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Empire of the soul: A Pesach Message

I recall that as a kid my favorite board game was Risk. My friend and I used to challenge each other every school-day lunch break at our home. For the uninitiated, Risk is a game of strategic territorial conquest. The winner is the player who conquers the whole world. The gateway to the conquest of Europe from Kamchatka, Siberia, Irkutsk, Yakutsk and the Urals – all territories of (former Soviet) Russia, lest one forget – was Ukraine. Talk about life imitating fantasy!

Kids grow up.My Risk gathered dust and was eventually abandoned. I have no regrets that I didn’t get to pass it down to my children.

Empires come and empires go. (Just like my friend’s and mine – I would conquer the world one lunchtime only to lose it to my friend the next!) Google the word empire and you will find Babylonian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Athenian, Seleucid, Hellenic, Persian, Roman, Ottoman, Moorish, Chinese, Indian, Austro-Hungarian, Inca, Aztec, Mamluk, British, French Colonial, Soviet and a whole host of other imperialist powers spanning the gamut of human history. You will not find the word “Jewish”, “Hebrew”, “Israelite” or “Israeli” among them. (Go tell that to Hamas, Abbas, the BDS movement et al!)

Yet all those once-mighty empires have crumbled while Am Yisrael remains constant!

What is the secret of the Jew’s immortality? asked Mark Twain. The answer: Am Yisrael boasts an empire of the soul.

Am Yisrael became a nation neither through evolution nor revolution. Our ancestors were extracted by G-D from the midst of the Egyptian nation without a say in the matter (Deut. 4:34). They prevaricated at the Reed Sea (Exod. 14:11-12) and repeatedly expressed the desire to return to the security of Egypt. They wandered like ignominious nomads in the desert for forty years and even after inhabiting their G-D-given land at last, were constrained as far as the territories they could possess.  Am Yisrael is the only significant civilization in world history that never had designs on conquering the globe. And despite or rather because of it – we are still here as a civilization, not decadent, not infirm, not disfigured beyond all recognition, but still our very authentic self!

 So, I guess Risk isn’t really a Jewish game.

Our battle is of ideas and ideals. Our empire is an empire of the soul. Jewish hopes for conquest of the world lie purely in the intellectual, moral, ethical and spiritual spheres.

Yet even here, we had neither mission nor desire to convert the world to Judaism. Our nation was redeemed from Egypt to learn, practice and teach the Torah, blueprint of creation, to our children while bringing to humanity knowledge of the One True G-D and universal morality, and to serve as a “beacon unto the nations”. (Isaiah 42:6)

While the world was receptive to religious and spiritual values, we were sadly not permitted by the dominant so-called “daughter” faiths, to assume that latter mission. Now that we are able, via the “global village”, to get our message out there, huge chunks of the world have become so utterly secularized that they are no longer receptive. Tragically, large swathes of the Jewish world too have become so culturally assimilated and diluted in their faith and observance that they no longer understand what our true message is.

And yet: an ever-burgeoning slice of world Jewry passionately carries the flame of Torah within their souls.

As renowned Melbourne-based historian and academic, Dr. Bill Rubinstein, recently observed: “In 1945, Charedi (fervently-Orthodox) Judaism was virtually extinct …less than 50,000 left [worldwide] … Today the expansion …has been truly extraordinary with an estimated 1.2 million in Israel and 600,000 elsewhere …In 2016, Lakewood [New Jersey] had 25,000 students enrolled across 74 different yeshivot [worldwide] …this incredible growth has flown in the face of …every other conceivable trend in contemporary Jewish life …which has been in the direction of left-liberalism and secularization in politics and culture” (Australian Jewish News, 25 March 2022)

Dr. Rubinstein is not some flag-flying tub-thumping outreach rabbi bent on promoting Orthodox Judaism and impressing with statistics. He is a dispassionate academic and history professor. He uses the words “extraordinary expansion” because that’s what it is! Indeed, it uncannily echoes the words of the Torah which we highlight during the Seder: With seventy souls did your ancestors descend to Egypt, and now G-D has made you like the stars of heaven for multitude! (Deut. 10:22).

I too am not a banner-waving spokesman for Charedi Jewry. In my book The Cosmic Diamond, I wrote: No one sector of Israeli [read Jewish] society owns holding rights to Torah Judaism. Yet the fact remains that the dropout rates in Charedi society, while of growing concern internally, still remain (as Rubinstein avers) much lower than in any other sector of the Jewish community.

I passionately believe that engagement with the world is desirable and necessary. But a family where the children know that it is not for Torah to turn into a pretzel to adapt to the mores of secular society but rather that Torah values must infuse and shape all aspects of life, that is a family whose sons and daughters will bring up another generation which in turn will inspire their children around their Seder tables and their Shabbat tables ad dorot, and thus perpetuate the empire of the Jewish soul.

We dare not leave the chinuch (Jewish education) of our children entirely to the schools. Jewish schools, for the most part, will instruct, they may even inspire, but they will not mould souls. This needs to be done in the home. Just the other day, yet another parent remarked ruefully to me: I sent my kids to a Jewish school for twelve years, yet it didn’t stop them from marrying out! Sadly, that parent, like so many others, sent their children to a Jewish school solely with that purpose in mind!    

One needn’t be a rocket scientist to know that those families who sit with joy around their Shabbat tables every week, not just once a year around their Seder tables, are the families where attrition is least likely to occur.

So let us emulate Charedi Jewry and resolve to make our Judaism central and not peripheral. Let our boisterous sedarim this year be the precursor to spirited oneg Shabbats each week! Let us build and sustain our own empire of the soul.

Leaving it to chance is simply not worth the risk!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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