Here’s a true story I made up more than 30 years ago. (Remember, stories do not have to have happened in order to be true.) Later, I will explain why I offer it here, now.
It was 1860, or maybe 1861, in Minsk, or possibly in Pinsk. Wherever, whenever, there were a dozen Jews who used to get together every Tuesday evening for some good talk.
What did the Jews talk about? Why, about what it would be like one day — what, that is, Jerusalem would be like. In exquisite detail, they would imagine Jerusalem: its climate and its curriculum, its cuisine and its culture. Their elaborate conversation had long since developed a near-ritual character, including its periodic interruption by the one skeptic in the group, a fellow named Berl.
Every few months, Berl would say, “Can’t we please, just this once, change the topic of conversation? Really, it’s quite tedious by now. If we’re really that interested in what it’s like in Jerusalem, why don’t we pack up and go? If we like it, we’ll stay. And if we don’t like it, we’ll also stay, and make it into something we like.”
To which the others would inevitably respond, “Berl, Berl, don’t be so naive. Don’t you realize how much easier, and how very much safer, it is to sit in Minsk [or Pinsk] and talk about what it might be like than to go and confront the reality?”
And Berl, because he was a sociable fellow, would again drop his complaint and join in the talk.
This was, for those times and places, a rather sophisticated group; indeed, they had some non-Jewish friends. Once upon a Tuesday, they invited one of their non-Jewish friends to join with them, and together they talked until the wee hours of the morning, until, in fact, their guest stood and said, “Fellows, I’ve enjoyed the evening enormously, but I really must get going. Thanks so much for inviting me, and good night.”
“Thank you for coming,” they replied. “But before you go, we have just one question we’d like to ask.”
“Please, anything at all,” said their guest.
“Our question is…” — here there was an awkward pause, and much clearing of throats — “what we’d like to know is, what do, oh dear, how shall we ask it? What do people like you, if you know what we mean, think of people like us, if you know what we mean?”
“Oh,” said their guest, “you want to know how we feel about Jews.”
“Yes, that’s right, you have it. You see, we are usually so isolated, and we have so little opportunity for feedback. You don’t mind telling us?”
“No, not at all. I think you’re a wonderful people — passionate, generous, literate. I have only one problem with you.”
“A problem? What kind of problem?”
“Well,” replied the guest, “there is one aspect of Jewish behavior that really annoys me. You people seem to believe — why, I can’t imagine — that you’re morally superior to everyone else. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think you’re any worse than average. But I can’t understand your moral conceit, and I find it frightfully annoying.”
To their credit, for they knew it was so, his hosts did not deny the accusation; they sought instead to explain their “conceit.”
“As you yourself observed, it’s very late, so we can’t give you the whole etiology of our sense of moral superiority. We’ll explain it instead by way of a metaphor. We do indeed think we are your moral betters, and the reason we do is that we don’t hunt. You people hunt, and we don’t hunt, and that makes us better than you.”
Their guest guffawed, and then stormed at them: “You silly, trivial people; of course you don’t hunt! We don’t permit you to own guns! It’s easy to be virtuous if you’re impotent.”
Whereupon the 11 turned to Berl, the skeptic, and said, “Tomorrow we pack, then go up to the land, to Jerusalem, and there we shall prove that even with guns we will not become hunters.”
There are those who will read this story today and shake their heads: Is it not clear that Berl and his friends failed, that they, the more so their children and children’s children, did indeed become hunters?
No, it is not clear. I prefer to adapt the words ascribed to Martin Buber, who once said that “the kibbutz is an experiment that has not yet failed.” And a non-hunting Israel is an experiment that has not yet succeeded.
Is that simply a case of stubborn clinging to a dream that says more about the dreamer than about the real world? Has it come time to sigh in resignation, nice try and all that but it’s over?
There are at least two powerful reasons not to abandon the dream: First, there are so many people — not enough, but very many — whose lives are purposefully lived in order to breathe life into the dream. They deserve support, not dismissal. And then there’s also the special meaning of dreams and dreaming to the Jewish people: Though Jewish history has been a cruel teacher, it has not been our only teacher. We have not only history but also memory; our memory contains both our history and our dreams.
We remember tomorrow. And because the tomorrow we remember is a different and better tomorrow, it calls us back to a promise we made long before there was a political right or a political left. It calls us to mend the world.
It is not possible to contemplate the mystery of the Jewish experience, to fathom how the Jews have lasted this long, without acknowledging the energizing power of our dreamt tomorrow. The wakeful dream of a world made whole is who we are, and why.