the longest journey
The great journey of the Jewish people, a journey of thousands of years and across much of the world, begins in this week’s Torah reading. It begins with a man, a woman, and a promise. The man is Abraham, the woman is his wife Sarah, and the promise is God’s assurance that they will become a great nation.
The promise for the future of the Jewish people was given to Abraham in the form of two striking images. In one he was told that his descendants would be as numerous as “the dust of the earth”; in the other, that they would be as many as “the stars of the heavens”.
The rabbis suggest that this dual image of dust and stars carries within it a message about the future of the Jewish people. This is a people that will live in continual tension – between being held up as a light to the nations, and being trampled on by oppressors like the dust of the earth. And indeed, any observer of Jewish history cannot help be struck by the degree to which Jewish history, with its dramatic swings from golden ages to periods of oppression has reflected this tension.
Hassidic teachings see the two metaphors as a psychological tool for dealing with the varying circumstances in which the Jewish people finds itself. When we are oppressed, we should remind ourselves of the promise that we will rise to great heights, as the stars of the heavens. But when we achieve periods of comfort and prosperity, we should never forget that only too easily can we become the dust of the earth.
In similar vein, the Hassidic teacher Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pshishke told his followers: “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and discouraged, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “ Bishvili nivra ha’olam . For my sake was the world created.” But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “ Ani eifer v’afar . I am but dust and ashes.”
And perhaps the building of the modern State of Israel permits us to add another layer of interpretation to the promise given to Abraham. For indeed, the remarkable history and development of the State has been one of earth and stars – of working the land, draining the marshes, digging and building, while keeping our eyes ever upwards on the visions and values that have guided our forefathers since the time of Abraham.
In others’ words
“When I was first here we had the advantages of the underdog. Now we have the disadvantages of the overdog.”
Abba Eban, Ambassador to the United Nations
On a lighter note
What is the difference between an anti-Semite and a Jew? Ask an anti-Semite, “What do you think of the Jews?” and he will tell you: “They are a disgusting people, they cheat in business, and they think they’re better than everyone else”. “And what about Cohen?” “Cohen’s an exception, an honest man.” And Levine? “He too, is a very fine person.” But ask a Jew what he thinks of the Jews. “God’s chosen people”, he will tell you. “They enrich every society they live in. They are charitable and bright.” “And what about Cohen?” “That crook.” “And Levine?” “That son of a bitch.”