Friday, December 1, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Being Chosen, Part 2

Di Toyre Sprakh
“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

This is Part 2 of a two-part series; Part 1 was last week.

עָלֵינוּ לְשַׁבֵּחַ לַאֲדוֹן הַכֹּל
[Aleinu l'shabeach la'Adon hakol]
Beginning of Aleinu

The Jews view the giving of the Torah, at least those who believe in its importance, with great seriousness and view it as an inheritance to safe-keep and treasure. Accordingly, the most religiously observant Jews living in modern times have come up with ways to safeguard this treasure and the enduring mesorah surrounding it: educating their children in chinuch, studying Torah, doing mizvos, avoiding compromising situations, working on middos, enjoying simcahs, and leading a moral and good life.

Yes, it is a circumscribed life, and on the surface it appears difficult and unappealing, yet many communities exist along such lines, viewing it as a duty, a responsibility and a necessity of keeping and staying on the right path. For many reasons, such communities are growing in America, with younger generations learning from older ones and continuing the chain of tradition (mesorah) that rabbis say dates to Moshe Rabbenu. Doing so can make life more simple, and even more meaningful, knowing that you are following an enduring tradition.

Of course, many disagree. Modern progressive Jews who still view themselves as Jews might have strongly differing ideas on how to live, but few would doubt the importance of the Torah as a historical document, even if they generally ignore today the traditions of their grandparents and great-grandparents. Yet, there is great wisdom to be found here, including the purpose of the Jew as the moral agent for good and as a bearer of peace to the world. Most would agree that working toward goodness and peace is a worthy endeavor.

For example, in how to change the world for good, Michael Laitman [born in 1946 in Vitebsk, Belarus], kabbalist, Jewish philosopher and student of Rav Baruch Ashlag [1907–1991], gives what I believe to be a bold answer to this question in his article, Why Do People Hate Jews?:
Over several essays, Rav Ashlag expounded on the reasons why there will not be peace in the world until there is unity and brotherly love throughout the world. He also explains that the more the world suffers from the adverse consequences of what researchers, Twenge and Campbell, call “the narcissism epidemic,”[31] the more people will turn their anger against Jews. Subconsciously, people expect the Jews to pave the way for a better society, namely to be “a light unto nations.” Until the Jews carry out this task, the animosity and accusations against them will grow.
Dr. Laitman says that unity, especially in Israel is necessary for Jews to carry out this task, this mission, if you will. This does not mean negating disagreement, but harnessing it in a good way, and not in a destructive narcissistic manner that is so common today, where “today” is a time period of the last few decades. Moreover, that other major religions have tried to take on the role does not relieve or release Jews of their moral and spiritual responsibility.

Israel was founded as a secular state, in a sense to be like all the other western democratic nations. In many ways it has achieved this goal—politically, economically and socially— but the Torah and the weight of its teachings states that this is not the true calling of Israel, it is not the true calling of the Jewish People. Consider the Aleinu (Hebrew: עָלֵינוּ‎, “it is our duty”), the prayer that comes at the end of the three daily services, alludes to this responsibility:
It is our duty to praise the Master of all
to ascribe greatness to the Author of creation,
who has not made us like the nations of the lands
nor placed us like the families of the earth;
who has not made our portion like theirs,
nor our destiny like all their multitudes
. (1-6)
That we Jews have long been reluctant to openly acknowledge our destiny can be found in the history since the destruction of the Second Temple, itself a result of infighting and disunity among various factions. Since this tragic event,  Jews have focused on survival and revival of its ancient traditions and its numbers. That Judaism and the Jews are doing well today is a testimony of our enduring history; and some would add is a testimony of God’s enduring promises.

One is reminded of the instructive story found in the Book of Jonah (Sefer Yonah), a prophetic book read on Yom Kippur. God commands Jonah to go to the capital of Assyria, Nineveh, to tell the people to repent. Jonah is reluctant to do so, since these people are the enemies of Israel. After getting swallowed up by the whale, Jonah does tshuvah. When the whale spits him out he lands on the shores of Nineveh and completes his mission. The people repent, led by the king, and the city is spared judgment, receiving instead God’s mercy.  

This is an important message that the world needs to hear; this is an important message that only the Jews can deliver to the nations: the need for repentance (tshuvah, literally “return”) before expecting God’s mercy or compassion (rachamim). Truly, the Jews have done much, but there is more that needs to be done. The Jews (and their tiny numbers, less than 0.2 percent of the world’s peoples) have stubbornly persisted and established great houses of study, or batei midrashot, often in the midst of hostile territory in Europe. That is, until the evil of the Holocaust destroyed in a few years what existed for centuries in Europe.

Even so, the Jews rebuilt outside Europe, chiefly in America, in Canada, in Argentina and in Israel. In the long history of the Jewish People, it has been Jewish faith in the Torah, starting with Avraham Avinu and continuing with the promises made at Har Sinai with Moshe Rabbenu, that have kept the Jews as Jews. While doing so, Jews, Judaism and Jewish thought and ethics have made great contributions to humanity, notably in establishing monotheism, which led to so many great benefits to humans. This is di geshikhte fun di Yidn.

The Yidn continue to write history, to do the good that the Ribono shel Olam commanded them to do in the Torah. In twelve days (25 Kislev) begins the holiday of Hanukkah (or Khanike, in accordance to YIVO standards), which is as much a story about doing good in the face of evil as it is about miracles. Kol zman dos kleyntshike likhtele brent, ken men nokh farikhten. (“As long as a small light burns, it’s not too late to set everything right.”)

Gut Shabbes
Peretz ben Ephraim,
December 1, 2017
13 Kislev 5778

This week’s parshah is Vayishlach (וַיִּשְׁלַח‎, Hebrew for “and he sent”), found in Genesis 32:4–36:43, which contains the passage where Yaakov wrestles with the angel and comes out not only victorious but also with a change in name, to Israel (“he who prevails over the divine”).


  1. We don't know when the Book of Jonah was written, but chances are that it was after the Assyrians had conquered the Kingdom of Israel and enslaved its people, who became the 10 Lost Tribes. One can understand why Jonah did not want to help save the Assyrians.

  2. Yes, we can understand Jonah's reasons, but it harder to understand God's reasons.


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