By Michael Lawrence
We are splintered.
The furious debate around coronavirus, its nature and its deadliness. How we treat, if we treat.
Herd immunity? Herd impunity? Herd uncertainty?
Ferocious deliberations over restriction on movement, gathering, business, structured childcare and schooling.
The discourse in Israel, politicking and policy and certainly in the United States too has reached high-decibel volume and lowest levels of civility. In the hallways of power and in the hearts and minds of the public and would-be voters, there is lots of black and white and very little grey.
On social networks, in the press, out on the streets, around the water cooler and at our family meals – strife is rife. Despair at one policy or another, one personality or another. At each other.
In Israel we are witnessing a perhaps unprecedentedly long and painful blame game that extends to pointing fingers, delineating and labeling whole segments of the population. The gaps between us all have widened, look more like daunting gorges dotted across our countries, as we stand, some say, at the edge of an abyss. Or two. Or more.
Comes the very final Torah portion of the year (Vezot HaBeracha) perhaps to jolt us a little and have us reconsider where we are leading ourselves and others and where we are being led.
Just as our patriarch Jacob did upon his death bed, Moses too, approaching his final moments, makes it a priority to bless the nation of Israel and we read these passages on Simchat Torah to complete the Torah (this year on Shabbat in Israel and Sunday elsewhere).
The whole nation as one – “And this is the blessing that Moses, the man of God, bestowed upon the Children of Israel before his death” (Deuteronomy 33:1)
Then to God himself, Moses declares “Indeed, you loved the tribes greatly, all its holy ones were in Your hands; for they planted themselves at Your feet, bearing the yoke of your utterances.” (33:3)
A mighty set of reminders – God, one people, stood together as one, united at Mt Sinai, received the Torah as one people.
Moses makes it clear – “He became King over Jeshurun (another name for the nation of Israel) when the numbers of the nation gathered – the tribes of Israel in unity.” (33:5)
Only when united were we worthy to receive God, Torah and a leader like Moses.
But then, like Jacob previously, the Torah then details Moses’ blessing to each tribe, individually according to their roles and responsibilities, their tribal personality and their future paths.
Every tribe has its own story, and personalities that shone through, throughout their family history, stretching back to the Book of Genesis, Jacob and his wives developing a family, Joseph and his brothers and their journey to Egypt, falling into slavery.
The last and lasting message to each is a combination of blessing, of hope and of prophecy. Each message crafted for each tribe.
But as the individualized blessings conclude, Moses’ last words ever to the people as a whole, are strikingly written (in Hebrew) in the singular. He is clearly addressing all, but the Torah crafts his words in the singular, to a whole nation made up of many tribes. You are one people, and thus I shall address you as one body.
“Fortunate are you, O Israel. Who is like you! O people delivered by God, The Shield of your help…” – four uses of the singular in that short Hebrew phrase at Deuteronomy 33:29.
One. Then and now, we are a total of all parts.
Only once the messages of unity is given does Moses take leave of his people, ascend to Mount Nevo and is shown the entire land of Israel. He dies at 120 (hence the blessing we still give to others today) and the Torah tells us immediately “never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses.” (34:10)
We will return to the start again and the Book of Genesis immediately having concluded the Five Books of Moses on Simchat Torah. Genesis is full of stories of family dysfunction, national disunity and infighting.
None of those episodes ended well.
Even Jacob himself, his sons (later the tribes named for them), found tzuris, troubles and pain in jealousy, being hasty in judgement, making statements and taking actions that would reverberate widely and for generations.
Indeed these are days of real strife, risk and understandable disillusionment at times. In Israel, in the United States and elsewhere. There is plenty at stake for individuals, families, communities and country.
Yet – we must dig deep – very deep – find it within us to draw red lines that we will not cross even if others do. No nation, certainly not the Jewish people, has ever successfully and safely navigated moments in time like these by cutting the herd into pieces.
The Torah and our history is living testament to this.
I dedicate this past year of writing and publishing a weekly “Nonprofit Parasha – on Leadership, Philanthropy and Community” to my parents Sandra z”l and Ian Lawrence z”l who left us in 2018 and 2019 respectively and who were devoted and respected leaders within Jewish community and civic, political life in Wellington, New Zealand and are buried in Jerusalem, Israel.
Michael Lawrence has been Financial Resource Development Unit Head and Chief Development Officer at The Jewish Agency for Israel since 2016. He is a qualified lawyer in Israel and in his native New Zealand and has lived in Israel since 2000.
He is the author of “Nonprofit Parasha” a weekly look at Philanthropy, Leadership and Community in the Torah portion.