It's not the same world as a year ago -- especially for the Jewish people. We've been through countless terrorist bombings in Israel, bore the slander of the Durban Conference, and now the immense loss of life and property at the World Trade Center. The signs indicate that these calamities are not just a war against America or Israel. This is a war against all the Jewish people, and in fact against the entire world.
In a time of such shocking devastation and destruction, we turn for insight to the greatest destruction in human history: Noah's Flood. Upon emerging from of the Ark, the first thing Noah does is plant a vineyard (Genesis 9:20). The Torah says "Vayechal Noah," which Rashi translates as "Noah profaned himself." How did Noah profane himself? When he came out of the Ark and saw the utter devastation, he said it's hopeless, how do you rebuild such a world...
The Torah is telling us that hopelessness is "profane." There cannot be the feeling that the game is over, that the odds are insurmountable. It's profane! It's not being a Jew.
There cannot be the feeling that the game is over, that the odds are insurmountable.
This is also the first lesson taught to the Jewish people coming out of Egypt. After the splitting of the sea, the Jews travel for three days without water. They finally come to an oasis and the water is bitter. They cry to Moses, and God tells Moses to put a stick in the water, and the water will turn sweet (Exodus 15:25).
Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv - 19th century) explains the lesson: At its very inception as a nation, the Jewish people had to understand that no matter how hopeless, no matter how bad, even if there appears to be no way out (or in the words of the Talmud, "Even if a sword is on your neck") -- never give up hope.
Why not give up hope? Because we have an promise from God that the Jewish people will never be destroyed. The Almighty says: "I will remember the Covenant of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. And even if you find yourselves in exile, I will not spit you out or obliterate you, because I will not forget the Covenant."
An elderly survivor in Toronto, Rabbi Yisrael Yitzhak Cohen, told me that every day he would be marched in and out of Auschwitz for back-breaking slave labor. In order to demean the Jews even more, the Nazis forced them to sing. So the Jews sang something from the Passover Seder: "Vehi she'amda" -- "It is this [Covenant] that has stood by us and our parents. Not only one enemy has tried to destroy us, but in every generation they tried to destroy us, and the Almighty saves us from their hand."
This was sung in Auschwitz, by people who didn't know from one day to the next if they'll be alive or dead. But they knew that the Nazis will eventually be gone, and the Jewish people will survive.
A Jew never gives up hope. Because there's a covenant.
Throughout history, Jews have clung to certain basic principles of faith, to pull through the dark times.
One principle is the realization that perfecting the world is not just up to God. We have equal responsibility. The Almighty values us so much that He's made us a co-partner in perfecting this world. This is a great privilege and an equally great responsibility.
Jews from time immemorial didn't panic when dark times came, because they understood that part of the reason why things happen is whether or not we are taking responsibility.
Part of the reason why things happen is whether or not we're taking responsibility.
The second thing Jews have always understood is that those who oppose the idea of an absolute purpose in this world will always target the messenger. For those who lust to kill and lust for power, and who take the God-given ability of superior intellect and use it to become a sophisticated animal, the moral messenger will be hated and targeted and despised. That's the root of anti-Semitism.
Jews understood this. Even in the worst of situations, they didn't scratch their heads and say, "What's going on here?" and commit suicide out of frustration and despair.
CHOOSING THE ROAD
The third thing that Jews have always understood is that as we forge through history, how difficult the path is depends upon us. In the Bible, God tells Abraham that his descendants will go down to Egypt (Genesis 15:13). This was predetermined for the future. Yet ultimately, when this was fulfilled by Joseph and his brothers, we see that they made their own decisions. Joseph made the independent free will decision to tell his brothers about the dreams, and the brothers made independent free will decisions to feel jealous and come to the wrong conclusions.
So who's running the show? Is it God, or is it Joseph and the brothers?
The answer is that there are two realities. One reality is that God has a goal, and that goal is going to be achieved by hook or by crook. But there can be a million different roads to that same destination. We determine the road. Joseph and his brothers chose a difficult path down to Egypt. But it didn't have to be.
