February 23, 2024
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February 23, 2024
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The Long View of Jewish History

Legend has it that, 400 years ago, local native Americans relinquished ownership over the Island of “Manhattes” for the modern equivalent of about $1000. In the public imagination, that infamous barter of Manhattan for worthless trinkets, ranks as the worst deal in history. Even if this legend is true, this reckless exchange isn’t as laughable as Esav’s trade with his brother 3700 years ago. To barter your status as the “chosen first-born” for a plate of beans is absurd and embarrassing. What caused his temporary lunacy? What was Esav thinking?

Esav’s folly stems from the closing of his imagination. Responding to Yaakov’s offer of a trade, he announces, “As I will, one day die, the title of first-born is meaningless to me.” To Esav, any benefit which does not surface in his own lifetime is worthless. It was already clear that Jewish destiny would take centuries to fully evolve, and that historical prospects for the first born were planted in the distant future. Recognizing the postponement of any historical opportunity, Esav abdicated his title, preferring a hot meal to future glory. His limited vision was too narrow to appreciate the long view. Every sin is a tragic barter of the future for the small but pressing needs of the immediate.

Furthermore, Esav’s frantic pace of life obscured his vision. Unlike his more scholarly and sedentary brother, who dwelled in introspective tents, Esav chose an active life of hunting and tracking. His frenetic lifestyle left little time for reflection and little occasion for contemplating the bigger picture. Exhausted, starving, and too tired for self-examination, he bartered away his future. Esav’s tragic mistake is the footprint left behind by a life which races faster than wisdom can keep pace with.

In addition to being narrow-minded, Esav’s dismissal of historical legacy appears selfish. He didn’t deny any value to the title of first born but wondered aloud about the benefits for himself. Though it may possess great value for his descendants, these are people he will never meet. His growling stomach craves a hot plate of beans, and his appetite is more important than any advantage for his offspring. Esav’s tragic blunder isn’t just a product of myopic vision, but is also, shockingly, self-centered. Life should never be “all about me” or focused solely upon private benefits. Moral personalities sense a larger purpose to life and willingly sacrifice for the long term and for future generations.

 

Verticality

Franz Kafka, who possessed a sharp but tortured sense of Jewish identity, once remarked that “we Jews are born old.” As we are born into a long and ancient legacy of past generations, we live their strengths and their sufferings, while perpetuating their traditions and prayers. Though Kafka was correct, and we are born with one eye upon past generations, our other eye is fixed upon future generations.

One day our own pictures will hang upon a wall and will tell a story. Our portraits will narrate our personal chapter in the great book we call Jewish history. Our lives are but one section of a glorious but sometimes complicated story of Jewish destiny. Jewish identity is pitched within an intergenerational maze of past and present. Selfish life is horizontal, whereas a life of covenant is vertical. By sacrificing foresight for fleeting pleasure, Esav betrayed any sacred covenant with his future and with generations unborn.

 

Dread and Optimism

Over the past month, we have struggled with a complex range of emotions. We have experienced shock, sorrow, revulsion, mourning, fear, anger and anxiety. Alongside these powerful emotions we are consumed with dread, as our people face a very long and winding road. Eliminating our maniacal and homicidal enemies will be an arduous campaign. Astonishingly, our moral and just war has awakened the ancient monster of antisemitism which will not easily be vanquished. Even after we succeed in our just war, we will continue to face both military and domestic challenges. Many of us struggle to remain optimistic about the future state of Israel and the future state of our people. Dread runs high, while confidence runs low.

Envisioning the long view of Jewish history restores faith and reinforces optimism. We face many uncertainties in the immediate present, but the larger narrative of Jewish future has already been written. We know exactly how this all ends. We just don’t know how quickly it ends and how circuitous the route toward the terminus. Faith in Jewish history affords the confidence to navigate the adversities of Jewish history.

Throughout Jewish history we were attuned to the long view, and this vision helped us endure challenges far worse than our current predicament. Though facing irredeemable conditions, we always knew that our lives played a quiet but important role in a larger historical arc. Knowing that our courage didn’t always yield immediate dividends, we looked to the long view. Patiently but valiantly, we added bricks to the ever-growing wall of Jewish history.

Life in the modern state of Israel, has made us all a bit impatient. Trained to think in redemptive or triumphant terms, to us everything feels new, fresh, and brimming with potential. Our triumphs have made us impatient and less sensitive to the long view of Jewish history.

Many refer to this war as the second War of Independence. This terminology assumes that the consequences of 1948 can be neatly wrapped into the first 75 years of our state, and that we are currently embarking upon a new chapter. I prefer to call this war a “continuation” of the War of Independence. It may take us several generations to fully achieve the independence, sovereignty and security we so desperately seek. It will certainly take multiple generations to achieve the religious, spiritual, and moral condition we have dreamed of.

Taking the long view of Jewish history mustn’t distract us from present and immediate challenges, but it should provide optimism even during dark moments.

 

The Charles Bridge

About 20 years ago I was warned that, when visiting Prague, I should avoid visiting the Charles Bridge which spans the Danube river. Being a curious type and a non-conformist, I made this the first stop of my itinerary.

Arriving at the bridge, I better understood the reason for these warnings. As punishment for Jewish blasphemy against Christianity, a 17th century Jewish leader was forced to adorn a statue of Jesus with golden letters spelling out phrases of Jewish prayer. Though initially offended by this encounter, I quickly overcame my uneasiness. After all, I was a mere three hours away from my glistening homeland.

My thoughts immediately turned to the 17th century Jews of Prague who daily endured this statue without enjoying the horizons of hope which the state of Israel afforded me. Sensing the spiritual stamina and stiff defiance of these generations filled me with moral energy and with Jewish pride. They took the long view of history, and now it is our turn.

Perhaps, one day, our eyes will gaze upon the radiant and golden city of Jerusalem with fully restored Jewish peoplehood. Perhaps we will be that fortunate. Alternatively, we may not be that fortunate and this vision will only emerge long after our eyes have permanently shut. Either way, we will have built a historical platform for the future. We may not personally witness it, but our fingerprints will be all over it.


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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