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Plus Ca Change

February 10, 2011

Jerusalem Post Weekend Magazine
February 11, 2011

I imagine that I am not alone in having thought often of November 1977 in the last several weeks.

I was young, a college student, but I still remember one particular afternoon of that month with exceptional clarity. Anwar Sadat was coming to Jerusalem. I had no TV in my Columbia University dorm, so my grandparents invited me over to watch with them.

My grandfather was an enormous presence in my life. Physically large, tall and wide, he was a scholar, a public intellectual, a gifted orator, a no-nonsense teacher who grilled me in Bible and Talmud, who (as if I didn’t have enough to read in college) sent me home with books he insisted that I read so he could see if I understood them.

We sat on the long, somewhat frayed sofa, facing the television. As the ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport commenced, I could almost hear him listening, his breathing deep and steady. A plane from Egypt crossed the border and landed, the stairs rolled up. Handshakes all around. A band began to play. And suddenly, with Menachem Begin and Sadat standing at attention, the sounds of “Hatikva.”

I don’t think I knew enough back then to fully appreciate who Sadat was and what he had done to get to that place and that time. But even in my just-post-high- school naiveté, I understood that this was a transformative moment.

There he was, the president of Israel’s archenemy standing at attention for the Zionists’ national anthem.

I listened intently, taking it all in, when suddenly, another sound registered. Not sure at all what it was, I turned to my grandfather, and the first thing I noticed was his wet shirt. Only then did I see the tears flowing down his face.

In all the hundreds upon hundreds of hours we had spent together, reading, studying, arguing, laughing, it was the first time I’d ever seen him cry. It was at that moment that I think I first began to understand what it all meant. His lifelong belief that this could never happen was suddenly proven wrong. Perhaps, I suppose he imagined then, that moment might have meant that all the dying might be ending, that a century worse than any the Jews had ever known might be giving way to new possibilities.

I don’t know how much of that I understood that afternoon, but now, I think I have a sense of why he was crying. Even today, some three and a half decades later, whenever someone mentions Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, my first thought is, “It made my saba cry.” Because finally, it seemed that everything could change.

THIRTY-SOMETHING YEARS later, a different Shabbat afternoon setting. We’re in Jerusalem now, and my wife notices me putting down the book I’ve been reading for far too many weeks. “I’ve never seen anyone say that they love a book, and still take so long to read it,” she says to me. “What’s up with you and that book?”

It’s Rabbi Benny Lau’s Jeremiah: Fate of a Prophet. A masterful retelling of the Book of Jeremiah (coming out soon in English, I believe), in which Lau reorders the chapters that in the biblical version are not in chronological order, and also provides the historical background that one needs to appreciate the context in which Jeremiah was prophesying. It’s also an unbearable read.

Jeremiah’s was a world of national Jewish folly. Successive kings of Judah all imagined themselves infinitely more powerful and much less vulnerable than they actually were. With massive powers surrounding them, Egypt to the south and Assyrian and Babylon to the north, they consistently made ill-advised foreign policy choices, all the while entirely ignoring the decadence and moral depravity unfolding inside their own borders. At considerable personal risk, Jeremiah warned the people that their salvation would not derive from alliances with foreign powers that could not be trusted and, instead, he urged, they would do better to focus on creating a society that was just and decent.

Jeremiah, of course, was not needed. We know the end of the story, so reading Lau’s book is like reading about a train wreck that might have been prevented, but that you know is about to happen. That, of course, is precisely why Lau wrote the book. The train wreck need not happen, he intimates, but unless something dramatic changes, it very well may.

“So what’s with putting the book down every 10 minutes?” my wife asks again. “I thought you said it was great.”

“It is excellent,” I assure her. “But it’s unbearably sad. You can rewind the news two and a half millennia, and though the names of the characters are different, the places are the same and so are the dynamics. It’s all basically the same story as today. Nothing changes, or so it seems.”

WE’RE NOT quite back to being sandwiched between the biblical Egypt and the biblical Assyria or Babylon. They’re there, but they’re not the insurmountable challenges that they were thousands of years ago. There’s one remaining power of that magnitude left, and though the relationship is frayed, it is far from over. The real question is how wisely we’ll manage it. And it’s not as if no one understands what’s happening inside our borders. Some people do, and they’re begging for someone – anyone – to wake up. The question is who will heed whom.

All the more reason to read Lau’s book, it seems to me. His book wouldn’t matter if all were lost. But Jeremiah still matters precisely because now, more than ever, a great deal hangs in the balance, and the outcome is largely up to us. Our decisions about how strategic and how decent we’re going to be will have everything to do with whether we – like my grandfather – will have cause to weep, and what that cause will be.

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