A Facebook friend pointed out that if you pronounce the word “Brexit” as if it were Portuguese, you get something sounds a lot like the first book of the Torah in Hebrew: Bereshit. Go figure. ‘Course, we’re still almost two books away from that, so it seems that the Brexit referendum was not some kind of devar Torah in code.
However, you could not get away from it in the news these past two weeks. (It was a welcome change from the American presidential campaign, which already feels like it’s been going on for at least four years.) The British vote to leave the EU has shocked the world, and Europe is in political turmoil. The British pound has dropped precipitously. Scotland is threatening to leave Great Britain to rejoin the EU. The aftermath of the vote has been so shocking that there are millions of Brits who have signed a petition for a second referendum.
From what I have gleaned from the news, there are a few reasons why 17.4 million Britons voted to leave. Among them is the resentment of having to kowtow to the EU leadership in Brussels. But there is no question that one of the major concerns of those who voted to leave the EU is the apparent anxiety over the numbers of immigrants, from within and without the EU, who have come into Britain in recent years. That concern is related to similar sentiments that many have on this side of the Atlantic regarding immigration, and particularly illegal immigration.
Put another way, many who voted to leave the EU did so out of fear: fear of change, fear of the other, fear of governmental control in a distant land by people who are not like you.
Fear is actually a major theme in Parashat Shelah Lekha. Moshe sends twelve spies, leaders from each tribe, on a reconnaissance mission to scope out the land of Canaan. Upon returning to the Sinai desert, where the Israelites are encamped, they declare that the Promised land is indeed a land of milk and honey. But ten of them raise the fears of the people by claiming that the Canaanites are gigantic and dangerous, with fortified cities that they cannot conquer. And suddenly, Moshe and Aharon are under attack for leading the people to their perceived deaths.
As you know, the story does not end well for those who whipped up the people’s fears. But let’s face it: fear plays a significant role in the palette of human emotion.
What are some things we are afraid of?
Fear is a natural human response to change and uncertainty. In this world, how can you not be scared? There is so much to fear.
We the Jews are especially accustomed to fear, owing to the fact that we have been persecuted throughout our history. I suppose that it’s somewhat ironic for us as Jews to watch the internal struggles of the EU from across the ocean, when Europe was the scene of so much oppression and misery and murder of our people for so many centuries.
I am reminded of the time that I sat down with my grandparents to record memories of their lives. My grandmother, aleha hashalom, was born in what is today Ukraine, and came to the United States at age 8, settling in Boston. While my grandfather, alav hashalom, was willing to tell as many details of his school-of-hard-knocks tales as he could recall, my grandmother kept saying, “Why do you want to hear about these things? We were poor and miserable, and the Russians hated us.” She had no interest in or reason to recall the past. It was gone. She had left it on the other side of the ocean, and they were far more comfortable on the welcoming shores of Di Goldene Medine (the “Golden Land,” a Yiddish term for America) than they ever could have been in Europe. And, of course, that was a full two decades before the Nazis arrived.
Europeans continue to struggle with the strangers in their midst. The Jews began to achieve European citizenship beginning with the French Revolution in 1789. But as we all know, their European neighbors never quite thought of them as French or German or English or Russian. They were always Jews. Xenophobia is a long-standing tradition in Europe, and so it’s not too surprising that it is an ongoing challenge to this day.
So we should consider, for just a moment, how this fear continues to shape our world, our opinions, our political choices. And we should acknowledge that we as Jews are called to reach out to the stranger, not to fear him/her. Consider the language that we see over and over in the Torah (e.g. Exodus 22:20):
וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ, כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Our history of oppression, going all the way back to Egypt, mandates not only that we treat the foreigners in our midst fairly, but also that we recall actively what it means to be an outsider. The great 12th-century Spanish commentator Avraham Ibn Ezra tells us that this is about power. Just because you have more power than the stranger, he says, does not give you the right to abuse that power. Remember where you came from!
Indeed, remember where we came from, not quite as far back as Egypt. Remember the Pale of Settlement of Eastern Europe. Remember the shtetlakh, where the Jews were confined to live. Remember the pogroms. Remember the forced conscription of Jewish boys into the Czar’s army. Remember the Nuremberg Laws, the ghettos, the Einsatzgruppen. Remember the Shoah, the destruction of European Jewry in the name of fear and hatred fomented by the Nazi state.
We are not required as Jews to love others who are not like us. But we are indeed forbidden from oppressing them, from mistreating them, from taking advantage of them, from hating them. And on some level, it is our duty to bring that message to the greater world.
The 18th-century Hasidic rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl (yes, THAT Chernobyl) wrote in his Torah commentary, Me’or Einayim, that we all have the potential to feel threatened by others around us, but that the real cause of our discomfort is not the evil in their hearts, but rather the tum’ah, the impurity in our own. Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, responds in his work, the Netivot Shalom, that,
“To succeed in overcoming the forces of tum’ah that are deliberately placed in our way, we need to be able to eschew our own inner voices, and align ourselves perfectly with the tzaddik in our midst.”
So these Hasidic masters saw our challenge as an internal one rather than an external one. We fear the other because we are responding to our own inadequacy, and our task is to overcome those fears and reach out.
A third Hasidic rabbi, Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, put it so smartly and succinctly that his saying on the subject has become a popular, sing-along tune:
כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד, והעיקר לא לפחד כלל
Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od, veha’iqar lo lefahed kelal.
The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important principle is not to fear at all.
We have to overcome fear of the other, because fear is a destructive force. Not that we should not be vigilant; not that we should be careless; but we should make our choices from a place of confidence and intelligence rather than fear.
Had our British friends learned this lesson, perhaps the outcome would have been different. But it’s not too late for the rest of us.
Veha’iqar lo lefahed kelal.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/2/2016.)