Friday, June 24, 2022

Jewish Cowardice: A Reevaluation


In his book The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud recounts a conversation with his father Jakob, when he was 10- or 12-years-old. Jakob said to his son: "While I was a young man, I was walking one Saturday on a street in the village where you were born; I was handsomely dressed and wore a new fur cap. Along comes a Christian, who knocks my cap into the mud with one blow and shouts: "Jew, get off the sidewalk." "And what did you do?" "I went into the street and picked up the cap," was the calm answer." This response upset Sigmund Freud; he wrote that "(it) did not seem heroic on the part of the big strong man, who was leading me, a little fellow, by the hand." Freud was embarrassed that his father was a coward; he was embarrassed that his father did so little to stand up to an antisemite.
Hannah Tessler | Shira Tessler
The allegation of Jewish cowardice has a long history, one which begins with the generation of the desert. The spies return from a reconnaissance mission to the promised land with a negative report; they had reviewed the strength of the Canaanites, and concluded that “we cannot attack those people, for they are stronger than we are.” That night, the entire nation cried, grumbled, and plotted a return to Egypt.
Without question, the spies lacked self-confidence. A revealing verse offers a window into their fears and worries; in it, the spies declare that in comparison with the Canaanites, "we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” The Midrash notes that the spies engage in mind-reading, and instantly assume that the Canaanites see them as weak and small as well; this negative assumption speaks volumes about the spies’ inferiority complex.
From the moment they left Egypt, the Jews were plagued with a lack of self-confidence. Every difficult moment brings fear and worry; so much so, that the Torah explains that God didn’t take the Jews on a direct path to Israel, because of a concern that the Jews would flee back to Egypt if they faced war immediately. Many of the commentaries to the Torah explain this lack of self-confidence as being a product of a slave mentality. Ibn Ezra offers the following observation regarding the panic the Jews had at the banks of the Red Sea, when being pursued by the Egyptian army:
One may wonder how such a large camp of six hundred thousand men would be afraid of those pursuing after them; and why did they not stand up and fight for their lives and for their children? The answer is that the Egyptians were the Israelites' masters. And the generation that left Egypt was trained from its youth to tolerate the yoke of Egypt and had a lowly soul… (and they were) weak and not trained in warfare. And God… brought it about that all the males of the people that went out of Egypt would die, as there was no strength in them to fight against the Canaanites; (the Jews would first enter the land) after a new generation…that did not see exile and had a confident spirit, arose...
Ibn Ezra says the Jews had a “slave mentality”; they were still held emotionally captive by the Egyptians, and unable to build an independent life. This theory is embraced by the Rambam and multiple other commentaries. The first generation of Jews in the desert are the original Jewish cowards, people who would rather remain slaves than fight for their own future. And Jews in exile often saw a reflection of themselves in the generation of the desert.
Ultimately, the image of the cowardly Jew becomes a staple of antisemitic propaganda; but sadly, Jews adopted this self-image as well. Some of the nastiest and harshest depictions of Jewish cowardice come from inside the Jewish community. Consider the following bitter Jewish joke about what is considered to be “celebration for the Jews.”
One year, in an East European town, a child was found dead on the night of Pesach. All the Jews knew well the rage, rioting, and killing that would soon befall them. They gathered in the synagogue and engaged in fervent prayer until one Jew rushed into the synagogue and joyously proclaimed: “Der mes is ah Yid – the dead child is Jewish!” Good news … we had nothing to worry about. There will be no pogrom! Der mes is ah Yid – a simcha bei Yidden - a celebration for the Jews.
This joke is so vicious, I thought for a long time before deciding to include it in this article. But it authentically represents a profound Jewish fury at their own community, a fury that they were too eager to accept discrimination and persecution. But by the late 19th century, many young Jews saw themselves as the opposites of their ancestors. Much like the second generation of Jews in the desert, they felt that they needed to make a complete break with the past. In a speech memorializing Theodor Herzl, Ze’ev Jabotinsky called on young Jews to restart Jewish history. (Here too, the rhetoric is harsh; Jabotinsky used the antisemitic slur zhid in the text; it has been replaced with Yid.) He calls on the community to transform itself from the slavish old Jew of the past:
Our starting point is to take the typical Yid of today and to imagine his diametrical opposite ... because the Yid is ugly, sickly, and lacks decorum, we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty. The Yid is trodden upon and easily frightened and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to be proud and independent. The Yid is despised by all and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to charm all. The Yid has accepted submission and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to learn how to command. The Yid wants to conceal his identity from strangers and, therefore, the Hebrew should look the world straight in the eye and declare: "I am a Hebrew!"
