The Blessing of Stability

The following is a transcript of Episode 36 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Donniel: My name is Donniel Hartman. I’m the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Today is Wednesday, November 10th, 2021. And this is For Heaven’s Sake, a podcast from the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage Project. Our theme for today is the blessing of stability.

In each edition of For Heaven’s Sake. Yossi Klein Halevi, senior research fellow at the Institute here in Jerusalem, and myself discuss a current issue central to Israel and the Jewish world.

And then Elana Stein Hain director of the Hartman faculty in North America explores with us how classical Jewish sources can enrich our understanding of the issue.

Friends for an upcoming episode we’re going to turn it around and ask what you want us to talk about. So please send us your questions so that we could talk about them on the show, send an email, or even better an audio recording of your questions so that we can play it during the podcast.

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Let’s begin. The blessing of stability. After three and a half years Israel now has a budget. The absence of a state budget reflected the deep instability of the political system, which went through four inconclusive elections before finally creating the current government. It also represented the willingness of certain parties to place personal and sectarian interests over the wellbeing of the country as a whole. This was the first major test for Naftali Bennett’s strange coalition and unlikely grouping of left, right, center, center-left, center-right, right-right. Et cetera, et cetera.

In addition to also having an Islamicist party for the first time. By the time you hear this podcast, the Israeli news cycle would likely have moved on and this achievement will be taken for granted. But today I’d like to pause and reflect on how we, as a people deal with our dayenu moments, those events that should be celebrated, that require of us an acknowledgment of gratitude. Of course for many Israelis who oppose this government, Bennett’s success has no reason to be celebrated. And yet I would argue that the government’s victory is a victory for all Israelis, even those who don’t admit it, regardless of one’s politics.

Had the budget failed to pass it – think about it for a second – we would now be facing the dismal prospect, not really a prospect, of yet another election. We’d be in the midst of another election cycle that would likely end in yet one more stalemate. But while it might end in a stalemate, in the meantime, the election would have unleashed an unprecedented barrage of hate, bitterness as one party tries to delegitimize the other. Now it’s not that this period has been free of incitement and hatred quite to the contrary. In recent weeks, we’ve seen a systematic campaign of lies, aiming at destroying this government’s credibility, even before the budget vote. For example, claiming that the Bennett coalition was funding Hamas and denouncing Bennett as a trader. This return to Rabin-era rhetoric is so intense that some are even fearing another political assassination. We could have returned to that. But for now, at least we’ve been granted a respite. And so how do we respond? How do we think about, um, the blessing of stability?

By moving on? Do we respond by moving on to the next crisis or by appreciating our capacity for healthy change?

Why does it seem so hard for us as a people to acknowledge goodness? How do we find the balance between a sober recognition of our challenges and flaws and at the same time, an ability to celebrate our successes, the blessing of stability? I love today’s topic, especially after the armageddon of last of the last one. Yossi, it’s great to be with you again.

Yossi: It’s great to be with you.

[00:04:13] Donniel: Let’s have fun today. Let’s smile. Now before we get into the meta issue, let’s call it the crisis of the Jewish people: not being able to celebrate non-crisis moments.

Before we do that. But before we get to the meta issue of how crazy we are –  are we crazier than other people? – of why we have difficulty celebrating blessings? What’s your dayenu moment today?

Yossi: Well, in the early months of this government, every Shabbat, I would breathe this great sigh of relief that we’ve made it another week.

And just say that I can let go of that weekly marking of the survival of this government and just breathe and accept the existence of this strange and wondrous coalition. And when we speak about dayenu it has different connotations and one of them is a kind of a minimalist acceptance of reality.

In a normal country and then under normal circumstances, we would not be devoting a podcast to the passing of the budget. We would be relating to a budget as simply what a government is supposed to do. It’s a normal functioning government, but there’s nothing normal about Israel in the last few years.

And there’s nothing normal about this time for democracy, really all over the world. And it is a time to just take stock and be grateful for the fact that we’ve restored our capacity for a minimal functional government. And I’m so relieved that this budget has passed.

I was praying. I was really davening for this and I don’t usually connect my davening to what a government does or doesn’t do. It’s usually more personal than that, but I was really davening for this

Donniel: So, could I be the first one to, on behalf of the state of Israel and maybe the Jewish people worldwide, thank you?

For your contribution. I never knew that maybe that’s what it was. So may I may be the first one to recognize your central role.