The other thing we learn from this story is that the Almighty takes bad and molds it into good. He puts Joseph through tests in Egypt that gets him to see the mistakes he's been making. And He puts the brothers through tests to see their mistakes. And in the end, everyone learned from his mistakes and the Jewish people came out stronger because of it.
After years of pain and darkness, Jacob was able to look back and understand how every aspect was necessary.
We have a deep belief in the justice of history. The Midrash says that when Jacob was reunited with Joseph after 22 years of unbelievable pain, the first thing he did is say the Shema -- "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." After years of pain and darkness, Jacob was able to look back and understand how every aspect was necessary, and now he could truly say: God is one.
A few weeks ago, one of my students was extremely upset. She very much wanted to stay in New York and be hired for a particular job. She was denied, and now she's back in Toronto. She couldn't understand what God wanted from her. "I've tried so hard. I've kept so many mitzvot, and grown so much. Can't He make it easy for me?"
If she would have gotten the job she desperately wanted, she would have been working in the World Trade Center. What do you think her Shema is going to be like tonight and tomorrow? And hopefully for the rest her life? That is why Jews, no matter how dark, no matter what the situation was, were hopeful -- not paralyzed or numb.
So what's our response to world events? Let us recall the days and weeks before the Six Day War. It was hopeless. The Jewish people thought that in that corner of the world, Israel was going to be obliterated. But we saw miracles. And for those who are younger, we saw it happen in the Gulf War. Even if the sword is on your neck, never give up.
And now is the time to try to change. To go along a different road.
How do we make the road easier? There's an answer given in the Rosh Hashana prayers: "Teshuva (return), Tefillah (prayer) and Tzedakah (charity) reverse the bad decree."
Let's look at each of these components:
Teshuva. The Talmud asks: How was it possible that the evil idol worshipper, King Ahab, was able to be so victorious in war, whereas other kings weren't. And the Talmud answers: In the time of Ahab there was unity and love among the Jewish people. Whereas in the time of the righteous kings, despite all the morality of that generation, there was disunity and dissention.
One of the greatest merits that bring the Jewish people closer to the Almighty, is caring and unity. Look at your relationships. We get so caught up in pettiness and ego. Look at all the walls and disunity that we cause. So whether a spouse, a cousin, a brother, a friend, a business associate -- patch it up. This doesn't mean that every situation has to be perfectly resolved. But at least get your relationships to the point that there's no hatred or dissention or walls anymore.
Get your relationships to the point that there's no hatred or dissention or walls anymore.
What's going to happen to the Jewish people is determined. But we must come up with a strategic plan to make it better. And that means a real commitment to change, for the sake of everyone -- for ourselves, for the Jewish people, and for the world.
Tefillah/Prayer. Try to say the Shema twice a day. That's your mission statement. If you're saying the Shema already, say it now with extra sincerity and concentration. And every time you say the Shema, remember to never give up hope. That's "God is one." Even if we can't understand the rhyme or reason right now, know that ultimately there is.
Additionally, make up your own personal prayer. And say it three times a day. It will make your relationship with the Almighty real. He's here and I'm here and it's real. Write out your prayer. If you need a structure, it can follow the Amidah: First acknowledge God's existence and that you are talking to Him. Then ask Him for your needs, for the Jewish people's needs, and for the world's needs. Finally, thank Him for all the gifts He has given us till this point.
Tzedakah. Tzedakah means looking outside my ego and myself and understanding the needs of other people and the world around me. Pick any charity you want. But set aside the money and don't spend it on anything else.
The WTC attacks gave us all a certain view, which may fade over the next few weeks. So now is the time to look at the lifestyles and decisions we're living and start extrapolating: What does this mean for my great-grandchild? What will my great-grandchild look like based on my decisions in life? Will that great-grandchild marry Jewish? Will that great-grandchild love God? Will that great-grandchild understand the destiny of the Jewish people?
That's a very difficult thing to come to terms with. But if we do so, we can change the road. Teshuva, Tefillah, Tzedakah. It's all in our hands.