Friday, September 01, 2017

Rosh Hashanah Bulletin 2017 - The Greatest Story on Earth

Twenty five years ago, I attended a symposium on the topic of “Why Be Jewish?” This topic fascinated me; despite all of my extensive Yeshiva training, we had focused very little on basic questions like “why be Jewish?” So I was eager to hear what the presenters, a group of well known Jewish leaders and Rabbis, would say on the subject.
I left sorely disappointed. The speakers offered a stream of mealy mouthed bromides, woven with a colorless assortment of platitudes about community, family, and  traditions; many used a subdued tone of voice, as if they were delivering a eulogy. The cynic inside me wondered if the speakers even believed in what they had to say.
Since that conference, I have thought constantly about the topic of “why be Jewish?”. And then, one evening in 2006, it all became clear.
I was in Charlotte, North Carolina, returning to my hotel room after a wedding. I turned on the television, hoping to get a mindless rerun, but to my surprise, I got an evangelical sermon. (They call it the Bible Belt for a reason). The preacher was encapsulating his sermon into four points. The first of these points was: “There cannot be another Holocaust”. He reminded his audience about Genesis 12:3, God’s promise to Abraham (“in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed”) and then explained how Christians must protect the Jews and Israel, and that without Jews, Christianity is dead.
I was amazed; here, in Charlotte, North Carolina, far from any major Jewish population, a Minister was preaching to hundreds of thousands of people about how much they have to love the Jews. How on earth did that happen?
At that moment my answer to the question of “why be Jewish?”crystallized: being a Jew means being a part of the greatest story on earth.
Many find it uncomfortable talking about how proud they are to be Jews, and consider it unseemly. (And it must be noted that some expressions of Jewish uniqueness can be arrogant and triumphalist.)  However, for Jews ignore their own story is foolish. Even a casual observer of the Jews cannot overlook their epic history. As Winston Churchill put it: "Some people like the Jews, and some do not. But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are, beyond any question, the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has appeared in the world.” Churchill, the preacher in Charlotte, and the billions around the world who follow Christianity and Islam recognize how remarkable our Jewish heritage is; so should Jews.
What is the Jewish story?
It includes 3,300 years of history, with a religion, that inspires 2 other religions, and through them most of the people in the world, and laid the foundation for Western civilization. (John Adams, the 2nd US President wrote “for in Spi of Bolingbroke and Voltaire I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize Men than any other Nation. If I were an Atheist and believed in blind eternal Fate, I should Still believe that Fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential Instrument for civilizing the Nations”. )
It includes Prophets, Rabbis, philosophers, scientists and grandmothers, who together have brought us the Bible, composed the Talmud,  received 0 Nobel Prizes, and made enormous quantities of chicken soup. And despite two millennia filled with some of the worst persecution in human history, this people persevered and returned home.
This is the greatest story on earth. It is a story which contains many stories, and although I will refer to four of them, there are many more.
The first great Jewish story is the about a partnership. Jews see themselves as God’s partners in building the world, and multiple Jewish thinkers from Hillel to Rav Soloveitchik have offered explanations of this idea.
It can be described in three steps.
  1. God created the world in order to create goodness.
  2. The world is not good yet.
  3. The task of man, and indeed, the best way for man to come close to God, is to become God's partner in bringing goodness to this world.
Man seeks God, not only, and not primarily, by secluding himself on a mountaintop or a study hall, but by finding a way to do God's work in this world. With a profound sense of divine connection, we are moved to do divine work by feeding the hungry, caring for the forgotten, and fixing what is broken.
This partnership has transformed the world. There are Nobel Prizes, philanthropies, and an army of volunteers. And there is the work of the State of Israel. This tiny country, the 152nd largest country in the world, is consistently the first responder in any international tragedy, time and again. This embattled country has accepted thousands of Syrians for medical, notwithstanding 70 years of hostility. This unlikely country has found unique ways to help people from around the world. Israel is the home of organizations like Save A Child’s Heart, which in the last 20 years has done 4,000 heart operations for children around the world, most of whom come from countries hostile to Israel.
The New York Times (August 14, 2016) reported on one such operation, of Yehia, a 14 month old boy, who had been born with his two main arteries reversed and two holes in his heart. His parents, Afghans living in Pakistan, found a local specialist who could perform the necessary surgery, but the price tag was $7,000. The family’s savings, $200, had already been depleted by medical bills. Through a series of connections, they located an American-Israeli who connected the family with Save a Child’s Heart, which got them the plane tickets and visas, and recruited Urdu speakers in Israel to translate for the family. In an eight-hour surgery at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Yehia’s life was saved.

