Dovid HaMelech prided himself in speaking enthusiastically and unabashedly to foreign royalty about Hashem’s Torah (Tehilim 119:46). Too many of us react, “Gee, if I were in that position, what would I say? Why would they be interested?” We have lots to say, but we haven’t always thought carefully enough about what parts of the Torah’s message are most accessible and stimulating to others. Because of our reluctance to intelligently showcase Torah (and increasingly, the sorry state of our communications skills), we lose opportunities to influence our friends and neighbors, whether of royal lineage or not.
When a good friend of mine excitedly told me about a successful presentation to a non-Orthodox audience, I asked him to send me the transcript. Rabbi Meyer May is the Executive Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) in Los Angeles, where I work. He was asked to speak in Dublin at an event over the New Year’s weekend co-sponsored by iACT (SWC’s campus outreach wing) and the European Center for Jewish Students. The students from Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, London, Dublin, Marseilles, Lyon, Paris, Antwerp, Brussels, Amsterdam, Russia, the Ukraine, Brazil, Berlin, Dusseldorf, Sweden and Gibraltar. The speech was met with rousing and sustained applause, and led to much further interaction with the students.
Most of the ideas will not be new to our readers, but I present it for its elegant balance, as a model of how to reach across the divide. It combines the right amounts of history, contemporary name-dropping, inspirational material – and divrei Torah that are not watered down. (Humor, too, but I deleted the joke, since you’ve all heard it :-) .)
We should be doing more of this kind of thing.
Just a little over two years ago, I was one of the leaders of a Simon Wiesenthal Center delegation that was given a private audience with Pope Benedict at the Vatican. At that meeting, we discussed with the Pope the ironies of history. “Can you believe”, we said, “that 65 years ago, the world was preoccupied with the threat of Communism and a doctrine that denied the existence of G-d? And now it is religious fanatics who have sought to bring civilization to a terrified halt”?
We also spoke about the grand mystery of Jewish survival. How is it that his “elder brothers” managed to persevere throughout the generations and the attempts at extermination? No one people, it seems, is more experienced with dealing with existential threats than we, the Jewish People.
Despite a millennium of persecution, the Jewish People has proven itself resilient beyond reason, surviving against all odds and against all enemies. Great empires have come and gone, but miraculously, our small and numerically insignificant nation has demonstrated time and time again that it is invincible – both physically and spiritually! Consider the Jews in the Kovno Ghetto whom the Nazis forced to sing as they were marched to their extermination. One Jew began singing a tune, “Mir velen zey iberlebin” (We shall outlive them) with the others soon joining in.
How, indeed, is it that we have managed to outlive the murderers of mankind and those whose hatred for us has known no bounds? What is the key, the secret, if you will, to our survival? Might it be that G-d has endowed us with extra special gifts — with the brains, values and talent — to survive as His Eternal People!
Isn’t this what King David meant, as explained Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer, when he wrote in his Psalm, “Ki yitzpanani b’suko”? That, “Often when I am in danger, a shelter seems to appear as if by chance. I am not misled. I know that G-d, Himself, has provided this salvation and that it is His shelter”.
You see, King David is revealing to us that often, and most often unbeknownst to us, G-d will provide the emergency skills or just the plain good fortune we need to protect and preserve us. Often, these gifts appear disproportionately, as if purposefully planted within our Jewish National DNA to assure our survival, all without leaving discernible, Divine fingerprints.
Essentially, G-d has our backs. He has endowed us with all the capacities we need to outlast the powerful who have tried a hundred times to wipe us out. And we, Jews, are not the only ones who know it! Honest non-Jews have drawn their own similar conclusions.
George Gilder, an important writer whose essays are always worth reading, wrote that Jews form, “The vanguard of human achievement…. At the heart of anti-Semitism is resentment of Jewish achievement…. Jews attract extraordinary hostility because they have succeeded in extraordinary measure.”
As evidence he writes that in the first half of the 20th century, Jews won 14 per cent of the Noble Prizes awarded in Literature, chemistry, physics and medicine. In the second half of the 20th century, the percentage rose to 29 per cent. Thus far in the 21st century, the percentage has risen to 32 per cent.
And read, too, other flattering perceptions of Jews by other renowned Gentiles:
Winston Churchill said, “Some people like the Jews, and some do not. But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are, beyond any question, the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has appeared in the world.”
Irish Author, Thomas Cahill wrote, “The Jew gave us the Outside and the Inside – our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact, new, adventure, surprise, unique, individual, person, vocation, time, history, future, freedom, progress, spirit, faith, hope, and justice – are the gifts of the Jews.
And lastly, Matthew Arnold, the noted British poet and critic wrote, “As long as the world lasts, all who want to make progress in righteousness will come to Israel for inspiration as they are the people who had the sense for righteousness most glowing and strongest”
Yes, we Jews have been endowed with so many gifts and so many talents – even a great sense of humor. Sometimes we are even too smart for our own selves and outsmart ourselves! Sometimes we are even our own worst enemies! But if we are honest, we must acknowledge that we have been gifted — and we have quite the book of business in world affairs, in the arts and sciences, finance and technology — to show for it!
But we have also been bestowed with some indispensible spiritual gifts that are worthy of mentioning and remembering. Some of these thoughts are reflected in talks I heard from my own Rabbi Yaakov Krause in Los Angeles at the Young Israel of Hancock Park.
When Jews mark our traditional New Year, we celebrate a series of Holy Days ranging from the profound solemnity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to the joyous days of Succoth and Simchat Torah — the rejoicing of the conclusion of the annual cycle of Torah readings and the beginning of the new Torah cycle.
