In Plain Language: Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide

The good news is this is an age when Diaspora Jews no longer have to keep their suitcases packed and at the ready.Now, there is only one place left to run to: Israel.

By
January 28, 2016 13:03
Indonesian Jews

Vicktor (Noah) Ratumbanua holds the Torah during Saturday morning services.. (photo credit: ANNA CLARE SPELMAN)

 
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“God, desired, for Israel’s sake, that the Torah be made great and glorious” (Isaiah 42:21).

The Torah reading this week in synagogues throughout the world contains the centerpiece of Jewish life – perhaps that of all humanity – the Ten Commandments. Here are laid out the general principles for proper human behavior, both vis-à-vis God as well as in the relationship between man and his fellow man.

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Each of these commandments is both specific and general: “Do not steal,” for example, sets forth the prohibition of robbing a bank, but it also includes the theft of another person’s time, or the sin of purposely misleading others. “Do not commit adultery” is as much about loyalty to God as it is a warning not to cheat on one’s spouse. In fact, say the rabbis, the roughly 613 letters that comprise the full text of the Ten Commandments were a kind of code to Moses the Lawgiver, who, by tradition, was taught the entire body of the mitzvot by the Almighty during his 40- day stay on Mount Sinai.

One of these Torah laws was the requirement to respect the rabbinic decisors of each generation, granting them a fairly wide leeway to “tweak” selected mitzvot in order to protect society and make Jewish life more livable. Thus Rabbeinu Gershom, the “Light of the Exile,” could enact several crucial laws in the year 1000 CE, including the ban on polygamy and the necessity of both parties to consent to a divorce. So, too, could Hillel introduce a document known as the prozbul – no, this is not the name of an ancient, allstar football game – in order to circumvent the prohibition of collecting debts in the shmita sabbatical year, thus allowing the free flow of loans to continue unabated.

Of course, there are many today who would like the rabbinic leadership to be much bolder, to enact other controversial yet courageous takanot, or decrees, which would solve certain nagging problems and enhance unity within the worldwide Jewish community.

These might include easing the ban on kitniyot (legumes) for Ashkenazi Jews on Passover; the modifying of the requirements for halachic conversion and, of course, somehow solving the aguna – a Jewish woman who is “chained” to her marriage – crisis. These are not simple issues and cannot be dealt with unilaterally; they require a broad rabbinic consensus, without which they would be largely ineffectual and could actually lead to even more disunity, thus accomplishing the opposite of what they were intended to do.

YET I believe another challenge is equally, if not more, pressing. I suggest that, in a more perfect spiritual world, there would be an 11th Commandment.



And that would be, “Thou shalt live in Israel.”

Now, like almost all the other commandments – idolatry, gross immorality and murder the notable exceptions – this mitzva would be suspended if it were injurious to one’s health or physically untenable.

And, truth be told, many rabbinic decisors already consider this to be a binding requirement. But somehow, it still lacks – and desperately needs – the strength and status that being part of the “Big 10” would provide.

Now, the primacy of Israel has always been part and parcel of both the Torah and Jewish life. In God’s first appearance to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob and to Moses, He stresses the centrality of the Jewish people having our own homeland, and His promise to gather us together in one place. And we know how deeply all of the biblical heroes – who are meant to be our eternal role models – felt about the dangers of the Diaspora and how indispensable Israel is to Jewish destiny.

And more than one rabbinic sage has emphasized that Jewish observance is at best incomplete outside the borders of the Holy Land; Ramban (Nahmanides) went so far as to consider mitzva performance in the Exile as mere “practice” in preparation for the real thing in our own land.

And yet, despite all the sources that stress living in Israel; despite the billions of prayers uttered throughout the millennia, all the lip-service we have paid describing our desire to return to Israel; despite the amazing gift that God has finally laid at our doorstop; despite the daily, nonstop jet service to Ben-Gurion Airport and the vibrant economy, advanced technology and spiritual opportunities that are available here, there is still a feeble, lukewarm response among much of Diaspora Jewry to the fulfillment of this imperative.

