By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
Shabbat Parashat Toldot November 20, 2020 – ד’ כסלו תשפ”א
Tevye the milkman had a revelatory moment as times were quickly changing. After learning of his daughter Hodel’s profession of love for Perchik the revolutionary, he turned to his wife Golde and asked a profound yet simple question:
Apparently after 25 years of marriage, 5 daughters (7 in the book), and a life together through trials and tribulations, simchas and celebrations, the thought of love had never occurred to them. The punchline is reassuring. After all the things they have done for one another, Golde reflects, “If that’s not love, what is?”
This week’s parashah highlights the complexities of loyalty and love that manifest in family relationships. Such is the case in the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob stole their father’s blessing from his brother Esau and bargained with a famished Esau for his birthright. Jacob, in particular, seems to need constant reassuring of love and affection from his father Isaac.
Making a leap to modern day Israelis, who seem to have the need to be loved unconditionally by World Jewry. Could it be that Israelis today have internalized this story by needing reassurance of love and affection from the Jewish people and the world as a whole? In reaction to some reasonable criticism of Israeli policies, Israelis often ask whether American Jews love them. For instance, Israelis watched the American Presidential election with one question in mind. Who will love us more? Donald Trump and the Republicans or Joe Biden and the Democrats? As if in response to that question, Aaron David Miller wrote this week: “the strength of the U.S.-Israel alliance depends on a political consensus, between America’s two main parties, that the broadest conception of the American national interest means robust support for Israel; the relationship with Israel cannot and should not depend on the desires and ambitions of a single party or politician.”
We worry deeply that Israel will not be shown the love that was given to Jacob by Rebekah (or God?), and that our fate will be like Esau’s as is written in this week’s Haftarah:
אָהַ֤בְתִּי אֶתְכֶם֙ אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֖ם בַּמָּ֣ה אֲהַבְתָּ֑נוּ הֲלוֹא־אָ֨ח עֵשָׂ֤ו לְיַֽעֲקֹב֙ נְאֻם־יְהוָ֔ה וָאֹהַ֖ב אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃ וְאֶת־עֵשָׂ֖ו שָׂנֵ֑אתִי וָאָשִׂ֤ים אֶת־הָרָיו֙ שְׁמָמָ֔ה וְאֶת־נַחֲלָת֖וֹ לְתַנּ֥וֹת מִדְבָּֽר׃
I have shown you love, said Adonai. But you ask, “How have You shown us love?” After all—declares Adonai—Esau is Jacob’s brother; yet I have accepted Jacob and have rejected Esau. I have made his hills a desolation, his territory a home for beasts of the desert. (Malachi 1:2-3)
The question of the Jewish people’s love for the People of Israel isn’t new. It arose in a famous correspondence between two philosophical giants of the 20th century, Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt. After publishing her report on the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in which she coined the phrase the “banality of evil,” Scholem rejected Arendt’s tone which he regarded as unacceptably high-handed, and detached.
“There is something in the Jewish language that is completely indefinable, yet fully concrete—what the Jews call ahavat Yisrael, or love for the Jewish people,” he wrote. “With you, my dear Hannah, as with so many intellectuals coming from the German left, there is no trace of it.”
Arendt explained that because Jewishness is a fact, something given and not chosen, she believed it is wrong to make it the object of pride or love. “How right you are that I have no such love,” she frankly stated. “I have never in my life ‘loved’ some nation or collective.” She believed that humans should be loyal to the good and the true, and to the friends they choose; they should not be loyal to identities or groups, which could potentially lead to the abdication of individual thought.
In a 2010 essay, Rabbi Donniel Hartman wrote:
“We Israelis, despite brash statements to the contrary, yearn for and need that love. The problem on our part is that we are often not willing to do what is necessary to sustain and support it. We think all that we need to do is to wave the military ’crisis du jour‘ to rally the troops and reap financial and political dividends.”
“Israel, as the homeland of the Jewish people, can no longer claim a self- evident, essentialist argument for its necessity for the future of Jewish survival, or for that matter its birthright as the leader of world Jewry and world Judaism. The future of the relationship between Israel and world Jewry is not dependent on claims of necessity but rather of meaning and importance. Jews in many places around the world, particularly in North America, have created a home and a vibrant and vital Judaism for themselves. If Israel is to have a role in their lives, it must earn it. To earn it, Israel must be a place where religious pluralism and diversity reign. It must be a place where the various Judaisms of the Jews have footholds and a place of respect. It must be a place where our foreign and military policies are morally and Jewishly defensible. It must be a place where the impact of our policies on world Jewry is an integral part of our political deliberations. It must be a place which strives to represent the best of what the Jewish people stand for.
Such a place will emanate an energy and creative light that will attract loyalty and sustained love in good times and in bad, in times of agreement and in times of disagreement.”
World Jewry, in broad strokes, thinks that a Jew’s love for Israel may have an unconditional foundation but needs continually to be earned and nurtured by mutual interaction.
What kind of love do we owe each other? Should our love for one another be offered freely and unconditionally?
Commenting on another passage in Genesis, the Midrash (Breishit Rabbah 44:3) states:
“כָּל אַהֲבָה שֶׁאֵין עִמָּהּ תּוֹכָחָה אֵינָהּ אַהֲבָה.” – “Any Love that does not bring with it rebuke, is not love.”
Many of us feel comfortable offering our loving rebuke of Israel when the government follows policies that are contrary to our liberal Jewish values, but are we Diaspora Jews willing to accept loving rebuke from Israelis charging us with abandoning them emotionally and politically when we disagree with them as a sovereign nation making their own decisions according to what they regard as in their best interest?
Love is no longer a birthright to be given blindly. The foundation of the loving relationship that comes from familial ties can only last and grow stronger with mutual acts of support, responsibility, accountability, and affection. A marriage will crumble if a couple has only the memory of initial attraction and love to sustain it. So too is our relationship with the people and State of Israel.
Dr. Alex Sinclair wrote: “We can show them that we can be critical of Israel and still love it; we can voice our frustration, our anger, and even our disgust with some of its policies, while supporting with unshakeable conviction its right to exist and flourish in peace; we can infuse and enrich our Jewish identities with its cultural and artistic delights even as we bridle at some of its religious extremism. And we can do all that with soundbites, too.”
“Israel: It’s imperfect; I love it; help me improve it.”