Yaakov Fisch

A Song of Ascent (and Not Lament)

I recently saw a fellow Jew lament, “In the past few weeks, we have realized how little the world cares about us and how much we care about each other.” This is a layered quote for many reasons. There is a nuance here — much of the world has shunned us, siding with our brutal enemies and throwing us to the wolves yet again. And yet, within that harsh reality is the magnetism that has made us all bond together and remember our shared roots amidst this heart-breaking cause of once again fighting for Israel’s security and survival.

My congregants have been sharing feelings that echo the quote’s first half: fear, stress, and anxiety, all warranted as the rise of antisemitism reaches disturbing peaks. Recently, a worrisome statistic was released from FBI director Chris Wray: “Our statistics would indicate that for a group (Jewish Americans) that represents only about 2.4% of the American public, they account for something like 60% of all hate crimes.” He added that this is not a time for panic but instead for vigilance, especially as the war in Israel intensifies. There are too many examples of active Jew hatred becoming less isolated and more prominent in nearly all arenas of society.

All things considered, we have many friends and allies here who have also shown us support in these challenging times. It’s also important to note that the antisemitism in the United States is mild compared to most countries: Jewish homes in Paris and Berlin were recently defaced with painted Jewish stars, echoing a much darker time in our history. From an airport in Dagestan and demonstrations in Western Europe to people ripping down posters of innocent hostages abducted by Hamas, it feels like the world has once again turned on us. 

Most articles I have been reading follow along this vein as well: they are laments for the unfairness of what is unfolding amongst the world’s bystanders-turned-hamas-activists, shock for how people seem to have forgotten the videos of brutalities that the Hamas terrorists proudly recorded themselves. At least with the Nazis, there was some shame– an effort to hide the evidence of their evil, and destroy their mechanisms of torture and description before they were caught, instead of proudly displaying it to the world and recording it for eternity. 

For centuries, many Jews have deluded themselves into thinking there is no difference in being Jewish. Many people have tried to solve the problem of anti-Semitism by various approaches. In the 19th century in Germany, some championed actively assimilating into Western Society by removing any reference to returning to Zion and Jerusalem. The mantra sadly became “Berlin is our Jerusalem.” Others thought that anti-Semitism would be solved if we created our own state. The rationale was that we are hated because we are viewed as nomads in a foreign land. If only we had our own independent state, we would no longer be hated. The sad irony is that about a hundred years later, it appears that the number one reason for anti-Semitism is that we have an independent Jewish State.

I believe it would do each of us better to take a break from those laments and focus on the second part of the quote, the notion that in all this shunning and separation, there is a silver lining pointing back to our true destiny.

The great Rabbi of the 18th century, Rav Chaim Volozhon, famously said, “If the Jew doesn’t make kiddush, the nations will do havdalah.” In other words, if we don’t remember our unique mission and holiness that separates us from the nations, the nations will be the ones to make this division and remind us of our separateness. A Jew must embrace his identity and have a greater responsibility in this world to spread Godliness and holiness. The reality is that Jews are different and distinct from other nations. It is not because we believe in racial superiority, but as we accepted the Torah from God, we have a higher mission and greater responsibilities. While all of humanity must keep the basic Noahide Laws, the Jewish Nation must uphold all 613 Mitzvos as part of our eternal covenant.

I would like to underscore that separateness is not bad. In fact, in the weekly Torah portions that fall at this very time of the year, we are reminded that the first Jew in the world to ever exist, our foremost patriarch, already heralded himself as separate from the nations around him and called himself a name that reflected this distinction. We are told that Avraham was called “Avraham Ha’Ivri”- Abraham from the other side.

Jews are different. We were created to be as such, our destiny foretold even by the prophet Bilaam in the Torah: “Lo, they are a nation that dwells alone, and will not be rendered among the nations.” We can be singled out and hated for our being different, but lest we fall into a depression over this, we must embrace the reality that we have a higher mission in being different. In remembering that we are not like everyone else, we can embrace our uniqueness and destiny.

In an era where everyone stands up for anyone’s microaggressions, it is shocking to see so many people openly calling for our genocide seemingly without repercussion. We are learning painfully that no matter what our religious affiliation, Jews and hatred of Israel are inescapable.

This leaves us back to relying on each other and the AlMighty by remembering our destiny which includes being a light unto the same nations that are calling for our destruction. If you read the Psalms of King David it is eerie how many of the verses echo with what is happening now. To pull ourselves out of the depths we need to remember the silver lining here in remembering our destiny and galvanizing as a group toward it. 

We are living at a critical junction in history. Our children will look back and analyze how we handled it. We can choose here and now not to get frozen in fear and locked in lament but instead embrace the silver lining in embracing our unique identity and living up to our mission. 

It’s time for us to embrace the reality that we are different and have more responsibilities in this world. If we continue to delude ourselves that we are no different than everyone else, we will continue to be reminded by our adversaries that we are different. The Sage from Volozhin succinctly framed this point in history for our generation. We can continue to let the non-Jews reinforce the lesson of our separateness by them “making havdalah,” or instead, we can empower ourselves by making kiddush. 

Together, we can turn a time of lament into a King David-esque song of ascent.

About the Author
Rabbi Yaakov Fisch is the Senior Rabbi at Etz Chaim of Jacksonville, Florida. In his tenure of over 20 years, he has focused on building bridges to the wider community through his projects such as founding an outreach kollel, forming the first kashus organization in the area and hosting a podcast where he sends out Torah messages geared to all.
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