The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak Schneersohn, may his merit shield us, was once staying in an apartment building and learned that on the fifth floor there lived a tailor who professed to be anti-religious.
The Rebbe asked to be taken in his wheelchair to see him.
His hosts tried to dissuade him, arguing that the tailor was a very hostile, disrespectful person. Nevertheless, the Rebbe, having survived the ivsektzie in Russia and the Nazis in Poland, insisted.
They rang the doorbell of the apartment and when the tailor opened the door and saw the Rebbe he said: “I think you have the wrong address, Rabbi.”
The Rebbe answered him: “Not at all. Are you not a tailor by trade? I came to ask you to sew a button on for me.”
The tailor replied: “I do not think that you’ve come up five floors with the sole objective of asking me to sew a button on for you.”
“And I don’t think your soul came down so many “flights” with the sole purpose of sewing buttons,” the Rebbe replied with a twinkle in his eye.
We are currently in the month of Elul, the month of the annual balance in which we analyze our behavior during the outgoing year and take upon ourselves resolutions for the coming year. How do we evaluate our successes and failures?
First of all, we need to know what the objectives are. What is the purpose for our being born, and why do we exist?
I am reminded of the story of the Chassid that went to spend the High Holidays with his Rebbe in the village of Lubavitch. He was a poor man and set out from his shtetl by foot. It was a journey that would take him a week to complete. Many carriages passed him by, but he plodded along with his humble mode of travel.
When he was but a few kilometers away from his destination, he recognized the driver of a passing carriage, a native of his own shtetl, and waved. The man, recognizing him, brought his horse and buggy to a stop. “Come, Moishe! I’m going home and I have an empty carriage. I can take you, with pleasure, free of charge!”
“Thank you very much for your kindness,” replied the Chassid. “But, what good will it do me to travel for free to the east, if I have to get to the west?”
If one is not clear about the raison d’être of his existence, how can he tell if he is moving closer or farther away?
On August 13, the New York Times published the opinion of Mr. Ronald S. Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, in which he expresses his concern about certain realities both in Israel and in the Diaspora as well as the relationship between their respective Jewish communities.
I will not comment here on the issues resolved by the Israeli government that he refers to there. What I do want to comment on is his definition of what the Jewish People’s raison d’être is and its link to the Land of Israel.
He begins by saying: “For 4,000 years, the Jewish people were seen as the world’s moral compass.”
So far, so good.
What Mr. Lauder does not clarify is the reason for this privileged role; admired, challenged, hated and persecuted for millennia.
He then goes on to speak of a “new” Judaism of which he is a proud member and at the same time about how difficult it is for its adherents to pass the torch to the new, indifferent, generation. He speaks of the internal union of the Jewish people as if it were an end in and of itself, without defining who belongs to it and why the Jewish people needs to exist altogether. What is, according to his understanding, our raison d’être, to establish a democratic society in the Middle East?
I do not think that Mr. Lauder will read these lines, but I am sure that many who identify with his way of thinking will do so. It is to them that I direct my words.
Let us not be tempted by the empty and free carriages that travel in direction we are not going in.
The first Jew, our patriarch Avraham, was known as Avraham Haivri, the Hebrew. Ivri means “from the other side”. The simple reason for this title is the fact that when he, a native of Ur – today Iraq – arrived in Canaan, he had done so from the “other side” of the Euphrates. Our sages point out that there is also a deeper reason. Everyone in those days was on the side of paganism and idolatry and Avraham was, alone, on the “other side”, on the side of Monotheism. He did not choose to be on the “other side” simply because he was a rebel or anti-establishment. Why then? Man naturally gravitates towards certain behavior and it takes a great level of intelligence, piety, honesty, perception and sacrifice to fight against one’s nature and do the right thing instead of what is more convenient. It is not very popular to do so. Quite often you end up alone. It is usually easier to do what you want to rather than what G-d wants us to.
It was the unconditional commitment to the Divine moral code revealed at Sinai that was the common denominator of our history and resulted in the Jewish people being seen as the world’s moral compass for over 4,000 years.
Our ancestors were willing to die in order not to betray this legacy and responsibility. The “new” version of Judaism, divorced from its vital Divine roots, of which Mr. Lauder speaks, not only fails to inspire someone to die for it, it cannot even get someone to live for it, as he himself so eloquently shares with us — perhaps without realizing it — in his New York Times Op-Ed.
In conclusion: let’s go back to nurturing our connection to our roots, not only because it is the truth, but because it is what will ensure our survival; not only because it will ensure our survival, but because it is the truth.
We did not come this far merely in order to “sew buttons.”