Two weeks ago, in the portion Bereisheet, God creates the first human being and says, “Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado – it is not good for the Adam to be alone (Gen. 2:18).” We continue to grieve the massacre of 1,400 innocents by Hamas and the captivity of over 220 of our people. This Shabbat we are also commemorating the fifth yahrzeit of the murders in Pittsburgh. In this moment, we see the often disappointing, and even insulting, responses of some of our neighbors and supposed allies. Outside of our own community, not enough people seem to understand our grief and our pain. I hear from many rabbis, leaders, and members of my own community that they are feeling alone. And I have often felt this deep loneliness myself over the past 3 weeks.
Looking at our people’s history, it may seem like this loneliness is fated. Later in the Torah, the prophet Bilaam’s prophecy sees Israel as “Hen-am l’vadad yishkon – A people that dwells apart (Num. 23:9),” always separate or distinct from the other nations of the world. While meant as praise, it also sounds like a very lonely existence for the Jewish people.
However, we should keep in mind that this loneliness is no doubt the result of the distinctive mission that begins in the opening words of this week’s portion. God tells our ancestors Abram and Sarai, “Lekh lekha – go forth (Gen. 12:1)!” Go out into the world, leave the familiarity of your upbringing, and follow my instructions – both geographic and spiritual.
My teacher, Dr. Yochanan Muffs, z”l, noted that this moment in the Torah marks a change in strategy for God. God originally hoped that humanity would always reflect being made in God’s image, but as we learned last week, instead the world was filled with “Hamas – violence.” Even after flooding the earth and starting anew with Noah and his descendants, God was not convinced that humanity would live up to its promise.
And so God tries a new strategy. Dr. Muffs compares God to a “Cosmic Shakespeare,” in search of a troupe of actors who can carry out the grandest drama of all. After an extended search, God “Tried out another troop of actors, even though it was lacking in experience. The Playwright loved this group of actors, chose it, and handed over to it the vision of His life.” (Love and Joy, pp. 45-46).
God set up a unique, but not exclusive, relationship with the Jewish people, gifted us with Torah, and asked us to be a “light unto the nations.” But leadership, as many of us know, is often a lonely responsibility. A people that challenges others to rise to live a moral and good life is not always beloved.
Yet this is not the moment to lose confidence in our mission. In fact, in its fight against Hamas, Israel, and by extension, all of the Jewish people, is at the center of a great battle, defending our own values, and western liberal democracy, from the terrorism, extremism, and chaos linked to Iran and so many other “bad actors” in the world. As we mark the yahrzeit murders of the members of Tree of Life-Or L’simhah, Dor Hadash, and New Light congregations, the trial this past year helped us see clearly that our fight against antisemitism is part of a larger struggle against extremism and bigotry.
In this fight, we should recall that Zionism is premised on two contradictory ideas. The first, that Jews deserve a national homeland like every other nation in the world. In that state, we would live a “normal existence,” in which we would live in safety, govern ourselves, create a distinctive culture, and prosper like every other nation. And second, that the Jewish State would be a light unto the nations, reflecting the best of Jewish values and democratic ideals as an inspiration to the rest of the world. We would be both a “nation among the nations” and a “nation set apart.”
We have not yet achieved those goals, but now is not the time to give up on either dream. We cannot afford to lose confidence, or lose sight of the mission that we have lived since that first call to Abram and Sarai thousands of years ago. Whether it is supporting the IDF in its fight against terror and ensuring that we can live in peace in our homeland, or demanding from our allies and neighbors that Jewish lives deserve equal respect and justice wherever we may live, this is not the time to let the loneliness of the task cause us to stumble.
One of the most poignant moments for me in these past three weeks was receiving a text from my local Catholic priest, just asking, “How are you?” and assuring me, “I’m thinking of you and the Jewish people.” In talking with Jewish leaders, they report that they often receive much warmer and supportive messages from allies in private than in public. And we do have many very public allies, from President Biden and members of Congress, to the leaders of many countries who have visited Israel in solidarity in recent weeks, to religious leaders and activists. We need to make sure that we notice and nurture those relationships.
In this moment, we must draw on everything we have learned over the thousands of years since God’s initial call, and draw strength from one another and from those of good will who share our mission and values. Sometimes being a leader and fighting for what we have stood for – values of goodness, morality, freedom and, most of all, peace – is lonely. Figuring out how to defend ourselves in the real world, while upholding our highest values, is surely an impossible task. But that’s what our people have been called to do for generations, and we hear that mission as clearly today as we imagine Abram and Sarai heard it so long ago: Lekh lekha, Go Forth! Yahad nenatze’akh — together we shall prevail. Shabbat Shalom.