In plain language: Through the looking glass

Are reality and history identical? Or is reality simply his story – but not necessarily the other guy’s story?

Pro-Palestinian supporters 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Pro-Palestinian supporters 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Are reality and history identical? Or is reality simply his story – but not necessarily the other guy’s story? Case in point: On a rather long transatlantic plane ride some years ago, I found myself seated next to a well-educated Arab man from one of our neighboring countries.
After several uncomfortable hours of pretending not to notice one another, we found ourselves engaged in what might loosely be referred to as “dialogue,” the civility of which was largely due to the efforts of the stewardesses, who kept the decibels at tolerable levels and prevented the exchange from going ballistic. (Mind you, this was back in the days when you could actually debate with a Muslim; today they just bar you from speaking and/or blow you up, which tends to pretty much cut short any argument.) My central question was why the Arabs were so opposed to the great American pastime of compromise. Why were they determined to always take a maximalist position, even if it ensured unending war and suffering between our peoples? What was so toxic to them about finding common ground? After a whole lot of back and forth, I began to grasp, though certainly not embrace, the “other”’s point of view. The gist of my protagonist’s narrative went something like this: “You stole all of our land; none of it whatsoever belongs to you.
Why, then, should we compromise? Would you settle 50-50 with a thief? It’s enough that we even admit you exist; why should we give up anything that rightfully belongs to us?” The moment my fellow traveler uttered these words, I was immediately taken back to my first visit to Auschwitz. A Polish guide, speaking to a large group of Polish schoolchildren about the death camp, informed them that “here, more than a million Poles were murdered.” Someone in our group, who spoke fluent Polish, asked the guide, “Why did you not tell the students that most of those who were killed here were Jews?” The guide looked at him with disdain and replied, “It’s enough that I called them Poles.”
OF COURSE, our own Jewish/Israeli narrative is far removed from the Arab version.
Despite the obsessive attempts at historical revisionism undertaken by our adversaries, we know that this is our ancestral homeland to which we have been spiritually and emotionally attached, uninterruptedly, for 2,000 years. For hundreds of years we also kept a continuous physical presence in the land, to the extent that hostile forces would allow us. We know from numerous reports that this land was mostly desolate throughout the centuries, waiting for us to return and miraculously bring the land to life once again – which then caused all the surrounding people to flock to it and covet it as their own. We have paid for this tiny parcel of earth – in blood, money and tears – a hundredfold. If we are willing to share this land with others, it is not out of a sense of guilt or reparation, but out of a genuine love of peace and non-violence.
While we accept that others may not subscribe to our narrative, we ourselves must never doubt our legitimacy and God-given right to make this our home. And we should never allow others to frame our history according to their self-serving agenda.
The concept of “dueling narratives” also forms the backdrop of the entire Egyptian experience which we are now commemorating.
One way of looking at this period is through the lens of powerlessness and persecution – that we were “selected” from among others to form a subhuman class, a “nation within a nation” that slaved on behalf of their masters, suffering every indignity and denigration, until we reached the lowest state to which a human being can sink.
Plausible as this approach may be, it tars us with the stigma of a repudiated child, a “fallen angel” of God, continually condemned to a horrible fate. It reinforces the persecution complex, a syndrome from which we have finally managed to extricate ourselves in the resurgent State of Israel.
And so the rabbis paint for us a very different picture of the Egyptian experience.
While acknowledging the torturous trials we endured under cruel taskmasters, they see this period as an “iron furnace” that steeled us for all eternity. Forced down to Egypt by the divine hand, we would learn – the hard way – the high cost of disunity, and the salvation that comes from sticking together. We would be honed and tempered into a nation that could survive any diaspora, no matter how hostile or bitter, persevering despite the most oppressive of rulers. We would face 10 plagues and more on every continent, yet – by virtue of our faith, creativity and the absolute belief in our eventual redemption – we would live to see another generation.
Through it all, we would be witness to innumerable miracles. Perhaps they would not be as flashy as the splitting of the sea, but they would defy logic and nature in their own right, and captivate the world’s attention. Militarily, financially, sociologically and politically, Israel has evidenced the hand of God time after time in our own brief statehood – if we only care to see it. From the depth of Egyptian servitude would come the Revelation and the Ten Commandments, the entrance into Israel, the conquest of the land and the building of the Holy Temple. All of this would send the message that, while we will not be strangers to suffering, we also are destined for glory.
This is the picture our visionary sages wanted us to see through the prism of Passover.
IN THE hassidic world of Bobov, they tell the following story: The Grand Rabbi of Bobov was to marry off his son, his heir, to the daughter of another hassidic dynasty. As was the custom, the marriage had been arranged by the parents many years earlier, and thousands of hassidim now gathered for the momentous occasion of the wedding. The intended bride was stunningly beautiful, and she waited anxiously to catch a glimpse of her hatan (bridegroom), whom she had only seen thus far from a distance.
But when the hatan entered the main hall where the ceremony was to take place, the bride let out a dreadful shriek.
“No, no!” she screamed. “He is hideously ugly, repulsive, and I will not marry him!” She then ran off to her dressing room, vowing not to come out until the guests had left the hall.
The crowd was shocked and stunned; even the great Rebbe was at a loss for what to do. But then the hatan stepped forward and announced, “I must go and speak to her in private.” Though it was normally forbidden for bride and groom to be alone before the marriage, the rebbe granted his son permission and the groom went off to see his prospective bride.
When he entered her room, he saw that the poor girl was beside herself, pacing the floor and crying hysterically. She did not even want to look at her intended.
But after several minutes, he managed to calm her down. “I want you to come here and look into the mirror which is on the wall,” he said to her, lovingly but firmly.
“Tell me what you see there.”
The bride gazed into the mirror, but could barely move her lips to speak. For in the glass, she saw the reflection of a regal, handsome prince of a man and a pathetically ugly woman. “I don’t understand...”
she finally muttered; “What does this mean; what is going on here?” “I will explain,” said the future rebbe.
“You see, even before we were born, you were always meant to be my wife. But you were destined to be ugly, and I to be handsome. Because I loved you so deeply – even before I knew you – I prayed with all my heart that I should be the ugly one and you should be given all of the beauty.
The mirror is showing you the truth – which now only you and I know – though the world sees a different reality.”
Bride and groom emerged from the chamber and took their place under the huppa, creating a new link in the hassidic chain.
Whenever we begin to lose hope, whenever the sands of struggle start to pile up higher and higher, we must not succumb to despair or desperation. The true picture of what is happening is not always that which meets the eye. It more likely lies just beyond, through the looking glass.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana;