Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Two Faces of Israel - Thoughts for the Three Weeks and Parshat Pinchas

I recently wrote a piece that was published in Torah Mitzion's weekly newsletter, which I'm sharing here.

The past week has been truly trying for the Jewish people around the world, as we learned of the brutal murder of the three teens we had hoped and prayed for so fervently. I learned the news immediately after getting off flight from Israel in New York. It felt strange – wrong – to be in the United States, when I should be mourning back at home with my family, community and people. Yet, as the week I spent in Israel progressed, I came to recognize that the view of Israel from America is skewed. Sure, it was a hard week; a week of pain and anguish, tears and questions. But, in the United States, I missed the other side; the point of view that would have helped put things in the proper perspective.

Immediately after conducting yet another census, God tells Moshe to go up to the mountain and see the Land of Israel – עלה אל הר העברים הזה וראה את הארץ – “Climb up this Mount Avarim and see the Land.” (27:12) God tells Moshe, “Moshe -- you won’t make it into the Land of Israel, so I’m giving you a chance to see the Land before you die.” This is the end of the line for Moshe. Or is it? The Torah really isn’t clear.
At the end of Devarim in Parshat Ha’azinu, God again seems to instruct Moshe in a similar manner. There God tells Moshe, עלה אל הר העברים הזה הר נבו – “Go us to this Mount Avarim – Mount Nevo” (Devarim 32:49). Yet, the second time, God still calls the mountain Mount Avarim but also calls it Mount Nevo. Is it the same commandment and the same mountain, or a different instruction, in different places, at different times?
Malbim explains that God commands Moshe to climb two different mountains at two different times. Mount Nevo is not Mount Avarim. It’s a different place and a different time. Why does God ask Moshe to climb two different mountains? Why go up to see the land now and then go back up again to see it later at the end of his life? Malbim explains that when Moshe climbs the first mountain – Har Nevo – there’s still much to do: כי היה מוכן למלחמת מדין ולכמה דברים – “he was ready for the battle with Midyan and a number of other things.” When Moshe sees the land of Israel for the first time, he sees the land as a leader – a military leader, a national and political leader.
Each of us looks at things from our own personal perspective, depending upon our station in life. At this juncture in time, Moshe still leads the Children of Israel. So when he climbs up the mountain and looks down upon the valley and the Land, all he can see are objectives, issues, potential problems and crises. He looks down and sees military adversaries. He sees difficult agricultural terrain; economic challenge and security problems. That’s all he can allow himself to see, because he feels burdened by the weight of millions of people, looking to him for guidance and counsel.
But later, at the very end of his life, Moshe has already passed the mantle of leadership to his trusted student Yehoshua. When his knees no longer buckle under the sheer weight of worry for the nation, God, in an ultimate act of kindness tells Moshe, “go up and see the Land I’m going to give to the people.” When Moshe ascends the second mountain, Mount Nevo, and looks down upon the country, this time he looks down at the land not as a national leader, but as a private citizen; not as the commander-in-chief, but as a father and grandfather, whose children will soon inherit that land. This time he sees an entirely different land. Instead of seeing potential problems and challenges; treacherous terrain and security threats, Moshe sees the Land flowing with Milk and Honey, and it’s a wondrous, beautiful sight to see.
We will soon begin the three weeks, a period of tension and strain for the Jewish people. We will, and appropriately so – spend this time focusing on the most difficult periods of Jewish history – our greatest tragedies and disasters. And, hopefully, we try to correct some of the behaviors that brought about that suffering. Especially today, we think of the pain and suffering of the people in Israel, who continue to deal with the tragedy of the recent past, and the citizens of Israel’s south, cowering under a rain of rocket fire.
Sometimes I fear that Jews in the Diaspora (and perhaps in Israel as well) too often view the Holy Land Israel through darkened glasses, focusing too often on the pain and suffering. I realized, watching the news from the States, that the only exposure to Israel is what they show on Fox News and CNN, in the New York Times – or even the English-language Israeli websites (Never forget the news maxim: “If it bleeds, it leads”). We know about the bombings and terrorism, the security threats and economic issues. We’re all ambassadors and dignitaries, concerned and consumed with economy, military and security. But we also forget to take off those glasses and see things the way they truly are.

For all the difficulty and pain of the past week, after the funerals, life in Israel went on as well. Children went to camp. Businesses returned to work. The streets are packed with tourists, and are teeming with life, vitality, excitement and even joy. Even during those challenging eighteen days, when the fate of our boys wasn’t clear, life still continued. In my family we celebrated a simcha during those difficult days. We remembered the boys, but proceeded to celebrate nonetheless, determined to continue to build a fully Jewish life in the Holy Land.
We can never allow ourselves to forget that Moshe saw the Land of Israel twice. He didn’t only see the challenges and struggle. He also saw the beauty, the future, and the promise of the Land.
While we begin the three weeks and move into a somber, serious time in the Jewish year, we must also remember to sometimes step back and see the bigger picture. We must let ourselves see the beauty and majesty of Israel, and the tremendous Blessings that we as a people enjoy today.
And then, when we do see that good, we can look back at the tragedy of this past month, turn to the difficulties of the three weeks and Tisha B’av and ask ourselves: What do we need to do to make that good even better?