This idea was adopted by multiple Zionist thinkers, and called shlilat hagolah, “the negation of exile.” The dream was for a generation of new Jews to replace the fearful, cowardly old Jew. The Jews of the early 20th century could only leave the desert of exile if the new Jew unlearned the bad habits of their forebears.
After the Holocaust, some extended this rhetoric to attack the victims of the Holocaust; they were seen as weak and fearful, people who didn’t fight back, and went like sheep to the slaughter. Raul Hilberg, one of the first historians to research the Holocaust, reinforced the stereotype of Jewish cowardice, and he ignored all forms of Jewish resistance. But other historians recognized that this picture was distorted, and further research brought many instances of active resistance to light. But a large part of this reevaluation came from a new definition of resistance. To resist did not require the taking up of arms, which in most cases was both impossible and futile. Instead, there was a growing recognition of the importance of spiritual resistance; and for those under the crushing oppression of the Nazis, the determination to raise one’s spirit and to pursue life was nothing short of heroic. Hilberg mocked this theory that heroism included the "soup ladlers and all others in the ghettos who staved off starvation and despair." But today, there is broad recognition of the significance of spiritual resistance. In the hell of the concentration camps, the will to live on required profound strength and determination.
A similar reevaluation is needed for the Jews in the desert. The Torah highlights their flaws and their failures; but perhaps the evidence of a few negative episodes over 40 years is insufficient to render a final verdict on an entire generation. The generation of the desert did follow God for 40 years in the desert; and in the Book of Jeremiah, their devotion is highlighted, where Yirmiyahu says: “I remember the devotion of your youth…how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.” In the Mishnah, Rabbi Eliezer argues against the prevailing view, and says that the generation of the desert were pious keepers of the Covenant. Yes, at times some of them grumbled, at times they were afraid. But they followed Moses for 40 years in the desert, and they raised a generation of children that would ultimately enter the land. Their case deserves a second look.
This reevaluation also explains a mystery: How is it that after 1900 years of exile, the cowardly Jew became the pioneer and soldier? How did this new Jew arise, as if out of nowhere? Perhaps the answer is that the new Jew and the galut jew are not all that different. Yes, they look different; the new Jew is the very portrait of a knight in shining armor, unafraid to do battle, while the galut Jew is a hunched man in rags, being heaped with abuse as he walks in the street. But one needs to look past the externals; what is more critical is the inner values. Both the new Jew and the galut Jew were guided by the goal of am Yisrael chai, ensuring that the Jewish people live on. Sometimes that goal can be pursued with pride; but sometimes survival on its own is good enough, even if it requires enduring humiliation. And when he finally got the chance, the galut Jew grabbed the opportunity to return home.
This reevaluation of the galut Jew is now widely accepted; in recent years, the hearts of the two generations have been brought closer to each other. On Yom Hashoah, many Israelis take a moment to reflect on the legacy of Jews who survived during the Holocaust. They are not seen as weaklings; instead, they are respected as heroes. And each year on Yom Hashoah, the IDF, the Israeli army, shares the stories of Holocaust survivors together with their grandchildren who are serving in the Israeli army. One of the stories featured Holocaust survivor Hanna Tessler, 96, and her granddaughter Shira, a parachuting instructor in the IDF Paratroopers Brigade. The caption included what Hanna said to Shira that day:
As a child, I hated soldiers in uniform. They scared me very much. I never thought there would be a time that I would love soldiers. As you hold my hand, while wearing the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces, paratrooper's wings pinned on your shirt, and a pair of paratrooper’s boots on your feet, I am overwhelmed with emotion that I can't keep inside. You're a paratrooper and I float in the air, pinching myself to make sure it's not a dream. My heart is filled with pride and such incredible love. I feel like a soldier myself – I fought for my life, I fought for my sanity, I fought to be a person again, and I really fought and dreamed to have a big family. So today, I stand up tall and salute you. 
This photo is of two generations side by side, holding each other in mutual admiration and love. The Jewish people wouldn’t be here without the determination of previous generations, and we wouldn’t have returned to Israel without the courage of a younger generation. And thanks to the sacrifices of Jews past and present, we can continue to say am Yisrael chai.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Everyone Kvetches: A Guide to Dealing with First World Problems


