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Judaism: Grading us on a Curve: It Started with Mother Rachel

It's all about context.
Published: Sunday, August 10, 2014 7:28 AM


On the 9th of Av, I heard a fascinating Torah insight over the Internet from Rabbi Weinreb of the OU. He was focusing on the famous verses from Jeremiah in which Hashem hears Rachel’s cry, comforts her, and tells her that her tears are not for naught, that her children will return to their Land.

Rabbi Weinreb raised the question as to why it is that Hashem responds positively only to Rachel’s imploring. He cites the Maharal of Prague, who offered the following explanation: Many great spiritual personalities perceive the world as a perfect place. This reflects their own world view and the level at which they are relating to Hashem and to his Creation. Rachel, however, knew differently. She grew up in the household of her dishonest father Laban, a household of deceit, treachery and corruption. She had no illusions as to the imperfections of the world that we live in.

Her plea to Hashem was thus: in the all too flawed world that we live in, how you can hold your People accountable to standards that are found nowhere else in Creation? If, as some of our other great spiritual forebears believed, this world was a perfect place, then such accountability and expectations would be warranted of the Jewish People.

But this is not the world we live in, and to hold the Jewish People to such ideal levels of behavior is to expect too much of them.

Hashem agrees with Rachel and reassures her that redemption will come for her children.

To me this kind of wisdom represents the great, humane, enormously insightful genius of our tradition. Simply stated, Hashem in his mercy knows that he needs to grade on a curve, that we cannot stand in front Him without the context of our fallability, our limited abilities, our all too human behavior and the forces around us that give rise to our actions.

As in other ways, we are wise to emulate Hashem’s way here. We help ourselves by applying the right context to our perspectives and judgments.

The recent Operation Protective Edge provides one such recent opportunity for such behavior. A great many of us in Israel wanted to make an end to Hamas. We thought that enough was enough, we needed to take care of business and dismantle Hamas once and for all.

But such a decision and the operation growing out of it had to be viewed in the larger context of a world that is fundamentally hostile to us. Even our supposed friends have very limited tolerance for our doing what we think we need to do to project and to protect our own interests.

In the narrow context it was all too easy to see a vacillating and indecisive political leadership. But it is also hard to look at their decisions without the larger perspective of the highly charged context in which they had to take decisions.

Take our willingness to agree to ceasefires, agreements which were inevitably unilateral and counterproductive. One would have thought that the prime minister was proving Einstein’s definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Yet, the PM was playing to a larger audience than just the Israeli public, and his decisions could not just be made with tactical reference to “getting the job done.” Netanyahu sought to portray Israel as the reasonable, accommodating party, willing to go the extra mile to find the solution.

Was it perceived thus? Not by most, but by some. Would it have been worse for us internationally do have done otherwise? I strongly suspect so.

What is important to bear in mind as we assess our options in Gaza and in other theaters is that there is a surprisingly strong consensus that Israel needs to act to protect its interests, and to act as pro-actively as possible, with as much clarity and decisiveness as possible.

I cringe at some of the decisions our leaders take, or don’t take. But I do think they fundamentally understand the challenge at hand. I also recognize that they are privy to forces and pressures that the rest of us are very distant from. They are not operating with anything close to full autonomy.

I have concluded that they too should be graded on a curve.

May we all be comforted, and come to see the life sustaining power of putting things into the larger context, of grading our lives and the world around us on a merciful curve.