Yossi: Well, Donniel, I do appreciate it. And, I’m not looking for praise and gratitude, but when it comes, I appreciate it.

Donniel: Okay, good. First of all, I love your dayenu moment because it really is dayenu. It really is very minimalistic. I have a similar one. I don’t feel that the survival of Israel is now going to be dependent on whether I watched the news. You know what I mean, Yossi? Like Israel has an eight o’clock news, which for some reason, starts between 7:55 and 7:56.

I don’t know why. Eight o’clock news starts – who came up with that idea? I have no idea. I think it’s because they know all Israelis are so nervous. They call it eight o’clock and they give it to us early because we’re sitting there waiting and we can’t wait. So it really is a quite fascinating

Yossi: And maybe they want to spare us the bad news and the headlines. So you’ll miss it. We’re giving it to you five minutes earlier and you won’t see it.

Donniel: That’s a nice Hasidic way of reading it. But I really felt that every day I had to watch because everything could be falling apart. Our last session was on Iran and the truth is between you and I, we survive with the Iran crisis or the Iran dilemma by not thinking about it. As they say in Israel, denial is not in Egypt, it’s at the heart of Israel. That’s just like how we get through it.

Yossi: Did you make, did you make that up, Donniel?

Donniel: I wish it was. It was in my siddur. It was in my davening. That’s the way you get through the day here. I don’t really think about Iran, but thinking about the end of this government, thinking about another election, seeing the escalation of fakeness and violence and hatred, it’s  –  even the language which is being used to attack the Arab party, the coalition with the Arab party there are no limits.

And if there are no limits now, what would happen in another election where at the end of the day, the government would be formed by one seat. And how much hatred and campaigning would there be to get that one seat. And, I enjoy the fact that if I lose, if I miss the news, I could even go to the movies now at seven 30 and I’ll miss the news. And I know the country will still be there because – for our audience you should know there was a law that was passed a number of years ago, that to overturn a government it’s not enough to have a simple majority, you have to have 61 seats.

And where the coalition now only has 61 seats, it’ll be very hard to create a coalition of Likud and Arab parties to create the opposite 61 seats.

And the only thing that could bring down a government right now without a majority is if they failed to pass the budget. And so we’re almost free to begin conversations about is this budget good enough? What are we going to do with this problem? Or that problem? The existence of or the possibility of stability and the lack of unleashing or the absence of this potentially horrific discourse, I’m feeling very, very good.

Yossi: Now there is something counterintuitive about this conversation we’re having because the rest of the country has moved on. You and I are still basking and celebrating, that’s not the atmosphere here. Everybody now takes this for granted. We were on the razor’s edge a week ago. It’s so Israeli all of this buildup, that emotional focus, and anxiety, and then suddenly it dissipates and everyone just now takes it for granted.

Donniel: But that’s ok, Yossi. There’s a very nice spirit now, which we’re back to sort of a normal semi-normal something. I’m hoping that –  I’m always, you know, the optimist, but maybe I shouldn’t be an optimist. What I really have to do is have to get you to daven for the things that I care about.

Yossi: Just send me a list Donniel.

Donniel: But I’m hoping that – I always believe that good leads to good, but let’s go further a second and let’s try to analyze this because I think this is a critical point that it’s not just Israeli, it’s the Jewish people, maybe people in general.

And I know that it has to do with the addiction to new cycles and what gets us and how bad news is more enticing. So we’re fed more bad news on our social feeds and all of the above. But, let’s talk about us Jews for a second. Forget the world and humanity. Is there something about us that makes our psyche that gravitates to crises that somehow celebrating normalcy, celebrating stability is hard? And maybe if we think about it, we might be able to pay more attention to it, maybe overcome it a little bit.

Yossi: I think something in at least the Israeli psyche and we’ve probably adopted this from the last 2000 years of diaspora, which is that one of our coping mechanisms is to expect the worst. And when you expect the worst, you’re not caught unprepared. One of my father’s main takeaways as a Holocaust survivor, from the Holocaust, was that Jews always have to expect the worst. That’s how I was raised.

And I think there’s something in us that doesn’t believe good news. You’re talking about how relieved now I don’t feel relieved. I still feel we’re on the razor’s edge.

And I just saw the news that one of members of the Arab party that’s part of the coalition voted with the opposition today and I’m thinking, oh no.

