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Parashat Hashavua Re'eh 2013 / 5773 - Jewish Exceptionalism: The Blessing and the Curse

30.07.2013 by

One of the basic goals of classical Zionism was to "normalize" the Jewish people. The feeling was - and for many still is - that life in exile is sick, abnormal, and is an impossible way for a nation, and its people, to live. The strange situation of the Jews - scattered around the world, not at home anywhere, insisting on (or just hoping for, in most places) their right to be different from their Christian or Muslim hosts, and despised for it - was a recipe for ongoing disaster: how could the other nations not hate us, seeing how different we were, and how apart we kept ourselves, from them? A country for the Jews, in their ancient ancestral homeland - the one place in the world where they were indigenous - would make them normal, a nation like other nations, end anti-Semitism, and enable Jews to live like everyone else, with policemen and criminals, soccer teams and coffee shops, an army, garbagemen, a parliament, a language, passports, taxes. Normal, like everyone else.

Today, in Israel, one sometimes hears this issue - the "normalness" of Israel and the Jewish people - mentioned in a few different conversations. Often, right-wingers, when belittling the importance of the opinions of the UN, or the US, or the EU, or any group of non-Jews with a position on Israel, the Palestinians, and  the peace process, will emphasize Israel's apart-ness, the fact that it is not like other nations, and will often quote the verse said by the prophert Balaam, which he meant to be a curse but is seen as a blessing: הן עם לבדד  ישכון ובגוים לא יתחשב  " is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations" (Numbers, 23,9). Israel's first prime minister, David ben Gurion, was fond of saying, in a similar vein, that it didn't matter what the goyim said, it mattered what the Jews did. In arguments about religious issues as well, the more traditional team will often use this kind of argument to bolster the notion of Jewish-Israeli exceptionalism (the parallels between all this and the notion of American exceptionalism are interesting), and claim that things here in Israel, such as public Sabbath observance, or the laws of marriage and divorce,  or attitudes towards foreign workers, should be different; we should not look to be normal by western standards, because we have our own. 

Others, of course, do see Balaam's words as a curse, and feel strongly that Zionism is about being a part of the international community,  taking the opinions and examples of other peoples into account, and trying to be a regular, normal nation, ful of normal citizens. In the exile we were forced to be seperate and apart, different. In our homeland, as a nation among nations, we can finally relax, join the club, and be normal, just like everyone else. 

This week's parsha, Re'eh, has an interesting insight into what might be exceptional about the Jews. The parsha is a continuation of Moshe's ongoing exhortation to the people to keep the commandments, which makes up most of the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy). It begins fairly dramatically - ראה אנוכי נותן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה  - "Look, I put before you today a blessing and a curse." The blessing is the reward for keeping the commandments, and the curse is what happens if you ignore them. Moshe goes on to explain that there will be a ceremony, in the Shomron, once the nation gets to the Land of Canaan, in which these blessings and curses will be recited, for the entire people to hear and accept. This goes along with one of the basic messages of the book of Devarim: the Jewish people will be rewarded, once they are in Israel, if they keep the covenant. If they do not, the results will be drought, famine, poverty, and ultimately war, defeat, and exile, at the hands of foreign nations. 

The Sforno (1475-1550, Italy) comments on these opening verses. He begins by discussing the opening word - ראה - "look" - which is a bit strange, as there aren't really any visuals here for the people to look at. The Sforno explains that Moshe is asking them to look forward to Jewish history, and they will see that their situation will be unique, unlike that of other nations. The difference is this: other nations will have average histories. Most of what happens to them will be unremarkable; some bad, some good - average. The Jews, on the other hand, will live through the extremes of human experience, not just OK, but real blessings and real curses.  Once they enter the land, the people of Israel will not live "well enough" (על אופן מספיק, as he puts it), as other nations do. Rather they will either be blessed or cursed - no middle ground - depending on their loyalty to the Torah's commandments.

