“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, (…) it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, (…)”
Charles Dickens, “A tale of two cities”
No one can argue that Charles Dickens was Jewish neither that his famous and most quoted opening sentence had anything to do with Judaism. Neither location nor timing is adequate. However, what makes a certain set of words a classic is its capacity to, unchanged, transcend time and circumstances to become a connotative meaning all by itself. Use it whenever you feel it is right, you only need people familiar with it to draw their attention to your own following words. As it served Dickens to open his novel by already conveying meaning and purpose, so it serves us well so many times. Because humankind is full of paradoxes, and no matter how “chosen” we believe to be, we Jews are as human as can be.
However, had we wanted to quote Dickens in his time the quote would not have worked: for Jews, it was “the worst of times, the season of Darkness, the winter of despair”, and “we had nothing before us”. Dicken’s own character Fagin in “Oliver Twist” testifies to the situation in those times. The quote works today because these are, at least by comparison, “the best of times, the season of Light, the spring of hope”, and we have “everything before us”. The issue is, what do we do with this blessed time?
We dare not state this in absolute terms, but given Jewish history, these times are absolutely unique. This is especially relevant and clear when we commemorate fifty years of the Six-Day War and all that it brought with it. It is, above all, a time to reflect about ourselves as a people in History whose purpose among the nations is permanently challenged. The uniqueness of this era lies in the fact that we are free, sovereign, very powerful, and have our destiny on our hands alone.
The irony is that we build our own paradox. At a time when, however questioned is our right to exist and to have a sovereign State, we do exist and prosper and we do have the State of Israel as The State of the Jewish people, we at the same time question and reject members of our people. The paradox is that, at a time when UNESCO questions the legitimacy of The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron as a Jewish site, some us question our brothers and sisters’ legitimacy to a space that will welcome them in the Wailing Wall, the Kotel. At a time when Jews live freely not only in the most powerful country on Earth, The U.S. of America, but all over the world, some of us reject a long list of dedicated rabbis who teach, inspire, and guide millions of Jews.
The concept of paradox is here to stay; the challenge is to solve one paradox and move on to the next one. Paradoxes, as crisis, also mean opportunity. Reading a paradox in a novel or in the real word allows us to perceive our flaws, our shortcomings, our pending issues. If we only thought about reality in a straightforward manner, we would have no chance to improve upon it.
A paradox is a construction of language, a device, to illustrate our contradictions and failures, as human beings and as a people. A paradox is a red light: should you persist on it, the chances are you will get hurt one way or another. The Jewish people have shown resilience and will through History, but at this time we are showing troubling signs of self-indulgence. We have no character like the blind Tiresias in Greek mythology to foresee the future; but we have plenty of prophets admonishing us on the right paths to follow throughout our tradition, from the Pentateuch to the wisdom of our sages.
Let’s read the signs; let’s recognize the paradox.