Moses heard the people weeping … and the wrath of Hashem flared greatly. … Moses said to Hashem, “Why have You done evil to Your servant; why have I not found favor in Your eyes, that You place the burden of this entire people upon me? … I alone cannot carry this entire nation, for it is too heavy for me! And if this is how You deal with me, then kill me now…”
Another hard day at the office for Moses. And if he thought things were tough when the Israelites wept and demanded meat, he wouldn’t have to wait long for the ten “men of distinction” to bring back their evil report about the Land. Later, his sister and brother would embarrass him for marrying a Midianite. He would stand transfixed while Zimri and Cozbi, inspired by Baal-Peor, danced into a tent for some sexual pleasuring. Pinchas takes matters into his own hands and slays the happy hedonists, thus bringing to an end the plague that had killed 24,000 Israelites. Ever the glutton for punishment, Moses implores G-d to erase his name from His scroll “if You destroy these people.” Moses just won’t give up on “these people” despite their slew of transgressions, ongoing to this very day. Throughout our people’s 3300-year history, we’ve gone from one communal conflict to another. Obviously, G-d has infinite patience and a wonderful sense of humor. But poor Moses! I can’t imagine what he must have gone through over the 38 years we know little about – but I’m sure it wasn’t pretty. “The Rock! – perfect is His work, for all His paths are justice; … Corruption is not His – the blemish is His children’s, a perverse and twisted generation.” (Deut. 32:4-5)
Soon we will hear the words that will draw the most faraway Jew to a house of prayer, if only for a day or two. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many will pass away and how many will be born; who will live and who will die; who in his due time and who before; who by water and who by fire; who by sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who of thirst; … who will become poor and who will grow rich; … But repentance, prayer and charity may avert the evil of the decree.” (Yom Kippur Mahzor) Repentance is our relationship with ourselves. Prayer is our relationship with G-d. Charity is our relationship with others. “We should be honest in our relationship with ourselves, humble in our relationship with G-d, and generous in our relationship with others,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, to which I would add, especially with our fellow Jew – and that’s the toughest!
This year has been the best of times and the more difficult of times. I could never call this “the worst of times” because our generation can sadly recall the worst of times just 75 short years ago. After 2000 years of wandering, we are privileged to have the opportunity to return to our homeland, Israel, given to all our people by G-d in His mercy and love. May we never take it for granted.
Toward the end of each year, I reflectively stroll into my private wonderland – my study filled with my many old friends. I spend a lot of time there throughout the year, but just before the High Holidays is always a special time … a time to reflect on the year past, and begin thinking about the year to come … but mostly it’s about the past year. It’s as if my friends are waiting to greet me, eager to see who I decide to pull off the bookshelf and share an intimate thought with. There’s Ben Hecht and Bartley Crum, Jr. And Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and the Rav, Joseph Soloveitchik. There’s David Ben-Gurion, Arik Sharon and Moshe Dayan, with Abba Eban and Chaim Herzog by his side. There’s Abraham Joshua Heschel and Elie Wiesel sitting with Herman Wouk and Mark Twain – and many, many others. I’m fortunate to have made such wonderful friends over the years. And there is my Rav, smiling – Rabbi Meir Kahane – the person who convinced me that being a Jew is worth the effort. Inside the very first book I ever bought about Judaism, called Never Again, is Rabbi Kahane’s inscription: “To Yankel, Jewish is beautiful – Reb Meir.” I wasn’t so sure, back then. That was a long time ago. I have found frustration over the years, but I also found he was right.
I’ll never forget the first time I met him. I received a letter from a Dr. David Marcus, inviting me to his home in Lincolnwood to meet someone he said I should meet. What did I have to lose? I went to the house, rang the doorbell, and was greeted by a man who introduced himself as Dr. Marcus. He thanked me for coming, and said “the rabbi” was waiting for me. I hadn’t talked to a rabbi since my bar mitzvah over 20 years earlier; and I remember thinking, what am I doing here? The rabbi motioned me to come sit next to him on the living room couch. He asked what my Hebrew name was, and I didn’t have a clue. “Since your name is Jack – not John – no, not John – I’ll call you Yankel,” he said. I wasn’t about to argue. He asked me a few questions, and I responded with a shrug. I was clueless to his world. Finally, he said he got the feeling I didn’t like Jews. I said it was nothing personal, but I had grown up in Skokie and there was just something about them that I didn’t connect with.
He went on, “In the Torah…” and I remember asking him what a Torah was. This was 22 years after my bar mitzvah. The only thing I vaguely remembered was something called a Haftarah, words I hated having to memorize. My bar mitzvah being in October meant that preparing for it would take time away from the truly important summer activities: baseball, tennis, swimming and golf. He smiled and explained that the Torah is a holy Jewish book in which you are commanded to love your fellow Jew. “Why are you commanded?” I asked. And with a twinkle in his eye he replied, “You’ll find out!” Our conversation had piqued my curiosity, and so began my return. Rabbi Kahane and I kept in contact. I read most of his other books. I was shocked and saddened when he was assassinated in New York in November of 1990. I flew to Israel for the shloshim, where I met his brother, Rabbi Nachman, who I continue to be close with and visit whenever I am in Jerusalem.
