25 Sivan 5776                                                                                                B’SD


Lessons on Vietnam

Vacations often give one a glimpse of a world hidden from their normal realm of thought. It gives one courage to question past stereotypes, it challenges us to broaden our perception by contrasting it with yesterday’s reality. It tends to squash our self restrictive limitations and recalibrate the parameters we use to define our truths.


I have rather fond memories of my formative years as a child growing up in the 60’s, innocently compartmentalizing challenges to my status quo. I can vividly remember hearing about napalm and agent orange but they were merely words sans any real meaning or understanding. The 6pm nightly news declared the Vietnam War was a war between good and evil and I knew without a doubt that we were on the side of good. I watched footage of the carnage but incapable of internalizing the scale of death and destruction.


I am grateful for the luxury of travel to alter my myopic views and grant me the ability to open my eyes. I am glad to read newspapers that are not preoccupied with Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump. Although Brexit was dominating the news, much of the focus was how Great Britain’s exit from the European Union would affect and impact the local economy. There was little or nothing reported on Islamic fundamentalism or about the three monotheistic religions of the world. In Vietnam there are few Christians and Muslims and Judaism doesn’t even merit as a religion. I spoke to the Chabad Rabbi in Hanoi who told me that in order to get resident status he had to declare chabad as a cult rather than a religion as there is no religion called Judaism. (Many years ago I officiated at a wedding in the Cook Islands and had to get my credentials verified at the local government offices. They didn’t fully grasp Judaism and repeatedly asked what sect of Christianity did Judaism belong to.)


Our sages wonder how could the leaders of the Jewish people end up becoming the naysayers of doom and gloom. How was it possible that ten spies reported a rather critical and harsh analysis of the land of Israel. In Pirkei Avot – Ethics of Our Fathers we are taught that wisdom is predicated on the ability to learn from all people. The narrower the frame of reference the less wisdom it produces. Sadly our Jewish community suffers greatly by negating this essential ingredient. We live in a self inflicted mirage, imaging a broad minded perspective but cocooned in an affluence laden ghetto. A New Yorker imagines the world is at their fingertips provided that world doesn’t require any bridges or tolls. The intelligentsia may hob nob with upper echelons of society but don’t realize they are merely having their opinions validated by those who see things like them . The spies were not inherently bad people but saw a world through their limited horizons. Their friends all agreed that the residents of Canaan appeared rather strange; their height, skin tone and facial features were vastly different to anything they had ever seen. Their ghetto mentality caused them to view others with distrust and anxiety and embellish facts to mirror their fears. Their inabilities but were a fulfillment of their societies caste system.


Our Torah empahsizes the value of B’reishit; the idea that all mankind emanate from only one man. And that each person regardless of their geographical location or political persuasion are essentially capable of enhancing wisdom. We are blessed with brilliant minds who are failing the system; with great scholars that are hindering their generation’s ability to fathom and comprehend the world around them. Of course there is just reason to fear knowledge as it opens up the mind to heretical concepts, but the price may be to high to pay. We as Jews have prided ourselves in being educated in the vast wisdoms of humanity. The sciences of astronomy, physics and mathematics were always the prized possession of our people. The disproportionate accumulation of nobel prizes amongst our coreligionists is well documented.


Joshua who eventually is destined to replace Moses and bring the Israelites into the promised land has his name changed by God. His name has a letter added to indicate that he not succumb to the lessons of his peers. That he be willing and able to learn from everyone in order to better himself and his people. Indeed when Joshua is asked to spend spies again to see how the Israelites can conquer the Holy Land, his spies go to the house of Rachav the prostitute. They realize that even a prostitute is a human being with wisdom and ideas that can help them succeed.


In reality, as much as we hate to admit it, we may not easily forgive but we do eventually forget. The venomous hatred towards yesterday’s enemy will soon be replaced by our newly founded animas. If we go back in our history, we will learn that we too often leave a less than desirable legacy, we are often as guilty as those we condemn today. I should never be willing to forget yesterday but I also can’t ignore today. I still have little desire to visit Germany but I know that Israel often depends of yesterday’s enemy to protect them. Germany and Poland are often the one voice of reason in an otherwise hostile region. Russia and many countries of the FSU are now seen by Israel as friends rather than foes. There is no guarantee what tomorrow may bring but it is every possible that our hope and future for tomorrow may very well become yesterday’s foe. Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Jack Engel

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