There is an old Jewish joke about the prominent businessman who gets sick and is taken to the best hospital in town. A few days later, he abruptly transfers to a small hospital nearby, which is best known for its mediocrity. When he arrives there, the attending physician is intrigued, wondering why this man left a world class facility to come to his humble hospital. So, the attending quizzes his new patient about the previous hospital.
The Jews Gathering the Manna in the Desert -1637 - 1639
By Nicolas Pousin 1594-1665
"Was the medical care not good enough?"

"No - the medical care was remarkable, with one doctor more brilliant than the next. I can't complain".

"Was the nursing care OK?"

"The nurses were absolute angels. I can't complain."

"What about the food and the rooms?"

"The food was exceptional, truly restaurant quality; the hospital rooms were just redecorated. I can't complain.”

Finally, the doctor asks: "So why did you come here??"

"Here..…I CAN complain!"

There is no shortage of Jewish jokes about "kvetching." Kvetching is more than just a Yiddish translation for complaint, and there's a vast difference between the quotidian kvetch and a noble protest. Instead, kvetching is a sort of whining or whinging, punctuated by sighs and served up with melodrama; it is both an attitude and performance art. And for reasons unknown, kvetching found a home among the Jews of Eastern Europe.
But kvetching is very much out of place in Western culture. It runs counter to a tradition of uncomplaining courage, what the British call a “stiff upper lip.” Aristotle writes that those of a "manly nature" don't share their pain with others, because they don't want to burden their friends. Immanuel Kant endorsed a stoic attitude to pain, explaining that "complaining and whimpering, even crying out in bodily pain, are unworthy of you…" In the classic poem “Invictus,” the poet declares that he will accept his difficult fate head on, and that:
In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
In the United States, there is a culture of compulsory cheerfulness, and all complaining is marginalized as "negativity," something that brings down the collective good mood. Scanning the shelves in any bookstore, you can find titles such as The No Complaining Rule, The Complaint Free World, and No Complaints: How to Stop Sabotaging Your Own Joy, pushing us to be forever cheerful. Grief and sadness are frowned upon; even tragic events like funerals are supposed to be a "celebration of life." It is improper to honestly answer the question “How are you doing?” The only acceptable reply is: “Great!” Immigrants from other countries sometimes don't realize that in America, the question is a request for an upbeat platitude. Instead, they will offer an unexpectedly lengthy and open answer to this question. A friend of mine, who worked for Jewish Immigrant Aid Services, had to counsel new immigrants not to answer this question honestly. In a culture of optimism, everything must be “great!”
Certainly, kvetching is not the Jewish ideal. The Mishnah tells us that the truly wealthy man is the one who is content with his lot, not one who complains about its shortcomings. The Tanakh emphasizes over and over that the man of faith does not complain and places his trust in God. And because of this, it is tempting when reading this week's Torah portion to look down our noses at the complaining Jews in the desert. Grieving and crying, they complain that they are sick of eating manna; it is just too boring. Then, the complaint jumps to the absurd, when they say they would rather return to Egypt, whereof the former slaves “remember the fish that we used to eat for free…the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” Yes, the Jews in the desert say they are ready to return to the house of bondage just to find a better restaurant. At first glance this looks silly, and we are tempted to dismiss them with condescension. But the lesson of this parsha is how ordinary and human kvetching is.
What is fascinating about this narrative is that everybody complains, without exception. The grumbling begins with the mixed multitude of people who joined the Jews during the Exodus; they complained that they missed meat. One would expect this group, who were already freemen in Egypt, to be the first to complain; they had the most to lose and least to gain by leaving Egypt. Then the grumblings catch on with the Jews, who miss the fish they were able to catch at the river, along with "the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic" that they ate at their slave master's tables. But the grumblings don't end there. Moshe, overwhelmed by the complaints of the Jews, responds with a bitter complaint of his own. And it is this complaint that is most dramatic, where Moshe asks: "Why have You punished Your servant?" Moshe tells God he would rather die than continue as the leader of the grumbling Jews.
