Tale of Two Nations

With the world in chaos, it’s so easy to give up hope. It’s so easy to allow ourselves to be swept away either by despair or by rage.  Rather than indulging that temptation, however, I’d like to ask that we take a moment to consider a tale of two nations. These two peoples seem so different superficially – coming from different periods of history, existing in different parts of the globe, focusing on very different activities and styles. Yet my contention is that these two nations share the same story at a very deep level, and that the fusing of these two stories in our own day is the source of a great deal of fear, and of our most potent hope.

The two nations are the people Israel, and North America.

Consider the story of ancient Israel: a family that goes down to Egypt because of hard times at home, who spiral into slavery and years of oppression. In Egypt, this family grows into a nation, and it is joined – according to the Torah – by an eruv rav, a mixed multitude of other peoples. These disparate groups of people were unprecedented in a number of ways: they did not share a language, they did not share an ethnicity, and they did not share a common history. What united them was a Great Idea – service of the One God who created the universe and who wants people to be free. They were inspired and united only by this Great Idea. Liberated from the most powerful and despotic of ancient rulers, these Israelites march to freedom in the wilderness. There they receive the Torah and camp near Sinai until they are able to enter their promised land, the Land of Israel. These people – from different groups and places – forged a faith that revolutionized morality, religion, and community. Their story has formed the narrative of virtually every human liberation movement ever since.

Story Number Two: About 3,000 years later, more than 9,000 miles away, another unprecedented story unfolded. People from all parts of Europe, from many other parts of the globe, flocked from the Old World to a New World. They, too, had no common language, no common history, no common religion. All that united these disparate people were a Great Idea – individual liberty and economic freedom. Inspired to move halfway around the world by this Great Idea, these people pursued their freedom, an idea that they only imperfectly understood. North American freedom has been the story of a nation groping to catch up to the implications of their own founding idea – as they realized that freedom could not be restricted to one privileged race, or gender, or religion, or orientation. Freedom is either total or it is illusory. These people – from every faith, group, and race – produced an explosion of creativity and achievement unparalleled in human history.

The two stories sound remarkably similar, don’t they?

Where they differ is in the lessons they learned in their subsequent journey: ancient Israel wandered through millennia of exile and suffering, learning how to maintain spiritual depth and vision, how to fashion communities of holiness and caring, despite living under the assault of brutal power and external hatred.  North America, on the contrary, moved into a position of ever increasing power and influence. The story of America is the story of learning how to live with one’s power, how to harness that power for the sake of decency, inclusion, and peace.

Suddenly, with 9/11 and the Matzav (the Palestinian/Israeli conflict), these two stories crossed tracks and fused.  With the explosion of violence in the territories, Israel finds itself confronted with the question of how to use its military might to provide safety for Israeli civilians, peace for Israeli children, and how to exercise that might in a way that reflects high Israeli standards of decency, inclusion, and peace. And America, with the assaults against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, finds itself to be the object of nefarious power motivated by deep hatred.

It’s as though Israel woke up in America’s customary role, and North Americans woke up suddenly living Jewish history!  In that trading of places, that coming together of narratives, we must return – as Jews and as Canadians and Americans – to the rich resources provided by our heritage as citizens, and as children of Torah.  Specifically, to cope with this rise of terrorism and powerlessness, I would propose a return to three core Jewish (and American) values that express the Great Ideas that remain at our heart:

Rodef Shalom – our tradition affirms that the pursuit of peace is itself a mitzvah (a commandment). Recognizing that peace is our ultimate value, we can’t afford to take our eye off that long-term goal. But the pursuit of peace must never be confused with weakness or a lack of resolve. We pursue peace when we also protect ourselves and our loved ones from the attacks of those who would destroy the peace, who believe that their own pain or rage justifies any assault, however cruel. Interestingly, the word rodef also applies to a “pursuer,” and it is a mitzvah to prevent a pursuer from inflicting harm on an innocent victim. Restraining evil is itself part of the pursuit of peace.

Ein Harut, Ella Herut – The Torah recounts that God “engraved/harut” the words of the Ten Commandments onto the stones of the tablets. In a play on words, the ancient rabbis said, “don’t read ‘engraved/harut’ but ‘freedom/herut.”  Our freedom is rooted precisely in our commitment to the rule of law, to standards of justice, to democracy. The defense of the rule of law – that no person is above the law, that no grievance justifies violating fair standards – is the cornerstone of the vitality and strength both of the Torah of the Jewish people and of American and Canadian law. Now, as in the past, we must affirm our commitment to Torah and to law – for our own sakes, and for the sake of the world.

Kol Yisrael arevin zeh bazeh – all of us must care for each other. By locating our center of gravity not in our isolated individualism or our personal gain, but rather by seeing our identity as embracing our community, our people, our faith, we link ourselves to a cause greater than our own finite identity. Instead we become part of something grand, a cause worthy of our sacrifice and able to inspire our best effort and our hope. We are the people Israel. We are citizens of America and Canada. By living in covenant with each other and with God, we make ourselves vessels for God’s healing and God’s promise.

Both as members of Am Yisrael and as participants in Western Civilization, we are the heirs to a remarkable group of people and to ideas so powerful that we have not lived up to their promise even yet. We owe it to ourselves to aspire to making our Great Ideas live: that the world was created by a God of love and justice, that God’s love is made visible in lives of Torah and law, that we advance God’s sovereignty when we stand up for justice, compassion, security and peace. And, above all, that we will not despair.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (http://www.bradartson.com) is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President, and the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Visions, & Dreams (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).