Are we doing something wrong?

We tend to look at miracles as harbingers of good. But if we look closely at our history, we see examples of another sort: negative miracles. We read the headlines about the war in Gaza, a war where it’s clear to us that we are going beyond anyone’s norms in simply trying to defend ourselves. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once said so pithily, “on the day the Arabs put down their guns, there will be no more war; but on the day that we put down our guns, there will be no more Israel”. In every interview during this entire war between the media and Israeli government representatives, we’ve asked one question that they simply cannot answer: “Would you do any differently if you were in our position?” And yet despite this simple moral clarity, we’re accused of war crimes, Netanyahu is compared to Hitler, and the world “miraculously” overlooks the atrocities taking place, in the same region of the world, by Assad, Boko Haram, ISIS, and even Hamas to their own people!

In this sense, the Holocaust also had an irrational side to it that could be described as supernatural or miraculous. Is there any logical explanation for Hitler deciding to divert badly-needed troops from the Russian front, at a critical point of his military advance, only to have them as added manpower to murder more Jews in the concentration camps? Is there a logical explanation for US planes flying right over the railway lines going to the even-then famous death camp, Auschwitz, and not dropping even one bomb to stop the thousands being transported daily to their gassing and death? More negative miracles. They are there to get our attention and force us to look beyond standard political and psychological explanations.

I think it’s finally dawned on all of us that this current “conflict” is not going away. It really is what American-Israeli thinker Daniel Gordis has termed “the war that may never end.” When a person finds themselves with chronic pain, they have two choices: take painkillers or visit the doctor. Certainly if the pains are continuing for days or weeks, it behooves them to visit the doctor and try to ascertain the root cause. As the ancient prophets warn us when troubles befall us, “search your ways and examine!”

The Jewish people have been going through this pain of exile for thousands of years. And we’ve tried many ways to reduce or avoid the pain of anti-Semitism. We thought that by assimilating, our enemies will no longer accuse us of “chosenness” and we’ll be liked. Hitler came along and disabused us of that theory rather quickly—he went after the most assimilated Jews. He didn’t care how modern or enlightened we were– a Jew, or even a half-Jew or quarter-Jew, was a Jew in his eyes. Then we tried “normalizing” by forming a country, thinking that if we create a liberal democracy, we’ll be welcomed by the family of nations and anti-Semitism will disappear. Not quite. Iran is one bomb away from killing more Jews in 6 minutes than Hitler did in 6 years. And when we defend ourselves against radical Muslims firing missiles at our homes, Jews in France, Belgium, Germany and even some parts of the US have to go into hiding. This time around, we try to assure ourselves that it’s only the Zionists they want to burn alive when they torch our synagogues.

With whatever attempts we’ve made to escape the pains of hatred, the hatred seems to come back, stronger in fact. What are we doing wrong? What’s the underlying disease causing us this terrible pain?

Our Torah tells us that we have a national mission. But we’ve focused so much on our physical survival (a strong IDF, strong economy) and spiritual survival (Jewish continuity programs, Birthright etc), that we’ve forgotten what we stand for. As the philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “the Jewish people are God’s messenger, it’s just that we’ve forgotten the message.” Who are we? What are we really fighting for? Would it be so bad if we had to pack up and leave the Middle East, and become regular Westernized Jews? Even if we assimilated altogether (cause of death: see Pew Study), why would that be so terrible? Somehow we all feel that it would be, regardless of our religious or political leanings. But why? Can we our articulate our purpose as a people?

So what is our national mission? To be a light unto the nations, to be “a nation of priests, a holy people.” The world should see the Jews as a source of goodness, morality, spirituality, and refined ethics. And yet instead, we insist on telling the world how smart we are instead of how showing them how good we are (the hitch is, we actually have to live up to being that brand!) We somehow think they’ll love us because we invented drip irrigation and cell-phone technology; that our greatest contributions to the West are Seinfeld and bagels instead of holiness and ethical monotheism. We’re that kid in college with such low self-esteem that he thinks, despite his intelligence and personal depth, that the only way to be “successful” is by trying harder to be cool and wear the right sunglasses. We’re out of touch with our national potential for greatness.

If we’ve tried everything else to get the world to just leave the Jewish people alone, and yet these headaches are getting worse, we have to take step back and ask what it means to be part of the Jewish people. The Jihadis are clearly very passionate about their national mission. Maybe we’ll start winning when we start embracing ours.

About the Author
Rabbi Moshe Zeldman is the founder and educational director of the Core18 Leaders Lab, a project of JerusalemU designed to empower young Jewish innovators. He also lectures worldwide on a variety of Jewish topics.
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