The lesson of these cascading complaints is simply this: everybody kvetches. It is not limited to a mixed multitude of Egyptians or the weak-willed former slaves; even the central hero of the Tanakh, Moshe, joins in on the complaining.
Instead of mocking the grumbling masses, the Torah wants us to recognize that we're not very different than them. And we really aren't. Don't we also pay an inordinate amount of attention to the garlics, leeks and watermelon in our lives? We plan meaningful celebrations like weddings, kiddushes, bar and bat mitzvahs, only to fight about, criticize, and otherwise get hung up on the menu. Kvetching is universal, not just a childish habit that people will simply grow out of.
So how does one end kvetching? Yes, one could use the two methods mentioned before, and maintain a stiff upper lip or put on a happy face. And at times, it is important to do exactly that. But the problem is that changing one's outer demeanor will often fall short. Both methods require us to suppress our actual feelings; afterwards, we are often left grumbling inside.
Our Parsha offers its own guidance on how to deal with kvetching. We are not demanded to change human nature. Instead, we are invited to reflect on who we are. Our perspectives, priorities, and sense of purpose shape us; we only complain about things that we consider important. In the end, an empty soul will always be dissatisfied.
Why did the Jews grumble about the manna? A careful reading of the text indicates that their complaint arises from a lack of spirituality. The text interweaves the story of the complaints about meat (and the quails God sends in response to the complaints), with another story about Moshe's disciples receiving the gift of prophecy. As Elchanan Samet points out, these two stories are linked by the Hebrew root word for gathering, assaf; the people are gathering the quails that land around the camp while Moshe is gathering a group of future prophets. The contrast is clear: some gather birds, while others gather inspiration.
The text also hints that a confusion of values leads to this grumbling. When telling the people to ready themselves to eat meat the next day, the word the Torah uses is hitkadashu, which in most other contexts means to "make oneself holy"; here, it is used in an unusual way, to mean "prepare." This invocation of religious language to describe an upcoming meat delivery is meant to mock the perspective of those clamoring for tastier meals; they are worshiping food and consider a pound of flesh to be sacred. And when you worship food, you will always complain about the menu. Someone with a purpose-driven life will have a sense of gratitude and instead appreciate the divine blessings of freedom and goodness.
Kvetching will never cease; as long as desire exists, so will disappointment. Even though our current standard of living far exceeds that of previous generations, we can still find plenty of things about which to complain. On the contrary, better living conditions breed even higher expectations. There is even a term for this type of complaint: first world problems. The renowned psychiatrist Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski relates an anecdote about his own first world problem:
“I had just bought a new car, fully loaded, and was very upset that the cruise control was not functioning properly. That day, a woman who was eight months into recovery from alcoholism stopped by to tell me about her good fortune. “I found an apartment that I can afford. Now that my son is going to school all day, I can take a full-time job. I might save enough money to get my car fixed,” she said.
“What’s wrong with your car?” I asked.
“It doesn’t have a reverse gear,” she said
"How do you drive without a reverse gear?” I asked.
"You just have to be careful where you park,” she said. “At least I have a way to get around – there are some people who don’t even have a car.”
I felt pretty meek – instead of being grateful that I had a fully loaded new car, I was griping because the cruise control was not working!”
A broken cruise control is truly a “first world problem.” Our first instinct is to kvetch when something like this happens; and that has been true since the very beginning of time. But the parsha is a guide for how to properly relate to these first world problems. We must never forget to focus on our purpose, recognize our priorities, and keep our sense of perspective. If we do that, menus and cruise control malfunctions won't matter.

