Everywhere I’ve gone over the past three days, shiva houses, hospitals, home visits, conversations with friends and conversations with strangers, I’ve received the same question over and over again: What do you think about the news? What do you make of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem being the eternal capital of the State of Israel? Ill-timed? Helpful? Meaningless or meaningful?
And so I’d like to answer that question today by addressing a broader question and that is, how should a Jew read the news? My rebbi in Yeshiva used to say that he is teaching us how to read a Gemara so we should know how to read a newspaper, the lesson being that we don’t just read the paper. There is a Jewish way how to read the news. So these are my thoughts on how a Jew should read the news.
#1 – A Jew should read the news with self-confidence.
What that means is that when the Middle East expert interviewed on the Daily, the New York Times podcast, begins Thursday’s news by saying, “The story of Jerusalem begins in the early 20th century.” As Jews, we just roll our eyes.
Because you and I know that our parsha begins by stating that Yakov settled down in the land that his forefathers lived in. Vayeishev Yaakov be’eretz megurei aviv. The year this takes place is 1544 Before the Common Era. (This dating and the following dates are taken from historian, Ken Spiro.) That is over three thousand five hundred years ago. Yakov and his children settle in a land that they already described as the land of their forefathers, eretz megurei aviv.
You and I know that in 1272 BCE, approximately three thousand two hundred years ago, Joshua and the Jewish People conquer the land of Israel. What happened to the old inhabitants, the Canaanites? Some of them are killed, some of them run away, but effectively, they are no longer a nation and the land of Israel becomes a Jewish State.
You and I know that a few hundred years later, about two thousand eight hundred years ago, King David, ruler of the Jewish nation of Israel, purchases a plot of land on which his son would ultimately build the first of two holy temples.
You and I know that almost a thousand years later, in the year 70 of the Common Era, the Romans destroy the second Temple and exile many of the Jewish People. However, we also know that a significant portion of the Jews remain behind, unwilling to depart from the sacred soil of Israel. And up until the 4th century, Jews constituted a clear majority of the population in Israel.
Afterwards, with the conversion of Constantine, Christians become the majority, but never entirely displacing a significant minority of Jews; Jews who traced their connection all the way back to Avraham.
You and I know that in 638 of the Common Era, the Arab Islamic Empire conquers Jerusalem, upends centuries of ill-treatment by the Christians and recognizes the historic right of the Jewish People to the city; the Muslims allow Jews to practice freely in Yerushalayim. Umar, the leading Muslim of his time, encourages Jews to live in Jerusalem, which they did, and their communities flourished.
You and I know that years later, many of the Jews who settled in Israel were massacred by the Crusaders, but small pockets remained until the 13th century when Jews started trickling back in, led by some of the great leaders of their time; Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, otherwise known as Nachmanides, and many others, ensuring an ongoing and ever-growing Jewish population in the land of Israel.
By the 16th century, there were 30,000 Jews living in the northern region of Israel alone, many who had fled the reaches of the Inquisition (Wikipedia). And in the centuries that followed, more and more Jews emigrated from Europe for a host of reasons; safety, economic, or Messianic.
And so regardless of how any very bright or very knowledgeable speaker or author frames the question of Jerusalem, as Jews we should confidently say, “I’m sorry, but here are the facts – the Jewish connection to the land dates back four thousand years, longer than the entire history of Christianity and Islam combined!”
Yehuda Avner in his book the Prime Ministers relates how in May of 1979, Prime Minister Menachem Begin was invited to London where he was hosted for lunch at 10 Downing St. by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. On his way into their meeting, a reporter asked him, “Are you going to ask Mrs. Thatcher for her support of the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?”
Frigidly, the prime minister answered. “No, sir – under no circumstances.”
“Why not?” asked the reporter.
Begin answered, “Because, sir, Jerusalem was a Jewish capital long before London was a British capital. When King David moved the capital of his kingdom from Hebron, where he had reigned for seven years, to Jerusalem, where he reigned for 33 years, the civilized world had never heard of London. In fact, they had never heard of Great Britain,” and he turned on his heels towards the door, where Mrs. Thatcher was waiting to greet him.
To be clear, for the President of the United States to acknowledge Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel is a big deal. But while we are sincerely grateful to the United States for its true partnership and deep friendship to the State of Israel, while we are appreciative of President Trump’s decision to move the embassy to its rightful location, we see the United States’ recognition not as news, certainly not as a 20th century conflict, but as an affirmation of ancient history.
As Jews, we should always read the news with self-confidence.
