Parashat Bamidbar: Why I am ashamed

I am ashamed of a Chief Rabbinate which can summarily nullify the conversions of thousands of Israelis.

israeli flag 88 (photo credit:)
israeli flag 88
(photo credit: )
We begin reading Numbers, Bamidbar, the fourth book of the Pentateuch, on the week in which we celebrate the miraculous liberation of Jerusalem during the Six Day War, the 28th day of Iyar, toward the end of the days leading up to Shavuot. Does this joyous festival, which we mark with the recitation of the hallel psalms of praise, just happen to fall when it does, both with respect to our biblical readings as well as in the count of the days between our Festival of Freedom and the Festival of First Fruits, or is the history-directing finger of God very much in evidence, teaching us a lesson which we can only ignore at the peril of our souls? The Book of Exodus dramatically details the events leading up to and immediately following our liberation from Egyptian slavery. We are soon gifted by the Revelation at Sinai - when we pledge to uphold the "10 moral words" which God bequeathed through us to humanity, the ethical teachings which add responsibility (ahrayut) to freedom (herut), protecting it from descending into wanton debauchery (hefkerut). And, with the 12 tribes surrounding the Sanctuary in the midst of which were the Ark of the Covenant with its precious tablets, the nation is poised to enter the Promised Land and celebrate the Feast of First Fruits in Jerusalem. But alas, if it only took 40 days for the Israelites to leave Egypt, it would take 40 years for Egypt to leave the Israelites! Apparently freedom is a process, and the road from freedom promised (Festival of Matzot) to freedom achieved (Festival of the First Fruits) will not allow for short-cuts. The book of Bamidbar (literally: "in the desert") documents this journey, and serves as the bridge between a divine promise and its human realization, the Book of Leviticus which sets forth the vision that could forge a sacred people, and the Book of Joshua which documents Israel's actual entry into the Land where our destiny would become manifest. The desert (midbar), with its difficult environment, would serve as an excellent testing ground for the divine Word (davar) to take root, for leadership (dabar) to develop, and for sanctity (dvir) to emerge. The desert would be a snake-pit of rebelliousness and recalcitrance, backsliding and bickering, loss of nerve and faulty moral compasses - but it would ultimately lead to Israel's entry into the Land and Solomon's dedication of the Temple. The deeds of the ancestors described in the Bible foreshadow the experience of their descendants. Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day, is a reiteration of the biblical Pessah, our emergence as an old-new people after almost 2,000 years of exile and enslavement; Yom Yerushalayim is our dream of the elusive goal of Shavuot, a City of Peace which will inspire all nations to beat their swords into plowshares, a City of Righteousness which will influence the whole world to accept the morality of the Ten Commandments. But now, just as in biblical times, we apparently require labor before birth, a process of advances and retreats, a desert-like period of exorcising the exile from the nation even after we have presumably returned home. And so, even while we legitimately revel in 60 years of growth and accomplishment, economic development and hi-tech expertise, an ingathering of millions who found a color continuum rather than a color divide, a network of Torah academies and universities, an IDF which is our pride not only because of its power but because of its commitment to avoid collateral damage, I must admit that I am also ashamed. I am ashamed of a government whose prime minister, former president, former finance minister, former government ministers of health and internal security - among others - have charges of moral turpitude hovering over their heads, making a bitter truth of Natan Sharansky's quip that the difference between him and other Israeli ministers of state is that he was imprisoned before he joined the government. I am ashamed of a Chief Rabbinate which can summarily nullify the conversions of thousands of Israelis (even though they were performed by a court of Torah scholars) with crass indifference to the lives they are destroying, and disregarding the manifold biblical directives of how we are to love the proselyte. I am ashamed of the religious court judges who, in the name of the "purity" of Israel, are impervious of the cries of abused women, captives to husbands who either refuse to grant a get or demand a high ransom for them. I am ashamed of a politically controlled, coalition-driven system of religious court judges who disregard the compassion of the Talmud and have made our divinely given and just laws a cruel laughingstock for Jews and gentiles alike. I am ashamed that our political and religious leaders answer to a party rather than a constituency, that many of our politicians are motivated by profits rather than prophets, and many religious court judges seek grace in the eyes of those to their Right rather than in the eyes of the One above. Most of all, I am ashamed that these "leaders" are not ashamed, and that, in a presumed democracy, individuals in high office hold onto their seats despite many opinion polls crying for their resignation. So what gives me faith in the future? Thank God, I am in constant contact with our magnificent and idealistic youth, who are sparked by what inspires me and undaunted by what shames me; youth still ready to sacrifice their lives for a miracle country which is standing up to terrorism and reaching for the elusive dream of Jerusalem. And I believe in our prophets, specifically Isaiah, who railed against backsliding "ministers" who love bribes and self-righteous judges who refuse to take up the cause of the widow and orphan, but who nevertheless guaranteed that at the other side of the desert, God will "return His hand upon us and purify our dross…, restore our judges as they were of old," and that Jerusalem shall be called City of Righteousness, a Municipality of Faithfulness." (Isaiah 1:22, 23, 26). We can only pray that we are now at the end of the desert experience, and that our next 60 years will see the rebuilding of the Holy Temple to which all nations will flock, their political and religious leaders truly moved by truth and peace. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.