Thinking Jewishly

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A few years back, I spent two or three hours in the Boeing Museum of Flight in Seattle. It wasn’t enough. The story told there cannot help fill one with awe.

The fantasy of human flight goes back to the Greeks; Leonardo Da Vinci studied the flight of birds intensely and drafted plans for a flying machine. But the history of actual propelled flight is barely a blip on the timeline of human history. Little more than a hundred years separate us from Wilbur and Orville Wright’s first success in getting their flying machine aloft on a beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. And it was only 65 years from that first flight of 12 seconds, covering 120 feet, until Neil Armstrong stood on the moon.

Man has conquered the heavens in a century. Commercial flight has shrunk the globe in ways that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors. And there have been parallel technological leaps in other areas as well. In just the last thirty years, communications to the remotest corners of the world have become instantaneous. Over the last century, advances in medicine and technology resulted in the near doubling of human life expectancy. Who could fail to contemplate the pace of these modern advances without seeing in them a fulfillment of Hashem’s command to the first Man to conquer the earth and rule over all its inhabitants?

But for all the wondrous powers with which Hashem has imbued Man, those powers are also limited – something that we forget at our peril. On Rosh Chodesh Iyar, we received an important reminder. The eruption in Iceland of a relatively small volcano, with an unpronounceable name, brought European air travel to a halt for nearly a week. Over one hundred thousand flights were grounded, with millions of travelers unable to return home or reach their destinations.

A week earlier, the same volcano erupted without incident. But a concatenation of events created a perfect storm this time. The hot magma reached the surface under a glacier, and when the molten lava hit the ice, the result was the creation of glassified silicates that burst three to five miles into the sky under pressure from the steam released. The winds at those altitudes carried the clouds of particles capable of destroying jet engines and cracking plane windshields over most of Europe.

And suddenly Man was no longer master of the skies. As Professor Michio Kato, writing in the Wall Street Journal put it, “We humans often think we are so great, with all our high technology [only to find ourselves] pushed around like pawns as the earth slowly but inexorably changes and shifts.”

BELIEVING JEWS are taught to look for a message in all such cataclysmic events. Some found such message in the fact that Eyjafjallajokull erupted, bringing all tourism to England to a halt, on the very day that the Independent revealed that the United Kingdom Advertising Standard Agency had banned an advertisement for travel to Israel that featured a photo of the Kotel. According to the Agency, the ad misleadingly implied that the Kotel is part of Israel.

The Advertising Standard Agency’s ruling was but another sign of anti-Israel attitudes that permeate the British official classes. Its decision had everything to do with politics and nothing to do with truth in advertising. It is beyond dispute that the only way to reach the Kotel without crossing any borders is via Israel, and the ad implied nothing more.

No other country in the world has any claim to the Kotel. The Jordanians only came into control of the site, which they systematically desecrated over the next 19 years, by overrunning the Old City and forcing all its Jewish inhabitants to flee. Jordan’s sovereignty over the Kotel was never recognized internationally. If the UK’s Advertising Standard Agency wishes to retroactively recognize the Jordanian conquest as establishing sovereignty, it should have no problem with the Israeli reconquest of the Old City, or of the West Bank for that matter, in 1967.

By focusing on the Kotel, the symbol of Jewish religious longing throughout the millennia, the Advertising Standard Agency tread pretty close to outright anti-Semitism. So I have no problem believing that Hashem included a message for the ever more open anti-Semites of Britain among many others in Eyjafjallajokull’s eruption. But I would be a little hesitant about suggesting that was the main message, at least until Israeli tourism ads that include images of the Kotel are banned all over Europe.

MY RABBIS taught me to treat great events not just as a message about the Jews but as messages to the Jews, particularly to those most attuned to Hashem’s Will. Rabbi Mattisiyahu Solomon, the Lakewood Mashgiach, provided an example of that search for meaning in a shmuess delivered, while hundreds of yeshiva bochurim returning to learn in Israel were grounded en route in Europe.

Rabbi Solomon’s topic was zrizus (zeal). He defined zrizus as the determination to use every moment to the maximum. Whatever the task or mitzvah to be performed, the zealous person is always ready at the very first possible moment. If the new zman begins on Rosh Chodesh, for instance, zealous bochurim will be sure to be back in the yeshiva before then so that they can resume their learning with chavrusos from the first possible moment.

The Mashgiach barely needed to drive the point home. European travel came to a standstill on Rosh Chodesh Iyar. Those who were eager to start their learning for the summer zman had already arranged to be back in their yeshivos the day before and were unaffected. Those who had not done so found themselves trapped for days, at the expense of thousands of hours of precious Torah learning.

Rabbi Solomon explicitly excluded any suggestion that the lesson he drew was the exclusive, or even the main one, to be learned from the stoppage of European air travel. But he provided nevertheless an important lesson in how a Jew has to view great events, and assume that he is at the forefront of the intended recipients of whatever message the Ribbono shel Olam is sending

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2 Responses

  1. Ben Green says:

    The words of the Rambam should suffice here:

    “The Torah commands that horns be blown to waken the congregation whenever the Land is hit by tragedy, be it war, epidemic, or drought. These sounds are a call to repentance and a reminder that suffering is a product of sin. For people to interpret such problems as merely coincidental is cruel, because this will repent the nation from changing its ways and cause them to continue the corrupt behaviors that caused the suffering to happen to them in the first place”

    We are being told be Hashem that we did something wrong and that we should improve. For us to ignore that just invites more suffering rachmana latzlan.

    And as the Rambam says, someone who refuses to connect suffering to sin is cruel, and prevents people from avoiding that suffering in the future.

    So now we have another, additional cause of suffering, courtesy of the Rambam. Namely, those who try to prevent us from connecting our suffering to our sins.

  2. dr. bill says:

    We need to react to major events without disregarding the important caution that we cannot know the ways of God. To vastly simplify the Rav ztl approach to this dilemma, he suggested we concentrate on what we must do in response to events versus speculating on why they happened or even the lesson for others.