Well over 100 million people watched the Super Bowl last year. And with this year’s Super Bowl coming up soon, I can safely assume that plenty of NFL fans and simply curious folk are following events closely in order to know which teams will end up facing each other in Minneapolis on February 4. It was amazing last week watching the reactions of football fans (both the winners and losers) to the literally last second win of the Vikings over the Saints. It showed us, without question, that even”just” a spectator can have as much feeling and excitement for a game as a player, if not more.
Judaism is not a spectator sport. It is a way of life. You can treat it as a spectator, maybe even getting more excited over it than those who chose to live it, but at the end of the day, there is no replacement for being in the game.
And in my opinion, in today’s day and age, to truly be a player in the “game” of Jewish life, there is only one place to be; Israel.
Now I realize that this may tick some people off. Fifteen years ago, I myself belonged to the school of thought that believes that a Jew can, through her/his actions, make wherever one resides the “Land of Israel”; aka “holy”.
In the world I lived in, it was suggested that I read Ben Hecht’s book “Perfidy” to learn of the evil nature of the Zionist founders of Israel. It was the country where the “goyim” (Secular Jews) of 100 years ago were going. In the world I came from, it was considered honorable to leave the room when the Hatikvah was being sung. Israel Independence Day was a non-event. One of America’s most influential Rabbis asked me, upon hearing about my decision to make Aliyah, if I had lost my mind. He was being serious. Very serious.
So what happened to my old self? Well what happened was that over a period of time I came to understand the central importance of modern day Israel today, both for the future of the world Jewish community in general and for my family in particular. With that realization I then decided that instead of remaining a spectator and making some other place “The Land of Israel”, to actually live in the real McCoy itself.
Just the other day I had the privilege of hearing one of America’s leading Jewish Modern Orthodox figures speak about Israel during one of his many visits here from the United States. He was knowledgeable and spoke beautifully. And when he spoke about how historically Jews have not always rallied together when necessary, it hit me, that for many Orthodox Jews, Israel and making Aliyah is a spectator sport.
Rabbi Sholom Gold in the weekly OU newsletter recently wrote about the lament of the great teacher Reish Lakish some 1,800 years ago who cried out in pain and anguish against the Jewish community of Babylon which preceded him by some 700 years; “I swear, I hate you”.
What was the basis of that declaration? Reish Lakish was referring to the terribly missed opportunity of the Babylonian community to make Aliyah during the days of Ezra. The Talmud in Berachot says “Would Jews have ascended in the days of Ezra, God would have done for them miracles as in the days of Joshua.”
When together with my family we decided to make Aliyah, a friend of mine commented to me that he and his wife had also been talking about making Aliyah for some 10 years. (That was over 15 years ago.) The funny thing was, I explained, was that my wife and I had never spoken about Aliyah until we had actually decided to do it.
Which brings me to the epiphany I experienced as I listened to the visiting Orthodox Jewish leader.
During the First Temple Period some 2,700 years ago, the great Elijah the Prophet (Yeah. The same one who visits our Seder annually) had his famous showdown atop Mt. Carmel against the false prophets of Baal. If you’re not familiar with the story, Google it. It’s a great story described in the Book of Kings.
The ruling King and Queen, Ahab and Jezebel (Gosh! You gotta just love those names!) are introducing, somewhat successfully, idolatrous ways to the Israelites. So now, with huge crowds looking on, Elijah is about to prove once and for all the existence of The One True God. Awesome.
But first, Elijah has a reprimand for the People of Israel. And what exactly is that reprimand? Instead of reprimanding the Idol worship that’s going on, instead he reprimands the Israelites for “sitting on the fence”; meaning, one day worshiping the One G-d, and at other times, for convenience sake, not. Being wishy-washy.
What is the terrible danger of sitting on the fence? Why can that even be worse than being on the wrong side of the fence? It’s worse because as long as you decided to be on one side of the fence, there is always hope that you will decide to come over to the right side. But if you keep going back and forth with all kinds of excuses, well … Elijah the Prophet knew only too well the slippery slope of that type of behavior.
I was on the wrong side of the fence vis-à-vis Aliyah. Sure I was a great spectator with all the support for Israel which I expressed, but I had no intention of becoming an actual player. Until I did.
When it comes to Aliyah today, Orthodox Jews in America have the luxury of sitting on the fence. Their support of Israel over from America is crucial. They visit. Their kids come and study here. Some volunteer in the IDF. They combat BDS on American college campuses.
But the vast majority remains in America.
Will another Reish Lakish 700 years from now lash out against the Orthodox American Jewish community for not making Aliyah in 2018?