Friday, August 15, 2008

You were shown to know

In last week's Parsha (Va'ethanan), in the part that is also read on Tish'a B'Av (the first paragraph of which I read in a low voice when I'm the ba'al korei), Moshe Rabbeinu is addressing the people for the last time, reviewing the events of the last 40 years. He utters a famous phrase that we read at the Hakafot on Simhat Torah, and that Sefaradim recite every Shabbat when the Sefer Torah is taken out of the Aron Kodesh: Ata horeita lada'at ki Hashem hu ha-Elokim ein od milvado. You were shown to know that Hashem is God and there is none beside Him. The Avot were told, and had to believe in Hashem's promises for their descendants, but those Moshe Rabbeinu was addressing were shown, and therefore knew. Some were children and teenagers in Egypt, and experienced God's intervention in human affairs first hand with Yetzi'at Mitzraim, at a very impressionable time of life (see also previous post). Even those born in the wilderness saw first hand the manna, the traveling well, the clothes that were neither outworn nor outgrown, the feet whose soles remained baby smooth despite constant walking.

Much ink is spilled over the need to believe in God and in His omnipotence, even when we are not given much reason to believe, and we have plenty of what appears to be evidence to the contrary. Throughout Inquisitions, pogroms and the Holocaust Jews have believed, even though it would have been so much easier, and seemingly more sensible, to give up on being Jewish. I am reminded of a story I heard about a religious Jew in a concentration camp. Hanukkah was approaching and he scrounged and saved bits of margarine day by day, so that when Hanukkah came he would have enough to light one Hanukkah light. Hanukkah - the holiday when we celebrate Jewish sovereignty and freedom to be Jews - in the pit of hell. And this Jew was concerned about lighting the candle. He believed - even though he had every reason in the world not to. (As an aside, had he asked a halakhic question of a poseq about whether to save the margarine, the answer would almost certainly have been no. When you're starving in a concentration camp and you can get a bit of something edible, you have to eat it and not burn it.) Three years later - the State of Israel was re-established and the significance of Hanukkah becomes crystal clear. No need to believe. Ata horeita lada'at. We were shown. We know.

In 1967 Israel was surrounded by enemies armed to the teeth, poised to drive it and its Jews into the sea. We were all afraid, and the religious were praying and fasting. Then came the smashing victory, the destruction of our enemies and the liberation of Yerushalayim. No need to believe that Hashem was with us. We were shown, and we knew. Hashem was in charge, and nothing in the world happened independently of Him. And what effect did all that have on us, after the initial euphoria abated? We still agonize over whether to wear our kippot to work or to job interviews, sometimes even whether to wear them on the street. People are incredulous when they hear that I wear my kippa in the public school classroom where I teach. Too many Orthodox colleagues do not wear it. Israel suffers a high profile terrorist attack, and Christian pilgrims still visit but Jewish tourists stay away. Israel's leaders fall all over themselves appeasing bloody terrorist murderers, as if God was not in the picture. A downturn in the business cycle (capitalism, to paraphrase Winston Churcill, being the worst economic system on earth except for all the others) and we all go into a panic, as if no one was in charge. Ata horeita lada'at. We were shown. So why the anxiety? Why the defeatism? Are we ever going to learn to take yes for an answer?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm always amazed when people ask me whether I wear a kippah in the ER or my office. I reply by telling them that the cowboy hat would draw too much attention so I stick with the ol' serugah.

That, and I love it when people say "Oh,you're Jewish" so I can reply "Hang on... yes, yes I knew that!"

Fri Aug 22, 09:48:00 AM EDT  

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