It’s such an abnormal reaction. Just take it easy. It’s politics and yet the stakes are, laid them out to me, the stakes are objectively very high. And so there’s something in us that believes that letting go, lowering our guard is going to endanger us. Now, of course, objectively how you and I, how we react, what our emotional state is from day to day has absolutely no effect on the news.

And yet you and I really did feel that we not only had a deep stake in what was happening but on some crazy level, we felt that our anxiety was contributing to the momentum to help this government through. I don’t know. I don’t know if this is built into the psyche of other peoples, but it’s certainly how we cope.

One more thing about this. If you look at Jewish history since the 1940s, there’s something schizophrenia in our experience. We went from the lowest point in our history, suddenly three years later it’s 1948 and we’re dancing in the streets and we’re celebrating independence.

We go from May 1967 – vulnerability, existential threat. Three weeks later, we’re on the temple Mount. We go from June 1967 to the Yom Kippur War. Suddenly the country goes through national depression after euphoria where we have a schizophrenic relationship with our own stability.

We don’t really believe that we’re here to stay. And I think that reflects the small details of our national life and on the mega details.

Donniel: I really appreciate both the points and I resonate with them. And I see it in my life and in the life of the people who I live with. There’s one other dimension that I want to put on the table. And that is, I don’t think we like to see ourselves as normal. You’re talking about how crazy it is here. We’re a people whose basic survival is always precarious.

And as you said so powerfully, we dare not to be too optimistic. Just wait. As the Yiddish saying says, human beings plan and God laughs, but God not laughing doesn’t mean that God’s on our side. It’s not a friendly laugh. It’s like our God is a devil laughing and undermining-  So this is the world we’re living in. But there is this instability, but at the same time, this people for whom nothing could be taken for granted, and every time one thing happens, something else happens at the same time. We see ourselves as this, as this essential player not only in the world. I think we want to be superheroes all the time, or we almost need a crisis to be Jews.

What does God’s chosen people do with normalcy? What do you do?

Yossi: We don’t know the answer to that because we haven’t experienced it

Donniel: But we don’t even want to hear it.

It’s like, oh, give me a crisis. And I know what to do with it. I’ll get up.

I’ll galvanize. Oh my God, this is momentous. The Jewish people. We need to call each other. We need to get involved. All of the above. So I think one of the more interesting and bizarre things about our people is the sense of historic, momentous significance of our existence and we want all moments to be momentous.

Yossi: So isn’t it beautiful then to be celebrating an event that actually is pretty mediocre?

Donniel: But you know what we’re doing, right? It’s true. So what you and I are trying to do is to turn this mediocre event into something momentous.

Yossi: Right.

Donniel: That’s all we just did. We’re going to spend 40 minutes on: you thought this was normal. This is not normal. This is something I believe is momentous here.

So there it is. It’s to let ourselves – and I think maybe this is one of the major ideas of what Zionism was supposed to do – that aspect of normalcy. It was just to allow us that quiet, just the regular life, but, and at the same time, this podcast is in English, could world Jewry allow Israel just to be a dayenu country or does world Jewry need Israel to constantly be in crisis in order to galvanize interest? And part of the problem of when you’re a people living across the world, 6-10,000 miles away from each other, a letter saying, how are you and the answer find thank-you is oh, okay. Really? Are you really fine? It’s like your parents like I just called don’t tell me you’re fine. I’m here. So is there a certain amount of drama that we require and is that drama really unhealthy? Helpful? And it’s almost paradoxical because we need that to have a relationship because we’re so distanced, but the drama could be so draining itself then instead of sustaining the relationship, it also weakens it.

And then what we have to do in this podcast is to actually vary the subjects because if we’re going to go from crisis to crisis it’s going to get exhausting. I think we have to spend more time celebrating these positives.

Yossi: I think there’s another question here that flows out of the question you’re raising. And that is that we, as a people have an expectation of ourselves of excellence. We expect of each of us, certainly expect of our children and we expect of this country that we waited for 2000 years to create.

And if this turned out to simply be one more normal country. I think many of us would be disappointed.

Donniel: Are you saying then, Yossi that normalcy is the crisis?

Yossi: Ah, that’s exactly my point. Do we need to conflate crisis with exceptionalism? Do we need crisis to bring the best in us? Is there something in us that believes that if things are quiet, if things are relatively normal, we won’t be achieving our full potential? And I think that’s actually – say in Hebrew, a jook, a malfunction in our collective psyche.