The very last word of the Torah in Deuteronomy is “Yisroel” (the Jewish People). The Torah’s very first word in Genesis is “Beraishis” (In the beginning). Apparently, there is an indispensible and meaningful connection between the Jewish People and the concept of beginnings.
The Torah, which is replete with Mitzvoth, actually 613 of them, might have begun in the book of Exodus (the second of the Five Books of Moses) where the very first Mitzvah, the monthly Mitzvah of “Kiddush Ha”Chodesh” (Blessing the New Moon), resides. After all, the raison d’être of the Mitzvoth is to help us formulate a wholesome religious life. Why delay introducing us to these Mitzvoth for all of the Book of Genesis and more, with ‘story time’ about Creation and the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and start with Beraishis, “In the Beginning”? Why, indeed, did The Torah not begin with the first Mitzvah in the Book of Exodus?
Allow me to suggest that the Author knew full well what He was doing! The Torah must start with Beraishis because we read the Torah immediately after we reference the Jewish People at the Torah’s conclusion. Because it is “rejuvenation” that is our mark as a People.
The secret of our survival is our extraordinary capacity for renewal! We survive because no matter how devastating the attack on our existence, no matter how many of us they get, they will never get us all! Those that remain live and grow excel and rejuvenate. Time and time again throughout the millennia, this has been our hallmark. Even the devastation of the Holocaust did not spell the end of us.
Perhaps, too, this is the reason why the first Mitzvah is the blessing over the New Moon. Nothing bespeaks renewal in it essence more than the moon itself whose cycles we mortals observe each month as it grows and wanes and then is reborn the next month to renew its continuous cycle all over again.
This lesson was not lost on the inmates of Auschwitz, who would do anything to light Shabbat candles or light a Chanukah Menorah. But the Nazis would have nothing of this and every effort to observe some meaningful tradition was thwarted on pain of death. However, the inmates of terror were not to be denied. Each month they came out of their barracks to gaze at the New Moon and utter their silent prayer at its rebirth. “The Nazis can take away our candles and even our Tefillin, but they cannot take away our moon!”
And it’s this symbolism of renewal, which is the secret to our national immortality. We say to our tormentors, “You can visit upon us the very worst that human cruelty can design, but like the moon, we will be reborn and climb to the very heights of society”.
Maybe that was why we were so shocked when our Simon Wiesenthal Center delegation met the French President, Jacques Chirac, in the Élysée Palace during the height of the intifada and the devastating spate of murderous terrorist attacks in Israel. During our discussion about the Middle East, amazingly all he could think of saying, in response to the hideous headlines, was that we must recognize the humiliation of the Palestinians.
He went on to describe a conversation he had on the election trail with a young Palestinian college student. The student told him that he was leaving his French university so that he could return to the Middle East to kill Jews.
“Why do you want to kill Jews?” the President asked. “Did you lose your parents to an Israeli bullet?” “No!” said the young man. “I lost no one! I just want to kill Jews because they are humiliating my fellow Palestinians!”
We keep on reading in the media about how frustrated Palestinians are, about how their backs are to the wall. And we cannot justify any humiliation of them. But, for thousands of years Jews were the targets of oppression, Pogroms, Crusades, Inquisitions and the Holocaust. But no matter what, we always pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and rebuilt our lives and communities. We never taught our children to murder students in schools, bomb innocent people in restaurants and on buses, nor have we had the chutzpah to assure them that these acts are their entry tickets into Paradise. Not even after the horrors and obscenity of the Holocaust could render its survivors’ into suicide bombers.
Instead, to the numerous apostles of inhumanity and their supporters throughout history, we have always said, “You have callously plucked the finest fruits from our tree of life. But you should know that our tree will never die. It will always replenish itself with generations of young men and women who will carry on the faith because they embrace the secret of “Beraishis”! The Jewish people and the State of Israel live on and thrive. “Mir velen zey alla iberlebin” (We shall outlive them all). Because the capacity for new beginnings has become our mantra and new beginnings is what define and empower us!
But there is also one other element – our national capacity to sacrifice to preserve our values. We just finished celebrating Chanukah and know that there are two possible locations to set the Menorah before lighting. One is the obvious, in front of a window so that all who pass by in the street can see the “Chanukia” in all its glory and in all our pride.
But for those living high above the street, where passerby would not take note of it, an alternate placement is suggested – right opposite the Mezuzah near the doorpost. What is the significance of that location?
The Mezuzah on the doorway of every Jewish home represents the ever-present link to our tradition and to our common destiny. It is permanent because we are ever cognizant of our faith and enduring commitments as Jews.
The Menorah, on the other hand, reflects another capacity – the Chanukah capacity. This capacity, fully inherent in the Chanukah story — where many were given to the few, the strong were vanquished by the weak and people of faith conquered the ungodly – speak to the Jewish capacity to make sacrifices for our survival. We will not be destroyed and we will never surrender our values no matter the intimidation and no matter the price to be paid.
As such, when only Israel is demonized on worldwide campuses and in the United Nations (yes, that same United Nations, which stood dark and idly by while thousands of rockets were rained down on Sederot), and North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Somalia get an easy pass, remember that we have and always will out live them.
And anytime you run into an assimilating or disaffected young Jew or Jewess remind them that they are the newest and finest fruits from our tree of life. Tell them that they have it in their hands and in their hearts to sacrifice to insure that our ancient and enduring tree will never die. They have it in their DNA to insure that our tree will always replenish itself with new generations of young men and women who despite everything will show a reverence for life over death and for the respect for human dignity over intolerance and hatred. They can show that by holding on for dear life to the heritage, beliefs and faith that their predecessors sacrificed so much to preserve. They can do that by rejuvenating — starting yet another chapter, their own new chapter, in our enduring national story.