It should be noted that the Sforno sees this Jewish "extremism" as not being rooted in the experience of exile (though it may well continue there as well),  but in the reality of living in Israel. It is essential to Jewish life and identity. He seems to see the covenant as an absolute demand on the people of Israel, which, if met, will gurantee wonderful blessings, and, if not, will bring upon them the worst curses imaginable.

This would seem to place the Jewish people, in Israel, in a rather fraught position. Unlike other nations, we are called upon to live in an absolute fashion. We are asked to be more than OK, or not bad, or nice enough. That way of life, that moral and ethical average-ness might be all right for others, but we are playing a game with much higher stakes. We are called upon to live according to divine will, to the highest standards possible, and the results will reflect the absolute nature of that demand. As the people identified with the Torah, with God's attempt to bring justice, reason, benevolence, and kindness into the world, we can not simply hope to get away with being OK, and being rewarded with OK lives in return. Just as our commitment must reflect the seriousness of the endeavor - bringing and living God's word in the world - so too will the consequences of our success or failure be serious, extreme, and absolute - blessing or curse.

This certainly sounds demanding, and diffucult. The Sforno's insistance on the extreme nature of the Jewish condition - it will never be just OK with us, it will always be blessed or cursed, great or awful - certainly makes me a bit nervious. Apparently, we are meant to see our mission - being faithful to our covenant with God and living our lives according to the Torah - as being of crucial importance. Success or failure will bring either the most wonderful or the most dire cicumstances. There is no coasting, no simply getting by. We either are the people God wants us to be, and are blessed for it, or not, and suffer the awful consequences.

I think that this idea goes a long way towards explaining what it is that is unique abut the Jewish people, and what we should cherish as that which sets us apart. This sense of urgency, this sense that it really, really matters how we live, how we treat the poor and the stranger, how just and life-affirming our society is, how we behave towards our loved ones and neighbors, how seriously we take our own behavior, is, I think, very Jewish. The notion that there are consequences to the way we choose to live our lives, and they are dramatic, is, I believe, a beautiful and important one. The sense that blessing and curse, not just business as usual, but really good things and really bad things, are waiting to happen, depending on what kind of people we are, is exactly what is missing in so much of the way we live today. The basic inability to understand the connection between how we live and the destruction of the planet, to bring just one crucial eample, is indicative of how much we need to understand that we, by our actions, can create blessing and curse, real good and real evil, and that we can not simply hope to muddle through, as if things will always be more or less OK and we don't really have to sweat it.

This, I believe, is what Jewish exceptionalism is. Not the feeling that we can do what we want because we are special, or chosen, and not the conviction that we don't need to consult with or learn from others because we have the Torah (or all those Nobel Prizes) so we know it all, and they are all crypto-Nazis anyway, but the belief that how we are, and who we are, really matters. This is the lesson the Sforno is teaching us, and, if we really want to be a special nation, a different nation, then this is the unique message that we, as the people who claim to have, and live within, a tradition rooted in the absolute will, and need,  to do good, should be teaching ourselves and the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Other nations will have average histories.The Jews will live through the extremes of human experience, real blessings and real cursesRabbi Shimon

Torah Portion Summary - Re'eh


ראה continues Moshe's exhortation to the people of Israel, just before his death, to be faithful to their covenant with God and keep the commandments. He enjoins them, once they get to Israel, to reaffirm their commitment to the Torah in a ceremony in the Shomron, on Mt. Grizim and Mt. Eyval, in which those who keep the mitzvot are blessed, and those who do not, cursed. The parsha contains some halachic material, including the prohibition against eating blood, the laws of the false prophet, prohibitions related to idol worship, a review of the kosher and non-kosher animals, and laws of the Sabbatical year and charity. The parsha concludes with laws of the three pilgrimage festivals.

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Every week, brings you a rich selection of material on parshat hashavua, the weekly portion traditionally read in synagogues all over the world. Using both classic and contemporary material, we take a look at these portions in a fresh way, relating them to both ancient Jewish concerns as well as cutting-edge modern issues and topics. We also bring you material on the Jewish holidays, as well as insights into life cycle rituals and events...

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