The LORD has ended in Zion Festival and sabbath… He has handed over to the foe
The walls of its citadels; They raised a shout in the House of the LORD as on a festival day. The LORD resolved to destroy the wall of fair Zion; He measured with a line, refrained not from bringing destruction. He has made wall and rampart to mourn, together they languish.
All your enemies jeer at you; They hiss and gnash their teeth, and cry (or tweet): “We’ve ruined her! Ah, this is the day we hoped for; We have lived to see it!”
The above is drawn from Eichah – Lamentations Chapter II. It mourns the destruction our people suffered almost 2,600 years ago. 2,600 years have passed, yet far too much of the text can still apply today. Hashem promised us a time without sickness or war. And yet, 2,600 years have passed and the same reality is being lived. Much of that text may not currently apply, but far too much certainly does.
The question must be asked: What does G-d want from us?
What does G-d want before He will allow us to live in health and in security?
I don’t think the answer is as simple as keeping Torah and Mitzvot. In our thousands of years of history, we’ve had our Zealots and while some have seen some success, they haven’t been blessed – not like described in the Torah. On the other hand, we’ve had kings the Tanach has identified as idol worshipers – and they have seen relative success, although nothing biblical.
More recently, we had 2,000 years of exile where, for a great deal of time, the ‘Torah’ form of Judaism was the only form of Judaism. And yet we were not redeemed.
In fact, we only returned to Israel under the aegis of the communists, socialists and atheists. My grandfather was among them. But, lest you think economic equality is G-d’s goal, that return came at the cost of 6 million in Europe and 6,000 here in Israel. It came at the cost of innumerable Jews killed by the very regime they helped create in Russia. And, of course, it came at the cost of hundreds of thousands displaced from ancient homes in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
None of it has been enough…
So… what does G-d want? What can we do to bring our suffering to an end?
The story of Yaacov, the Story of Yisrael, might just help us understand.
At the beginning of this week’s Parsha, Yaacov sends messengers to Esav. He wants to work with Esav, to figure something out. But Esav responds with a concrete threat. He approaches with 400 armed men. Negotiations have failed. The sentence that follows is remarkable – it is definitional:
וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד, וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ
And Yaacov was very afraid, and it formed him.
וַיַּחַץ אֶת-הָעָם אֲשֶׁר-אִתּוֹ
And he divided the עם (nation) with him.
It isin the face of an existential threat – that our people are called an עם for the first time.
I want you to think about that for a moment: We try to mend relationships, the response is violence – or the threat of violence – and it forms us into a people.
It’s all too familiar, right?
There’s a problem, though. Yaacov isn’t really ready to stand up for his עם. He divides his people, he pays tribute and he prays. For thousands of years, we have argued that this is a model response to the threat. But I think it is nothing of the sort.
How does Yaacov pray? He says: “I am too small.” I can’t handle what’s coming. The עם has formed, but the leadership – even the leadership of our great forefather Yaacov – remains weak.
At first, G-d does not seem to answer Yaacov’s prayers. Esav is not visited by a threatening angel as Lavan was. So, in the middle of the night, Yaacov sends everybody ahead and it seems like, once again, he may be about to run.
And then everything changes.
This week, I had the misfortune of watching most of Lyle Lyle Crocodile with my younger kids. In it, the crocodile throws a wrestling match with the father of the family. The goal is to pump that father up – to restore his confidence. It is to make him feel stronger than he actually is. That scene reminded me of Yaacov wrestling the man in the middle of the night.
You see, Yaacov identifies exactly who he was wrestling.
כִּי-רָאִיתִי אֱלֹקים פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, פְּנִיאֵל
Yaacov called the name of the place Peniel, because I saw G-d face to face.
Whether Yaacov wrestled Hashem or he wrestled an angel, Hashem threw the match. Either way, afterwards Yaakov was told the lesson:
שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹקים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל
You strove with G-d and Man, and you WILL BE ABLE.
