Raysh Weiss holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Minnesota and is currently entering her final year of Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is the founder and director of YentaNet, a pluralistic matchmaking organization, currently serves on the Board of Directors of T'ruah, and is a co-editor of the progressive Jewish blog www.jewschool.com.
With the unrelenting blitzkrieg of violent images flooding the media from the Middle East and beyond, it can be hard not to resort to a sense of fear and hopelessness. Such images, coupled with political leadership built upon collective fear and defensiveness, engender a society that cannot move beyond immediate threats and anxieties. In constantly speaking of security, we all too easily lose sight of other rights, relegating them to a tragically secondary status.
Such fear-mongering is a staple tactic of the Netanyahu government, which promotes what German political theorist Carl Schmitt termed a “state of exception”—a political climate in which leadership manipulates a supposed crisis to maximize its power while curtailing the individual constitutional rights of its citizens. The current government’s continued justification of the ever-deepening occupation, along with their disregard for Israel’s Arab citizens, is fueled precisely by the kind of exclusionary rhetoric of crisis.
Against this backdrop of fear, and especially in light of Netanyahu’s controversial alarmist statement to his supporters before the March elections about Israel’s Arab citizens voting in “droves,” the recent efforts of the Joint Arab List become all the more remarkable—for their optimism and perseverance in the face of great resistance. A new generation of Israel-Arab politicians, such as Knesset Member and Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh, is looking ahead to a more democratic Israel which extends full and equal rights to all of its citizens, regardless of ethnic or religious background. Hope and courage are essential ingredients of a healthy democracy—the kind of democracy which would support peaceful coexistence and collaboration.
Indeed, last week, President Obama spoke of the need for Israel to balance a “politics of hope and a politics of fear.” The President’s words seem to echo the subtext of this week’s Torah portion — Korach tests the children of Israel’s leadership, offering hope for truly courageous leadership:
The portion, Korach, offers an image (and perhaps an antidote to the narrative of failed, fear-mongering leadership) —of a subtle but deeply heroic rejection of fear. After the famous rebellion of Korach and his followers, who challenged Moses and Aaron’s hegemony, great chaos and terror breaks out. God threatens to send out a plague to wipe out the whole of the community, save the two brothers (Num. 16:21). However, Moses and Aaron intercede.
Of his own volition, motivated by his own innate passion for peace and impulse for empathy, Aaron throws himself among both the living and dying (Num. 17:13), potentially jeopardizing his own life. The medieval commentator Rashi explains that Aaron literally took hold of the angel of death to thwart him from his mission. Aaron could have easily enjoyed he security granted to him by God, but instead, he embraced the conflict, empathized with the dying, and joined in their plight—an act of true leadership and heroism.
Aaron is hailed as a champion of peace, as Ethics of the Fathers (1:12) refers to him as a “rodef shalom,” or a pursuer of peace, to whose example we should aspire as Jews. Peace cannot happen in isolation, it cannot happen in a vacuum, and it certainly cannot happen when we fear and distrust those around us. Indeed, even within the portion of Korach, shortly after Aaron’s brave actions, God makes Aaron’s staff miraculously sprout with almonds and flowers—perhaps as a sign of the miraculously generative power of love, optimism, and trust.
Unlearning fear is no small task, but it is one modern Israel must take on in order to achieve the halcyon vision offered by the optimistic spies, Joshua and Caleb, and the courageous example set forth by Aaron, the peace-loving High Priest. May Israel enjoy a leadership whose vision extends far beyond the immediate and the grim and can see and achieve the heights of peace.