Friday, June 10, 2022

A Blessing for Alienation


In the early summer of 1970, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Gefner was sitting at the Kotel praying for peace and tranquility. The War of Attrition in the Sinai had intensified, and Israeli soldiers were being killed daily. Heartbroken by the losses, the words of the Mishnah echoed in his mind: "From the day that the Temple was destroyed, there is no day that does not contain curses."
Detail of a mozaic in the Synagoge of Enschede. The mosaic text reads "בשמאלה עשר וכבוד" ("in her left hand riches and honor"), which is a part of Proverbs 3:16, Mozaiek in de Synagoge van Enschede
Suddenly, Gefner had a revelation. He remembered that there is a passage in the Midrash that responds to the Mishnah and says: “Rav Acha said: If so, by what merit do we remain standing? Through the merit of Birkat Kohanim (the priestly blessing).” This inspired Gefner; he later found a tradition from the late 12th century mystic, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, that said: “If three hundred Kohanim would stand on the Mount of Olives and recite Birkat Kohanim, the Messiah would arrive.” Gefner decided to organize large Birkat Kohanim gatherings at the Kotel; and today, because of him, tens of thousands of people, along with hundreds of Kohanim, come from around the world to the Kotel on Pesach and Sukkot for Birkat Kohanim.
Gefner's choice of Birkat Kohanim is unsurprising; this blessing has been a perennial favorite for millenia. Parents offer this blessing to their children on Shabbat, and the oldest biblical text ever found is that of Birkat Kohanim; it is inscribed on the Hinnom Scrolls, two silver amulets that date to the seventh century B.C. Birkat Kohanim has a unique appeal that draws people to it.
Despite its popularity, the idea that the Kohanim are the ones who offer bless the community is theologically troubling. Rabbi Isaac Arama articulates this problem in his commentary to the parsha:
"What purpose is there in this commandment, in having these blessings coming to the people from the mouths of the Kohanim? It is God above who gives the blessing. What can be added if the Kohanim offer this blessing or not? Does God need their help?"
Some are unconcerned by this question and say that the blessing of Birkat Kohanim does belong to the Kohanim. Rabbeinu Bachya says that “God handed over the gift of these blessings to the Kohanim, that they should have in their hands the power to bless Israel.” Some go even further. The Kli Yakar explains that it is the chazan who brings the blessings down from heaven, by reading the words of the blessing; the kohanim repeat the words after the chazan and take that blessing from the chazan to offer it to the community.
The Rambam and many other commentaries find this to be unacceptable; it is God who determines divine blessings, not man. The Rambam writes: “Do not wonder and say, "Of what use is the blessing of an ordinary person?" The acceptance of the blessings does not depend upon the Kohen but upon the Almighty, as it is said, "So shall they put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them" (Numbers 6:27). The Kohanim fulfill their duty with which they have been charged, and the Almighty, in His mercy, blesses Israel according to His will.” According to the Rambam, the Kohen’s recitation of the blessing is merely a formality, a ritual no different than the rest of the Temple service; in the end, it is God who provides the blessing. This answer solves the theological dilemma; but it devalues the role of the Kohanim and empties their blessings of meaning.
There is a third way of looking at the blessings, one which is suggested by the Rashbam. Birkat Kohanim is a prayer offered by the Kohanim on behalf of the community; God then listens to this blessing-prayer of the Kohanim and blesses the community. (The Sifrei notes that by listening to Birkat Kohanim, the community also brings God’s blessing to the Kohanim.) However, this too begs the question: Can’t the community pray for themselves? Can’t the Kohanim, who bless others, obtain their own blessings?
But perhaps that is precisely the point: a community that prays for each other, that sees the other person as worthy of God’s blessing, is a community transformed. That perspective is in itself a blessing.
True love requires both compassion and respect; but respect is the more important of the two. Compassion is the foundation of “love your neighbor as yourself”; when we appreciate that our neighbors are like us, we feel a desire to care for them. However, Ben Azzai, in a passage in the Talmud, says that recognizing that others are created in the image of God is even more important. This is the foundation of respect; one must treat a person who carries the divine image as sacred.
Birkat Kohanim is about respect; it teaches us to bless each other, because every human being is worthy of God’s blessing. This perspective is nothing short of transformative, and it is a true moment of divine inspiration when the Kohanim and congregation meet each other face to face and connect in appreciation and love.
The context of Birkat Kohanim in our Torah reading underlines its importance as a communal institution. Instead of being included in Sefer Vayikra with the other laws of the Kohanim, Birkat Kohanim is found at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar. The theme of Bamidbar is nation building; the book begins with a census and the organization of the military and focuses on the development of a young nation in the desert. But the rise of the state brings with it a great deal of discontent. States are big and self-involved, and individuals will be overlooked and excluded. National ambitions pay little attention to the ordinary man, and consequently, states are by their very nature cold and impersonal. The state, in a word, is alienating.
The laws in our parsha all deal with people who are alienated or marginalized: those who are impure, the convert, the estranged husband and wife, and the uncomfortable religious striver, the Nazir. Taken as a group, these laws warn us about alienation, and the problems of nation building. Following these laws, the blessing of the Kohanim is introduced; it represents the opposite of alienation. The cold calculus of the state sees young men as a unit of military force, one more soldier available for battle; but Birkat Kohanim reminds us that they are all God’s children.