#2, as Jews we should read the news with faith. We’ve been around too long and we know our own history too well to not do so. Moshe Dayan allegedly said after the Six Day War, “Yesterday I was not a religious man, and tomorrow I will not be, but today I cannot but say that we have witnessed miracles.” That’s Jewish history for you. It doesn’t run the course that man expects of it.
Today we read the most shameful moment in Yehuda’s life. He publicly acknowledges that he cohabited with a prostitute, who turned out to be his former daughter-in-law. And yet, as tragic a moment as it seems, we know that through their union, the Davidic line is born! Peretz is the great-grand-father of King David and ultimately that of Mashiach.
The Dreyfuss Affair, the most traumatic moment in Jewish-French history becomes a turning point in the life of a young Theodore Herzl who writes a book that changes the world. Or, the relentless persecution of European Jewry contributes directly to the population growth of the State of Israel as well as the sympathy of the nations who vote in favor of its existence in 1947.
As Jews we read the news with faith; faith in a G-d who runs the world in mysterious ways. And so when people ask, will moving the embassy be good for the Jews? Or is it a step backward?
As Jews, with a strong sense of Jewish history, we know that we do not know. We know that what the Psalmist writes is true, Rabot machshavot b’lev ish, va’atzat Hashem hi takum, there are many plans of man, but the plans of G-d prevail. Or in Yiddish, “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht, Man plans and G-d laughs.”
A Jew reads the news with confidence, and a Jew reads the news with faith. Both are born out of the Jewish experience, out of the four thousand years of Jewish history.
But it would seem to me, that our deep knowledge and love of history could sometimes be a curse. Sometimes, I think we get a little bit too carried away with our history. Many Jews like to quote the book of Koheles, “Ein chadash tachas hashemesh, there is nothing new under the sun.” The classical commentators do not see this as referring to Jewish history whatsoever. However, these people like to interpret this to mean that history, especially Jewish history, repeats itself.
And so you have these cynical statements like, ‘Every Jewish holiday is about the non-Jews trying to kill us, we won, let’s eat.’ When in truth, the Egyptians wanted to kill us for reasons rather different than the Greeks, who didn’t even want to kill us and certainly had a different agenda than the Persians of the Purim story, who have no relationship to the Christian Crusaders, who are entirely different than modern terrorists, and who are still not as evil as the Nazis, and who are galaxies apart from ignorant white supremacists. So no, history does not repeat itself unless you are painting with extremely, extremely broad strokes. I know, I know, we have statements such as ma’aseh avos siman l’banim, what happened to our forefathers happens to us, or b’chol dor vodor omdim aleinu l’chaloseinu– Yes, we have had enemies throughout history and we have overcome them, but to lump them all in one generic category is a rather lazy way of looking at history.
Then you have those who take this even more literally. You know the people who tell you that Ivanka Trump is Esther, the President is Achashveirosh, and Haman, well depending on your politics, is either the former president or Ben Shapiro.
We can and should learn from the past, but we should also appreciate that things change. Buddhists see history as a cycle; life repeats itself over and over again. Judaism sees history as evolving; there is a starting point and an end point, while there may be the faintest contours of repetition along the way, we are travelling from one place to a vastly different and vastly better place.
And so while there is certainly a danger in ignoring history, there is also a danger in not being open to it possibly changing. It is true that the Palestinians have been unreasonable, inciteful, and murderous in the past, but to therefore write them off in the future? To assume that peace will never be achieved?
I’m not suggesting we throw land away or make concessions that are unwise. I’m suggesting that because peace hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
Call me naïve. I’d like to think of it as being hopeful.
Because if there is one lesson to be learned from this week’s Parsha it is that you could be your father’s darling son today, you could be a slave tomorrow, and you could rule the land of Egypt the next day. People change, nations change, the world changes.
Yesh chadash tachas hashemesh, at least when it comes to history. I applaud our proud knowledge of our connection to Israel and our history, but as Jews, far more important than confidence and perhaps even more important than reading the news with faith, we need to read the news with optimism; with a belief in a different and better tomorrow.
Self-confidence, faith, and hope. This is how, I believe, a Jew should read the news.
As we say every year on our holiest days, L’shana habah birushalyim. Yerushalayim has been at the heart of our people for thousands of years. May this year be the year not only of the building of an American embassy in Jerusalem, but it should be the year of Yerushalayim Habenuyah, a rebuilt and unified Jerusalem. We believe – no, we know! that G-d can make the impossible happen. He has done so before and He could do so again. And so may it be G-d’s will that we witness a rebuilding of Jerusalem, not through blood and war, but through hope and peace.