Donniel: Yeah, we want to be a chosen people, but without experiencing the enormity of that double dimension that puts us in trouble all the time. Yossi, let’s take a break for a minute. And when we return, let’s bring Elana. Looking forward to Elana joining us.

Elana It’s wonderful to be with you. How does the wisdom of our 3000-year-old tradition help us to be satisfied with normalcy?

Elana: Okay. So first of all, I have not heard the two of you this giddy, since you got your vaccines. I just want to say that. And I absolutely love it because it’s almost like you’ve been inoculated against something that has just been sitting on you. So that’s amazing. I keep thinking of the word Hatikah, the hope

I keep thinking of the word Hatikvah. What is that animating sense of inspiration when you don’t have something and when you’re hoping for it? It does ennoble you in a way. So I know that you’re doing this sort of Woody Allen, how neurotic are we, but there’s also something to experiencing lack and actually having a sense that no, we can do this.

We’re worried, but we can do this. But when I was thinking about this, I was thinking about so many things. It’s like maybe just the bad stuff is worse. It outweighs the good stuff. Or psychologists always talk about how if somebody gives you insults you, they need to say three good things about you in order for you to remember anything good that they ever said about you. We don’t want to get arrogant. We don’t want to miss something.

And the news loves a crisis. But as I thought about it more and more. I found two frames that I want to think about this through. The first is optimism versus pessimism and the other is gratitude and entitlement. So let’s start with optimism versus pessimism. You know, whenever I read the book of Ecclesiastes, it’s like this stream of consciousness, everything is vanity, but you should fear God. And some things can be good, but no, those things are even bad. There’s this academic T Anthony Perry, who had a brilliant insight into Ecclesiastes

He said, I think it’s an argument between two sides, the person who he calls the person of knowledge, who sort of experienced, been there before, and the person of faith who is kind of looking in an optimistic lens. And let me give you an example of how he reads some verses that we’re so used to reading, but the way he reads them is on a scale that goes back and forth between optimism and pessimism.

So even take the opening words of the book, right? Ecclesiastes, chapter one, “these are the words of Kohelet the son of David King of Jerusalem, all is vanity says Kohelet vanity of vanities. Everything is vanity. What does the human being gain by all the toil that people toil under the sun, a generation goes forth only to die? Even if the earth endures forever, the sun rises only to set and then it returns to its starting point.”

It’s all cyclical. It’s almost like nothing means anything. So T Anthony Perry says, what would it look like if you actually parse these verses a different way as an argument between someone who says, I’m weighing more towards the pessimistic, to the crisis, to the problems versus the one who says no, but optimism, but optimism, but optimism.

And he reads it like this, “These are the words of Kohelet the son of David, the king of Jerusalem, all is vanity says Kohelet vanity of vanities.” Right? That’s pessimistic.

And then he reads the end of that verse two as is everything vanity? That’s the push of the voice that says, wait a minute, are you? Come on. Right? And then verse four, “a generation goes forth only to die.” That’s sort of like the best summit, but we’re going to have the next crisis. We’re going to have the next problem with it.

And the return is, but “the earth endures forever.” So there’s something that goes on. There’s something magnificent about what he does and the place where you really see it is in chapter three, which were, we know from the Birds song, right? A time to live a time to die. Do you what he notices? He says some verses start with the positive and go to the negative and some verses start with a negative and go to the positive.

He says, yeah, there are some people who say there’s a time to be born, but inevitably, we’re going to die. And then there are other people who say, yeah, of course, there’s a time to weep, but there’s also a time to be happy. Right? I wonder what the interplay is between optimism and pessimism. It’s almost like every time you mentioned something optimistic, someone has to come along and say but, but, but. What about the pessimistic side?

And I wish we could have this other piece, which is every time we mentioned something pessimistic, somebody could come along and say, but is that all? I know there’s a time to weep, but there’s actually also a time to be happy. Right? There’s something here that our tradition and in Ecclesiastes which you all make fun of me that I read, but look at this refrain. But isn’t that the human experience, it’s not just the Jewish experience, it’s the human experience.

So that’s the first thing I want to put on the table. How do we cultivate understanding the inevitable? There is a seesaw from the positive to the negative, but how do we cultivate the seesaw in the opposite direction that when you have the negative, it’s not that the positive means that the negative is not there, but it’s not all either/or.

