Congregation Etz Hayim at Hollis Hills Bayside

The consolidated communities of Hollis Hills Bayside Jewish Center and Marathon Jewish Community Center

Rabbi Wise’s Study Corner: 1-13-15

Welcome to my new blog, the Study Corner. I’ll be using this space to follow up on my Shabbat email, to reflect on our adult education classes, and to share new ideas. If you weren’t able to be in shul for Shabbat or for classes for any reason, here’s where you can come to find out what you missed.

In this first entry, I want to elaborate on what I sent out about last week’s Torah portion, Vaera. I noted that it is Pharaoh who first intuits that the children of Israel–a mere tribal family–have become the Children of Israel–a national entity. What, then, kept Pharaoh up at night, and caused him to deal shrewdly with the Israelites? He wasn’t worried that Israel would seek to take over his country; rather, that they would demand to leave and live in their own, thereby fulfilling their national destiny.

On Shabbat morning, I shared the thoughts of Daniel Gordis and his 2012 book The Promise of Israel. Gordis argues that the roots of nationalism can be found in the story of the Tower of Babel, in Genesis 11. There, the people are stymied in their desire to build an edifice that celebrates their absolute universality–the entire land is one of language, one mind. Such universality, says Gordis, is not the Biblical ideal, and so God scatters the people linguistically and, ultimately, geographically. On Shabbat morning, I emphasized Gordis’ understanding that the Pharaoh story is the realization of the Tower of Babel’s story. In fact, he argues, the Torah wants us to see the connection between these otherwise disparate narratives, since the word leveinim, bricks, is common to these passages–and is found nowhere else in the entire Hebrew Bible! I’ve attached the relevant passages from Gordis here:

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Here’s a window into how I prepare for Shabbat. It’s not often that I know more than a week in advance what I plan to speak about, but I read this section about 10 days earlier, just at the time that Mahmoud Abbas pursued statehood through the UN Security Council. I found it ironic that Europe, whose new religion seems to be a universalism that is meant to eradicate national difference and expresses a disdain for one form of nationalism, namely Zionism, is at the forefront of the pursuit of the nationalist hopes of the Palestinians. That’s why I planned to address this on Shabbat. And then, Charlie Hebdo happened. And then, the erev Shabbat shopping massacre happened. So the next irony I noted was that universalist Europe is under siege by an ideology that is in its own way universalist–jihadist Islam sees no room for difference, either. I couldn’t ignore the events in France from the dvar Torah, and so it evolved to a message that surprised some. Pharaoh invented the term for Jewish nationalism–‘Am Bnei Yisrael. Now, the Jews of France have a place to flee if they decide that life is unsustainable there. They can enjoy the benefits of a contemporary expression of Jewish nationalism, Zionism–the State of Israel. And for that, I thank Pharaoh!

It’s worth adding that Europe’s confrontation with terror doesn’t end with marches, no matter how many millions take to the streets of Paris and other cities. I encourage you to read this editorial by David Horovitz, editor of the online newspaper Times of Israel.

And finally, if you want to respond with a show of support for the French Jewish community, you can do so through the agency of Masorti Olami through http://masortiolami.org/.

Feel free to email me at with your feedback. And check back next week for another entry of The Study Corner.