In other words, it doesn’t matter who you’re fighting: if you put up a fight, you will able to do what you need to do. It is not about physical ability, it is about your will and the support of your G-d.
עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ – My strength and the Song of my Lord (from Exodus 15)
It might seem that the lesson was wasted on Yaacov. After all, Yaacov was wounded. He was limping. He couldn’t run. G-d forced him to fight.
Sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it?
But the lesson was not wasted. Not only does Yaacov face Esav – as he must – but when he does, his camp is not divided. Yes, he is still trying to protect Rachel and Yosef – but everybody is there. Together. He isn’t mitigating the risk; he’s facing it head-on (although his problems with deception have yet to be resolved).
He trusts in Hashem.
In other words, Yaacov has progressed. As a young man, he fought for pride of place – breaking all conventions along the way. In Padan Aram, Lavan took Yaacov in because he was family. Yaacov began to work and to build around that fundamental construct of culture. He found – and earned – a place. But he had not learned how to stand up – face to face – for what needed defending.
Remarkably, it took a damaged leg to teach him to stand. The Torah records Yaacov only pulled his legs into bed in the moments right before he dies. He never again gave up on standing strong. I think Yaakov is standing strong – in part – because he is weak. He understands that it is not muscle; but will and the support of Hashem that makes him who he is.
But notice what he stands strong for. It isn’t for pride. After all, he calls Esav Adoni – My Master – 5 times. It isn’t for wealth – he still gives Esav the tribute. In fact, he gives Esav everything Esav so desperately craves. Esav is so delighted that Yaacov says his face is like the face of G-d.
No Yaakov stands strong for what really matters: his family and their independence.
Before our present war, we were ripped apart by our seeking of pride. We were fighting for position – for validation through power. We lost track of what was truly important. We weren’t spending our efforts on being a nation of creation and holiness.
So, G-d hobbled us and is hobbling us still.
So, what should we do? I think we simply refer to the classic bumper sticker:
“what would Yaacov do?”
I think that Yaacov would be strengthened by the knowledge that his will has grown only stronger in the face of loss. I think Yaacov would stand strong, but with a humble heart.
The first step in the emergence from the curses of Vayikra (Leviticus) is:
יִכָּנַע, לְבָבָם הֶעָרֵל
Humble your blocked hearts.
This is what we must do. We must humble ourselves before our brothers. And we must humble our nation before our G-d. We must understand that it is not our pride, but our will and the support of our G-d that make us strong. We must stand strong for our families and our independence, but with humble hearts.
If we do this, then I believe we be an עם. Not an עם defined by the threats of others – but an עם defined by our goodly tents and by the blessings of our Lord.
(I can go on about this topic, which I didn’t do in the speech, so let me hit some highlights here.
- Right after being told to humble our hearts were are told the cost of dedicated our souls to Hashem. It is highest for adult men and lower for women, children and the elderly. The sums about the funds needed to humble one’s soul.
- Immediately after that the census of the book of Bamidbar takes place. There, only the men of military age pay and they pay 1/10th the rate in the previous reading. This is because, in war time, it is a lot easier to humble your heart. Non-soldiers don’t pay at all because they harbor no illusion of control – they are humbled automatically. War is humbling.
- Yaacov is a complex character. His (and his family’s) problems with deception continue until Yosef begins to resolve them. These are also important issues, and they temper the strength with which Yaacov actually stands up to Esav.
- How would this actually work? My constitution talks about the practical ways of limiting our own honor-seeking and accepting our limits. But beyond that there is a fundamental concept: If our people can pour their energies into building their physical reality and reinforcing their connection to forever – then no terrorist or country group could ever imagine toppling us with a day of slaughter. Our strength, and the song of our Lord, would create the reality we read about in Chumash. Security would be more likely simply because the concept of victory over the Jewish people would be so much harder to imagine. We are small, but with our will and the strength of our Lord we will be able.