Last week, I sat on a Beit Din (a rabbinical court) to bring a baby girl, just seven weeks old, into the Jewish world as her parents brought her before us for conversion. One of the responsibilities of the Beit Din is to ask the potential convert questions, but not in the case of conversion of minors (for obvious reasons). When I sit on a Beit Din for a conversion of an adult, one question I always ask is: are you really sure about this? I mean, we have been persecuted for ages, in all parts of the world, it really never stops, are you REALLY sure you want to become a ‘member of the tribe’?
Regarding minors, Jewish law tells us that at the age of mitzvah (12 -13), we have to give the baby that we converted a choice – do they want to remain Jews or not?
Hopefully, in 12 years, I will not receive a call, but let’s assume that in 12 years, doubts creep in, and she looks at her conversion certificate and calls me. I might understand if she does make the call, as our past can be pretty daunting. So, if she calls, should I ask her the same question and inform her of our people’s tragedies? Is it wrong to ask that question of someone who is about to take the journey with us, to warn them about our troubled past? Don’t we want more Jews in the world! Why are would we scare them away?!?
What’s the point of reviewing it all?
This week, we open a new book of our Torah, Deuteronomy, or as our sages called it, Mishnei Torah, a repetition of the Torah. Why do we need a repetition of the Torah now? The question brought me back to last week’s parashah, Mase’ei, which is was a nice set up for the book of Deuteronomy.
Mase’ei begins with a 42-step recollection of where Bnai Israel has been on their journey. An important question that the commentators ask is, considering that the Torah is a laconic book, why give another accounting of these steps? It seems pretty unnecessary.
There are numerous commentaries, but I’d like to bring you one that I most enjoyed – Sforno. Sforno, a 15th century Italian biblical commentator, writes, “The Holy Blessed One wanted the journeys of the Israelites to be written (in order to) make known their merit in their following God in the wilderness…to help them realize that they deserved to enter the land. Moses wrote down their destination and place of departure because sometimes the place for which they were headed was exceedingly bad and the place of departure was good, and sometimes the reverse happened (they went from a good place to a bad place). He also wrote down the details of their journey because it involved leaving for a new destination without any previous notice, which was very difficult. Despite all this, they did not refrain from journeying – they stayed the course even though it was extremely trying and difficult.”
It is clear that it is easy to journey in good times, but what about the bad times, how do we journey then? How can we possibly convince anyone to journey with us knowing how bad things have gotten during our stops?!?
It’s this time of year that we are forced to reconcile with this reality. On the 17th of Tammuz, we fasted in mourning of the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, eventually leading to the destruction of the Holy Temple of the 9th of Av.
It’s during these weeks that we recall past tragedies as well, and it’s during this time that we as a people watch a tragedy unfolding before our very eyes – the war in Gaza. I think about the soldiers of the IDF who are dying; I think about the innocent Palestinian men, women, and children who are dying; I think about our fellow Jews in Israel who have only 15 seconds from the sound of a siren to get to a bomb shelter; I think about the Holocaust survivors and other seniors, now in their 80’s – 90’s, who cannot run to the shelters because of their advanced age; and I think about our fellow Jews in Europe who watch as their synagogues burn, as they are physically and verbally attacked just because they are Jews.
So how can we possibly be hopeful when we see all of this before us? What am I to tell this baby girl about to take the plunge? That everything is going to be ok? So here’s the reason why we should be hopeful, and it has to do with the itinerary – we did not wander in the dessert – we journeyed. There is a big difference between the two – to wander is to go aimlessly, to meander without a purpose, but to journey means to go from one stage to another toward a common goal or purpose.
We have never wandered – we have always journeyed, throughout our history. We didn’t just wind up in Israel – it was always our hope – we got to Israel because it was our goal. And we have journeyed together, as members of Knesset Israel – the eternal congregation of Israel.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), in his book On Repentance, offers a description of what it means for a Jew to identify with Knesset Israel:
“The Jew who believes in Kenesset Israel is the Jew who lives with Kenesset Israel where she may be and is prepared to die for her, who hurts with her pain and rejoices in her joy, who fights her wars, suffers in her defeats, and celebrates her victories. The Jew who believes in Kenesset Israel is the Jew who joins himself as an indestructible link not only to the Jewish people of this generation but to Kenesset Israel of all generations. How? Through Torah, which is and creates the continuity of all the generations of Israel for all time.”
