutal murders of women, children, and the elderly during the 1948 war in more than 25 villages. And it claims that the Israeli cabinet knew of these massacres but chose not to disclose them. Haaretz’s lead editorial this week stated:
“A 73-year-old state has no need to run away from its past or cover it in the false blanket of “purity of arms” and “the most moral army in the world.” It is time to acknowledge the truth, and first to publish the report by the first attorney general, Yaakov-Shimshon Shapira, on the massacres of the dark autumn of 1948; to restore the redacted text to the minutes of the cabinet meeting in which Shapira presented his findings and to hold a penetrating public discussion of their implications today.”
Reckoning with closeted skeletons and holding Israel accountable for its behavior is certainly important and, one might argue, is also a Jewish value.
As a rebuttal to that piece, a second article titled “Jews Were Massacred in 1948 Too, So Why Dwell Only on the Nakba?” ran on Wednesday. This article emphasized that in the total war of existence that began to rage in Palestine following the adoption of the United Nations’ partition resolution of November 1947, massacre was the certain fate of every Jewish settlement that fell to the Arabs: the killing of fighters and civilians alike, mutilation of their bodies, looting of property, and destruction of the houses and other buildings.
The article’s author, Uri Misgav, well-associated with the Israeli Left, states:
“Today there is apparently only the Nakba: It consists of the killing and expulsion of Arabs, Palestinian villages that were destroyed, and Palestinian refugees. This historiographic distortion, with its absurd and immoral lack of symmetry, is the apple of the eye among certain circles in Israel, Arabs, and Jews alike.
Essentially, Misgav’s call-out here is to say that Arabs massacring Jews is not newsworthy or nuanced. It is ‘dog bites man.’ Jews massacring Arabs (and covering it up) is more of a “man bites dog.” His piece is of critical importance because it calls out those who engage in “exaggeration, falsehoods and self-undermining and flagellation, and wallowing in feelings of guilt.” He advocates not cherry-picking cases and quotations. Rather, we have to be thorough and factual and give context for the sake of the truth of the historical record and to avoid pandering to one viewpoint over another.
But here’s the thing, “Right” and “Left” are useful words if you need to tell a driver which way to turn. Within the political realm, the binary descriptors are past their expiration date and should be deep-sixed.
They lack nuance given that “the right” can include Alexander Hamilton, Ayn Rand, Steve Bannon, PM Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, and John Locke.
And “the left” can include Joseph Stalin, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Woody Guthrie, Karl Marx, PM Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, and John Locke.
Polarized situational politics can be amplified by unsophisticated click-and-share social media posts, which reward and encourage extreme and simplified attitudes. Lost in the noise are the vanquished centrists and the sensible voices of moderates with the ability to balance between poles. Too often, activists (on all sides) whittle down complex issues to a superficial binary choice, forcing one to be either ‘for’ or ‘against.’ At certain times there are clearly delineated lines defining right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, etc… I often mourn the contemporary perceived death of absolutism. But, sometimes there are more than fifty shades of grey.
Sometimes, the right hand and the left hand can crossover and meet in the middle. That move can be shocking, as it was to Joseph and to those who maintain certain expectations of the right/left divide. As we bring the book of Genesis to a close, let us all try and emulate Yaakov’s penultimate blessings to his grandchildren, to crossover our hands and blur the lines between Right and Left. As parents now say in offering a blessing to their children (sons in this example) around the Shabbat dinner table: “To be like Efraim and Menashe” is the legacy we now try to teach – and we can add Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel as well. Ephraim and Menashe were born and raised in Egypt, in a non-Jewish society, a place where, we are told to assume, the people were not of high character. Our sages teach that they remained faithful to the morals and ideals that were espoused by their grandfather Jacob as they were transmitted through their father Joseph. To maintain a high level of spirituality and moral character amidst a society devoid of morality and ethics is the real test. Rather than looking to simplistic binaries of “Right” or “Left” may we all have the strength to be able to withstand the pressures of society, find balance and be a blessing.