Mosaic of the 12 Tribes of Israel. From a synagogue wall in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman thinks that we will be free only when there will be justice and equality for everyone.
The symbol of the Khoshen
As we joyously sing Hallel on seder eve, and throughout Passover, we will recite the line, “Even ma’asu ha’bonim haita l’rosh pina, The stone rejected (or perhaps disparaged) by the builders will become the cornerstone.” We look to God for restorative justice, and perhaps the inclusion of this verse from Psalm 118: 22 also reflects a sense of rejection and the desire for vindication on the part of the psalmist. This year I still have in my head the image of the Khoshen, the breastplate of the High Priest I wrote about for Purim. The breastplate worn for remembrance upon the heart of the High Priest including 12 different stones, symbolizing each of the 12 tribes in all of their individuality, imparts the same message as the now included cornerstone. For the national mishkan we call the State of Israel, we are being taught of our sacred obligation to build an inclusive and respectful society. Its cornerstone must be justice for those who have been ignored, rejected, feared and mistreated.
Equal rights for everyone
Predating Israel’s Declaration of Independence pledging to guarantee full social and political equality for all, regardless of religion, race or gender,David Ben Gurion said in a speech to the Jewish National Fund I 1947 that anything the future state provides for Jews, it must provide for non-Jewish citizens as well. If we provide an irrigation system for a Jewish community,we must do so for the nearby Arab village… Everybody has a place.
Peh Rakh – The soft mouth of Pharaoh
We learn from Pharaoh some of what can prevent us from realizing the just and inclusive society we aspire to. Pharaoh, like so many demagogues and oppressors throughout history, is a dissembler and a fear mongerer When we read in Exodus 1:13 that the Egyptians put the Israelites to hard labor, the rare Hebrew word describing this labor is “b’pherakh” One interpretation is that this should be understood as ” Peh Rakh.” Literally translated as “A soft mouth,” Pharaoh was a smooth talker. He and his taskmasters employed deceptive and misleading words to convince the Israelites to agree to slave labor.(Talmud Sotah 11b).
Even before speaking to the Israelites, Pharaoh used this same skill to weave lies that purveyed fear to his fellow Egyptians. He convinces the Egyptians to buy into his program to enslave the Israelites by warning that the Children of Israel will become a fifth column, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us…” (Exodus 1:9-10)
What is fear?
Some say that fear is healthy, and that is sometimes true. However, it also paralyzes and morally blinds. When I learned to scuba dive, my teacher said that she would not certify anybody who had not panicked under water, because you need to understand what panic does to you. Or, to recall one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s more memorable quotes, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” The actual quote from FDR’s first inaugural address continues, So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
To be afraid but not let the fear enslave us
We actually have good reasons to fear in Israel. It is not always unjustified. We really do face much hostility in the international community, and many of our neighbors would throw us into the sea, if they could. As somebody opposed to all but the minimum necessary use of force and who is hopeful that the international community will find a peaceful solution to the Iranian crisis, I can not agree with those who argue that we have nothing to worry about from a nuclear Iran,or even equating Iran to a nuclear Israel. Even were a certain fear to be entirely misplaced, it is counterproductive to discount or belittle the fears of others. If we want to dispel those fears, we must first understand that they are often real and terrifying for those expressing them. However, we can not allow that fear to enslave us. It must not deter us from what is just and moral, and often in our self interest. I think that I might modify Rabbi Nakhman of Bratzlav’s famous maxim, “The entire world is a narrow bridge, and the important thing is not to fear at all,” We ought to have a healthy fear of the dangers on the bridge, but our fear must not cloud either our minds or our conscience, nor keep us from crossing. In order to cross the sea, the midrash teaches us that the Israelites had to overcome their fears, and plunge into the waters. Only then did God part the waters. Freeing ourselves from fear this Passover will not solve all of our challenges, but it gives us greater ability to do so. Once my daughter locked herself in a room. Panicking, she could not hear my instructions through the door about how to open it. Only when she got control of herself was she able to listen, and take the simple measures required to unlock the door. We talked about my scuba teacher, and how panic paralyzes. To this day, she remembers that incident when she needs to overcome a potentially fear or panic inducing situation.
The use of fear
Like Pharaoh, today’s purveyors of fear use that fear to make us believe things which simply aren’t true, are greatly exaggerated, or for which there are better and more moral solutions were we thinking more clearly. I remember back during the first Lebanon War being told that Israeli Arabs would now become a fifth column, and hearing from Israeli Arabs that their would be a repeat of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in their village. I recently heard Manuel Trachtenberg, commissioned by the Prime Minister Netanyahu to find answers to the demands of last summer’s protesters, say that he made suggestions to help the middle class that is angry and feels threatened by the lower class. We are told that the Bedouin are taking over the Negev, that taking care of our fellow Israelis will destroy our economy and that foreign workers, refugees and asylum seekers will flood the country and destroy the Jewish character of Israel. We are told that the entire world is against us, and even the most loving criticism simply proves it… If you didn’t see the recent Knesset study, would you realize that money intended for public housing was diverted to build roads in the Occupied Territories, bed and breakfasts in the Galilee and Negev, etc.? Who would believe that we could meet social needs without increasing the national debt, were we to simply change our budgeting priorities? Who would know that the Bedouin only claim 5.4% of the Negev, although they are 30% of the population of the Negev?…
Fear produces self fulfilling prophecies
Supposedly trying to save Egypt from danger, Pharaoh brought ruin. Often the fear we sow produces self fulfilling prophecies. Rather than protecting ourselves, our human rights violations create the very danger we seek to avoid. The army stopped punitive home demolitions when they realized that these demolitions supposedly deterring terror were actually creating terror. “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied.” (Pirke Avot 5:8)
On the subject of home demolitions, we are currently gearing up for a fight I have been waiting for quite a while. “Regavim” is a right wing NGO whose state mission is to “protect Israel’s lands and national properties,” “For the future of the Jewish people.’ Regavim presents itself to the courts a neutral “Good government” organization. They have been extraordinarily successful in claiming reverse discrimination against settlers regarding home demolitions, in order to demand that the State demolish more Palestinian homes. Again, Pharaoh’s peh rakh peddling fear.
Up until now we have been sitting frustrated on the side because we had no standing in court in previous cases brought by Regavim, even when they demanded the demolition of the school build out of tires and mud we helped build for the Jahalin Bedouin. When Regavim gives their misleading statistics, the government merely responds by saying that they will get to the demolitions according to their timetable. They do not challenge the underlying false premises, However, now Regavim has gone after the village of Susya, and we are representing them. I expect and pray that, when this is finished, Regavim will never again be able to use their peh rakh arguments. It won’t be easy. We are currently looking for $50,000 needed to create an alternative zoning plan for Susya. We also are waiting this summer for a hearing on our High Court appeal demanding that planning in Palestinian areas in Area C be returned to Palestinian hands. Susya, and many other Palestinian homes lie in the balance.
Learn not know our fears
Pharaoh’s Peh Rakh awaits us at every turn, and not only in Israel. If we learn to acknowledge our fears but not succumb to the taskmasters of fear, we will be less likely to be taken in by dissembling words. We will be less likely to commit human rights violations dishonoring ourselves and God’s Image. In Israel, we will be more capable of building the society we dreamed of in our Declaration of Independence.
On the narrow bridge, may we learn from our fears what we must, but faithfully and justly walk across the narrow straights to freedom.
Khag Kherut Sameakh (Wishing you a joyous and liberating pilgrimage holiday).