Alienation is now commonplace around the world. A toxic mix of technology, materialism, and polarization has left people feeling more disconnected than ever. It is in times like this that we must relearn how to respect everyone, to recognize the divine dignity of each human being. And that is what Birkat Kohanim does; it reminds us that even the stranger is created in the image of God and deserves our blessing.
Aaron Katz, an American immigrant to Israel, described in Tablet Magazine his experiences reciting Birkat Kohanim in “a moving minyan” on the train to Tel Aviv:
….as I recite the prayer each morning—on a moving train in the State of Israel—the words have taken on an entirely new meaning for me …. On a train filled with the spectrum of Israeli society, I have a unique opportunity to provide the passengers, including the soldiers and police officers who risk their lives to defend the State of Israel, with a blessing of protection and peace.
The Talmud explains …. that Birkat Kohanim reaches out to the people “out in the fields” who are unable to be present during the recitation of the blessing. As we literally pass through the fields... of Ramla and Lod...during Birkat Kohanim, I... smile at how literal the Talmudic saying has become in my own life. And I wonder, could the rabbis of the Talmud ever have imagined that an immigrant Kohen to Israel would be passing through the fields with a minyan while reciting the Birkat Kohanim and praying for peace?
I don’t know what the Rabbis of the Talmud imagined. But what Katz describes is precisely the purpose of Birkat Kohanim: to see everyone as worthy of God’s blessing. When we do that, we become just a bit closer to each other, just a bit less alienated. And maybe if we do this often enough, at the Kotel, on trains, and at the Shabbat table, the blessings of peace in Birkat Kohanim will become a reality.