The Times described the operation this way: “Dr. Yahyu Mekonnen, 33, an Ethiopian surgeon, opened Yehia’s chest. Dr. Lior Sasson, who headed an operating team of nearly a dozen people, hummed an Israeli song while they stopped his tiny heart, to patch it up.”
I read this article in pure astonishment. How is that possible that an Afghani child from Pakistan meets an American-Israeli and is then operated on by a Ethiopian-Israeli surgeon in Israel? how does this improbable chain of events come about? Because of this great partnership, a central part of the greatest story on earth.
The second  Jewish story is the story of  family. Maimonides writes in the Laws of Giving Charity (Matnot Aniyim 10:2):
“The entire Jewish people and all those who attach themselves to them are as brothers...And if a brother will not show mercy to a brother, who will show mercy to them?”
Maimonides says Jews see each other as family. Indeed, the language the Bible uses for the Jewish people is “children of Israel”, reflecting the fact that even as a nation, we are meant to see ourselves as family.
Of course, like any family, there is plenty of dysfunction; the Book of Genesis is the story of a family struggling to overcome strife, and the search for unity.
But as history progressed, what has happened is a that a worldwide community has developed, and for the most part we feel like a family. We sacrifice and care for each other in exceptional ways. The daring rescue mission in Entebbe, (during which Yoni Netanyahu gave his life), was undertaken by the State of Israel to protect Jewish brothers and sister from around the world who had been taken captive.
Natan Sharansky, who was imprisoned by the Soviet Union from 1978-1986 drew strength from this rescue. he wrote:
"The sound of a plane would always remind me of Yoni and his friends, who flew thousands of kilometers to the aid of their people. Each time I heard it hope and faith would well up in me with a new vitality and I would think: Avital is with me, Israel is with me. Why should I be afraid?"
Sharansky was right; Jews around the world were fighting for his release. They were doing so because as a family, they were going to stand in solidarity with their brother Natan.  
The next Jewish story is the story of a great redemption. One would expect a nation that was scattered around the world, persecuted for 1900 years, and then endured a Holocaust, to disappear. Yet the opposite has happened, because Jewish history runs counter to the laws of history.
On January 31st, 1961, a debate about Israel and the Jews took place at McGill University in Montreal between Ambassador Yaakov Herzog and Professor Arnold Toynbee.

Herzog, 39, was the son of a the late Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, and both a talented diplomat and a respected Rabbinic scholar; Toynbee, 71, was a prominent historian. Toynbee’s 12 volume magnum opus, “A Study of History”, was based on the theory that all civilizations pass through several distinct stages: genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration. So how to explain the Jews? Toynbee theorized that Judaism was a “fossil civilization”, and merely a relic of the past. The fact that Jews could continue to exist in exile instead of disintegrating could only be explained by arguing that they were actually natives of their host country rather than an independent culture.

Herzog attacked Toynbee from multiple angles. He noted that the Jews had a unique connection to the past and to each other; and that Rabbi Akiva, who died in 135 C.E.,  could walk into the local synagogue and understand what was going on, as could any Jew from any part of the world. These types of connections, to history and to each other, shouldn't exist in a fossil that was absorbed by multiple host cultures.

Herzog’s trump card was the State of Israel. He asked, what fossil has ever returned home and started over again?. To this, even Toynbee had to grudgingly admit that perhaps the Jews had “defossilized.”
It s easy to understand Professor Toynbee: the Jews really should be fossils. There should only be a Jewish history, not a Jewish present. But theories of history can’t explain the greatest story on earth.
During the first destruction, as the Jews left their land to uncertain exile for the first time, Jeremiah told them (Jer. 33:10-11):
“Thus said the LORD: Again there shall be heard in this place, which you say is ruined, without man or beast—in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man, without inhabitants, without beast— the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and bride…”
The words of Jeremiah’s prophecy became part of the wedding liturgy, and even today, the entire audience bursts into song when we get to these words. Such is the Jewish desire for redemption, one that endured for 1,900 years.
A few years ago, I was staying at a hotel in Jerusalem, and waiting for the elevator. When it arrived, a bride in her wedding dress surrounded by her entourage got out. For a moment, my heart skipped a beat; Jeremiah’s prophecy, one which had given so much comfort to generations of persecuted Jews, was now true. The story of a great redemption was standing right in front of me, wearing a white wedding gown.
These three stories, of partnership, of family and of redemption, are part of the greatest story on earth. But there is one more story, a story that is yet to be told: the story of the Jewish future.
As a Rabbi, it is my job to worry about the Jewish future; and there is plenty to worry about in a time of rising assimilation and declining birthrates. It is easy to question the Jewish community’s long term prospects. But it would be a mistake to bet against a Jewish future, considering how improbable the Jewish past has always been.
Years ago, I was officiating at a funeral for a friend’s mother. He was an only child, and his parents were Holocaust survivors. When preparing for the eulogy, he told me an anecdote about his Bar Mitzvah. When the guests sat down for the lunch, his parents disappeared. People searched the synagogue building for them, until finally they were found in a corner of the building, crying. His parents explained that they had to leave the Bar Mitzvah because they were emotionally overwhelmed; they never expected that they themselves were going to survive, let alone celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of a son.
But they did have a child. And he had a Bar Mitzvah. And so did countless others like them; immigrants, refugees, and survivors rebuilt what was broken, generation after generation. And it is because of people like them that we are here today; and we have every reason to believe there will be others like them tomorrow. The best proof of a Jewish future is the improbability of the Jewish past.

So how would I answer the question “why be Jewish”? To put it in a sentence: to be a part of the greatest story on earth, and to write the next chapter.

1 comment:

Jase said...

Proud to be a part of the greatest story on earth even though we usually
keep quiet on the subject.

Missing your words,

Shava Tova to you and yours,

Jason Bowen
TBDJ