25 October 2019 | 26 Tishrei, 5780
People of the Book
Parasha V’zot Habracha | פָּרָשָׁה וזֹאת הַבְּרָכָה, the last portion in the Torah is read only on Simchat Torah. It includes Moses’ final blessing to each of the Israelite tribes and ends with the description of his death.
His time had come. And with it, we close the book on the story of the Exodus. We face the New Year having completed our review of the biblical history of our people, the beneficiaries of boundless wisdom revealed to us through the Torah, week after week after week. This most sacred of texts having provided us with touchstones, with sign-posts and with role models to inform our interpretations of the year and of the events that lie ahead.
Only by way of a thorough and meaningful understanding of our past can we thoughtfully and effectively impact the course of our future. My teacher, Mel Reisfield, began nearly every one of his lessons with a reminder that we Jews are endowed with a sense of history. Know where you’ve been. Know where you came from. Only then can you understand where you are and be thoughtful and intentional about where you aspire to be.
As our world continues to change around us, we must be mindful of how those changes affect the course of our JCCs—the course of the Jewish world. And so, we turn once again to books. Books that help us to understand where we are, by shedding greater light on how we got here. Two newly published, powerful and important books should be required reading for leaders of the North American Jewish community and I earnestly, and without compensation, recommend them to you.
Rabbi Daniel Gordis, Senior Vice President and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem, and author of a host of important works on modern Jewish history and the State of Israel, has provided the first, published last month by Harper Collins,We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel. In it, he delivers a masterful explication of the Jewish experience in two of the world’s great democracies; one established with a profound universalist commitment to freedom and liberty and the other, with an equally profound but far more particularistic focus on the survival and safeguarding of the Jewish people. With much having been written about rifts and gaps between North American Jews and Israel, understanding how we came to be who and where we are, is a critical first step in determining how we can best engage with one another about our common interests, common goals and common destiny.
New York Times columnist, Bari Weiss, was inspired to write her newly released book, How To Fight Anti-Semitism, by the horrific massacre which targeted the Tree of Life Synagogue in her home-town of Pittsburgh, on October 27, 2018. Published by Crown/Archetype, Weiss’ book skillfully and eloquently surveys the rising tide of anti-Semitism, both here at home and around the world. She ably debunks notions of anti-Semitism as the province of any single extremist point of view. It is now, as it ever has been, an outlet for those looking to assign blame, targeting Jews or Israel, the Jew among the nations, as scapegoats in their quests for power. Her detailed overview includes disturbing insights into the anti-Semitism of the extreme right, of the hard left and of militant Islam. Only a clear, cogent and sober understanding of the diverse sources and complex nature of anti-Semitism can provide the basis of a worthy approach to fighting it.
The Jewish People are called the People of the Book. For many that refers to the Tanach, the Torah, the Book God gave to Moses and that we, in turn, have given to the world. But, endowed as we are with that sense of history, we are also a people uniquely devoted to books of every kind, to learning, to teaching, and to interpreting—both who we are, and our place in the wider world. Let the closing of the book on 5779 propel us with renewed determination to a better understanding of ourselves as 5780 begins. Bari Weiss and Daniel Gordis have delivered rich and powerful insights about two of the most pivotal issues of our day.
As leaders of the North American Jewish community, it is incumbent upon us to continue to learn, to grow, and to stretch ourselves so that we will be capable of carrying out the critical responsibilities with which we have been charged. As we renew our commitment to rising to the emerging challenges we face today and tomorrow, we return, time and again, to the deepest and most powerful sources of wisdom, insight, and inspiration at our disposal—to books, both old and new.
In the beginning…page 1.