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Adjusting to New Narratives

Girl striking chimes looking out over Judaen desert.Upon ending the book of beginnings (Genesis), we now begin the middle of the Torah story (Exodus). The tribe of Jacob will ultimately emerge as a nation in this book, an important milestone that will serve the Jewish people over and over in helping us to figure out who we are.

Our emergence as a nation in Exodus included great pain and great loss. The most obvious manifestations of that pain and loss have to do with our descent into slavery and the abuse connected with that. And indeed, even the act of liberation itself included the "mighty hand and outstretched arm" which brought great suffering to those tangential to the struggle.

What I'd like to explore here is the the psychic stress that we undergo when a community's collective narrative, the story by which it understands itself, goes through a profound change. In this weeks portion we read, "There arose a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph." A clan of people connected to the great seats of power in Egypt is called to reinterpret its place in society. Parents who had once reassured their children that they would be protected, that Pharaoh knows us, lose credibility and authority as they have to quickly change the story they tell themselves as well as their children about their place in the world.

My wife, two children and I just returned from a two-week trip to Israel. We had a wonderful time, touring and visiting friends and family. Formative for me in my youth and young adulthood were my experiences in the Habonim/Dror Labor Zionist movement. Between 1974 and 1983 I visited Israel four times, the shortest among those trips was nine weeks. The Labor Zionist movement promoted a socialist vision of the emerging Israel, an ideological one which espoused, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!" As a young person I resonated deeply with those ideals and had dreams and plans (never realized) of moving to a kibbutz.

As early as my first visit to Israel in 1974, at the ago of sixteen, I could see that the reality of kibbutz life demanded more generosity of spirit and effort than most people had. A socialist vision wasn't a powerful enough force to overcome human frailty. Though the realities of human nature may prevent an ideological vision from true fruition, that vision's narrative isn't abandoned easily.

This was my first trip to Israel since privatization at the country's 200-plus kibbutzim has become dominant. Even though I made a very clear decision in my 20's that I did not desire to live on a kibbutz, I was glad that other people did. It was sad to see kibbutz dining halls no longer in use.

On a visit to one of the kibbutzim that has privatized, our eloquent tour guide espoused old and new narratives, just minutes apart. "We made the desert bloom. We created a society where our children could flourish in safety and in purpose. Each child received a college education totally paid for by the kibbutz." And then, "The highly skilled could no longer bear earning the same as those with fewer skills. They engineered the change. Now those who were once equal and friendly are now cold and belong to different classes." Her only attempt to reconcile the competing visions was, "Change cannot be stopped."

There is certainly a kind of emotional whiplash that occurs in adjusting one's life story and how it figures into a greater story. I was a bit surprised at how personally I felt affected by the reality of how significantly kibbutzim have changed.

One narrative that my middle-age brain can certainly get its head around is a post-ideological desire to live a "normal" life. Israelis are building or planning to build homes. They are starting businesses, many of them based on the Internet that reach far beyond the soil of Israel. They have a keen interest in fashion and sports. There is a small but growing interest in Judaism among Israel's secular majority. Maybe it is precisely this desire for a normal life which may provide one needed bridge to Palestinians who desire precisely the same thing.

While there is loss in giving up on some of our big ideas, smaller ideas may actually be just what our the Jewish people needs right now. And while I felt sad that nobody asked me on this trip what I had been asked so many other times, "So when are you making aliyah (move to Israel)?", I also felt relieved.

As we enter the powerful transitions of the Exodus story, and re-live our evolution from clan to nation, may the perseverance of our ancestors give us the emotional strength to adjust to the changing narratives that we must continually re-tell as parents and as leaders.

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Type: Dvar Torah

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