The Torah is the story of our journey – and Jews have given their lives for it. Out of all of the loss of life in this conflict, there have been a couple that have stuck out to me – the Chayalim Bodedim, the lone soldiers. Lone soldiers are young immigrants to Israel, olim hadashim, who serve in the IDF. There is actually an organization that began in 2009 called the Lone Soldier Center. According to their website, it was founded by a group of former lone soldiers to serve the 5,700 lone soldiers of the IDF, and it is the first and only organization solely dedicated to meeting all of the physical and social needs of lone soldiers. It was created in memory of a young soldier, Michael Levin, killed in action during the second Lebanon war in 2006. When Michael was in the IDF, he once told a fellow lone soldier: “When I’ll get out of the army, we should create an organization that helps lone soldiers, so that they won’t feel so alone…” Lone soldiers come to Israel without family, so on weekends off, they cannot go home to enjoy imma’s chicken soup for Shabbat dinner. Can you imagine the feeling of serving in the military, and seeing all your friends go home to their families, but you remain behind and alone? But events of this week challenged the very idea of the lone IDF soldier – and it was the death and funeral of one of the lone soldiers, Max Steinberg z’l who grew up in Southern California and joined the IDF in 2012. He was just 24 when he was killed in action in Gaza and buried at Har Herzl, Israel’s national military cemetery. I wonder if his family thought, as they traveled to Israel – who will come to our son’s funeral?
How many non-family members would come to a funeral for a lone IDF soldier?
Not 50, not 100, although that’s a respectable amount of people – the answer – 30,000 (and some are saying 50,000!). Most of the participants of the service for Steinberg did not personally know him but answered pleas on social media asking for people to come out and honor the fallen soldier.
One of the people who came out, Eli Stern, said: ‘I came out to support the family after I heard on social networks that most of his relatives were not in the country,’ I don’t know him but I felt like I have to be here, so that his parents arriving from aboard feel like the entire nation stands behind them and that Max has not died in vain.’
Addressing Steinberg’s family, Rabbi Dov Lipman said that not only did Max give up his life to help save the lives of thousands of others by fighting to stop rockets from raining down on Israeli cities, but his act of heroism also has become a source of inspiration for millions of Jews around the world.
“Max has helped to rekindle the Zionistic spirit which gave birth to this state, and has reminded all of us of the blessing from God, the special merit that we have to live as a free people in our land – as well as the sacrifices we must make to maintain this reality.”
We are not guaranteed safety and prosperity at all times and throughout history as part of Kenesset Israel, but we have always journeyed on toward the goal of the Promised Land. It has been people like Max Steinberg z’l who make us a part of the greater story, and who most embody what it means to be part of Kenesset Israel.
After the conversion on Wednesday, I donned my talit and tefillin, looking toward the east and I saw dark clouds covering the sky in the horizon, but there was one pocket of sunlight; a ray of hope. I said the words, Or hadash al tziont tair, v’nizkeh chulanu m’heirah l’oro, with a new found kavanah, “May a new light shine unto Zion! May we all soon share a portion of its radiance.”
Our job is to bring light to the world, to bring light to darkness, to bring life to death. This is why we remember the good and the bad, to know the difference, to learn lessons, and to remember the past, no matter what.
This is our journey.
This is what I blessed the 7-week-old girl with – a blessing of a continuous journey, there will be ups, and downs, but the journey continues. The spirit of our ancestors are alive in her, and they will live on when she stands at the bimah for her bat mitzvah and hears the words sung by the entire congregation, “V-atem ha-dvekim badonai Eloheikhem, chaim kulkhem hayom – You who cling to the Lord your God are alive today.” If she clings to God and to her fellow Jews, she will be alive, and so will her ancestors, and her descendents.
And I give you the same message – Cling to God, Cling to Israel, Cling to the Jewish people, and we will live on.
Am Yisrel Adayin Chai – through it all, Israel still lives, and will live on.
 Farberov, Snejana. “‘Tell My Mom I Love Her’: Heartbreaking Last Words of American ‘lone Soldier’ Killed Fighting in the Gaza Strip as 30,000 Mourners Attend His Funeral in Jerusalem .” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 23 July 2014. Web. 31 July 2014.