Walls Have Both Saved, Hurt Jews Throughout History

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BY RABBI GREGORY S. MARX

PARSHAT VAYISHLACH

Every time I take a congregational mission to Israel, I take members of the community to the usual tourist destinations.

If we go to Israel, we must visit the Western Wall and the various sacred sites of Jerusalem. In Tel Aviv, we must visit the Dizengoff House, where David Ben Gurion declared Israel’s independence. Yet what always touches my members and me are the off-the-beaten-path locations that tell the unique story of Israel.

This year, we were privileged to visit Netivot HaAsarah, a small moshav situated a few feet from the Gaza border.

There we met Tzameret Zamir, an ardent Zionist, who lives and raises her family a mere 300 yards from Gaza. Her children, she told us, play within a few yards of Israel’s most hostile and intransigent of enemies. We had tea and coffee in her beautifully decorated and pastoral home, which was bombarded by Hamas rockets just a few years earlier.

She pointed out in front of her home a massive wall built by the Israeli government to protect her home and neighborhood from sniper fire, underground tunnels and, of course, Katushya rockets.

When the wall was erected, she was struck by its ugliness but knew full well of its necessity. Being a ceramic artist, she began a project encouraging her neighbors and any visitors to artistically decorate the wall with colorful tiles. Thus, she turned an ugly protective barrier into a piece of art. She invited our members to paint a tile and place it on the wall.

Before visiting Israel, our community visited Poland for five days.

We visited Kraków, Lublin and Warsaw. There we saw the walls erected by the Nazis to pen in the Jewish residents so the Jews could be exterminated from Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were herded into ghettos surrounded by high walls so that they could be exterminated efficiently and systematically.

Seeing a similar wall in southern Israel, I could not help but compare the two. The Nazis built ghetto walls to kill Jews, while Israel builds walls to save Jews.

Sadly, Israel was created so that the Jews could escape the ghetto walls and, more and more because of unrelenting hatred, Israel has become a ghetto nation. Yet I was not depressed in Netivot HaAsarah, as I was in Warsaw and Krakow. One wall made me feel so vulnerable and alone, while another filled me with courage and hope.

In our Torah portion for this Shabbat, our ancestor Jacob is filled with fear. He is about to meet his betrayed brother Esau, and he knows not whether he will live or die. He, like too many of us today, is terrified of what might happen to him because his adversary/brother is so much more powerful. That night he has a wrestling match with a mysterious stranger. There he discovers an inner power and resolve to persevere. He is wounded in his struggle but reborn. Consequently he is renamed Israel, “one who wrestles to be made straight.”

Jacob had a mandate. Chosen by God, he knew that he had to confront his fears and plan for the future. He divided up his camp, he prayed and offered gifts in the hope of winning favor.

But none of those efforts had an impact on Esau. It was the reborn, wounded and remade man who had wrestled all night, who was able to make peace with Esau. His strength made him capable of making peace. Seeing that changed man, Esau makes peace with his onetime adversary, and the walls between these two great men come crashing down.

Unfortunately, Israel still needs her walls.

Without them, Israel would be so much more vulnerable, like Jacob standing before Esau, in the opening lines of our parshah. Here in the United States, we are well aware that anti-Semitism is the longest-running philosophy known to man. While its rationale morphs over time, its goal remains the same. Like Jacob, we need to redouble our efforts and protect our rites and practices.

Jacob taught us a valuable lesson about confronting pain, loss and hostility. Stand up, stake your claim and rebuild. Israel must have the tools to protect herself, and we must hold fast to our communities and Jewish observance.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “The Jewish people collectively, a mere three years after standing eyeball-to-eyeball with the angel of death at Auschwitz, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the Jewish State in our people’s ancient homeland, the land of Israel. Had world Jewry sat passively and wept from then till now for the murdered generations of European Jewry, it would have been an understandable reaction. But it did not. It was as if the Jewish people had said collectively, in the words of King David, ‘I will not die but live’ (Psalms 118:17), thereby giving testimony to the God of life.”

Like Jacob, may we rise up from our “wrestling matches” with faith, hope and love, to hopefully see the day when walls will no longer be necessary.

Rabbi Gregory S. Marx is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.