Too many of our brothers and sisters are caught in the quicksand of comfort and career, and the illusion of an endless “International Jewry.” And this is a problem.

THE PORTION of the Torah in which we read the Ten Commandments is named for Jethro, Moses’s fatherin- law. Jethro is a fascinating character. Early in his career, he, along with Balaam and Job, was a principal adviser to Pharaoh, who sought counsel on how to deal with his “Jewish problem.” Balaam urged Pharaoh to enslave and oppress the Jews, and ultimately was killed by the Israelites; Job kept silent, and would undergo severe trials and traumas in his life. Jethro, for his part, ran away.

This act of fleeing Pharaoh – in essence distancing himself from the Egyptian holocaust – served Jethro quite well. He became a respected priest of Midian, acquired great wealth and prestige, converted to belief in one God and gained a most illustrious son-in-law.

It would seem that running away, to a safe haven, was clearly a good move.

But too much of a good thing is often not very good at all. For later, when Moses pleads with Jethro to stay and become part of the nascent nation that is about to enter the Land of Israel, Jethro, according to most sources, runs once more, returning to Midian, never to be heard from again. His shot at eternal glory is gone; not only does his name vanish from the remaining pages of the Bible, the name Jethro rarely, if ever, is bestowed upon a Jewish child. (Jethro Bodine of The Beverly Hillbillies TV fame doesn’t count, although his real-life persona, Max Baer Jr., did have a Jewish father.) Contrast this with another famous convert, Ruth (the Hebrew initials of whose name is subsumed within that of Jethro). She is implored by her motherin- law, Naomi, to run away, to distance herself from the Jewish nation. And yet, she stays put, resolutely refusing to leave.

The result is that she gains a privileged place in Jewish life, gives rise to the lineage of King David and the Messiah, and can claim thousands of other Ruths named for her throughout the generations.

All because she knew when not to run, as well as her stubborn devotion to the Land of Israel.

FOR 2,000 years, Jews excelled in the art of running.

We specifically chose businesses (diamonds, artisanship, banking, etc.) that allowed us to flee when forced to do so, to pick up the pieces elsewhere and make a living. Thus we survived when our hosts turned against us, as they invariably do. So, for example, when the Holocaust broke out, wise – and lucky – Jews fled to far-flung cities of refuge in such unfamiliar places as Cuba, Curaçao, Bolivia and Shanghai.

There they set up shop until the danger subsided and they could return once again to normal life in more accommodating surroundings. And that was fine and completely necessary.

But we live in a new age. As events tragically demonstrate, there are fewer and fewer places where Jews can feel safe and secure. All over the world, attacks on Jews are increasing as anti-Semitism – often under the deceptive cover of anti-Zionism – targets Jews and Jewish institutions. And it is only going to get worse, as radical Muslims, raised since birth on vicious hatred for Jews, increase their presence and pogroms. Already, Jews fear walking about in kippot throughout much of Europe; Africa – with the exception of the powder keg known as South Africa – is essentially Judenrein; South America is dangerous to any Jew’s health. Can North America be far behind? You know things are bad when Russia invites Jews to seek safety there.

In short, there is virtually nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

But the good news is that this is an age when Diaspora Jews no longer have to keep their suitcases packed and at the ready. Now, there is only one place left to run to: Israel, a land that beckons to all Jews with open arms. Yes, we have our own terrorism war to contend with, and our own vicious enemy with whom to do battle. But we shall win this battle, as we have bravely won all our previous battles. We will continue to grow this country, and march decisively along the path of destiny. Those who join us will be blessed, while those who stay behind – if they survive – will, like Jethro, have missed their chance to write history.

I regret that God did not proclaim the 11th Commandment Himself; it would have made the requirement to live in Israel crystal-clear. But maybe, just maybe, He had faith that we would be wise enough to proclaim it for ourselves. 

The writer directs the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and is a member of the Ra’anana City Council; jocmtv@netvision.net.il.

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