Friday, June 03, 2022

Love in the Shadow of Death: The Story of Ruth


All of life is a footnote to love and death. These two poles of existence overshadow everything else; love creates life and death takes it away, filling our lives with joy and sorrow in unending succession.
The Wailing Wall In the Old City of Jerusalem, Courtesy of the American Colony, 1910
It is easiest to consider love and death separately, as two very different chapters of life; and emotionally, they are worlds apart. Halakhah reflects this instinct and treats mourning and celebration as irreconcilable opposites. Mourners don't attend celebrations and parties, and the joy of the holidays terminates shiva. The heart cannot accommodate both joy and grief at the same time because both love and death inspire intense, all-encompassing emotions.
Love is intoxicating. Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs, portrays the exceptional power of love, with couples who are “lovesick” and unable to act rationally. And this reality repeats itself over and over in history. When Jacob falls in love with Rachel, he dramatically overpays for her dowry, offering to work seven full years for her hand. Even so, Jacob imagines that he is the one who is getting a bargain, because he is so much in love with Rachel; the seven years seem like a small price to pay for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Jacob is blinded by love.
William Blake captures this mindless blindness in a short poem: “Love to faults is always blind, Always is to joy inclin’d, Lawless, wing’d and unconfin’d, And breaks all chains from every mind.” Love hatches remarkable dreams that fly in every direction; with love nothing seems impossible. Lovers are oblivious to reality and live in their own two-person universe, just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Death brings a blindness of its own. When King Solomon writes the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, he begins with a lament about the pointlessness of life; as Rashi puts it, "The author of Kohelet issues a complaint against the seven days of creation, that (the world) is all a vanity of vanities." Death, the question without an answer, confounds him. What point does life have, Kohelet asks, if the righteous man meets the same end as the wicked, and the wise man has the same fate as an animal? (The bitter, skeptical tone of Kohelet seems out of place in the Tanakh; I sometimes wonder if the purpose of Kohelet is to expose us to our own bitterness and cynicism, to recognize that hope will disintegrate without faith.)
Whenever one looks death in the eye, optimism and joy quickly evaporate. Franz Rosenzweig notes how life stands in the shadow of death, and "all that is mortal lives in fear of death…each newly born waits with fear and trembling for the day of its passage into the dark…every new birth multiplies the fear (of death) ...for it multiplies that which is mortal." When one enters the realm of death, a cold cynicism descends, choking off any experience of joy.
The poetry of Shir Hashirim and the acerbic philosophy of Kohelet each deserve their own book; they faithfully explore the experiences of passion and despair. And because the emotions of joy and grief are opposites, we assume that the experiences of love and death are utterly incompatible. But they are not.
A third biblical book, the Book of Ruth, brings death and love together. In it, a family moves from Israel to Moab, where the sons take Moabite wives for themselves. In short succession, this family is devastated by death, with the father and his two sons passing away at a young age. Alone and impoverished, one of the son's wives, Ruth, returns with her mother-in-law Naomi to Israel. Ruth abandons her homeland to remain with her beloved mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth persists despite discrimination and desperation and insists that she will perpetuate her husband's family's legacy; and in the end she does just that. She marries a relative of her husband's, Boaz, and the family continues; their great-grandson is King David.
The Book of Ruth is not just a book of love and death; it is a book about a different type of love, love in the shadow of death. After the family's tragedies, Naomi succumbs to cynicism; she even suggests she should rename herself as "bitter." Ruth refuses this path; she battles with the angel of death. Ruth teaches us how to pursue redemption in the valley of the shadow of death.
The Hebrew word for redemption, ga'al, appears multiple times in the Book of Ruth, because it is a book about redemption, ones both large and small. By remarrying and bringing grandchildren to Naomi, Ruth redeems and rebuilds a once broken family. And later, her descendant King David will be the very symbol of Messianic redemption and bring redemption to the nation as a whole.
Ordinarily, death erases life, and destroys all that love has built. But in redemption, it is love that gets the final word, staying one step ahead in a cosmic wrestling match. It is when you continue to love after a tragedy, when you courageously pour your broken heart into rebuilding a broken world, you have taken the first steps on the road to redemption.
The very foundation of Jewish history is redemption; it is the story of a people who, despite having every reason to be bitter and cynical, continued to rebuild and repair. This has never been more evident than in the past century. Crushed by the Holocaust, it would have made sense for the Jews to give up. Instead, following Ruth’s example, they built the State of Israel, a modern-day miracle of redemption.
Last week I joined the Ramaz Upper School mission to Israel, together with nearly 500 students and teachers. Israel is filled with stories of redemption, both large and small. At Tel-a-Saki, the sight of one of the fiercest battles of the Yom Kippur War, we were told about the heroism of the soldiers who fought there. Three tanks, under the command of Yoav Yakir, held off hundreds of Syrian tanks for nearly 2 days, giving the army precious time to reinforce their defenses on the Golan Heights. Even after it became clear that they were no longer able to hold off the Syrians, Yoav chose to fight as long as possible, and fell in battle. After the war, a member of Yoav's unit, Yitzchak Nagarker, had a baby boy. (Yitzchak is a war hero in his own right, with his own incredible story of courage.) At the bris, Yitzchak invited Yoav's father to be the sandek; and he named his first born Yoav, in honor of his fallen comrade. "Love is as strong as death” and is the very instrument of redemption; and Yoav's legacy continues to live on in Yitzchak's son.
Our mission prayed at the Kotel on Friday night, just a day before Yom Yerushalayim. Through hundreds of years of exile, the passion the Jewish people had for Jerusalem never wavered. They continued to dream of this place, to declare l’shanah haba'ah b’Yerushalayim, “next year in Jerusalem”. And on June 7, 1967, for the first time in 1900 years, that dream came true. An Israeli flag was raised over the Kotel. With tears in their eyes, the exiles had returned to Zion. The Kotel is the ultimate monument to redemption, and its stones whisper, Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish people live on.
After services on Friday night, the Ramaz students gathered in the plaza, waiting to walk together as a group to Shabbat dinner. Then something remarkable happened. They gathered in one large circle, singing Jewish songs for a half an hour; other visitors came over to watch this moment of inspiration. At that moment, the students were making Ruth's legacy their own. They were singing the song of redemption, continuing an undying love story that has lasted for thousands of years.