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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat VaYakhel - The Power of Names

Updated: Jul 12

B’nei Yisrael, in Parashat Vayakhel, are in the midst of the process of constructing the mishkan, the Tabernacle that will travel them on their journeys in the wilderness. The portion opens with all of Israel coming together to bring their goods and possessions for use in building the mishkan. Then Moses appoints Betzalel and Oholiav as chief designers and engineers for the project. 

In introducing Betzalel to the people, Moses uses an interesting Hebrew phrase: “re’u kara Adonai b’shem Betzalel. The b is purposely emphasized because this is an odd use of this pronoun. In most places in the Torah God will call l’ a human being. When the l’ pronoun is used God gives people names, God calls out to people. But the meaning of the b’ is unclear. The rabbis asked why this exception appeared here. It is taught that what God was intending was that God was calling Betzalel by name, specifically for the task of building the mishkan

In Midrash Tanchuma the rabbis expand on this idea of a name and its significance, writing, “Every time a man increases the number of good deeds he performs, he adds to his good name. You find that a man is known by three names: the name by which his father and mother call him, the name by which other men call him, and the one he earns for himself; the most important name is the one he earns for himself.”

Our tradition teaches that there is deep significance in the names we call ourselves and the names we call others. If we accept this principle, since there is such power in our words, we ought to be thoughtful and purposeful in the ways we wield them. Sometimes, we use our words to hurt or wound others whether because we are hurt, scared, or angry. I believe most of us recognize immediately when we do this and, ideally, we are strong enough to make the necessary amends with those we hurt. 

But there are also other ways in which our use of words have great consequences, yet they are less immediate and harder to ascertain. I will give one example that I hope will illustrate what I mean. In 1990, attorney Mike Godwin defined a rule that said any argument, in a Western context, that goes on long enough will eventually cause one of the parties to compare the other party to the Nazi’s. This claim has since become known as Godwin’s law. Think about recent events, how often were Nazi comparisons used during the height of the Covid pandemic? Even in Israel, different groups will use Nazi references, most famously of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin dressed as an SS officer in the months and weeks leading up to his assassination in 1995. 

What does it matter? After all, it is hard to break through all of the noise in our world that sometimes jumping to extremes is an important strategy. The problem arises from the very essence of the comparison. If the term ‘Nazi’ has become synonymous with evil, and we can compare anything to that evil, then the term is utterly stripped of any meaning. Said differently, if everything is a Nazi, then nothing is the Nazi’s’. 

I see a similar trend in the overall conversation regarding the Middle East over the past months. Terms like settler-colonialism, apartheid, occupation are thrown around irresponsibly both by Israel’s supporters as well as its critics and opponents. These are all extremely significant ideas and all play a role in the reality we face here in the Middle East, yet when they are wielded irresponsibly they do not move us toward understanding and common ground that will, and may it be soon, till the soil for a lasting peace. 

One term in particular that I have struggled with over the several months and how it is used in the conversation regarding the Conflict is the word genocide. This charge has been leveled at Israel by many of its critics. Most painfully and personally, one of my former students from my time educating at a boarding school for North American Jewish high schoolers located outside of Jerusalem has been very public in their forwarding the narrative that Israel is engaged in crimes against humanity, specifically genocide.  

I do not have the space here to do a full academic refutation of this claim. Yet what is happening in the Gaza Strip at this moment does constitute, according to any definition of the term, an ethnic cleansing or genocide. While there has been tragic and terrible loss of life, the State and army of Israel are not engaged in these acts. Falsely claiming that they are has two consequences in my mind. The first is that we badly need the terminology to name and label barbaric acts of ethnic cleansing, yet when we misuse them, much as the young man who cried wolf, we are likely to find others skeptical of our cries and unwilling or unable to act in the face of actual genocide. The second is that it does a great disrespect for the millions of human beings that have been killed in acts of ethnic violence. Rwanda, Cambodia, the Balkans, you would be hard pressed to find a place in this world free of a history of inter-group violence. Erroneously calling the horrible consequences of a war genocide does a great disservice to the memory of those killed in past instances of these crimes and makes it more difficult to internalize the lessons that will, I pray, stop humanity from waging violence in this manner. 

At the exact same time, anyone who looks at the images from Gaza, at the abject and terrible suffering of ordinary Palestinians, particularly of women and children, and is not horrified should do a great deal of soul searching. What could have happened to a person where images of pain and agony would not activate their empathy? We must push those in power to maximize the flow of humanitarian aid and ensure that it is getting into the hands of ordinary Gazans, not pilfered by Hamas. Israel can, and must, push to do all in its power to provide aid. 

Human suffering is horrible to look upon. I can no longer look at images coming out of Gaza, or the short videos released of hostages, or the war wounded seeking to return to their lives - I simply cannot bear the massive catastrophe that has befallen both peoples living in this corner of the world. 

The enormity of suffering, however, does not give me, does not give anyone the right to make false claims that do nothing to move forward the cause of eventual resolution and, ultimately, peace. Claiming Israel is engaged in genocide only causes one side of an incredibly complex conflict to feel boxed in, to make its positioning ever more recalcitrant. While I am sure it feels cathartic to those gathered at protests and demonstrations, it does not bring us any closer to finding common ground, to finding solutions. 

There are many, many, legitimate criticisms to wield against Israel. For those of you who have not been here, I invite you to visit and see just how incredibly critical we are of ourselves, our institutions, and our leaders. And, more often than I would like, we cross the line and give certain names and labels to people who do not deserve them. 

The incredible time of healing, and it will take years, that will come after this war will present opportunities for new understanding, new paradigms that just might create a new reality for millions of people who have known instability and violence for too long. But we will not be able to do so unless both sides can minimize their vilifications of one another. We would do well to remember the wisdom of Parashat VaYakehl, that there is great power in names and words, in the ways to which we refer to one another and what happens in our world.

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