You Are What You Think You Are

This past Shabbat I had the honor if delivering a d’var Torah – a five or six minute commentary on the Torah portion we read that morning. I have done this a few times in the past and not felt it appropriate for a blog. This time, however, I think there is a message that reaches beyond the few dozen people in our Minyan, and I wanted to suggest it for a wider audience. It speaks primarily to Jews, but I think it is more universal. I’d like to know if you agree.

The tale in the Torah was a familiar story. Moses sends out 12 community leaders to check out the “promised land” and find the best way to go about entering it. Only two see the promise; ten come back paralyzed with fear.

Oh, they all do have glowing reports. Huge fruit. Clusters of grapes so big it takes two strong men to carry them. Truly a land of milk and honey. But hold on. There are already people there. And they are really, really big people. נְּפִלִים, a word usually translated as giants.

And the spies reported:
וְשָׁם רָאִינוּ, אֶת-הַנְּפִילִים בְּנֵי עֲנָק–מִן-הַנְּפִלִים
And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, of the Nephilim;
וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים,
And in our eyes, we were just grasshoppers,
וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם
And so, that’s what we looked like to them.

I want to focus on what it means to see yourself – and project what you see to others. Take a close reading of the verse in scripture and you will see that it doesn’t say they saw us as grasshoppers and so we saw ourselves like that in their eyes. The key word here is, וְכֵן, and thus, therefore that’s how they saw us. I think there is a profound understanding here of human nature. First we perceive ourselves, then we project what we see to others.

Well, how do we see ourselves today? And how we project that on to others?

For generations, Jews have seen themselves as the oppressed, the downtrodden. If you Google the term “Jewish Victims” you will get 45 million hits in three tenths of a second. Try “Jewish victors” and you get about 1,200 results.

Jews certainly have had more than our share of massacres, from the days of the Romans to the Crusades, to the Russian pogroms.  And, of course, the Holocaust.

No doubt the Holocaust has to influence our thinking. But while the scope of the Shoah – a multinational pogrom in the industrial age – was enormous, the holocaust wasn’t even the only genocide in the 20th century. Armenia, Rwanda, The Congo. Or the largest; 49 million were killed under Mao in China. No, the holocaust is not unique, it’s only our tragedy.

But if we let the Holocaust define us, it says we think we are losers. It reinforces the image of the Jew as victim. And when we call our opponents “Hitler,” we say we expect it to happen again. Another holocaust. And what can we expect? We’re Grasshoppers.

And look at our greatest triumph, establishing the State of Israel. How do we picture ourselves? David versus Goliath. A little pipsqueak nation surrounded by people who want to attack us, kill us, drive us out. I’m not minimizing the dangers. They are real. But . . .

Barbara and I have close friends who live on a kibbutz three and a half kilometers from Gaza. They have to live through the tzeva adoms – the red alerts – and they see first-hand that people really are trying to kill us. Last summer, four of their six sons were in uniform and the fifth was a guard at their kibbutz. They are the children of holocaust survivors. But our friends don’t see themselves as victims. They are fighters, not grasshoppers. And a generation of people who see themselves this way is what sustains Israel. And sustains us.

There is a common phrase in biblical commentary: מַעֲשֵׂה אֲבוֹת סִימָן לַבָּנִים, which is based [loosely] on a verse in the Talmud and it means the actions of the fathers are a sign to the children. And it is taken to mean history is cyclical — that the fathers’ deeds will be reflected in their children. Well, as the rabbis frequently do, I’d like to turn that phrase on its head and make a point. Not that what has happened is destined to reoccur, that the children are bound to repeat history. But rather, to say that the sign can also be a warning. It can say to the children – to us – to heed that sign and not get trapped by the past.

The rabbis tell us the spies came back with their report on the 9th of Av, a day of historic mourning called Tisha B’av. And if there ever were a day that reinforces the Jew as victim, this is it. How do we observe it? We fast for 25 hours like Yom Kippur. We sit on the floor with very little light and recite the most mournful chapters from Lamentations and the Book of Job. And we focus on what we have lost. And on the Jewish people’s experience as losers…as victims…as grasshoppers.

Some have said that since the establishment of the State of Israel we should not observe Tisha B’av the same way. (Some, in fact, even think we shouldn’t observe the day at all.) But I’d like to suggest making it more like the way Israel combines the days of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha Atzmaut, Israel’s Memorial Day followed immediately the next day by the celebration of Independence Day. It’s a way of moving from recognizing that, yes, terrible things have happened to us, but standing up and saying look at us now! A robust and joyous people who have moved מעבדות לחירות — from slavery to freedom. From seeing ourselves as victims to recognizing that if we continue to only see ourselves as victims, that’s what we will be.

It took 40 years of wandering in the desert and the death of the whole generation for the Israelites to reach that point. And maybe it’s time we stopped seeing ourselves as losers. As victims. And time we began to see how far we have come and how much we have accomplished.  To see that we are no longer grasshoppers. To project that face to the world.