Monday, January 09, 2012

A Letter from Beit Shemesh

By Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

BEIT SHEMESH, Israel — The latest battleground in Israel’s struggle over religious extremism, bespectacled second-grade girl Naama Margolese, 8, the daughter of observant Jews, has been spat on and otherwise insulted by ultra-Orthodox men and boys on her way to school because her modest dress did not adhere to their standards.

The conflict in Israel, has very little to do with modesty, ultra orthodoxy, rigid standards of dress, disrespect for women, and the like. These are smoke screens for an underlying issue. It all has to do with far more basic that is not being addressed.

As I write this, today is the 10th of Tevet, a fast day for the Jewish people, a fast that is connected to the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Twice Israel suffered defeat and exile. The first was the conquest of the northern kingdom, followed a century and a half later by the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile. This was a direct consequence of the division of the kingdom into two after the death of Solomon. When Solomon died, the nation split into two, appointing two separate monarchs, one from the tribe of Judah Rechavam, son of Solomon, and one from the tribe of Joseph Yeravaan son of Nevat, from the tribe of Ephraim. It was this split that weakened and ultimately eroded the nation, leading both to the expulsion and exile of the Ten Tribes lost to this very day, and later the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple.

The second defeat, at the hands of the Romans and the destruction of the Second Temple, was the result of intense factionalism and internal strife, in the words of the Talmud:

Why was the second Temple destroyed, though they were involved in Torah, Mitzvot and charity? Because of baseless hatred and factionalism among Jews.

History thus demonstrated that the feud between Joseph and his brothers, though resolved on one level, still lingered in the unconscious collective identity of the Jewish people. And it came out years later, after Solomon’s death in the split between the two kingdoms of Joseph and Judah, and then again, during the second Temple era with the tremendous strife among Jews.

The most important thing to know about strife, rivalry, hate and animosity: it is never exclusively about the one I hate; it is much more often about me, the hater. It is my inner lack of peace, my inner lack of contentment, my inner lack of true connection to G-d, that allows me to fall prey to the poison of hate, envy and animosity. When I am unhappy with myself, I project it on others. And when I become more ego-centered than G-d-centered, I fail to realize that any obstacle I have in my life is part of my G-d given journey.

In this week’s portion of Vayechi, it says:

That after their father Jacob has died, the brothers come to Joseph fearing that he will now take revenge.

The Torah relates this story:

“They sent word to Joseph, saying, ‘Your father left these instructions before he died:‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers for the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the G-d of your father.’ When their message came to him, Joseph wept.”

But did not Joseph forgive them? Did he not tell them that he was not angry because he felt that it was G-d who sent him to Egypt to save the world from famine? Why were they afraid of revenge? Because the brothers understand the word “forgive” but they are still unsure about it. Did Joseph really mean it the first time? Does someone really forgive those who sold him into slavery?

This is why Joseph weeps when they speak to him. Joseph is crying that his brothers haven’t really understood that he meant it when he said it. Joseph has found the ability to truly forgive and move on, but the brothers have perhaps not.

That is why Joseph and Benjamin cried now over the destruction of the Temple. They both intuitively knew that even though there was now a temporary peace and they had conquered the hatred that existed between brethren, the ugly head of strife among brothers would rear itself once again. That strife among brothers would destroy both Temples in the portion of Benjamin as well as the Tabernacle in the portion of Joseph. The sense of mistrust and strife among the tribes of Israel, among the Jewish people, is yet to resurface once again. They knew that "this chapter is not yet over."

Friends, this is our challenge today. You know what is the problem between the religious and the secular in Israel? It is not the size of a dress or issues of modesty or religious standards; it is that we don’t love each other. Had that ultra-religious Jew felt a love on his heart to this girl because she is a Jew, because she is his sister, because she is part of his soul, because she is a child of G-d, because she is holy, his entire approach would be different.

This does not mean that we will agree on all issues. A life of Torah is very different than a secular life. Yes, the Torah does have demands on both men and women on how to appear in the open. But, for heaven’s sake, where is the LOVE?

If every religious Jew in Israel and in the world would begin learning and internalizing the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and of the Rebbe that you can’t love G-d if you don’t love every Jew with a burning love, because G-d is within every Jew—then everything would look differently. If we would understand what the Baal Shem Tov taught that Ahavat Yisrael, the love of another Jew must be unconditional, just as you love your child even if they disagree with you, everything would look different, because we are all one.

A story at the time of the Roman Empire, two Jewish boys had grown up together in Israel and become very close friends. After a while, they moved far apart ― one living under Roman control, and the other living under Syrian control. Yet they remained very close friends.

One time, when the fellow from Rome was visiting in Syria, someone falsely accused him of being a spy. So they brought him to the Syrian Emperor, and he was sentenced to death.

As he was being led out to be executed, they asked if he had any last requests. "Please, let me go back to Rome to settle my affairs and say goodbye to my family. Then I'll come back and you can execute me."

The Emperor laughed. "Are you crazy? What guarantee do I have that you'll come back?"

The Jew said, "I have a friend here in Syria who will stand in for me. He'll be my guarantor. If I don't come back, you can kill him instead."

The Emperor was intrigued. "This I've got to see.
Okay, bring your friend."

The Syrian Jew was called in. Sure enough, he agreed to take his friend's place in prison, and be killed instead if the friend did not return.

The Emperor was so startled by this arrangement that he agreed to let the Roman Jew go. "I'll give you 60 days. If you're not back by the dawn of the 60th day, your friend is dead."

The Roman Jew raced back to say goodbye and put his affairs in order. After a hectic time and a lot of tears, he started back in plenty of time before the 60 days were up. But those were the days of sailing galleys, and sometimes you could sit for days waiting for the right wind to come. As luck would have it, there was no wind for several days, the sailboat was delayed, and by the time the Roman Jew arrived in Syria, dawn of the 60th day was breaking.

As agreed, the jailors took the Syrian Jew out for execution.

In those days, an execution was a gala affair. Early in the morning the crowds began to gather. Finally, as they were just about to perform the execution, the Roman Jew came running in. "Wait! I'm back. Don't kill him!"

But the Syrian Jew protested: "You can't kill him. He came too late. I'm the guarantor. You've got to kill me instead!"

Each friend was equally adamant. "Kill me!" "No, kill me instead!" The executioner didn't know what to do. The crowd was in an uproar!

Finally, the Emperor was called. In wonder and amazement, he turned to the two of them and said, "I'll let both of you go free on one condition. That you make me your third friend!"

That's why the verse in Leviticus "Love your neighbor," concludes with the words: "I am G-d." Because unity and friendship is so precious that even G-d wants to be part of it. He wants to be the third friend.

If we're united, the Almighty's with us. If we're divided, we're on our own.

This is the love we need today between Jews. This is what my very holy and beloved religious brothers in Israel need to learn.

In the merit of unconditional love to each other we will rebuild the third Holy Temple very soon.

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