Theatre of the Absurd

Sermon by Cantor Eyal Bitton
October 24, 2015 at Beth Jacob Synagogue
PARASHAT LECH LECHA


Bananas

In Woody Allen’s 1971 film, Bananas, a rebel leader in the fictitious Central American country of San Marcos becomes president. Upon taking over the reigns of power following a successful coup d’étât, the new leader, Esposito, addresses the people of his country:

From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish.

…In addition to that, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check.

Furthermore, all children under 16 years old are now… 16 years old!

It is hilarious because it is completely absurd. Stating something that is patently untrue doesn’t make it true, regardless of the status of the person making that statement.

Later in that same movie, Woody Allen’s character, Fielding Mellish, finds himself on trial. A character witness testifies in his favour, saying:

I have known Fielding Mellish for years and he’s a warm, wonderful human being.

Woody Allen, AKA Fielding Mellish, is representing himself in this trial and he asks:

Would the clerk read that statement back, please?

The clerk looks at his notes and reads back what he typed, word for word:

I have known Fielding Mellish for years and he is a rotten, conniving, dishonest little rat.

Again, everyone just heard the character witness say one thing and then the clerk reported something completely different. And what the record shows is a complete fabrication – and the fabrication stands unquestioned. It’s absurd.

Theatre of the Absurd

In Israel, Palestinian terrorists have launched stabbing attacks, rock-throwing attacks, shooting attacks, and car-ramming attacks on Israelis for the last couple of weeks. The victims are Israeli soldiers and civilians alike. They include men, women, and children on the streets, at bus stops – pretty much anywhere. These victims also include Jews as well as Arabs (Bedouin Arabs, to be specific).

Yet, if you listen to Palestinian leaders and their supporters, you’ll hear that each of these attackers is innocent.

You’ll also recall how Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, echoing Arab media and social media, told the world that Israel had executed an innocent 13-year-old Arab in cold blood. The truth, of course, was that the boy was neither innocent nor dead. Ahmed Manasra is not a victim but a victimizer; he stabbed two Israelis including a 13-year-old boy. Manasra, who was struck by a car as he fled the scene, was alive and being treated in an Israeli hospital.

The evidence is before the world’s eyes. Yet some people unabashedly claim what we know to be untrue. Some people twist the reality that is there for all to see and make it stand on its head.

It is theatre of the absurd.

Ayman Mohyeldin, a reporter from MSNBC, was reporting from Jerusalem two Fridays ago following a Palestinian terrorist attack. The Palestinian was shot and killed. The MSNBC reporter claimed that the Palestinian was killed in cold blood. Those weren’t his words but that was his meaning. He repeated a number of times that while the Israelis claimed that this Palestinian had been brandishing a knife, that he did not see a knife, thereby implying that the Palestinian was innocent. The MSNBC anchorman who was speaking with Mohyeldin corrected him and showed images of the Palestinian with a knife in his hand.

Again, theatre of the absurd.

Accurate but misleading headlines in the media evoke Woody Allen’s courtroom scene in which the opposite of reality is what is being put on record. Here are some headlines:

Israeli security forces kill four more Palestinians as knife attack continues

(The Telegraph)

Four more Palestinians shot dead on the streets

(The Irish Independent)

Israelis kill 4 Palestinians as violence surges

(USA Today)

Palestinians Shot Dead in Alleged Knife Attacks

(Sky News)

On Wednesday, October 21, UNESCO passed a resolution recognizing the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem as Muslim sites – not Jewish sites but Muslim sites. It is absurd to deny a Jewish connection to these site but that is what has happened.

Palestinians also claimed that the Western Wall, the Kotel, is a Muslim site. Thank goodness UNESCO maintained some degree of sanity in denying this resolution (for now). But it is such an absurd claim, you would think that no one would dare make it. But you’d be wrong, of course. In the theatre of the absurd, some people think it’s acceptable to deny Jews a connection to their holiest site and indeed appropriate it for themselves.

And the timing is remarkable, isn’t it? Just as Israelis are being attacked randomly by Palestinian terrorists, it is Israel that is criticized, questioned, and condemned. It is absurd.

The attacks we see are not about building a nation. They are not about establishing a state that exists side by side with Israel. They are certainly not about a struggle for peace. And it’s not just me saying that. It’s the perpetrators themselves. The attackers don’t make these claims at all. Despite that, there are plenty of people who are quick to point a finger at Israel – even while Israeli men, women, and children are attacked on the streets and in their cars. The issue is a simple one, it’s not at all complicated. As Palestinians attack Israelis, the issue of improving the Palestinians’ future is not what people should be outraged by.

The Promised Land

Between perspective-twisting in some of the media, international bodies denying Jews of their heritage, overt incitement to violent acts against Israelis, social media pointing a finger at Israel, and political leaders imposing a false moral equivalence, there’s enough to drive you mad. There’s enough to get your blood boiling. There’s enough to bring you to despair. There’s enough to wonder if there is any hope at all.

It’s just like Esposito, the rebel leader in Woody Allen’s film, who proclaims “All children under 16 years old are now… 16 years old!” It doesn’t make it so. Bold-faced lies, skewing facts, and denying history doesn’t make it so.

The Torah teaches us that our patriarch Abraham was told LECH LECHA – go forth… to a land that I will show you.” And that land is not Florida or Uganda; it’s Israel. It has been for thousands of years. No amount of lies and proclamations can change that. We cannot accept others denying our heritage. It is not by denying truth that one advances their national or religious narrative. A covenant was made between God and Abraham, between God and Sarah, between God and Sarah’s son, Jacob. We, the Jewish people, are the house of Jacob.

And just as we cannot accept when others deny our heritage, we must be careful not to do the same with others. Today’s parasha tells us that God will bless Abraham’s first-born son, Ishmael, too, and make of him a great nation. (Genesis 17:20)

While the theatre of the absurd continues around us throughout the world, we should remember that our sense of solitude, our confusion or bewilderment, perhaps our fear, is not new. The prophet Isaiah, in today’s haftarah, recognizes a sense of despair in the people of Israel and delivers a message of comfort.

Why do you say, O Jacob,

Why declare, O Israel,

…”My cause is ignored by my God”?

…The Lord never grows faint or weary,

The Lord’s wisdom cannot be fathomed.

 

…I chose you, I have not rejected You –

Fear not, for I am with you,

Be not frightened, for I am your God.

(Isaiah 40:27-28; 41:9-10)

 

We cannot know God’s reasons or methods but we must know that we have not been abandoned. The covenant between God and his people Israel is an eternal one. It is one of lineage but it is not only lineage. It is also a covenant of action. Our pact, as a people, is bound with the words of the Torah. It is our promise and our obligation to fulfill the commandments we have accepted. It is our responsibility to seek justice, truth, and peace.

As the theatre of the absurd unfolds around us, we cannot shrug our shoulders and accept it. Nor can we join the spectacle. Again, our way must be a Godly way – the way of justice, truth, and, hopefully, in our time, peace.

Shabbat Shalom.