But it’s time to reconnect with another old friend, a noted and well-respected rabbi from an earlier generation, who had some prophetic insights for his Diaspora posterity including many politically absorbed liberal rabbis of today. The year was 1932, and the rabbi, Solomon Goldman, had just returned from his first trip to Palestine. I smile at the words of his commencement address at the Reform movement’s Jewish Institute of Religion – words not often heard from liberalist rabbis of today:
“The task which has been laid upon me by the distinguished president of this institution is one for which I should have felt myself inadequate at the best of times. … I have just returned from Erez Yisrael. I have just spent a month in the land of the Neviim, Sopherim, Tannaim and Haluzim. For the space of four weeks I was able to contrast the vivid realities of Palestine with the unreality and artificiality of American Jewish life, and I confess—strange confession to offer on such an occasion!—that there were moments when I felt I could never again occupy the pulpit; for the problems uppermost in the minds of American Israel, those which I have heard discussed from earliest childhood on, suddenly appeared nebulous, inconsequential—and pretentious. …
“In the new Judea I sensed mightily the difference between a living, tangible, unfolding Jewish life and a stultified, verbal, contentious, even a commercialized Judaism. … We have pursued the path of least effort. We have indulged ourselves in the luxury of speech and the excitement of strife. We have devised, for our own confusion, issues which are immaterial, which provide many words but stimulate neither thought nor action. I offer as the best proof of the baselessness of American Jewish life the fact that the major effort of its rabbis is the weekly exhibition of platitudes... The influence of the rich man in the synagogue and in Jewish communal life has degraded our institutions to the level of a bourse. … We have abdicated to wealth because we have dethroned the Torah.” (Rabbi Solomon Goldman, Crisis and Decision, pp. 79-92)
Next to Rabbi Goldman is a 1965 interview with David Ben-Gurion:
“I must make clear that there is a profound difference in principle between the life of the people in Israel and the life of the Jews in the Diaspora. … All Diaspora Jewish communities live in what I call a condition of exile, whether or not they are aware of it or recognize it as such. … Only in sovereign Israel is there the full opportunity for moulding the life of the Jewish people according to its own needs and values, faithful to its own character and spirit, to its heritage of the past and its vision of the future. … In Israel the Jews…are Jews in every fibre of their body and every feeling in their heart – whether they be religious or not – as no Jew can possibly be abroad. … Jewry in the Diaspora…has travelled far along the path to assimilation; and even though its Jewish consciousness is still alive, it is doubtful whether, without Israel, it may not perish by euthanasia or suffocation. … Not since the return from Babylon in the sixth and fifth centuries BC have the Jews been given so noble an opportunity of joining in the tasks of national revival and redemption.” (Moshe Pearlman, Ben Gurion Looks Back, pp. 242-247)
We have always been a contentious people, arguing with one another for over 3300 years. But I have to laugh, remembering that just a few months ago I heard a Conservative rabbi in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood harangue against the Israeli rabbinate for its decisions regarding the Kotel (the Western Wall) and halachic conversions. After his “over-the-top” rhetoric denouncing the Orthodox rabbinate, the very next week he self-righteously sermonized about the sin of lashon hara and the need to speak gently of your fellow. I had to smile. The schizophrenic mindset is sadly laughable.
And yet a little further down on one of my bookshelves is a collection of High Holiday sermons from twenty-six well known rabbis of the time. Who might I converse with this year? I randomly open the book, and out steps Rabbi Samuel Dresner, his words as relevant today as they were in 1953:
“We can accept the fact that the faith of American Jewry has been stretched to the breaking point. But why? The answers we hear are plentiful .. but the real cause lies not … in externalities, but deep within the hearts and minds of our leaders. There is little faith in G-d because we lack leaders who are servants of G-d. … It is the religious leaders of our people who must bear the terrible responsibility; … And in the Synagogue itself the rabbi is certainly responsible for its conversion from a house of prayer and learning into a playground. The Synagogue itself has little faith left. It has become a social affair… What the leaders of Israel need at this crucial time is … the certainty of conviction, the fire of courage … to break with all the false imitations of Judaism which we have helped to build, all the cheap and vulgar excuses for Jewish life.”
How prophetic of Rabbi Dresner! In 1953, this (Conservative) rabbi was evidently troubled by the direction of the American Jewish community even back then – a time when institutional decisions were being made that would impact the future of American Jewry, sadly creating “all the cheap and vulgar excuses for Jewish life”— the reality that confronts Diaspora Jewry today, as American Jewry evolved down one path, and Israeli Jewry down another. I reflect on the clarity of a contemporary Conservative convert to Orthodoxy in Israel, Rabbi Daniel Gordis: “Consequently, if anything is to be blamed for the increasing estrangement, it is not what Israel is doing or not doing, but rather the fundamental deterioration in American Jewish identity.” I believe Rabbis Goldman and Dresner would sadly have agreed.
L’Shana Tova, 09/15/17 Jack “Yehoshua” Berger
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