So that’s the first. The second thing I want to say is – it is a different issue, which is gratitude. What is the role of gratitude? What kind of personalities do we want to cultivate as individuals and as a people, in terms of what gratitude looks like. Not pride. Appreciation, right? And there is this really thought-provoking Midrash Tahnuma, and it’s on actually Vayetze where we are in our readings on Shabbat Vayetze.

And it’s talking about the fact that Leh only names her fourth child Yehuda coming from the word gratitude, Toda, Hoda. How come she didn’t say thank you for the first three. Right? What happened to the first three? Why didn’t she name her first kid, thank you? Why do you wait until the fourth? So the Midrash goes as follows.

Why did Leah not say I will praise the Lord or really I will thank the Lord after the births of Reuven, Shimon, Levi, the first three, but only after the birth of Judah. This may be compared to a priest as in a cohen, a Jewish priest who goes to the farmer’s barn to collect the priestly portion. When the owner of the barn, hands the priest, the priestly portion, the priest doesn’t say thank you.

When he gives him the tithe, the priest doesn’t say thank you. But if after giving all the priestly portions that are due to the priest, that farmer adds even a little extra food. The priest does thank him and even recites a prayer on his behalf. And bystanders asked this priest, why is it that when he gave you the tithe and the priestly portion, you didn’t say thank you?

But when he gives you a little single measure of nothing of food, that isn’t part of the priestly portion, you say, thank you. And the priest replies the tithe and the priestly offering belonged to me. I just accepted that, which belonged to me, but the extra food, even if it’s a little, that belonged to him.

So I said, thanks. And similarly says this, homily, Leah said, I know there are 12 tribes that are going to descend from Jacob. He has four wives, right? We don’t want to be at that dinner table, but he has four wives and each of us is entitled to bear three sons. And I’ve already given birth to my three sons.

And on my fourth now I say, thank you because it’s a little extra now. I think this is human nature. What do you mean, Yossi? You just said it. What do you mean? Of course, we should have a balanced budget. What’s the question? It’s normal. That’s what we deserve. I don’t think that this Midrash is just, well Leah actually was just reflecting human nature that we tend to say, thank you only for things that we think are extra. I think it may also be a critique, which is what does it mean to learn to say thank you even for the things that we think we deserve, that we think are normal, that we think are our baseline. Because after all these thank you’s – they’re to someone, they’re the people who worked on these things and the pessimism is usually directed at someone.

And so I wonder about what role gratitude should play, even in the things that we should expect to happen? So those are the two that I want to put on the table in this very happy podcast.

Donniel: Beautiful. So maybe it’s only in the midst of these crises that we even notice this. I started this custom couple of years ago. Under Israeli traffic law. I hope it’s most traffic law. You have to stop your car at the crosswalk. But we also know that the most dangerous place to walk in Israel is in the crosswalk. That’s where more deaths occurred than anything. So I started a couple of years ago, this ritual in which I give this bow this extra thank you.

Elana: You say thank you.

Donniel: I say thank you. I acknowledge you.

And you want to know something that was really interesting? It started out of self-interest because I wanted to encourage people. I want them to feel good, but it became this modality where I really appreciate it. Here it is. I found it’s like you know, Elana, it’s a blessing. There’s the whole language of blessings in our tradition is to stop at every moment and to say, thank you for that moment.

Elana: What you’re saying, Donniel, is what’s the impact on the people you thank and your relationship with them? It’s not just who do you become? It’s how are you now impacting what their motivation is to do what you need.

Donniel: And then it comes back to me too. And then all of a sudden normal things, normal stability, just like today by stopping and talking about it, we’re giving it its place because so quickly we could go on with the cohen and just take it for granted. And it would be a shame because one of the great beauties of life, of Israel is that it offers us so many moments of potential happiness.

We just have to be able to give thanks to them and to stop for that moment before we come to it. Yossi, any last thoughts? The superpower davener?

Yossi: Well, I love where this conversation has gone to and the idea of gratitude for the seemingly ordinary, not to take the ordinary for granted. Perhaps in our situation, least of all, can we take the normal for granted. But you know, my personal takeaway from this conversation is actually the need for emotional stability.

And those who are connected to Israel, whether or not you live here, all experience Israel as a rollercoaster. This is a moment to realize that beneath it all, there is a basic stability in the story as there is to life. And yes, I will continue to daven, but hopefully with less anxiety,

Donniel: Really wonderful to be with you. For Heaven’s Sake is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Pat Burke at Silver Sound NYC.

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